From LitWiki

A recurring element in a work of literature, or a simple element that acts as a convention to a certain type of literature (Harmon and Holman 322). For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, hallucinations, violence, and prophecy all act as motifs, as they recur thoroughout the text, providing an important narrative function.

The name Ubi Sunt is given to motifs used in medieval poetry. Another type of 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 German, meaning 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 or images.


  • 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).

Works Cited

  • Baldick, Chris. "Motif." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 1990. Literature Online Reference Edition.
  • Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. London, UK: Penguin Group, 1999.
  • Flanagan, Mark. "Motif." About. 2006. 20 Feb. 2006 <>.