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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs: What’s the Difference?

Authors use dozens of literary devices to convey deeper meaning in their novels and short stories—sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. But there are three key devices that can be found in almost every work: themes, symbols, and motifs. Learning how to identify each one and understand the differences between them will not only improve your literary comprehension—but also your enjoyment of reading!

What is a Theme?

Themes in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Click image to see the full infographic.

Themes in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Click image to see the full infographic.

A theme is an underlying idea or the driving force behind the story’s plot—and there can be multiple themes in a single story. Themes provide insight into the author’s beliefs and perspectives of the human condition. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, used themes of brutality and disillusionment as a critique of war in A Farewell to Arms.

How to identify a theme: Themes can usually be summed up in one sentence by writing down the main idea or emotional conflict that fuels the protagonist’s journey. For example, in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the protagonist Esther struggles to define her individuality and sense of self. The theme, then, could be defined as  “Identity” or “Individual versus Society.”

What is a Symbol?

Symbols in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Click image to see the full infographic.

Symbols in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Click image to see the full infographic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A symbol can be an object, event, person, place, or action—any one thing that represents more than its literal meaning. Symbols are often physical embodiments of a theme or idea that the author wants to convey. For example, the pig’s head in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies embodies savagery and evil, two prominent themes in the book.

How to identify a symbol: If the author goes into great detail when describing an object or uses personification, it’s most likely being used as symbolism. A great example of symbolism is the wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In it, the yellow wallpaper is described as “a constant irritant to a normal mind,” illustrating the narrator’s psychological unraveling.

What is a Motif?

Motifs in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. Click image to see the full infographic.

Motifs in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. Click image to see the full infographic.

A motif is a recurring element that sets the tone for the entire story. In Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, for example, slavery is a motif that emphasizes the themes of power and violence. Like symbols, motifs can sometimes be objects, but unlike symbols, they are an ever-present image or idea that reinforces the story’s underlying themes. For instance, flowers are used repeatedly in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway to reinforce the themes of aging and the passage of time.

How to identify a motif: Think of a motif as the idea represented by a collection of symbols. The motif of “Rebirth” for instance could be illustrated with a sunrise, a crib, and a baptism—all symbols or illustrations that reinforce the idea of “Rebirth.”

To learn more about the symbols, themes, and motifs found in your favorite books, check out Course Hero’s collection of infographics and study guides here!

About the author

Sam DeReign

Sam is the Senior Educational Content Specialist for Course Hero. If you have ideas or suggestions for what you'd like to see on Course Hero, let him know at [email protected]!

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