motif (mōtēfˈ) [key], in literature, term that denotes the recurrent presence of certain character types, objects, settings, or situations in diverse genres and periods of folklore and literature. Examples of motifs include swords, money, food, jewels, forests, oceans, castles, dungeons, tests of skill or wisdom, journeys, separations and reunions, chaos brought to order. Motifs are not restricted to literature. Hans von Wolzogen coined the term leitmotiv [Ger., = guiding motive] to describe Richard Wagner's use of a recurring musical phrase to reinforce the emotional impact of characters, situations, and themes in his operas. The visual arts often rely on motifs to communicate deeper levels of meaning: The bison and deer painted on the walls of the caves at Lascaux represent both threat and survival, superior strength or speed, and food supply; the endlessly rocking cradle in D. W. Griffith's film Intolerance suggests rebirth and the inescapable frailties of the human condition (see symbol; archetype).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.