Motif (narrative)

Last updated

In narrative, a motif Loudspeaker.svg (pronunciation)   is any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood. [1] [2]

A narrative or story, is an account of a series of related events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, which is derived from the adjective gnarus. Along with exposition, argumentation and description, narration, broadly defined, is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. More narrowly defined, it is the fiction-writing mode in which the narrator communicates directly to the reader.

Repetition is the simple repeating of a word, within a short space of words, with no particular placement of the words to secure emphasis. It is a multilinguistic written or spoken device, frequently used in English and several other languages, such as Hindi and Chinese, and so rarely termed a figure of speech.


A narrative motif can be created through the use of imagery, structural components, language, and other elements throughout literature. The flute in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is a recurrent sound motif that conveys rural and idyllic notions. Another example from modern American literature is the green light found in the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Imagery, in a literary text, is an author's use of vivid and descriptive language to add depth to their work. Sensory imagery appeals to human senses to deepen the reader's understanding of the work. Powerful forms of imagery engage all of the senses.

Language Capacity to communicate using signs, such as words or gestures

Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so; a language is any specific example of such a system.

Arthur Miller American playwright

Arthur Asher Miller was an American playwright, essayist, and a controversial figure in the twentieth-century American theater. Among his most popular plays are All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge. He wrote several screenplays and was most noted for his work on The Misfits (1961). The drama Death of a Salesman has been numbered on the short list of finest American plays in the 20th century.

Narratives may include multiple motifs of varying types. In Shakespeare's play Macbeth , he uses a variety of narrative elements to create many different motifs. Imagistic references to blood and water are continually repeated. The phrase "fair is foul, and foul is fair" is echoed at many points in the play, a combination that mixes the concepts of good and evil. The play also features the central motif of the washing of hands, one that combines both verbal images and the movement of the actors.

<i>Macbeth</i> play by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare; it is thought to have been first performed in 1606. It dramatises the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake. Of all the plays that Shakespeare wrote during the reign of James I, who was patron of Shakespeare's acting company, Macbeth most clearly reflects the playwright's relationship with his sovereign. It was first published in the Folio of 1623, possibly from a prompt book, and is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy.

Imagism 20th-century poetry movement

Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. It has been described as the most influential movement in English poetry since the Pre-Raphaelites. As a poetic style it gave modernism its start in the early 20th century, and is considered to be the first organized modernist literary movement in the English language. Imagism is sometimes viewed as "a succession of creative moments" rather than a continuous or sustained period of development. René Taupin remarked that "it is more accurate to consider Imagism not as a doctrine, nor even as a poetic school, but as the association of a few poets who were for a certain time in agreement on a small number of important principles".

Good and evil dichotomy in religion, ethics, and philosophy

In religion, ethics, philosophy, and psychology "good and evil" is a very common dichotomy. In cultures with Manichaean and Abrahamic religious influence, evil is usually perceived as the dualistic antagonistic opposite of good, in which good should prevail and evil should be defeated. In cultures with Buddhist spiritual influence, both good and evil are perceived as part of an antagonistic duality that itself must be overcome through achieving Śūnyatā meaning emptiness in the sense of recognition of good and evil being two opposing principles but not a reality, emptying the duality of them, and achieving a oneness.

In a narrative, a motif establishes a pattern of ideas that may serve different conceptual purposes in different works. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, in his non-linear narratives such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle makes frequent use of motif to connect different moments that might seem otherwise separated by time and space. [3] In the American science fiction cult classic Blade Runner , director Ridley Scott uses motifs to not only establish a dark and shadowy film noir atmosphere, [4] but also to weave together the thematic complexities of the plot. Throughout the film, the recurring motif of "eyes" is connected to a constantly changing flow of images, and sometimes violent manipulations, in order to call into question our ability, and the narrator's own, to accurately perceive and understand reality. [5] [6] [7]

Kurt Vonnegut 20th-century American writer

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an American writer. In a career spanning over 50 years, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction, with further collections being published after his death. He is most famous for his darkly satirical, best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative is a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature, film, hypertext websites and other narratives, where events are portrayed, for example, out of chronological order or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured, such as parallel distinctive plot lines, dream immersions or narrating another story inside the main plot-line. It is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory, but has been applied for other reasons as well.

<i>Slaughterhouse-Five</i> novel by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a science fiction-infused anti-war novel by Kurt Vonnegut, first published in 1969. It follows the life and experiences of Billy Pilgrim, from his early years to his time as an American soldier and chaplain's assistant during World War II, to the postwar years, with Billy occasionally traveling through time itself. The text centers on Billy's capture by the German Army and his survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war, an experience which Vonnegut himself lived through as an American serviceman. The work has been called an example of "unmatched moral clarity" and "one of the most enduring antiwar novels of all time".


Any number of narrative elements with symbolic significance can be classified as motifs—whether they are images, spoken or written phrases, structural or stylistic devices, or other elements like sound, physical movement, or visual components in dramatic narratives. While it may appear interchangeable with the related concept theme, [8] a general rule is that a theme is abstract and a motif is concrete. [9] A theme is usually defined as a message, statement, or idea, while a motif is simply a detail repeated for larger symbolic meaning. In other words, a narrative motif—a detail repeated in a pattern of meaning—can produce a theme; but it can also create other narrative aspects. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two terms remains difficult to pinpoint. For instance, the term "thematic patterning" has been used to describe the way in which "recurrent thematic concepts" are patterned to produce meaning, such as the "moralistic motifs" found throughout the stories of One Thousand and One Nights . [10]

<i>One Thousand and One Nights</i> Collection of Middle Eastern stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age

One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, from the first English-language edition, which rendered the title as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment.

See also

Motif (music) short musical idea, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition

In music, a motif(pronunciation)  is a short musical phrase, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "The motive is the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity".

Motif (visual arts) in the visual arts, individual design element, alone or combined to produce a pattern

In art and iconography, a motif(pronunciation)  is an element of an image. A motif may be repeated in a pattern or design, often many times, or may just occur once in a work.

A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.

Related Research Articles

Iconology is a method of interpretation in cultural history and the history of the visual arts used by Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky and their followers that uncovers the cultural, social, and historical background of themes and subjects in the visual arts. Though Panofsky differentiated between iconology and iconography, the distinction is not very widely followed, "and they have never been given definitions accepted by all iconographers and iconologists". Few 21st-century authors continue to use the term "iconology" consistently, and instead use iconography to cover both areas of scholarship.

Poetry Form of literature

Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

Symbol something that represents an idea, a process, or a physical entity

A symbol is a mark, sign or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences. All communication is achieved through the use of symbols. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, ideas or visual images and are used to convey other ideas and beliefs. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a blue line might represent a river. Numerals are symbols for numbers. Alphabetic letters may be symbols for sounds. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. A red rose may symbolize love and compassion. The variable 'x', in a mathematical equation, may symbolize the position of a particle in space.

Nataraja Hindu God Shiva depicted as Lord of Dance

Nataraja is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the cosmic ecstatic dancer. His dance is called Tandavam or Nadanta, depending on the context of the dance. The pose and artwork is described in many Hindu texts such as the Anshumadbhed agama and Uttarakamika agama, the dance relief or idol featured in all major Hindu temples of Shaivism.

The concept of an archetype appears in areas relating to behavior, historical psychological theory, and literary analysis. An archetype can be:

  1. a statement, pattern of behavior, a prototype, a "first" form or a main model which other statements, patterns of behavior, and objects copy, emulate or "merge" into.
  2. a Platonic philosophical idea referring to pure forms which embody the fundamental characteristics of a thing in Platonism
  3. a collectively-inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., that is universally present, in individual psyches, as in Jungian psychology
  4. a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology. In various seemingly unrelated cases in classic storytelling, media, etc., characters or ideas sharing similar traits recur.

A leitmotif or leitmotiv is a "short, constantly recurring musical phrase" associated with a particular person, place, or idea. It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or motto-theme. The spelling leitmotif is an anglicization of the German Leitmotiv, literally meaning "leading motif", or "guiding motif". A musical motif has been defined as a "short musical idea ... melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three", a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity."

Musical form Structure or plan of a piece of music

In music, Form refers to the structure of a musical composition or performance. In "Worlds of Music", Jeff Todd Titon suggests that a number of organizational elements may determine the formal structure of a piece of music, such as "the arrangement of musical units of rhythm, melody, and or/ harmony that show repetition or variation, the arrangement of the instruments, or the way a symphonic piece is orchestrated", among other factors.

In literature and writing, stylistic elements are the use of any of a variety of techniques to give an auxiliary meaning, idea, or feeling to the literal or written.

In contemporary literary studies, a theme is a central topic a text treats. Themes can be divided into two categories: a work's thematic concept is what readers "think the work is about" and its thematic statement being "what the work says about the subject". Themes are often distinguished from premises.

Neo-noir is a revival of the genre of film noir. The term film noir was popularized in 1955 by French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton. It was applied to crime movies of the 1940s and 1950s, mostly produced in the United States, which adopted a 1920s/1930s Art Deco visual environment. The English translation is dark movie, indicating something sinister and shadowy, but also expressing a cinematographic style. The film noir genre includes stylish Hollywood crime dramas, often with a twisted dark wit. Neo-noir has a similar style but with updated themes, content, style, visual elements and media.

<i>Anatomy of Criticism</i> book by Northrop Frye

Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays is a book by Canadian literary critic and theorist, Northrop Frye, which attempts to formulate an overall view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism derived exclusively from literature. Frye consciously omits all specific and practical criticism, instead offering classically inspired theories of modes, symbols, myths and genres, in what he termed "an interconnected group of suggestions." The literary approach proposed by Frye in Anatomy was highly influential in the decades before deconstructivist criticism and other expressions of postmodernism came to prominence in American academia circa 1980s.

Visual design elements and principles describe fundamental ideas about the practice of visual design.

"The best designers sometimes disregard the principles of design. When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing as well, it is best to abide by the principles."

Theme (arts) theme or subject in a work of art

In art, theme is usually about life, society or human nature, but can be any other subject. Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a work. Themes are usually implied rather than explicitly stated. Deep thematic content is not required in a work, but the great majority of works have some kind of thematic content, not always intended by the author. Analysis of changes in dynamic characteristics of the work can provide insight into a particular theme.

One of the principal features defining traditional cinema is a fixed and linear narrative structure. In Database Cinema however, the story develops by selecting scenes from a given collection. Think of a computer game in which a player performs certain acts and thereby selects scenes and creating a narrative.

La Cathédrale engloutie is a prelude written by the French composer Claude Debussy for solo piano. It was published in 1910 as the tenth prelude in Debussy’s first of two volumes of twelve piano preludes each. It is characteristic of Debussy in its form, harmony, and content.

Visual semiotics is a sub-domain of semiotics that analyses the way visual images communicate a message.

Thematic analysis is one of the most common forms of analysis within qualitative research. It emphasizes identifying, analysing and interpreting patterns of meaning within qualitative data. Thematic analysis is often understood as a method or technique in contrast to most other qualitative analytic approaches - such as grounded theory, discourse analysis, narrative analysis and interpretative phenomenological analysis - which can be described as methodologies or theoretically informed frameworks for research. Thematic analysis is best thought of as an umbrella term for a variety of different approaches, rather than a singular method. Different versions of thematic analysis are underpinned by different philosophical and conceptual assumptions and are divergent in terms of procedure. Leading thematic analysis proponents, psychologists Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke distinguish between three main types of thematic analysis: coding reliability approaches, code book approaches and reflexive approaches. They describe their own widely used approach first outlined in 2006 in the journal Qualitative Research in Psychology as reflexive thematic analysis. Their 2006 paper has over 59,000 Google Scholar citations and according to Google Scholar is the most cited academic paper published in 2006. The popularity of this paper exemplifies the growing interest in thematic analysis as a distinct method.


  1. James H. Grayson. Myths and Legends from Korea: An Annotated Compendium of Ancient and Modern Materials (p. 9). New York and Abingdon: Routledge Curzon, 2000. ISBN   0-7007-1241-0.
  2. Alain Silver and James Ursini, (2004) Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir, ISBN   0-87910-197-0
  3. "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Gale. 2004. HighBeam Research. 26 August 2010
  4. Blade
  5. Saini, Tinku (1996), Eye disbelieve, Tinku Saini, University of Washington, archived from the original on 2007-12-27, retrieved 2008-01-31
  6. McCoy, John (1995), The Eyes Tell All, University of Texas at Austin, archived from the original on 2013-09-16, retrieved 2008-02-01
  7. Bukatman, pp. 9–11.
  8. "WordNet 3.0". Princeton University. 2006. Retrieved 2010-08-26.
  9. Abbott, H. Porter (2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 95. ISBN   978-0-521-88719-9.
  10. Heath, Peter (May 1994), "Reviewed work(s) Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights by David Pinault", International Journal of Middle East Studies , Cambridge University Press, 26 (2): 358–360 [359–60], doi:10.1017/s0020743800060633