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Motif in Literature


It is precisely the persistence through tradition of motif that made motif-based classification such a fundamental aspect of the structural criticism of the mid-twentieth century: discrete, shared units of literature were collected, alphabetized, numbered, and indexed, and relationships between literary genres and periods catalogued by type. A cursory glance at Stith Thompson's six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, in which Western literature is reduced to twenty-three motif categories organized alphabetically from A ("Mythological Motifs") to Z ("Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs"), may strike any reader as a vestige of the classification impulse that marked literary methodology of the past. And yet a quick keyword search on WorldCat will yield nearly one hundred "motif-indexes" of literature, very many of them published in the 1990s. Current trends in literary criticism and analysis, even if no longer explicitly indebted to formalist or structuralist vocabulary—and even if the term motif is not used—continue to illuminate connections and relationships between texts in ways identifiable as motif-based. Consider Werner Sollors's discussion of recent "thematic" studies as well as the great number of "treatment of" titles published annually in the bibliography of the Modern Language Association, or the ongoing series issued by the publisher Peter Lang, titled Studies in Themes and Motifs in Literature. Although it was in 1993 that Sollors called attention to "the return of thematic criticism," motif-based analysis, inherently intertextual, interdisciplinary, and comparative, has arguably never gone out of style.



Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Translated by David Staines. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Brian Stone. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1974.

Trioedd Ynys Prydein, the Welsh Triads. Edited by Rachel Bromwich. 2nd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.


Atkins, Stuart. "Motif in Literature: The Faust Theme." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, edited by Philip P. Wiener. New York: Scribners, 1973.

Benjamin, Walter. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1985.

Daemmrich, Horst S., and Ingrid G. Daemmrich. Themes and Motifs in Western Literature: A Handbook. Tübingen: Francke, 1987.

Frenzel, Elisabeth. Motive der Weltliteratur. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1988.

——. Stoffe der Weltliteratur. 7th ed. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1988.

Johnson, David F. "The Five Horrors of Hell: An Insular Homiletic Motif." English Studies 5 (1993): 414–431.

Peters, Edward. The Shadow King: Rex Inutilis in Medieval Law and Literature, 751–1327. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1970.

Steiner, George. "Roncevaux." In The Return of Thematic Criticism, edited by Werner Sollors. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Rev. ed. 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955–1958.

Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Kristen Lee Over

Additional topics

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