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Motif

A motif within a work of art is closely connected to the questions that the work is trying to explore or the message that the work is trying to communicate. The novelist Kundera, for example, has a habit of titling his works after key motifs that appear within them (such as immortality). The motif grants a kind of thematic coherence to the work, and its recurrences also help clarify the meaning of the motif itself.  

What is a motif?

A motif is essentially a dominant idea that runs through an entire work of art. 

In a way, motif is to a work of art what trait is to a person: it is a recurring idea that is essential to the entire structure of the work of art.  

Examples

Here are a few examples for you of sentences that properly use the literary term motif. 

"It was not clear why the novelist repeatedly invoked the motif of death over the course of his novel—until, that is, the climax of the plot revealed that this motif was in fact crucial for what the story was trying to say."

"The author wanted to make use of the motif of revolution, but he did so in such a direct way that it degenerated into more or less a cliche: the reader almost felt that the real motif was irony about revolution instead."

"The lilting four-note motif recurred over all the movements of the symphony, transforming each time on the basis of the context of the surrounding music and themes."

In case you would still like further information about how to correctly use the term motif, here are a couple rules you can follow. 

1. A motif is a dominant idea; but this idea can take different forms of expression, depending on the medium in question. For example, a motif in literature may consist of a concept; in music, the motif may consist of a phrase of notes; in architecture, it may consist of certain characteristic designs; and so on. In short, "idea" must be interpreted broadly, here, since the expression of a motif does depend on the artistic medium in question. 

2. Motif is closely related to the literary term theme. In fact, they are sometimes even synonymous. If a distinction is to be made, though, it can be suggested that a motif is relatively more concrete and specific: one must be able to identify a motif every time it arises within a work of art, whereas a theme may have a more abstract influence on the structure of a work. 

Additional Information

The concept of motif is tied to the basic nature of artistic creation. When an artist feels moved to produce something, he also automatically seeks to produce a work "about" something. Motif simply refers to these basic themes that inspire an artist in the first place and then find further concrete expression in his works themselves. For example, a given writer may produce because he is obsessed with the problem of alienation; and as a result, alienation (and its overcoming) may become an important motif in the work he produces. 

Motif is one of the ways that a work of art (and especially a modern work of art) can be held together. For example, Broch's novel The Sleepwalkers contains several heterogeneous elements, several of which are not linearly connected with each other in terms of plot. However, the various sections share a common motif, which serves to provide the work with an aesthetic coherence and unity in the eyes of the reader. 

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