Motif (literature)

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The motive (French motif "motive power"; the medieval Latin motivum from Latin movere "move" motus "Motion") in the literature is, painting and music borrowed a narrative element, "a smaller material unit that still does not include a whole plot , a fable, but already represents a content-related, situational element ”.

The motif has an inner (structural) unity, but without specifying an action or a content. "It is [...] the elementary, germinable and combinable component of a substance", is a "chord", an "approach", without being "bound to fixed names and events [...]". For example, the motif of love for one's enemies can be found from the figure of the biblical Jesus to Werfel's novel Verdi , that of the crime that comes to light, from Sophocles ' Oedipus tyrannos to Hartmann von Aues Gregorius to Dostoyevsky's guilt and atonement , that of the man between two women from the figure of Abraham to Martin Walser's figure of Gottlieb Zürn in The Moment of Love or the motif of the enemy brothers from the biblical characters Cain and Abel to Romulus and Remus to Schiller's Die Räuber .

The content-related basic form of the motif can usually be described schematically, for example as a motif of the triangular relationship , the unknown homecomer or the doppelganger or the enemy brothers. The same applies to the type of motif, for example that of the loner , the bohemian , etc., as well as the space and time motif , for example that of the ruin , the race against time , visiting the underworld or recognition ( anagnorisis ), etc.

Concept history

The term motif comes from medieval scholarly language, in which the motif denotes an intellectual impulse or an idea or a suggestion that shapes the characteristics or properties of a speech .

In the 18th century the term was increasingly transferred to the musical and visual arts , initially in the field of musical art as a term for the smallest melodic unit of a musical composition . Towards the end of the 18th century, the term motif was also used in the technical language of the Italian painting schools to denote an ornamental or figurative element within a painting or work of art.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe introduces the concept of motif as an art-critical category in the field of literature, which includes both structural elements, such as the function of the motif for the structure of a literary work or text, as well as a fundamental anthropological interest with regard to the "phenomenon of the human spirit" touched.

Building on this, the Brothers Grimm also use the term motif in literary research and analysis; From the middle of the 19th century, the research branch of motif history was established in literary studies. The concept of motif is used here on two different levels: on the one hand with regard to the intrinsic structural analysis of texts, but also with regard to intertextual references.


While the motif is delimited at the top from the material , in whose concretization it only forms a building block, at the bottom it is delimited from the more general and arbitrarily conceived topic or, if this is related to figures , the type , but also the vivid one Icon or image .

In contrast to the material, the motif shows neither a continuity of action nor a fixation on certain people and also does not contain a narrative course of content. The motif generally differs from the theme, which is generally characterized by greater abstractness, in that it has more concrete forms of manifestation.

In German literary terminology, the term “motif” usually denotes the smallest semantic unit, while the material is composed of a combination of motifs and the subject relates to the abstract basic idea of ​​a literary work.

In English and American literary studies, on the other hand, the term motif has established itself alongside the more general term theme , which also includes the material, the topic, the idea or the content of a literary work.

The transitions between these terms are accordingly often fluid. For example, there is hardly any dividing line between the subject of jealousy and the type of jealous husband and the motif of the cuckold or cheated husband. If the momentum that triggers action that is inherent in a motive is no longer available, on the other hand, a theme such as jealousy can also melt into a simple (character) trait . The difference here is primarily made up of weighting and function: Even if Hoffmann's cat Murr has features of pride to a large extent, this pride, in contrast to Faust I , does not become the motif here.

Especially in lyric poetry , the motif can then be shortened to the edge of a picture , since the compact form of the poem is better suited to concentration and intertextuality. Thus the topos of the fountain of the biblical fathers' stories, which makes the watering place, similar to a locus amoenus , a place of love stories, but then with the sale of Joseph also transports the nuance of meaning of the prison, in Celan's poetry as well as Rilke's still as an image understandable rose as a motif.

Typical motifs

Some motifs are typical of certain types of literature , in others they do not or only rarely appear. Night, farewell or loneliness are typical motifs in poetry , killing of relatives and hostile brothers predominantly appear in drama , Lenore and the appearance of the beloved, believed to have died, are typical ballad motifs , while the ring rehearsal is typical of fairy tales (for example Allerleirauh ).

Edge / secondary motif

In addition to the central motif (also: core motif or main motif ) that runs through the text, the literature also knows the marginal motif (also: secondary motif or filling motif ), which has a decorative function, taken from the drama . With the figures of Melusine and Armgard in Theodor Fontane's Der Stechlin, for example, the motif of unequal siblings can be found, which, however, has no central function in the structure of the novel. Because of the little space that can be given to the secondary motifs to develop, the cultural or intertextual recourse to a fund of motifs that have already been handed down is all the more necessary.

In order to be understandable in its universality, the motif must therefore refer to a form of collective memory in which it is stored for general understanding . It is therefore also the smallest element of the narrative that “has the strength to maintain itself in the tradition”. The history of motifs is dedicated to researching the origin and development of such a tradition of a motif.

The "blind motive"

If a (secondary) motif fails and hinders the flow of the text or the plot or if a motif is set that contradicts another, this is also called a blind motif . A blind motive is therefore a "[...] distracting motive that is irrelevant for the course of action". A psychoanalytic interpretation of the motives (and not the colloquial 'motive' in the sense of a psychologized motive) is provided by Sperber and Spitzer as well as Körner. The narrowing down to a “general human basic situation” attempts a restrictive categorization, which then facilitates an interdisciplinary and cultural-historical comparison and thus comes close to the Jungian archetypes .

The leitmotif

If the motif has an urgent influence on the text, be it through an organizing intervention, be it through systematic repetition alone, it is also called a leitmotif . The exact aesthetic structure of the leitmotif, which is terminologically borrowed from music, is controversial. While “formulaic recurring certain word sequences” are not seen as sufficient to speak of a leitmotif, the requirement that a “dense symbolic motif fabric should be aimed for as a unity-creating principle” seems to be just as overwhelming as it is quantitatively imprecise. Mostly, however, leitmotifs have the function of bringing back the mood of previous situations. They also serve to clearly structure the text as well as the symbolic deepening and sometimes represent a kind of emotional memory in the literary text.


Portal: materials and motifs / bibliography

Web links


  1. Frenzel 1966.
  2. Frenzel 1962, V.
  3. Frenzel 1976, VI.
  4. a b Heike Gfrereis (Ed.): Motif . In: Heike Gfrereis (ed.): Basic concepts of literary studies . Metzler Verlag , Stuttgart and Weimar 1999, ISBN 978-3-476-10320-8 , p. 130.
  5. a b c d Christine Lubkoll: Motif, literary. In: Ansgar Nünning (ed.): Basic concepts of literary theory . Metzler, Stuttgart and Weimar 2004, ISBN 3-476-10347-1 , p. 184 f.
  6. (see Frenzel 1976, VII)
  7. Gero von Wilpert : Specialized Dictionary of Literature (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 231). 4th, improved and enlarged edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 1964, DNB 455687854 , p. 441.
  8. Lüthi.
  9. Wilpert 1979, 526.
  10. a b Killy.
  11. Wilpert.