English & EAL

Theme vs. Motif vs. Symbol

Mark Yin

September 23, 2021

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Theme vs. Motif vs. Symbol

Themes, motifs and symbols are different kinds of narrative elements - they’re parts of a story that help to shape its overall effect. However, even though they’re words we use all the time in our English studies, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference!

This post will take you through some definitions, give you some examples and show you how you can use them in essays too. Let’s start with the broadest of the three…

What Is a Theme?

A theme is an idea or a subject that an author wants to explore. Themes appear throughout a work, and they’re often abstract ideas rather than concrete images that you can explicitly identify. Themes usually appear in interactions: for example, a parent reuniting with a child might evoke the theme of parenthood or family, an experience of discrimination might evoke the theme of prejudice or racism, a character facing a difficult choice might evoke the theme of morality or conflict, and so on. As you might be able to see, themes can require us to read between the lines because they are usually implied.

What Is a Motif?

A motif is something a bit more specific. Rather than an abstract idea, we’re looking for a concrete object (usually physical items, but also potentially sounds, places, actions, situations or phrases) that returns time and time again throughout a text. This repetition of motifs helps to create structure for a text - it can tether parts of the story to or around a central image. Because motifs are often linked to a theme, they can also serve as a reminder of that theme’s importance. For example, if the central theme was family or parenthood, the author might create a bird’s nest outside a character’s room; as we watch the bird and the chicks grow throughout the text, parallels are also drawn back to the theme.  

What Is a Symbol?

You can think of symbols as motifs minus the repetition. It’s the more default word we use when referring to an object that represents an idea, and unlike a motif, symbols only need to appear once to have an impact. They can simply tell us more about a character or situation in that instant, at that specific time, rather than being a parallel or recurring throughout a text. However, they’re still identified in a similar way to motifs: symbols are also concrete objects and they’re still connected to themes. 

Examples of Themes, Motifs and Symbols

Here are some text-specific examples for a closer look at these terms: 

Theme vs. Motif vs. Symbol

Check out our Macbeth, Rear Window and The Great Gatsby blog posts for more on these texts. If you’re studying other texts, have a look at our list of text guides in The Ultimate Guide to Text Response.

Identifying and Using Themes

Themes usually come across in interactions, and a possible first step to identifying them is thinking about if an interaction is good or bad, and why. For example:

In Rear Window, one of the neighbours berates everyone else for failing to notice their dog’s death.

This is a bad interaction because:

  • a dog dying is never any good
  • it tells us that none of these neighbours are looking out for or really care about each other
  • someone may have killed the dog

The theme we might identify here is duty. The film might suggest that we have a duty to look out for our neighbours (without sacrificing their privacy) or to do our part to keep the neighbourhood safe from potential criminals.

Another example might be:

In The Great Gatsby, the Sloanes invite Gatsby over for dinner without really meaning it.

This is a bad interaction because:

  • it tells us how nasty the Sloanes are
  • Gatsby still seems to be a misfit despite his wealth
  • Tom is at best complicit in the Sloanes’ insincerity 

The themes here might be society, wealth and class. This interaction shows us where these characters really stand with regard to these categories or ideas. Because he is ‘new money’, Gatsby cannot understand or fit in with the cruel and disingenuous customs of ‘old money’.

Most interactions in a text will fit into a theme somewhere, somehow - that’s why it’s been included in the story! Try to identify the themes as you go, or maintain lists of interactions and events for different themes. Because themes are so broad, they’re useful for guiding your understanding of a text, particularly as you’re reading it. They also provide a great foundation for essay planning since you can draw on events across the text to explore a certain theme.

Identifying and Using Motifs & Symbols

While themes can generally appear in texts without the author needing to make too much of an effort, motifs and symbols have to be used really consciously. A lot of interactions might just be natural to the plot, but the author has to take extra care to insert a symbol or motif into the story.

To identify either, pay attention to objects that might feel unusual or even unnecessary to the scene at first - from the examples above, Gatsby showing Daisy his shirts might seem like a strange detail to include, but it’s actually an important symbol in that moment. Then, you go into the brainstorming of what the object could represent - in this case, Gatsby’s newfound wealth. Symbols in particular often appear at turning points: the relationship between two characters might take a turn, an important sacrifice might be made or perhaps someone crosses a point of no return - all of these are potential plot points for the author to include symbols. For motifs, look more for repetition. If we’re always coming back to an image or an object, like Daisy’s green light or Lisa Fremont’s dresses, then it’s likely that image or object has significance.

Symbols and motifs can be more subtle than themes, but they will also help to set your essay apart if you find a way to include them. You’d usually include them as a piece of evidence (with or without a quote) and analyse what they tell us about a theme. For example:

On the surface, Gatsby appears to be financially successful. Over several years, he has acquired many material belongings in order to demonstrate his great wealth. For example, Fitzgerald includes a scene featuring Gatsby tossing his many ‘beautiful’ shirts onto Daisy, who sobs as she admires them. This display of wealth represents the superficial natures of both characters, who prize material belongings over the substance of their relationship.

You don’t need a quote that’s too long or overpowering; just capture the essence of the symbol or motif and focus on what it represents. This is a really good way to show examiners how you’ve thought about a text’s construction, and the choices an author has made on what to include and why. To learn more about text construction, have a read of What Is Metalanguage?

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