One of the cranky little issues that often (almost always) arises when you are trying to write about the leading ideas or stylistic choices in a piece of literature—as you often must in your courses that involve this kind of art—is when to use the term ‘theme’ and when to use ‘motif.’  And it’s no wonder. However, if you decide to settle this in your own head once and for all, and search out definitions either digitally or in print, you’ll very likely find that—like lots of pieces of literary terminology—it’s like trying to hold a broken raw egg or a jellyfish in your hands.

One of the reasons for the problem is that, unlike the sciences, terms in literary criticism seldom have fixed or agreed meanings. Many terms like ‘tension,’ for example, are derived from a larger range of language; they are often part of a more general vocabulary. And many literary terms are also used with differing connotations in music or visual art to make clarity and precision even more elusive.

So if I stick just to print and check different glossaries of literary terms, I don’t come away with entirely helpful clarity. Is a theme the central or the dominating idea in a literary work?  Is it one thing in fiction and another in poetry? Is it a literary work’s subject?  Is it an identifiable abstract idea? One that is sometimes used interchangeably with motif? (And yes, the answer to that is ‘yes,’ and not just by IB students.)

You get the idea. And for precision, we are not much helped by the final reference in the list above.  We find the same with ‘motif.’  Is it a particularised representation of a theme? Or a ‘simple element that serves as the basis for expanded narrative?’  (Holman, A Handbook to Literature) Or ‘a situation, incident, idea, image, or character-type that is found in many different literary works?’ (Baldrick, Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms).

So what’s the solution? There really isn’t a definitive one;  as part of a group, as in a classroom, we do our best when we arrive at some clarity or common agreement so that we understand each other’s use of the terms. As individual IB students writing about literature, you may need to fix upon a meaning that distinguishes ‘theme’ from ‘motif,’  one that you can use effectively. I offer you two possibilities.

My own usage relies on recurrence—and it’s what I have used with my students.

A theme is an idea that recurs and builds up to a larger meaning over the course of the work.  It could be the hopelessness of unrequited love, the fear of death, or the sorrow of war.

A motif is a word, a phrase,  an image, a colour, an epithet, a place, or some other element that, as it recurs, may create its own subset of meanings or it may contribute to building up a theme.

Or if this similar articulation works better for you, here is H. Porter Abbott’s description in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, on page 88: ‘When you are having trouble interpreting, one thing that can often help is to look for what repeats itself. Themes and motifs are the two terms most frequently used for the repetitions in narratives…they are often used interchangeably. But as a general working rule for the discussion of narrative, theme is abstract and motif is concrete.  Beauty, nature, violence, and love can be themes; roses, gardens, fists, and the phrase “Barkis is willin” can be motifs.’ (I have bolded certain words here.)

Just one final suggestion: ‘theme’ and ‘content’ are not necessarily the same even though students often use them interchangeably.  For example, ‘man scales tallest building in Rome’ is content; ‘the human thirst for challenge’ might be the theme, and the motif might be the inventive curses that the climber expresses in his ascent.

Good luck with all thisit’s not an easy one.