Motifs in Literature & Art: Definition & Usage
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


Imagine reading a book or admiring a piece of art, and you start to notice a pattern—certain images, ideas, or designs keep popping up. You're not just imagining things; you're observing a motif. Motifs are like the secret ingredients that give a story or artwork its unique flavor. In this blog, we're going to clear the fog around the definition of motif in literature and art, and how they are used to make an impact.

What is a motif?

Finding a clear definition of motif can seem like a daunting task, but don't worry, it's simpler than you might think. In its most basic form, a motif is a recurring element in a work of art or literature. This element helps to develop the theme or mood of the piece. Now, let's break this down a bit more.

Design or Pattern

The first way to understand a motif is as a design or pattern. Imagine you're looking at a beautiful carpet. You might see the same shape or design repeated all over it. That's a motif. In literature, it might be a recurring image or idea. For example, if a book keeps mentioning roses, that's a motif. It's like the artist or author saying, "Hey, pay attention to this, it's important."

Dominant Idea

Another way to look at a motif is as a dominant idea. This is when a motif becomes more than just a repeated pattern—it becomes the main idea or theme. For instance, if a story keeps returning to the idea of freedom, that's not just a motif, it's the dominant idea. It's the message the author wants you to take away from the story.

Musical Motif

A motif isn't just found in visual art or literature. It's also a key part of music. In music, a motif is a short succession of notes that gives you a certain feeling. You might have noticed this when listening to your favorite songs. If a particular tune or rhythm keeps coming back, that's a musical motif. It's the composer's way of developing a theme or mood.

So, there you have it. The definition of motif is quite diverse, but its role is the same—to create a theme, set the mood, or relay a message. In the next sections, we'll explore how motifs are used in literature and art, and why they matter.

How motifs are used in literature

Congratulations, now that we have the definition of motif figured out, let's see how they work their magic in literature. Motifs in literature are like breadcrumbs that lead you deeper into the story. They serve not just as decoration, but as a tool to enhance the narrative.

Setting the Tone

Ever read a book that makes you feel a certain way? That's often the work of motifs. By repeating certain images or ideas, authors can create a specific mood or tone. A stormy night can set a gloomy tone, while repeated images of spring can evoke feelings of renewal and hope. It's like the author's paintbrush, creating the color of the story.

Highlighting Themes

Think of motifs as neon signs pointing out the main themes of a story. If an author repeatedly mentions the idea of freedom, they're probably trying to highlight the theme of liberation. Likewise, recurring references to a caged bird might underline the theme of confinement. It's the author's way of saying, "This is what my story is really about."

Character Development

Ever notice how a character might have a favorite phrase, or how they always seem to be eating apples? That's a motif at work. Authors use motifs to develop their characters and make them more relatable. For instance, a character might keep misplacing their glasses, which could signify their forgetfulness or confusion.

So, while motifs might seem like small details, they play a significant role in literature. They're like the spices in a delicious dish, enhancing the flavor and making the story more engaging. But motifs are not just limited to literature. Let's see how they're used in the world of art.

How motifs are used in art

You may not realize it, but motifs are all around us in the world of art, too. Just as authors use motifs to highlight themes, artists use motifs to express ideas and emotions. But how exactly do they do this? Let's find out.

Conveying Messages

Artists use motifs as a language to converse with their audience. A painting filled with sunflowers might be expressing joy, while a series of paintings featuring the same lonely figure could be a commentary on isolation. It's a way for artists to say, "This is what I want you to feel."

Creating Unity

Motifs are also used to create a sense of unity within a piece of art or across an artist's body of work. For example, a painter might use a specific color palette across all their paintings, creating a signature style. This is similar to how a clothing brand might use a specific logo across all their products. It's a way to tie everything together.

Evoking Emotion

Artists are like chefs, and motifs are their ingredients. They carefully select and repeat motifs to evoke specific emotions. A painting filled with dark shadows might evoke a sense of unease, while a sculpture with smooth, flowing lines could evoke a sense of calm. It's how artists create an emotional response in their audience.

So whether it's in a painting, a sculpture, or a mural on the side of a building, motifs are a key part of artistic expression. They help artists tell stories, evoke emotions, and create a unique style. But what are some of the common motifs we see in literature and art? Let's dive in and find out.

Common motifs in literature and art

In our exploration of the definition of motif, we've learned how they help artists and writers express deeper meanings. Now, let's examine some motifs that you've likely encountered in your own experiences with literature and art.

The Hero's Journey

In literature, one of the most common motifs is the Hero's Journey. This motif, which can be found in stories ranging from ancient myths to modern fantasy novels, involves a hero who goes on an adventure, faces and overcomes a crisis, and then returns home transformed. It's a pattern that we see time and again, because it resonates with our own experiences and challenges.

Nature and Seasons

Another common motif in both literature and art is the use of nature and the changing seasons. These motifs can symbolize the passage of time, the cycle of life and death, or the constant change and renewal in life. Whether it's the vibrant colors of fall leaves in a painting, or the blossoming of a flower in a poem, nature and seasons often carry symbolic weight.

Light and Darkness

Light and darkness are also frequently used motifs in both art and literature. These motifs can represent good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, or hope and despair. An artist might use light and shadow in a painting to create mood and atmosphere, while a writer might use light and darkness to symbolize the dual nature of a character.

So, these are just a few examples of common motifs. You've probably seen others in the books you read, the movies you watch, or the art you admire. The beauty of motifs is that they are a universal language, a way for artists and writers from all over the world to connect with their audiences on a deeper level.

Why motifs matter in art and literature

We've discussed the definition of motif and explored some common examples in literature and art. So, you may be wondering, why do motifs matter? Why do artists and writers use them? Let's break it down.

Adding Depth and Complexity

Firstly, motifs add depth and complexity to a work. They help artists and writers convey ideas and themes that can't be expressed through plot or dialogue alone. By repeating a motif throughout a work, they can subtly reinforce these deeper meanings, making their work richer and more layered.

Creating Connections

Motifs also create connections. They link different parts of a work together, tying the beginning to the end or one scene to another. This can make a work feel cohesive and unified, even if the plot is complex or the story spans many years or locations.

Engaging the Audience

Finally, motifs engage the audience. They encourage us to look deeper, to search for patterns, and to engage with the work on a more intellectual level. When we spot a motif, it's like solving a puzzle or uncovering a secret—it adds to our enjoyment and appreciation of the work.

So, motifs are not just decorative or ornamental. They are a powerful tool that artists and writers use to express their ideas, to connect different parts of their work, and to engage their audiences. In other words, understanding the definition of motif can enrich your experience of literature and art. So next time you pick up a book or visit an art gallery, why not keep an eye out for motifs? You might be surprised by what you discover.

If you enjoyed exploring the concept of motifs in literature and art and are looking for ways to apply those ideas to your own creative projects, check out the workshop 'Collecting Visual Design Inspiration on Notion for Designers' by Ansh Mehra. This workshop will help you discover and organize visual design inspiration, allowing you to incorporate motifs and themes into your own work more effectively.