A narrative element (an image, a phrase, a stylistic or structural device, etc.) that pops up throughout a literary work
• In John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Kino’s songs are a motif.
In the idyllic opening scene of the novella, Kino hears “a song now, clear and soft, and if he had been able to speak of it, he would have called it the Song of the Family.” Later, when his family is in danger, “rage swell[s] in him, and the pounding music of the enemy beat[s] in his ears.”
• In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, night and day imagery is a motif.
In Act I, Romeo’s father remarks on his son’s affinity for darkness:
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night.
In Act II, Romeo calls out to the lit window of his beloved Juliet:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
A storyteller may use a motif for a variety of purposes. For example, Steinbeck uses Kino’s songs to enhance the mood of the scenes noted above. In addition, a motif may have symbolic significance, point toward a theme, or highlight connections between different scenes within a narrative.
Motif and theme are similar in that each involves repetition over the course of a work of literature. However, a motif is more concrete than a theme, which this glossary defines as “a big idea that pops up over the course of a literary work.” In Romeo and Juliet, the night/day motif reinforces one of the play’s overarching themes: the nature of opposites. In other words, Shakespeare’s concrete images of sunlight, moonlight, and shadows invite the reader to consider an abstract truth, that opposites define one another and, thus, are inextricably linked.