In literary studies, a motif is a central point, theme, or underlying subject of a story. The themes in a story are what lure the reader to continue reading, and what keep them reading through the length of the story. A theme may be presented by characters, plot, or language. A theme can be a philosophical idea, a commonplace observation, or even something seemingly meaningless. However, the theme or thematic content in a story can have a significant influence on the meaning of the work.
A theme is most often found in literature of the past century, especially in the writings of the era of the Gothic and Victorian writers. These themes tend to be psychological, but can also be physical. Physical themes include a person’s vision or desire, hope, guilt, love, rage, pain, and other human emotions. Although themes can be psychological, they can also be meta-thematic, that is, they are based on broader theories about human nature or the universe. Meta-thematic themes convey information that the reader cannot readily attain just from the plot of the story.
As mentioned above, themes can be psychological, but they can also be emotional. An emotional theme is most often found in literature about art or love. A theme involving pain, hurt, and suffering is most often found in stories about love. However, themes can also be based on personal experiences. For example, if one reader experiences recurring dreams of falling from a tall height, that reader may interpret those dreams as representing his/her ongoing feelings of insecurity and fear about growing up and being an adult.
In addition, it is important to remember that themes in literature do not all mean the same thing. For instance, a tragic event that occurs only once, such as the death of a loved one, will be easier to relate to than a series of repeated incidents of violence. Similarly, one poem by Sappho, where she describes the way her hero killed his own brother, is more relevant to her than a story about how her brother died in battle. Likewise, while a series of heartwarming quotes by Rumi about the love of God is relevant to a contemporary novel, it would not hold water were the opening quote in that work were “there’s no tomorrow.” Sometimes a single event in literature will be relevant for its own sake, and sometimes it will not.
Some of the most classic examples of themes and thematic material come from the timeless stories “The Brothers Grimm” and ” Hans Christian Andersen’s The Great Snowman.” The stories in these classic works are filled with amazing illustrations of what themes can evoke in different people. Take “The Brothers Grimm” for example. The brothers Grimm were master storytellers who each illustrated a unique theme related to human friendship.
In “The Brothers Grimm” Snow White and the seven dwarfs represent aspects of human happiness and joy, but also the sorrow of their separation from their true love. When the dwarfs come to visit, they destroy everything in sight, including the happiness of their queen, and when the mice steal the kingdom, they destroy the mice and everything in it. But when the king tells Snow White to mend the rift between her and the poor mule, she does, and they remain friends. Although these themes may seem to be about selfishness and exploitation at first glance, the underlying message of friendship will remain.