Difference Between Motifs and Symbol (With Table)

Whenever reading a piece of writing, especially of literature, a reader encounters numerous literary devices such as the figure of speech, consonance, paradox, etc. A literary tool is used to elucidate ideas, thoughts, themes, etc. in work.  Each tool has a uniqueness of its own and is utilized at different levels while writing.

Motifs vs Symbols

The difference between motifs and symbol is that motif is used to highlight the central theme of the writing i.e. to depict on which topic or idea the work is revolving around. Whereas symbols occurs once or twice in whole reading to illustrate something for better understanding.

A motif is a salient element, such as a tool or reference, which is repetitive in terms of its usage in works of literature. It can be used in several forms like images, music, phrases etc. It is used by writers frequently to indicate the development of the theme along with the plotline.

Symbol also termed as ‘sign proper’ falls under the three classifications of signs. In symbol, the relation between the signifying thing and its representation is completely a matter of social agreement, not a natural one. For example – Shaking a hand with someone is a conventional mark of greeting or leaving.

Comparison Table Between Motifs and Symbols

Parameters of ComparisonMotifsSymbols
ObjectiveThe objective of the motif is to indicate the development of the theme throughout the work.The symbol serves the purpose of representing something or any idea.
UsageMotifs are frequently used in literary pieces of work. It is used in a repetitive pattern.Symbols are used only once or twice in work altogether.
It is not repetitive in terms of usage.
Motifs are used according to the context of the piece of writing.Symbols represent something that is socially agreed upon. It doesn’t change its core significance for context.
RepresentationIt is represented through a medium like an image, music, phrase, act, etc.It is represented through object, word, sign, sound, etc.
Relation with themeMotifs are often confused with the theme as they represent the central theme of any writing.Symbols are not directly related to the theme. It only represent an idea or something.

What are Motifs?

Any sound, act, picture, or any other form of representation that is used to indicate the theme, is known as Motif. It is widely used to represent a central idea or the main topic about which the work of art is about.
Though it represents the theme, it is sometimes used interchangeably with it. However, the word theme is more inclined to a general doctrine while the motif is merely used to depict that concept through the work.
Its usage is repetitive and a reader keeps noticing the motif in the work. It pinpoints the notions and happenings which portrays the central theme of the work.
Motifs are implanted by the writer meticulously so that reader can trace the development of the theme. It always fortifies the author’s lead message, which he wants to convey through the writing.
For example – In the novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, the motifs used were fire and ice, where the former shows her spirit and fierceness and the latter depicts the forces which tried to extinguish her fire nature. Letters, journeys acted as a motif in the infamous novel Pride and Prejudice.

What are Symbols?

In a wider sense, a symbol can be anything that manifests something. In this way, every word is a symbol of something. In literature also, Symbol signifies an object or happening which itself manifest something else depending upon the context.
The symbol is made by social conventions, where a huge number of people agree on a symbol and what it would depict. Though, in the world of literature, often writers do make their symbols and use them in their works, which in turn makes the interpretation difficult for the readers.
Symbols are used only a time or two, to increase the understanding of a particular thing. It could be anything like image, object, music or act, setting, characters, etc. It adds more meaning and structure to the piece of writing.
It is something of a concrete object to illustrate an idea. conventional symbols are widely accepted and thus they get popularized for their manifestation rather than their structure. Not only in literature but Symbols are also used in other subjects such as science, mathematics, music, etc.
For example – Black signifies death, white depicts peace, Red is for blood, anger, passion and danger and the rainbow shows hope and promises, etc.

Main Differences Between Motifs and Symbols

  1. Motifs, the literary elements are used to indicate the central theme of the piece of work whereas symbols are used to depict any idea or something prevailing in the plot.
  2. Motifs are recurring in nature and are often used in literary pieces of writing. While symbols are engaged in the work only once or twice throughout the work.
  3. Motifs are cautiously implanted in the work so that a reader can easily trace the development of the theme. Whereas symbols are used to portray an idea or thought of the writer concerning the context.
  4. The utilization of motifs differs from writer to writer. Each writer creates unique motifs according to its plot. While symbols are made by social conventions and usually becomes universal for their significance.
  5. The presence of motifs in the work fortifies the lead message of the writer, that he wants to display through writing. while symbols are used to add more meaning and structure to the work. 


Motifs and symbols are literary elements used in the piece of writing with different purposes. Motifs are used to show the theme of writing and symbol is used to illustrate an idea or thought. Motifs can be used in various forms like image, sound, act, words, etc. while symbols are used in form of a picture, object and structure, etc.

Symbols meaning entirely depends on the social convention and is not a natural one. The meaning of motifs is decided by the writer while writing and he is the sole one who initially fixes what a motif represents in the particular work of writing


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