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Themes and Motifs in Literature: Approaches: Trends: Definition

Author(s): Horst S. Daemmrich


Source: The German Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 566-575
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German
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Report
HORST S. DAEMMRICH
University of Pennsylvania

Themes and Motifs in Literature:

Approaches - Trends - Definition

I. Research reports have traditionally presented evaluations of major contributions, recent findings, and directions in criticism. They are based on
the premise that the field of investigation is not only well established in
literary history but also clearly delineated in handbooks or bibliographies.

Even assessments of critical methods, whether of textual analysis, formalism, reader response, structuralism, semiotics, or deconstruction, can

point to distinct boundaries that cannot be transgressed without a basic


shift in perspective. In contrast, scholars practicing varied methods use the
concepts "motif' and "theme" to identify a broad series of textual elements
(detail, metaphor, image, symbol, idea, subject matter). In addition, critics
frequently employ the concepts interchangeably. It is therefore hardly surprising that thematic studies either advance introductory definitions or consider
the issue hopeless and proceed with specific investigations. The principles

for selection in bibliographies and specialized reference works' also vary


considerably and show a high frequency of erroneous notations. Therefore
users should verify each entry for accuracy.
The often incompatible definitions of motif and theme derive from the
fundamental nature of these concepts and the hesitation to render explicit
apparent contradictions. The concepts are based on synthetic judgment that
admits: (1) dual relationships by referring to the semblance of phenomena

and fluctuating position in texts, (2) series of relational patterns and a


selective principle that classifies concordant phenomena on the basis of
frequency of occurrence. Thus motifs have been classified according to
similarities of attributes (mirror, ruins, shipwreck, window), imputed effects
of an identifiable agent on author and text (Friederike-Goethe-text), and as
dominant, subordinate, ornamental, or even blind motifs. The concept, then,
can only express functions, that is, the inherent structure of relationships.
566

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DAEMMRICH: Themes and Motifs 567


To assist our understanding of critical concerns I will give a historical overview and focus on studies which contributed substantially to organizational
or theoretical questions. Furthermore, I will outline the functional sphere
of motifs and themes.2

II. Motif. Ever since its appearance in the Encyclopedie (1765) to describe

a musical piece, the concept has remained ambiguous as a result of its


varied, often contradictory connotations. The examination of dictionaries

shows that motif is defined as: (1) a subject, a central idea, a recurrent
thematic element used in the development of an artistic or literary work;
(2) a distinctive figure in a design in architecture or decoration; (3) a short,

independent, significant phrase or melodic unit in musical composition.


Goethe considered motifs ever-recurring manifestations of the human spirit

and noted that they seemed to be present directly in folk songs. Henry
James identified his central intent in The Wings of the Dove (1902) as a "very

old ... a very young- motive" and continued a chain of associations that
moves from motive to situation, idea, theme, image, and picture to subject.
Current literary criticism reflects these extensive correspondences not only
in the direct identification of motif with other concepts but also in the often
pronounced differences of its use. Scholars devoted to motif studies have
written excellent, incisive investigations, yet have failed to reach agreement
on the nature of motifs.

The recent, if belated, interest by literary theorists in the research of


Jolles and Propp has so far not extended to the work of other folklorists.

Nevertheless, it is of interest that Christensen points to the motif as a


pregnant element that is executed in a fully completed episode. In considering

the oral tradition of folktales, Thompson (1946) defines a motif as "the


smallest element in a tale having the power to persist in tradition." He
includes (1955) for example, dragonslayer, deception, deceptive beggar, recognition (birthmark, handkerchief, ring), slipper test, and punishment of
the evil stepmother as motifs. Luithi (1962) views the motif as the smallest
element in a narrative having the strength to persist in tradition, either as
a single unit or within a cluster. He further explains (1975, 1980) that motifs
directly affect the narration by moving the action along. A reference to the
"stepmother motif' already implies that the stepchild was mistreated. He
also recognizes that motifs can support or portray themes succinctly. The
motif is the concrete nucleus of a narrative; the theme (idea, problem) is

the intellectual dimension. By persisting in the memory of listeners or


readers, he concludes, motifs can lead their own lives and may be resurrected
or transformed sometime in the future. Dundes (1962) distinguishes between
etic units (paradigmatic, the motif location over time, classification purpose,
motif index) and emic units (motifeme, the text-internal realization of a

pattern through allomotifs, that is, elements of association; syntagmatic).


Thus the emic unit serves the specific structural organization of narration
and by implication the text.

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568 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Fall 1985


The wide range of studies in Frenzel (1976) and Daemmrich (1985) prove
that scholars have investigated specific motifs for many years. Researchers

have employed hypotheses and developed adequate research designs that


often yielded excellent results, even though they refrained from presenting

detailed theoretical explanations. Theoretical studies that have focused on


the nature of motifs have sought to establish a framework for occurrence
and function. In determining parameters, agreement was reached that the
motif is a textual element that can persist in tradition. To account for the

continued existence and relative stability of some motifs, Beller (1981),


Frenzel (1963), Jost, Petersen, Petsch, Pollmann, Todorov (1967), Weisstein
and Wellek suggest that motifs capture a significant aspect of human interac-

tion or perception of reality in a striking manner. Frenzel (1976), Trousson


(1965), and Liuthi (1980) propose that motifs crystallize schematic patterns
of typical, even archetypal traits and situations. They recur because they
have merged into the collective substance of human activity and thought.

To pursue this argument further, one would have to assume that motifs
express basic forms of thinking (the Grundformen des Denkens proposed
by Dilthey), evolve into mythic forms (Albouy, Brunel, Danckert, Derche,
Fraisse), or disclose subconscious factors in personality formation (Jaff6).
Nevertheless, these studies and even those attributing the initial inception
of motifs to an author's unique recreation of experiences (Korner, Krogmann,
Sperber) tried to set the motif apart from the subject matter or material

content (Stoff) of a text by linking it to a substance that was shaped by


thought processes or formal categories.

These distinctions lack precision because they fail to consider the fact
that authors never work with raw material. Linguistic forms are precoded
in the language from which they are generated and the motif exists only in
and through the interrelations with other textual units. An observation such

as: he hoists the sail; he reefs the sail, made at the time in which sailing
represented a mode of transportation in a culture, can be used metaphorically
for the beginning and end of any journey. It can become a topos for writing
(Curtius, 1948) and may also form the basis for a motif sequence that links

ship to harbor (safety, successful journey) or ship to shipwreck.

To be sure, scholars (Curtius, 1954; Jost, Kayser, Levin, Prawer) have


stressed functional considerations in their definitions. Pointing to the deriva-

tion from Latin movere, moving or convincing by persuasions, they argue


that the motif must do rather than be. It recurs, establishes interrelationships
with other textual elements, and contributes to structural cohesion. Czerny
points out that literary motifs are difficult to delineate because they often
combine the characteristics of musical and artistic motifs. In addition to
fusing thought and action, they add new details and establish new relationships with each recurrence. By attaching concrete details to thought (visualizing themes, [Curtius, Falk, Levin]), a motif clarifies and supports themes.

Consequently, it can express a basic idea and simultaneously develop a

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DAEMMRICH: Themes and Motifs 569

broader thought in a series of images that are interwoven into the text
(Beller, 1970). To describe the various functions, scholars (Frenzel [1966],
LUmmert, Petsch) have classified motifs. Major groups include: anticipatory,
referential (internal and external), central, ornamental, filler, situational,
descriptive, and dynamic action-related motifs. Frenzel (1976) utilizes the
classification system. Yet her inventory of fifty-four motifs in the Western

tradition proves that in practice she does not acknowledge the structure of
motifs and is less concerned with function than appearance and recurrence.
I (1977) pointed out that she explores basic situations such as a man between
two women, figure traits (the ashamed ruler), and characters (beggar) without accounting for the often contradictory motifs associated with figures
and situations.

During a decade's study of primary motif patterns, I have observed the


following seven principles governing motifs:
(1) Semblance. Motifs either convey the appearance of a concrete, actual
substance (place/topos, object/image, comparison/metaphor, figure/charac-

teristic) or function in relational patterns (action/structural relations) that


permit the identification with observable qualities. The primary set of attributes is enlarged as a result of a linking process with other textual elements
which adds new significance.
(2) Positional alignment. Motifs serve as coupling devices on the narrative
plane that provide for and facilitate integrational relations with successively
different planes of signification. If one postulates a hierarchical perspective

(Benveniste, Barthes), the motif functions like a switch that guides the
reader to a new plane. Each subsequent recurrence in its original or altered

appearance (fog: haze, dense atmosphere, descending clouds/lifting fog,


light, clarity) elicits secondary associations that initiate a continuous process
of reflection. The motifs, then, occur on a plane but are also distributed like
nodes on an axis.
(3) The principle of polar dimension. Motifs are positioned as textual units
in an indefinitely large number of linguistic sequences generated in literature.

They appear transparent because they illuminate in a condensed textual


unit very complex situations, individual choices, and basic existential issues.
They crystallize, for instance, affective states to common factors present
in a wide range of emotions (father-son conflict: self to other person, attraction/repulsion). Yet this apparently one-dimensional signification is fre-

quently balanced by (a) the linking process with figures and themes that
call forth conflicting associations such as horse-rider: joyous affirmation of
life/lack of foresight/early death; (b) connections established to objects (mir-

ror, window) or phenomena perceived as natural (heart, hand, sea), and


products of culture (garden) that have acquired multiple meanings. These
relations enhance a process of recognition, reflection, increased awareness,
new observation, and continuing reflection.
(4) Tension. The tendency of motifs to occur in clusters or to be joined

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570 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Fall 1985


in sequences such as heart-hand, straight-crooked path, or ship-shipwreck/
harbor creates powerful contrasts and provides alternate solutions to questions of human development. Motif sequences contribute to the formation
of a textual field or tension and reinforce thereby the process of reflection.

(5) Schematization. The continued use over long periods of time, in addition to the pronounced reductive characteristics of some motifs, can foster

schematized action sequences. Such basic game plans characterize, for instance, plays and narratives employing deception, disguise, or revenge. It

is possible that schematization encourages reader response to the pattern


with a simultaneous devaluation of individual textual details.

(6) The principle of supporting themes. Motifs sustain and clarify themes
by supplying concrete details and by establishing in concert a basic grid of
references in the form of primary and secondary associations.
(7) Textual organization. Aside from the aforementioned functions, motifs

contribute to the textual arrangement by initial foregrounding and subsequent restatement. The early introduction raises anticipation. Ensuing
recurrences heighten suspense and point toward a resolution. Motifs serve
the textual cohesion by motivating behavior and coordinating action. They
can also, as in the ruins and garden motifs, establish significant temporal
and spatial relations. All of these functions combine to create a dynamic
quality in texts.
Changing historical, cultural, and socio-economic conditions have not only

added new dimensions to motifs but also subtracted specific components


and influenced their use. Motifs have furthermore been transformed or

inverted to create humorous, ironic, or tragic effects. However, it is apparent


that these transformations do not alter their intrinsic function.

III. Theme. Everyone knows from the often painful experience of writing
compositions in school that a theme should be spelled out in a topic sentence,

must be developed, and brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The assignments typically cover a wide range of topics: Alexander the Great and the
structure of his army, Napoleon's decision to invade Russia, Hamlet's hesitation, or a memorable experience from the summer's vacation. It is hardly
surprising that scholars have resorted to a broad application of the concept
and also arrived at definitions that reflect specific aspects of the general
use. Curtius (1948) analyzes sapientia et fortitudo (armas y letras, Waffen
und Wissenschaften, weapons and letters) as "topos" but in numerous other
instances also identifies the ideational component of the topos as a theme.
Yet the questions of rank, prominence, and basic stance toward the world

raised by linking sword and pen have served as motivating forces in the
clash of personalities (Tasso and Antonio in Goethe's Tasso, 1790) and as a
motif sequence in the self-evaluation of writer-figures who look upon the
word as a finely honed weapon for criticism (Honore Balzac, Les illusions

perdues, 1837-43; Thomas Mann, "Tonio Kr6ger," 1903). The theme, supported by the motif, captures the struggle of gifted writers with society and

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DAEMMRICH: Themes and Motifs 571


their capacity for self-knowledge. Yet the theme's specific orchestration and
resolution differs in these texts. Goethe's play closes with a desperate outcry
that links personal shipwreck and endurance of a great work. Balzac's Lucien
de Rubempr6 is destroyed when his weapon-pen fails him. Mann's narrative
ends on a note of faint resignation coupled with hope. Derche, Poulet, and

Ziolkowski associate themes with myths as fundamental modes of thought.

However, Cassirer points out that "the mythical world is. . . at a much
more fluid and fluctuating state than our theoretical world." And if myth
"steps in where knowledge fails," then thematic components of myth invariably function symbolically, thereby infusing these elements with multidimensional levels of signification.
The literary tradition shows a reciprocal relationship between figure conception and unique traits, specific situations, or actions. Thus a figure may
be identified consistently with a situation or the situation calls for a suitable
figure. But it is obviously its position in reference to events, decisions, actions, reactions, etc., not the static location, that shapes thematic configurations. A figure in a room is not a theme. Persons fighting for survival, coming
to terms with their confinement, trying to escape a deadly environment

(Edgar Alan Poe, "The Pit and the Pendulum," 1840), pleading for acceptance
(Franz Kakfa, "Die Verwandlung," 1916), struggling at midnight with a difficult play (Thomas Mann, "Schwere Stunde, " 1905), awakening and continuously reflecting upon the creative interrelationship between artist and the
world (Thomas Mann, Lotte in Weimar 1939) provide the necessary ideational
substance for thematic development. Frauenrath has shown that a situation
(a son's homecoming) and event (murder) can determine the textual structure

while permitting thematic variations. Christensen suggests distinguishing


between themes of action-reaction (decision-consequences) and experiences

(education, human development). Trousson (1964) has demonstrated that


changing historical perspectives guide thematic preferences even though the
figure can retain certain basic, clearly identifiable features. He therefore
proposes differentiating between figure-related and situational themes.
Many scholars (Beller [1981], Brown, Falk, Jost, Knabe, Saisselin, Weber)

agree that a theme embodies the ideational substance of texts which, as


Levin and Schulze stress, manifests itself in conceptions and characterization
of figures. Liithi (1980) guards against possible misconceptions by pointing
to the fact that themes may originate in concrete observations and should
therefore not be considered only as abstract ideas. Yet descriptive details
have not only served as basic building blocks for motifs but have also assumed
symbolic significance (the rose; Seward) and supported conflicting themes
(teeth; Ziolkowski). Differences among scholars arise in regard to the level
of abstraction assigned to a theme. The most ardent supporters of thematic
studies (Petriconi, Bachelard, Poulet, Richard) believe that themes capture
fundamental conceptions of human interrelationships. They extend from the
social-political sphere to the metaphysical realm.

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572 THE GERMAN QUARTERLY Fall 1985


Western literature provides strong evidence for the following six characteristic features of themes:

(1) Concept. Critics have used theme as a convenient classification principle


but have avoided the investigation of its substance and properties. Aggression, narcissism, self-development are abstract concepts, the properties of
which are derived from numerous observations. A theme's concept classifies
individual occurrences in terms of common characteristics. The substance

of a theme resides in qualitative (meaning) and quantitative (occurrence)


properties. The properties are organizations of qualities actualized in various
group combinations that are relational (action, metaphors, motifs) and therefore dependent, that is, of adjectival nature. A theme, then, must be substantive, capable of supporting itself and its dependents. Since we cannot perceive a theme's substance apart from its properties, the activities linked to
it, and the effects it generates, we tend to locate the theme in subject-object
relations: individual aggressor-aggression-identifiable effect-victim; Narcissus-narcissism-self-contemplation; person-self-development-developed personality. At this juncture, the theme itself is considered a quality supporting
the embodiment of potentially numerous characteristics. Yet in classifying
the properties of aggressor, Narcissus, and developmental figures, we can
only establish a meaningful coherence either by establishing figure relations

or by referring to a primary correspondence between the theme and its


embodiment. Since aggressive acts range from facial and verbal expressions
to rape and murder but are substantially alike, their variety springs from
their specific organization.
(2) Probability. Themes appear both logically and psychologically probable.
A theme cannot contradict its meaning (support system). Since they posit
meaning in terms of being, themes are represented through concrete, observable illustrations, comparisons, and associations that reflect modes of
perception and thinking which are comprehensible to the reader.
(3) Delineation. Texts can either be organized around one central theme
or explore several themes. Secondary supporting themes have been linked

to a central theme to create ambiguity or point in the direction of the


unknown (affirmation of life/lack of foresight-joy/failure; hopeful journey

to explore/void- adventure/indeterminate end). However, a theme remains


a distinct conceptual unit no matter how much it may overlap with others.

When supported by contrasting motif sequences, it can project possible


alternate resolutions.

(4) Function. Themes are central organizational units of texts. Themes,


figures, motifs, motif sequences, and metaphoric correlates are mutually
dependent.
(5) Recurrence. Themes that recur over long periods of time retain their
basic quality. It is apparent, however, that their continued vitality springs
from the historic sense of authors who weave the typical pattern into a new
and unique fabric.

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DAEMMRICH: Themes and Motifs 573


(6) Recurring primary themes have consistently, almost exclusively focused on human individuation. They have raised basic questions concerning
personality structure, the possible coexistence of opposites, and limits of
self-knowledge, the individual and society, and the relationship of the individual to the principles governing the universe. As a result, themes have
contributed to a powerful literary tradition reflecting a continuing struggle
for self-realization in a fictional realm that accommodates patterns of conservation and radical change, a dialogue with the past and a vision of the future.

IV. Why study themes and motifs? Since any exhaustive account of all occurrences of a given motif or theme in the literary tradition will surpass our
competence, we will have to rely on selections of representative texts. However, once the structure and functional pattern has been identified, the study

should show true literary constants. Themes and motifs are basic components of literary works. Their arrangement, distribution, repetition, and
variation form an intricate system of relationships which is an integral part of
the textual structure. The system also provides the signals which guide the
reader's perception of organization and signification. Since themes and motifs
recur not only in texts of an author but also in other works, contemporaneous
and distant, they establish a literary tradition that transcends time and location. Writers from different nations and ages have woven the threads of available configurations into new patterns that characterize individual works but
also continue an established tradition. The study of themes and motifs reveals
often unsuspected relationships between literary works usually not grouped
together. It points to the historical position of a writer and the change in intellectual history. It shows that themes and motifs are powerful forces shaping
distributional and integrational relationships in texts. It accounts for the
factors that not only govern the correlation and integration of units but also
determine the mutual dependence of figure conceptions, motifs, and themes.
Indeed, themes and motifs enforce basic structural patterns that persistently
recur and thus assist in comprehending the implicit system of rules governing
the complex plurality of the indefinitely large number of texts.
Notes

Fernand Baldensperger and Werner Friederich, Bibliography of Comparative Literature (New


York: Russel & Russel, 1960); Kurt Bauernhorst, Bibliographie der Stoff- und Motivgeschichte

der deutschen Literatur (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1932); Elisabeth Frenzel, Stoff-, Motiv- und
Symbolforschung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1966); Franz Anselm Schmitt, Stoff- und Motivgeschichte

der deutschen Literatur (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1976).

The presentation is based on extensive studies to be published in the handbook by Horst


S. and Ingrid Daemmrich, Themes andMotifs in Western Literature (New York: Ungar, 1985).

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