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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.

Motifs are found in many literary works. 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.

The name Ubi Sunt is given to more common motifs used in medieval poetry. Another common motif is Carpe Diem, which means "seize the day." It is a common theme in European lyric poetry, "in which the speaker of a poem argues (often to a hesitant virgin) that since life is short, pleasure should be enjoyed while there is still time" (Baldick). Though in many works, usually Christian literature, it instead warns us to "prepare our souls for death, rather than our bodies for bed" (Baldick).

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.
  • The Italian form of the word, motivo, means "the subject of a painting, reason, or cause"; and the Medieval Latin word motivummotive means "impulse" or "reason" (Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature).
  • The term leitmotif is German in origin.

Works Cited

Phillips, Brian and Douthat, Ross. SparkNote on Macbeth. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on Jane Eyre. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

"Motif." Reference. Columbia University Press. 20 Feb. 2006 <>.

"Motif." Merriam-Webster Online. 21 Feb. 2006. 21 Feb. 2006 <>.

Flanagan, Mark. "Motif." About. 2006. 20 Feb. 2006 <>.

"Motif." The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Ed. J. A. Cuddon. 4th ed. London, UK: Penguin Group, 1999.

"Motif." Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1995. Literature Resource Center. Thomson Gale. Macon State Coll. Lib, Macon, GA. 23 Feb. 2006 <>.

Baldick, Chris. "Motif." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 1990. Literature Online Reference Edition. ProQuest Information and Learning. Macon State Coll. Lib., Macon, GA. 23 Feb. 2006 <>.