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Motif in Literature


Let us start with the ambiguity that has characterized motif since the term first appeared—used in reference to a musical rather than a literary work—in Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie of 1765. Even now, defining exactly what constitutes a single motif or a motif sequence in literature continues to be a thorny task for students and scholars alike, in large part because published definitions as well as general use in literary criticism offer very little agreement as to its nature (excepting a general agreement that there is no common agreement). Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks have defined motif variously as myth, theme, subject, central recurring idea, image, characteristic, symbol, archetype, leitmotiv, or outstanding trait. Adding to the confusion, theme and motif—potentially incompatible terms to Horst Daemmrich—tend to be used interchangeably, strings of motifs often made synonymous with legend and myth. The recurring narrative constant of the insatiable artist, for instance, analyzed as integral to and mutually dependent on the literary tradition of Faust, has been described by Stuart Atkins, without clear distinction of terms, as "motif," "theme," and "myth." General character types (holy hermit, evil dwarf, seer-hag, calumniated wife, warrior king, "flower" or "candle" of knighthood), objects (hero's sword, poet's pen, lover's ring, the Holy Grail), settings (paradise, hell, deserted wasteland, the otherworld, the city), situations (spilled wine, physical blow, quest, game or test, war, marriage), psychological states (madness, hysteria, paranoia), and general attributes (red hair, black eyes, hairy mole, hunchback) can all be traced over time and across genre and discussed as recurring literary motifs. Such lists are potentially endless and not necessarily new (see the Medieval Welsh Triads as well as Stith Thompson's motif-index and Daemmrich's handbook). We might even speak of instructional, didactic, or homiletic motifs, as has David F. Johnson; in a study that seeks ultimately to identify the origin of a narrative tradition, Johnson has culled medieval British manuscripts for references to the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, concluding that both the Seven Joys of Heaven motif and its reverse, the Five Horrors of Hell, are Irish (rather than English) homilies. Theorists and scholars have used motif to identify narrative elements such as detail, metaphor, image, symbol, idea, and subject matter. The term need not refer exclusively to content elements but can apply to formal elements as well, and motif sequences have been identified as structuring devices, integral to a text's configuration. Helen Vendler's study of "key words" in Shakespeare's sonnets, for instance, demonstrates how motifs provide structural coherence by "firmly connecting" the four units of a sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet); in Vindler's analysis, motifs prove equally essential to the form of a sonnet as to its meaning. (The semiotician A. J. Greimas, as well as two of the most significant modern indexers of literary motifs, Stith Thompson and Elisabeth Frenzel, restrict motifs to content units; Wolpers, Daemmrich, and others extend the term's scope into form and structure.) A literary motif, in other words, can be—and has been—defined with great fluidity: as an element of both narrative content and structural form, as a general literary theme, or as a question of the discrete units that make up that theme.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Motif in Literature - Ambiguity, Size, Etymology: Dynamism, King Motifs In The Medieval Arthurian Tradition, Stith Thompson's Motif-index Of Folk-literature