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Motif Definition: a recurring or prominent idea, image, symbol, character, or situation throughout a work that points to a larger theme or message

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Motifs are repeating symbols, colors, patterns, speech, character actions, images, or situations that occur more than once throughout the course of a work. Authors use motifs to create a unifying or repeating idea, which typically points to a larger theme that the author wants the reader to learn. When a reader notices a recurring symbol or image, they should pay attention to the significance of when it occurs in the plot. Often, the author is trying to catch the reader’s attention and point them to a larger lesson or idea that the author wants the reader to know by the end of the work. For example, Holden’s red hunting hat in The Catcher in the Rye seems to be mentioned whenever he is in a state of discomfort or social alienation, pointing to the larger theme of alienation and fear. A motif can also be used to foreshadow events, highlight weaknesses and strengths in a character, or create a mood of suspense.

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Notable Motif Examples in Literature

  • Holden Caulfield’s name, the Museum of Natural History, and the red hunting hat in The Catcher in the Rye all give support to the overarching themes of alienation and fear of the loss of innocence.

  • The contrasts of light and dark in Romeo and Juliet highlight Juliet’s unrivaled beauty and innocence.

  • The women talking and the signs of age give support to the theme of time passing in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

  • The twins, or doubles, of the cities, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, and Lucie Manette and Therese Defarge are examples of motifs in A Tale of Two Cities.

  • The repetition of the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird highlights the racism Maycomb holds against Tom Robinson, which results in his death, and the dangers of revealing Boo’s heroism to the town.

Be sure to check out our article, "Themes, Symbols, and Motifs"!

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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