Theme and Motif


A theme is what a work of literature is about. Surely, this is the most important thing about a book or a poem, because if you tell someone that you are reading a book, the first thing they will ask is “what is it about?”. So why does theme come so late in this module and what does it mean that a piece of literature is ‘about’ something anyway?

When someone asks you what a book is about and you begin to explain it, what you will offer is often a paraphrase, i.e., a short summary of the events and people in the book, as in ‘a young boy who lives under the stairs in his aunt and uncle’s house discovers that he is the child of wizard parents when he is invited to magic school via a letter delivered by an owl’. This is exactly how the Harry Potter series begins, but the sentence will not suffice as an example of what we call a ‘theme’. Instead, a better description of the theme in Harry Potter might be “a young boy escapes mundanity and oppression to discover the importance of friendship amid a supernatural struggle between good an evil”.

Often a book or a poem contains multiple themes linked together. Harry Potter is not just about friendship – it is about friendship under adverse conditions, which is a much more specific thing. The point is that a theme is something different from a summary of what takes place. It is a drawing together not of actions and literary characters in a direct sense, but of what these elements amount to in an indirect, abstract sense.

But, again, why do we bring up theme so late in this module? Isn’t it the case that an author or a poet knows what kinds of issues they wish to address before they begin to write? Indeed, that is usually the case. The crux is that we don’t know what the theme is before we have read the book, the short story or the poem. We can cheat and look at the back cover or the critical introduction contained in some books, but those things only amount to what other people believe the theme might be. Sure, you might find yourself agreeing with them after reading the work of literature in question, but this is by no means certain.

The point is that you can only properly identify and treat of a literary theme if you are aware of everything we have addressed in this module so far, and much else besides. A theme is an abstract notion, derived from carefully and critically reading and interpreting a work of literature. A theme runs through and is interweaved with an entire work of literature, repeating like a riff or a melody (it is a musical term, after all).

We can only say something about a theme or a series of themes if we know both what a book is saying as well as how it is saying it.

Students of literature are frequently asked, in exams and elsewhere, what the theme might be of a literary work. And most students are capable of supplying some sort of answer. But lecturers and professors aren’t actually interested in knowing what the theme is. Themes are often very general (‘love,’ ‘conflict,’ ‘racism,’ ‘envy’) and therefore not too interesting in and of themselves. What is interesting, however, is the particular way in which a theme is brought about by a text. What is the connection between ‘love’ and the sonnet form? Why is the expression of envy or jealousy so powerful in Shakespeare’s Othello?

Students of literature should therefore spend their energies on explaining how they think they know what a theme is, by identifying both what is going on in a work of literature and how it takes place.


Motif too is a musical term, and like theme, it might denote a repeated pattern in a work of literature. There is one major difference between the two, however. Whereas a theme is an abstract thing derived from reading and thinking about a text, a motif is concrete. Motifs belong to the world of tropes and symbols, but they are called motifs because they are repeated throughout a text and because they tend to be related to themes. Very simply explained, motifs are those things we notice throughout a text that make us begin to understand what the theme(s) might be.

As with most tropes and figures, motifs tend to appeal to the senses, especially the sense of sight. For example, it is possible to imagine that in a book, one character always wears brightly coloured clothes and tend to be found (metonymically) in the vicinity of light sources and in the day time. A different character in the same book might wear black and avoid the light. If this occurs throughout the book we might conclude that light and dark are motifs, and hazard a guess that for symbolic reasons, they denote a theme such as good versus evil or right versus wrong.

But motifs receive their meaning not from a reservoir of stock images. If, for example, the author of the book made the person wearing black the good character and the person wearing white the evil one, the theme would remain the same, but an extra layer of irony would be added to the way the motif works.

A leitmotif (leading motif) is a motif that you deem to be especially prominent in a literary text, and which therefore contributes to the main theme. Such a motif has a tendency to appear within the first page of a novel or the first few lines of a poem. Think of it as the melody played at the beginning of a symphony, leading the way for its tonal development.

A motif, then, can be an action, a piece of dialogue, or a thing – put down in writing and imbued with a significance that forms a pattern throughout a book or a poem, and which point in the direction of one or more themes.



Disclaimer: a theme is not a message. Often, students think of a work of literature in terms of communication theory, either because they have been taught to do so, or because it seems obvious that a work of literature is a (complex) message – that it has something to say to its readers that they need to take note of. And from one, limited, point of view this is entirely correct. But why is it, then, that we speak of themes instead of messages? And why is it that we would insist you use the word “message” as rarely as possible when discussing literature?

There are two very good reasons why “message” isn’t usually part of the critical literary vocabulary. One: most works of literature don’t actually have one, simple message. Two: those that do have a lot else going on which tends to be more interesting.

A truly interesting work of literature (of which there are many) does not present to its readers a didactic or moral message. Fairy tales and children’s stories often do, as well as some types of religious instructive literature. But for the most part, literature that is concerned with ethics tend to introduce contrasting and paradoxical moral conundrums. When there is no obvious solution, it forces the reader to make up their own mind – to think on difficult matters. This is very different from being told what to think by someone whose only claim to moral authority is that they can write.

That being said, literary history contains great masterpieces built on ethic didacticism, but to boil John Milton’s Paradise Lost (for example) down to a single moral message in a Protestant vein, would be catastrophically reductive. To talk of works of literature as messages is simplistic and you shouldn’t do it.

The next and final item is intertextuality – the ways in which works of literature relate to other works of literature. Alternatively, you can go back to the overview page.

Next: Intertextuality.