What’s the Difference Between Theme & Motif?
I get it–it’s easier. But, that doesn’t mean it should be done.
It kills me when my high school freshmen mix up motifs and themes. Thinking they’re interchangeable, it makes it almost impossible to get them to understand how very different they are. It’s frustrating for me. Motifs are everywhere in life; we need to know what they are. The same goes for the theme. They can be such abstract concepts to many. However, if you explain it correctly, it’s really more concrete than most anticipate.
I’m going to try my best to help you figure out how to best teach the difference in your English class.
If you have any cool, better ways to teach it, please let us know in the comments so we can try it, too!
Now, my first teaching gigs were in a district that used CollegeBoard™’s Pre-AP Springboard™ curriculum. It was intense for the kids, and I loved it though most hated it because the students struggled. Yeah, there was more tension with parents about grades, but I did see a drastic shift in kids’ writing ability. Totally worth it. The ninth grade textbook explained each like this:
To determine theme, you must consider how all elements work together within a story and what ideas about life these elements present. Also, keep these points in mind when writing the theme of a story:
A THEME IS NOT:
- A “topic” (such as love or sacrifice)
- A summary, such as “Two people sell their valuables to show their love for each other.”
- A moral; e.g., “If you love someone, you will do anything for him or her.”
A THEME IS:
- A general statement about life; e.g., “People show their love for each other by making sacrifices.”
Based on this, you can safely say that a theme is really a general observation. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know that I believe literature is there to help us live cultures, lives, and perspectives we would otherwise never understand. So, the theme helps us to infer something about humanity overall. It’s not teaching a moral or how to behave, but merely reflecting on a human quality.
A theme is never just a topic or keyword! That’s the first thing that elementary teachers teach! “The theme is ‘friendship’.” …Uh, what about friendship! How does ‘friendship’ teach us anything about friendship? What did I learn? We turn to morals when they get to higher grades. “The theme is ‘never judge a book by its cover’.” Well, there are times when you need to do that. Isn’t it the premise of stranger-danger? Who are you to teach me morals?!
What if I don’t interpret that? There is no right answer to literature; it’s all up to the reader. So, the theme is just as vague and general as the literature itself. Don’t put anything in the students’ head; let them figure out and justify their own thoughts.
A motif is a recurring image, symbol, theme, character type, subject, or narrative detail that becomes a unifying element in an artistic work.
Pretty abstract, I know. I would always tell my kids it is an image or abstract concept from the story that you notice comes up over and over again and helps you to understand more about the theme. That’s the key part: it helps to develop what you observe about humanity. So, does the tree on the corner help you to understand humanity, or is it just setting? In this context, they typically grasped motif just fine.
So, what have we learned?
A theme is a general observation about humanity. A motif is any reoccurring thing, concrete or abstract, that helps you to better understand humanity and/or the theme.
Simple, right? Yeah. My ninth graders got it every year. I still had kids slip up because they always remembered the old way and I was rewiring them. However, when I had them identify and analyze theme or motif, they were 80% successful with these definitions and examples.
I recommend you address these other Literary Devices to help your kiddos, too!
So, what do you think? Does this make sense on a definition scale? Is it teachable? Is there another way that you teach it? Comment below and on our social media about it. And, if you’re a writing teacher who loves to creatively write (or teach creative writing), I advise you sign up for my bi-weekly Writer’s Wisdom newsletters for tips, tricks, prompts, and free access to creative writing. Give it a try!
Thank you so much for this explanation. As a junior, this is something I’ve been trying to work towards for the past year or two, and looking at it this way helps it make more sense.
One off-topic question (Not to argue over, I’m just curious):
“though most hated it because the students struggled. Yeah, there was more tension with parents about grades, but I did see a drastic shift in kids’ writing ability.”
How did you handle grading/tests for this type of stuff? I know personally that getting my behind kicked in English has made me improve, though my teachers wouldn’t grade stuff as hard that they knew everyone in the class struggled with.
From a student’s perspective ‘is this knowledge worth the drop in GPA….’ as bad as that sounds….
Hello, Jason. I’m so glad this helped! I tried to make it as clear as possible, but let me know if you still notice any ambiguity.
Regarding the grading, I always make sure I make my expectations and rationale (why I’m doing this) overt in the beginning. Then, I make sure to offer various resource, practice, and tutoring opportunities so students don’t have to struggle.
As far as whether it’s worth it, that depends on how much you need a particular skill in the future. We use concrete knowledge as a way to teach skills. Theme, itself, isn’t really important. But, being able to read between the lines and infer/interpret a deeper meaning is a critical skill. We do the same thing when we have to gauge emotional situations and psychological defense mechanisms.
It’s just a matter of priority and whether you want to master the skill or not. I teach my kids how to master it, but expect few to do so. However, working at that level pushes kids to work harder and improve, like you mention is the case for you. I find that in my class, at times, a C would be the equivalent of a B elsewhere. Which meant, when the kid left my class, (s)he is more prepared and continuously does better in later classes.
Excellent question. 😃