Motif: Definition and Examples of Motif in Speech & Literature

Last Updated on May 9, 2020

You may have heard the term motif and wondered what it means and how it can be used. In this article, we are going to explore the meaning of motif as well as looking into some examples of how it is used in order to give us a deeper understanding of it and how we can use it ourselves.

What Is Motif?

When used as a literary device, motif is any element which recurs throughout and contributes to, or creates other aspects of the narrative such as mood or theme. A motif is used consistently throughout the text and has a highly symbolic significance within it. There are a variety of ways in which a motif can be referred to, this could be through imagery, type of language or simply how the work is structured. The motif itself an item, a place or an idea, amongst other things.

There has been confusion between a motif and a theme when it comes to written works but one easy way to tell them apart is that the motif is a tangible thing such as an item whilst the theme is not. Some people may also confuse the motif with a symbol, however a symbol is something which is used only once to make reference to something else, such as a reference to the spring for a new beginning, whereas the motif is referred to several times throughout the narrative.

One of the most interesting things about a motif is that it is often used to create and sustain the theme of the entire piece. A good example of this is the use of many characters who are dishonest which leads to the theme of an unfaithful wife.

Motif Examples

Examples of Motif

As we mentioned, the use of many dishonest characters within a story to hint at an affair within a marriage, is a good example of a motif. However, there are many more concepts which we could use that would fall into the category of motif-let’s take a look at some of these ideas now.

  • To show that something non-literal is about to break, such as a heart or a life-the image of broken glass may be used as a motif.
  • Continual rain throughout a piece might be a motif to suggest a cleansing of a character.
  • The sound of a barking dog may be heard by the main character to refer to their grief over the loss of their pet.
  • A character finding religious items throughout the story could be used as a motif of God calling to the character.
  • The use of objects or ideas relating to death such as a funeral, a coffin or a graveyard to reinforce the theme of death throughout the piece.

Motif In Speech

Whilst motif is more commonly used in written works and literature, there are some examples of it being used in spoken language such as speeches. It is used in the same way when used as a figure of speech, in order to create a theme or make reference to a certain point over and over. Let’s take a look at some examples of when this has occurred.

  • The famous speech by Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream’ uses the motif of a dream throughout the speech in order to tie the ideas together and enforce his ideas surrounding the dream for the future of the country, and the world.
  • In 2004, former US president, Barrack Obama uses the motif of the contrasting of the blue state and red state in his speech which helps to convey the idea that the only contrast between the two, is noise.

Motif In Literature

There have been many times in which motif has been used by writers to enforce a theme. We are now going to take a look at some examples of when this has happened.

  • William Shakespeare used the motif of light and dark in his play, Romeo and Juliet and he did this by referencing a variety of things such as the light from the moon and the stars which lit up the sky as well as the flash of a bolt of lightening.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s work ‘Old man in the sea’ features an excellent example of motif in the character of Santiago. Throughout the piece, Christ is repeatedly referenced and we then later on find out the Santiago has sacrificed his life for the benefit of others, much in the same way the Christ did.
  • In Pride and prejudice by Jane Austen, we see the journey being used as a motif.
  • Back to William Shakespeare once again, and this time with his play, Othello in which he uses the motif of a monster throughout the entire work to finally reference the monstrous nature of the title character.
  • In the poem, The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, the word nevermore is used as a motif and this is in reference to being driven insane. The reader will be driven insane after constantly reading the word nevermore in much the same way that the character in the poem is driven insane, reflecting perfectly the feeling of the character to the reader.
  • The glass menagarie written by Tennessee Williams, uses the notion of being abandoned as its motif. This is used to show the feelings of one of the characters who wishes to abandon his own life and disappear for good.


A motif is usually used in a piece of written work in order to create another aspect such as the theme of the piece. The motif itself can be anything tangible such as an item or a place and is referenced multiple times within the piece of writing. It can be easy to confuse a motif with other elements of a story such as themes and symbols but they can be easily differentiated.

We have seen many examples of how and when motif has been used, and whilst it is more common in literature, it can also be used in speech for the same reasons.

Motif Infographic


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