A recurring element in a work of literature. It is usually a dominant idea or theme and can be an object, setting, or situation that has some symbolic significance and is seen several times within the story. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, hallucinations, violence, and prophecy all act as motifs. Also, in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the recurring presence of fire and ice is a motif.
A leitmotif is a leading motif. The term was first used by Hans von Wolzngen "to designate a musical theme associated throughout a whole work with a particular object, character, or emotion" (Cuddon) It may also refer to an author's favorite or most commonly used themes.
The term motif is French in origin. However, the term leitmotif is German.
Phillips, Brian and Douthat, Ross. SparkNote on Macbeth. 21 Feb. 2006 <http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/macbeth/>.
Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on Jane Eyre. 21 Feb. 2006 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/janeeyre/>.
"Motif." Reference. Columbia University Press. 20 Feb. 2006 <http://www.reference.com/browse/columbia/motif1>.
"Motif." Merriam-Webster Online. 21 Feb. 2006. 21 Feb. 2006 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/motif>.
Flanagan, Mark. "Motif." About. 2006. 20 Feb. 2006 <http://contemporarylit.about.com/cs/literaryterms/g/motif.htm>.
"Motif." The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Ed. J. A. Cuddon. 4th ed. London, UK: Penguin Group, 1999.