Motif vs. Symbols in Writing: Similarities and Differences Between Literary Devices

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 3 min read

Motifs and symbols are literary devices that authors have used throughout the centuries. In fact, both motifs and symbols are used in all artistic media: painters, sculptors, playwrights, and musicians all use motifs and use symbols in the most advanced forms of their respective artforms. And while they are similar literary terms, “motif” and “symbol” are not synonyms. There are distinct differences between the definition of symbol and the definition of motif, and they serve somewhat different functions in literature.


What Is a Motif in Writing?

A motif is a recurring element—such as an image, phrase, situation, or concept—that appears multiple times throughout a work of literature.

  • Some motifs operate on a broad scale, such as the seasonal motifs of winter and spring in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the Game of Thrones television series it inspired. Some motifs are smaller and more trivial, like a cartoon character continually stepping on rakes in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
  • Motifs can also manifest as repeated phrases in poetry. In Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” the speaker runs through a litany of Americans “singing” as they partake in archetypal activities—a carpenter working with wood, a shoemaker on his bench, a mother with her child. Whitman’s repeated phrases create a unifying motif among the myriad subjects of the poem. He chooses to use motif partly for aural purposes and partly to symbolize unity.
  • In “The Raven” (1845), Edgar Allen Poe uses a frightening bird to symbolize the inevitability of decay and, eventually, death. Simultaneously, he uses the word “nevermore” as a recurring strong motif that functions on both an aural and symbolic level.

Learn more about motifs here.

What Is a Symbol in Writing?

Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols as stand-ins to represent something beyond the literal meaning. All symbolism is united by the concept of a word or object representing something beyond its literal meaning.

  • The earliest recorded forms of human storytelling—cave paintings and hieroglyphics—are quite literally symbols representing more complex narratives or beliefs.
  • Ancient Greek theater, which is the basis for much of today’s narrative artforms, used symbolic props including phallic objects to represent Dionysus, the god of fertility. Symbolism remained in wide use throughout the Middle Ages (almost always with religious connotations) and then, from the Renaissance onward, returned in full force to represent human desires ranging from lust to ambition to heartbreak.
  • William Shakespeare used symbols to represent inner conscience (think of blood in Macbeth or family names in Romeo and Juliet) and William Blake used religious symbols (including Jesus himself) to represent human emotion and desire (as in “The Everlasting Gospel”).
  • Fairy tales frequently contain literary symbolism to convey a story’s central idea to young audiences. The Brothers Grimm frequently used the forest as a symbol of both mystery and peril, as in this passage from Hansel and Gretel, where the children continue deeper into the woods.

Learn more about symbolism and its literary uses here.

Motif vs. Symbol: What Is the Difference?

A symbol can be a motif if it is repeated at various intervals throughout a work of literature.

  • In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock symbolizes more than literal light for the novel’s main character: it represents aspiration, status, wealth, and the American dream—along with Daisy Buchanan herself. The green light is also a recurring motif; it’s mentioned many times throughout the novel.

However, if a symbol only appears in a single instance within a literary work, it is not a motif.

  • In Edna St. Vincent’s poem “Recuerdo,” the speaker describes herself eating a pear, which is a symbol of her femininity. But the pear is not mentioned again, so it is not a motif.

Conversely, a repeating motif can be a symbol if it represents something beyond its literal meaning.

  • The seasons in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire exemplify such a concept. Winter represents more than colder temperatures; it’s a harbinger of the coming White Walkers and the threat to living humans south of The Wall. Typically when Martin mentions winter, he’s not merely providing description; he’s queuing up narrative elements as well. However, if a repeating motif does not contain a secondary meaning, it is not a symbol.
  • In poetry, a repeated phrase is known as “anaphora,” from the Greek word for “carrying up or back.” Most poetic anaphora does not have symbolic significance; it may be a valuable tool for the poet, but primarily for aural reasons, rather than to represent something beyond the literal.

Want to learn more about the art and craft of fiction? See Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling.