Our Literary Terms series takes a close look at words that describe stories. Like when we examined the uncanny, the gothic, and the grotesque or when we looked at the difference between magical realism, science fiction, and fantasy. This week, we explore symbol, motif, and theme, and their differences. All three of these nouns take residence in one another, making their distinctions difficult, but each one has its own specific and correct use. Check it.
A symbol is an object that is used to represent something else. For example, when we see a red light in traffic we know it means “stop”. In literature, however, when a red light acts as a symbol it is used to convey an idea or emotion, like anger, death, or perhaps love. If a broken glass appears in a scene, for example, think about what the author might want us to understand, and if that symbol conveys something deeper about the story. If a glass breaks during a discussion about divorce it helps draw attention to, and in many ways represents, a fragmented family.
A symbol occurs only once in a story. However, when a series of related images or symbols appear, they reflect a motif.
A motif is a recurring element in a literary work, meaning the idea or image occurs again and again. When related images repeat to enhance or bring attention to an idea, you know you’ve identified the story’s motif. Take the shattered glass. Lets say a repeating symbol for brokenness appears many times as a series of related images: a crushed glass, a car that won’t start, a bad investment, or an injured pet. Each of these symbols occurs once, but services the larger motif of brokenness or fragmentation in the narrative.
Both symbols and motifs lead to a greater understanding of the story’s theme, which is the overall message, through-line, or lesson generated by the narrative. If symbols for brokenness appear as the story’s motif, what is the author trying to say about love, families, and relationships? If a child breaks the window of a misunderstood neighbor’s house, the author might be using this symbol to comment on the gaps in understanding between people who don’t know each other. If the glass that shatters during a marital spat is later cleared, that might reflect the couple’s choice to start anew. Love conquers all. Anger outweighs fear. You have to break something down to become stronger. All of these (somewhat cheesy) messages are presented by symbols generating a motif that informs the theme of the story.