The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Motif: A recurrent, unifying element in an artistic work, such as an image, symbol, character type, action, idea, object, or phrase. A given motif may be unique to a work, or it may appear in numerous works, whether by the same author or different authors. In fact, a motif may be so widespread that it serves as the kernel for works typically associated with different genres or even different fields, such as art, music, architecture, myth, and folklore, in which hundreds of motifs including the cruel stepmother, magic carpet, perilous journey, and twin birth have been identified and even indexed.

Motif is related to but distinguished from theme, which refers more broadly to the statement(s) that the text seems to be making about its subject. A motif is a thematic element, an element that informs and casts a revealing light on the theme.

EXAMPLES: An egg that comes from heaven or from a woman impregnated by the sun is a recurring motif in founding legends of the three ancient Korean kingdoms, recounted in works such as Yi Kyu-bo’s The Lay of King Tongmyông (1193) and The Legend of Pak Hyôkkôse, from Iryôn’s thirteenth-century compilation Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms). Native American tales draw on the trickster motif, featuring trickster characters such as Coyote, Rabbit, and Raven.

A Storm and Stress motif is woven through numerous romantic works, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Specific colors such as green and white serve as motifs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1912) draws on the Cinderella motif, as do more recent works such as Gary Marshall’s movie Pretty Woman (1990), Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries (2000; adapted to film 2001), and Malinda Lo’s young adult novel Ash (2009). The phrase “(Freak, don’t fail me now)” serves as a motif in rapper Snoop Dogg’s song “Peaches N Cream” (2015).