How to Identify Motif for the Purpose of Literary Criticism

| Posted in Writing.

The Great GatsbyWhat is motif? No, it’s not a decorative design or pattern; not the motif up for discussion here, that is. We’re talking about it in the literary sense.

Unsurprisingly, there are similarities with the literal and figurative versions of the word – they are both patterns of sorts. The one is a pattern one can see with the eye, while the other is a pattern within a story, where an element is repeated to ingrain it in the reader’s mind and establish mood and theme. Also, it should have symbolic significance.

An example of this would be the repetitive reference to the green light that shines across the bay in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (ed. unashamedly inspired by Laura Leddy Turner, Demand Media). The light holds its own symbolism, that of the unattainability of Daisy’s love, who lives across the bay. But, we’re not discussing symbolism either. (It should be noted that symbolism and motif are often confused, as they are so connected.)

No, we’re looking at motif as the repetition of the symbol to establish what is being symbolised as a main theme in the work. Interestingly, in The Great Gatsby, the symbolism of the green light moves from referencing Daisy’s unattainability to the broader theme of society’s inability to attain the American Dream of the 1920s. It suggests that, like the illusion that Gatsby has ‘caught’ the light (when he holds his hand out when standing on his dock), neither is possible – they are both illusions.

Motifs can also be a word or phrase. An example of this is how the word “nevermore” is added at the end of each stanza in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven. It indicates that the relationship discussed in the poem is over, which is the theme of the poem.

So, motif expresses theme through repetition of an object, word, or phrase that symbolises something.

Here are some tips on identifying motif for literary criticism. To keep things simple, we’re going to continue using The Great Gatsby as a reference.

1.     What stands out

Because the motif is a repeated aspect, it should stand out; it should be the first thing you think of when you think of the work. List the things that stand out about the characters, setting and plot – the things that made the most impact.

2.     Choose your motif

It’s likely that a number of motifs will stand out; now it’s time to choose one to discuss.

For instance, you could choose to write about what the green light represents. What was discussed above is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the symbolism of the light; one could also look at what the colour green represents, for example. Green with envy? Is this a reference to Gatsby’s jealousy of Daisy’s husband?

3.     Develop a theory

It’s important to develop your theory using lots of examples – references to the text. OK, so you’ve chosen the light and are going to discuss it as it relates to jealousy. Go into more detail. What else does light represent? Hope? This could relate to Gatsby’s hope that Daisy will leave her husband for him, or the hope that he will achieve the American Dream. What about a lack of light? Shattered dreams?

It’s possible that, thanks to Fitzgerald’s genius, you will pick up on symbolisms that he never initially intended. That is the mark of great literature: It takes on a life of its own.


Written by Zara Bosman

Image credit: Carla216, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr


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