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Motif is a literary device, used to describe any recurring element of significant symbolism in a novel or short story. Through the use of a motif, an author can create a specific mood. Often motif is confused with theme. However, critics generally classify theme as abstract and motif as a concrete element in the story.


One of the most famous motifs in American literature occurs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, through the reoccurrence of the green light. George Orwell used the motif of “doublethink” throughout 1984 in order to stress the necessity of the totalitarian party to control every aspect of life, including holding opposite beliefs at the same time. However, a motif can be an image, an action, or even a sound. Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman uses the motif of a playing flute. Generally, an author wants a reader to see a motif, often unlike hidden symbolism. Fairy tales are often fraught with motif, including those of the damsel in distress, the handsome prince, or the evil stepmother.

Motif can occur in other literary settings. Perhaps the most famous example of a motif is the use of the dream imagery in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Through the use of the dream motif, Dr. King was able to weave together a variety of ideas, such as the Declaration of Independence and the notion that current enemies would one day sit together as friends.

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