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Symbols and Motifs in Literature

What Is the Difference?

By Grace Fleming, About.com Guide
Literary Literature
Symbolic Symbols
Critical Literature
Literature Work
Meaning and Symbols
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A symbol is anything that represents another thing. Sound confusing? It's really simple!
There are millions of symbols that you recognize every day.
a red light means stop
an arrow means "this way"
a light bulb means "new idea"
the numerals 10, put together, mean ten
a heart means love
a wink means "just kidding"
See how you really do recognize symbols in everyday life?
When you read literature, you should keep your mind open to possible symbols that may
not be so obvious at first. For example, if you read a scene that involves a skunk lurking in
the background, you might wonder what that animal could signify.
Is there something that "stinks" in the works of your story, like a breakup or a bit of bad
luck? This is how symbols work!
It often helps to practice with imagery, by asking yourself what a variety of everyday
objects might stand for. For example, think about emotions or thoughts that come to mind
when you see the following:
lightening bolt
spider's web
Which of the objects might signify entanglement? What about beauty? Any time you read a
piece of literature, you should consider whether certain objects have a double role. They
might hold a hidden message or meaning.
So What Is a Motif in Literature?
While a symbol might occur once in literature to signify an idea or an emotion, a motif can
be an element or idea that repeats throughout that piece of literature. A motif could be
expressed by a collection of related symbols. For example, the motif of fragmentation (of a
family, for instance) could come from several symbols that appear in a book:
shattered glass
an unfaithful spouse
a runaway (pet, teen, car)
Sometimes a motif can be a contrast, like "light and dark." A series of symbols that could
represent this motif might be:
moon shadows (shades of darkness)
a candle (a light in the darkness)
storm clouds (temporary darkness)
a ray of sunshine (emerging from darkness)
a tunnel (through the darkness)
The symbols and motifs you discover in your reading will lead to the understanding of an
overall theme of your book. To find the theme of a book, you should look for an overall
message or lesson. If you do encounter the motif of "light and dark" in a book, you should
think about a message that the author is trying to send about life.
The light and dark of a story might tell us:
Love survives death
Life renews itself
Knowledge conquers fear
Tip: if you see a series of symbols or a collection of motifs, but you can't come up with a
theme, try inserting a verb!
What is an example of an anaphora?
It is the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of several
consecutive sentences or verses to emphasize an image or a concept. The effect is to
influence the person reading it.
Famous example is from Winston Churchill
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we
shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and
growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight
in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.