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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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This idea has had so many uses, and has figured so
variously in different terminologies, particularly during
the modern period, that it can best be approached by
way of its semantic history and lexical record. At the
outset we must note that “motif” is a gallicism, thereby
set apart from the broader implications of its English
cognate “motive.” Ruskin always used the anglicized
expression; but, unlike later writers on the plastic arts,
he broadened and blurred its meaning: “the leading
idea of a composition,” “a leading emotional purpose,
technically called its motive” (Modern Painters,
1843-60). Others have complained that the term
“motif” sounds pedantic (Krappe, 1930); but folklorists
especially have preferred it, perhaps for that very
reason, because they have come to employ it in so
technical a sense. Etymologically, the word is derived
from the Latin verb movere (“to move”) in its past
participial form, motus. This, as Ducange indicates,
formed the basis of the late Latin adjective motivus
(“susceptible to movement”), and hence of the medie-
val noun motivum (“cause” or “incitement”). Thus
“motive” and its related forms in Western languages
originally meant a stimulus or source of movement.
Gradually their connotations shifted from the physical
to the psychological sphere, in effect from motion to

That shift is well illustrated by the Oxford English
when it points out that until the nineteenth
century Englishmen habitually spoke of “acting on a
motive” rather than of “acting from a motive.” To
internalize the reason or reasons for any given action
was to open the way for what Coleridge called
“motive-hunting,” and to make the concept of motiva-
tion more widely available for psychology as well as
ethics. Here the German motivieren seems to have
adumbrated the verbal form, leading on to the English
“motivate” largely through the influence of Gustav
Freytag's well-known analysis of dramatic techniques,
Das Technik des Dramas (1863). La Rochefoucauld had
been concerned with internal springs of behavior, as
usual, when he observed that a motive was not an
excuse (Un motif n'est pas une excuse). This remark
maintains a sharp French distinction between psycho-
logical awareness and moral justification, which would
be neutralized by the purport of the more popular
maxim, “To understand everything is to forgive every-
thing” (Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner). What
might be termed the traditional definition of motif,
which stands alone in the Dictionnaire de l'Académie
through the fifth edition (1798), emphasizes
moving in both senses: “That which moves and leads
to doing something” (Ce qui meut et porte à faire
quelque chose

It was not until the sixth edition of its dictionary
(1835) that the French Academy was willing to recog-
nize a more specialized use of motif in relation to
music: “the melodic phrase, the original idea that
dominates the whole piece” (la phrase de chant, l'idée
primitive qui domine tout le morceau
). This follows by
two generations the Encyclopédie (1765), which of
course was more advanced in its outlook. It had de-
voted a substantial article, written by Baron Grimm,
to a wholly musical definition oriented toward eigh-
teenth-century opera—going so far as to declare that
motif, “the main idea of the aria” (l'idée principale de
), was “what constitute[d] musical genius most
particularly” (ce qui constitue le plus particulièrement
le génie musical
). This usage had its natural birthplace


in Italy, where motivo long had signified the basic
segment of a melody. Music, because of its quasi-
abstract character, offers the clearest examples of
motifs as structural elements, which are built up into
finished compositions through sundry devices of repe-
tition, modulation, variation, and orchestral elabora-
tion. Therefore it has frequently served as a model for
other arts. The systematic employment of such devices
to convey associated ideas, and consequently to provide
a sort of choric comment on the action of a music
drama or symphonic poem, has been the Wagnerian

Now Wagner, though an eloquent exponent of his
own methods, made no mention of that word; his
personal term was Grundthema (“basic theme”).
Leitmotiv seems to have been coined and popularized
by his critical apostle, Hans von Wolzogen, whose
book, Die Nibelungenmythos in Sage und Litteratur,
was published at Berlin in 1876—the year that saw
the completion and Bayreuth premiere of Wagner's
tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. In spite of the
farflung reverberations to this event, it cannot be
claimed for Wagner himself that he originated his most
characteristic device. Mozart had occasionally re-
peated musical themes to bring out dramatic situations,
notably with the Statue in Don Giovanni, and Berlioz
had lately dramatized his orchestrations by inter-
weaving certain phrases which he referred to as his
idées fixes. However, Wagner became the most influ-
ential exemplar, not only for musicians but also for
men of letters, of the creative artist who utilizes motif
as the unifying feature of his work. It can be argued,
and will later be amplified, that motif has a place of
its own in literary structure which goes all the way
back to oral literature. Nonetheless it is true that many
leading writers of the earlier twentieth century, deeply
immersed as they were in time-consciousness and a
state of synaesthesia, have made conscious efforts to
echo and emulate Wagner.

Thomas Mann indeed has distinguished between the
early phase of his own stylistic development, which
was more rhetorical in its reiterations, and the thematic
musicality of his more mature style (“Lebensabriss,”
1930). He has often acknowledged his debt to Wagner,
as in the story Das Wälsungenblut, where a decadent
incest of contemporary Munich finds its mythic parallel
in the sibling love between Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Similarly, in The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot quotes from
Tristan und Isolde, while Joyce's Stephen Dedalus—
wielding his ashplant—self-consciously cries out
“Nothung,” the name and the Leitmotiv of Siegfried's
sword. More eclectically, the streams of consciousness
in Ulysses sometimes flow through Leitmotive from
other composers: e.g., the duet from Don Giovanni,
which is sounded at the threat of impending adultery.
But the echoes that make up so much of Ulysses,
though they range from Stephen's scholastic reading
to the advertising copy of Mr. Bloom, come primarily
from printed sources; the most poignant of them is the
remembered title of a monastic tract on remorse of
conscience, Agenbite of Inwit. Proust, though he was
likewise an enthusiastic Wagnerite, invented a com-
poser of his own, the long neglected and suddenly
discovered master Vinteuil. A “little phrase” from
Vinteuil's imaginary sonata furnished the accompani-
ment to Swann's love for Odette, even as Marcel's for
Albertine is orchestrated by a posthumous septet.

When Proust created a synaesthetic frame of refer-
ence for his great novel, he alluded even more to
painting than to music. In both modes of artistic com-
position, the spatial along with the temporal, rhythm
is imposed by the recurrence of some distinctive kind
of figuration. Motif is thus equally germane to the
plastic arts, where it is most obviously discernible in
architectural design and stylized decoration. Some of
the older definitions, stressing the formal component,
allow for this dual application. But there is a larger
conception, as Ruskin sensed, in which an overtone of
“motive” is still present: i.e., underlying idea or final
cause, insofar as it applies to the intentions of the artist,
be he a musician or a painter. Such an enlargement
seems to have been reinforced by the subjective
nuances and the individualistic viewpoints of the im-
pressionist movement. It is significant that F. W. Fair-
holt's Dictionary of Terms in Art (London, 1854) char-
acterizes Motif as “a term lately introduced into the
vocabulary of Art,” whereas it is altogether omitted
from James Elmes's earlier Dictionary of the Fine Arts
(London, 1826). When the emphasis falls on pictorial
representation, critics have shown a tendency to locate
the motif in the subject represented. This is all the truer
of iconology, the study of art history that interprets
visual images in the light of the ideas they symbolize.


Motif, considered as a critical concept, seems to have
enjoyed its longest and fullest relationship with
German literature. That may be attributable, in part,
to the strategic significance of the rich treasury of
household tales collected and edited by the brothers
Grimm. Their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Berlin,
1812-15) constituted both a major landmark in the
newly developed science of philology and—as aug-
mented and systematized by the wide-ranging com-
mentaries of Bolte and Polívka (1913-32)—an indis-
pensable instrument for analytic inquiry into the
world's repertory of narrative. Appropriately, looking
far beyond the boundaries of romantic nationalism, it


was the cosmopolitan Goethe who first brought motif
within the purview of literary criticism, during his
conversations with Eckermann on 18 January 1825. It
may strike us as peculiarly prescient that this conver-
sation should have dwelt on Serbian poetry, in view
of the affinities that Milman Parry and others have
more recently established between the Homeric epic
and Serbo-Croatian oral literature. Here, as not infre-
quently elsewhere, Goethe was expressing certain
friendly reservations with regard to Schiller, who did
not—his friend felt—take sufficient pains over his
motifs. “The true power and effect of a poem consists
in the situation,” Goethe affirmed, “—in the motifs
(... aber die Wahre Kraft und Wirkung eines Gedichts
in der Situation, in den Motiven besteht
...). The
apposition would seem to reflect the interrelationship
between the formative and the responsive conception.

Goethe's enormous prestige was bound to prevail
with those among his compatriots who addressed
themselves to the problem. The most determined of
these was Wilhelm Scherer, whose solid and serious
contributions to literary history were rounded out by
a posthumously published outline of his poetic theory
(Poetik, 1888), wherein he accorded due attention to
the general study of motifs (Allgemeine Motivenlehre.)
“What is a motif?” (Was ist ein Motiv?) he asked, and
answered: “An elementary, unitary part of a poetic
matter” (Ein elementarer, in sich einheitlicher Theil
eines poetischen Stoffs
). Scherer speaks more generally
and more vaguely when he equates motif with idea
or ethos, or when he calls for a canvass of motifs as
“a full portrayal of human thought and deed” (eine
volle Schilderung menschlicher Denkens und Thuns
His practical attempts to enumerate or classify Die
boil down to a handful of rudimentary instances
from the Bible or classical mythology: the fratricide
of Cain, the matricide of Orestes. Goethe's famous lyric
about the land of lemons and oranges (Kennst du das
) is naively categorized, not under its nostalgic
theme of longing for the south (Sehnsucht nach Italien),
but within the academic pigeonhole of botany. Some-
thing like a unitary reduction is proposed, however,
and some concern is manifested for the difference
between a principal motif (Hauptmotiv) and a subordi-
nate one (Nebenmotif).

Less mechanical and more suggestive were the aes-
thetic speculations of the geistesgeschichtliche philoso-
pher Wilhelm Dilthey, who was deeply interested in
the impact of experience on the growth of the poet's
mind. His approach, like that of so many thinkers
following Goethe, focussed on the organic growth of
the individual psyche rather than on the tools and
materials of the poet's craft. Yet, when he came to
formulate his notions about the creative imagina
tion—his own foundations for a poetics, according to
the subtitle, Bausteine für eine Poetik—he was ready
to acknowledge the importance of the stuff with which
the poet actually worked. Under the heading of Stoff
he gave first consideration to Motiv, recognizing that
its function could not fully be understood until it had
been collectively examined. “The number of possible
motifs is limited, and it is a task for comparative litera-
ture to trace the development of single motifs” (Die
Zahl möglicher Motive ist begrenzt, und es ist eine
Aufgabe der vergleichende Litteraturgeschichte, die
Entwicklung der einzelnen Motive darzustellen

[Dilthey, 1887]). The statement that limits motifs to
a finite number opens up the possibility that they might
be usefully surveyed, enumerated, and classified. The
invitation to trace them individually is one to which
comparatists have responded somewhat literally at first,
then with a more skeptical reaction, and since the
mid-twentieth century with a heightened degree of

The need was for a methodology which could bridge
the gap between invention and tradition, between the
personal talent of the imaginative writer and the in-
herited store of material that he has drawn upon and
reshaped. A well-informed and stimulating effort to
face that need was made by the Russian scholar,
A. N. Veselovsky, through what he termed “Historical
Poetics.” In a course of lectures, “Poetics of the Sub-
ject” (Poetika sujetov), delivered in 1897 and published
just after his death in 1906, he addressed himself to
a central aspect of literature which is usually either
taken for granted or else ignored. Subject has too often
been identified with the amorphous notion of content,
only to be impaled upon the dilemma of its false oppo-
sition to form, and consequently neglected by form-
minded critics. Veselovsky demonstrated the formal
properties of sujet (the Russian term is borrowed from
the French) by showing how it could be broken down
into structural units. In short, it was “a complex of
motifs,” while motif was defined as “the simplest nar-
rative unit that responds with an image to the differ-
ent demands of the primitive mind or of everyday
observation.” The originality of the insight lay, not in
its application to the primitive mind, but in its sugges-
tion that the proclaimed results of everyday observa-
tion—such as the realistic novel—could be reduced to
the simple constituents of the fairy tale.

It would be a long time, however, before there was
wide acknowledgment of the fact that Balzac and
Dickens were mythmakers as well as social observers.
And, if realists balked at the implication that their
firsthand human documents somehow managed to fall
within a storied pattern, romantics were in no mood
to accept the assumption that the potentialities of


human experience came to something less than infinity.
Veselovsky's formulations were eked out by a massive
sequence of citations from philology, anthropology,
folklore, and comparative religion; but it has taken
about two generations for literary history to catch up
with him. To be sure, the notion of subject matter
(sujetnost) is formalized whenever we speak of plot:
not just the story or situation but the links in the chain
of events, what is known in Hollywood as “the story
line.” Now a plot in England had originally denoted
a piece of ground; then it became a chart or layout
of that ground; thence it was generalized into any plan
for construction or design for action—not infrequently
villainous, a complot. It enters into the critical vocab-
ulary as a ground plan for drama or narration. There
are meaningful contrasts in the Greek word for plot,
mythos, or the Latin fabula, which seems much more
didactic, or the French intrigue, which has sexual or
conspiratorial echoes, or the German Handlung, which
sounds so businesslike.

The dramatic medium, because it depends so overtly
on construction, has always lent itself most readily to
analysis in terms of structure. Comedy, most self-
evidently, from Menander through the Commedia
to Molière and onward, has gained its effects
through standard plots, stock characters, and set gags
or lazzi—a bag of tricks which might otherwise be
described as a collection of motifs. It was asseverated
by Count Gozzi, whose own plays were influenced both
by fairy tales and by the Italian scenarii, that there
were no more than thirty-six elemental situations for
the stage. Schiller protested against this reductionism,
but, on Goethe's challenge, found himself unable to
count as many (Eckermann, 1836). A handbook for
would-be playwrights by Georges Polti circulated
widely under the title The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situa-
(1912). A more searching exploration of this ques-
tion, by the Sorbonne aesthetician Étienne Souriau, has
produced a sober monograph entitled Les Deux Cent
Mille Situations dramatiques
(Paris, 1950). Round
numbers are suspicious, and the exact figure is not
important. The point is that, numerous as the compo-
nents of storytelling may be, they are not innumer-
able—even with a liberal allowance for modification
and recombination. The Victorian governess in The
Importance of Being Earnest
differs almost totally from
the Nutrix of Plautus or Terence, yet functionally both
exist to act out the same motif: the identification of
a long-lost infant.


Literary historians were more used to dealing with
chronological than with thematic relationships; literary
critics were more preoccupied with the peculiar char-
acteristics of individual writers than with the common
body of narrative effects; hence they were both slow
in meeting the challenge to develop a Motivenlehre.
The philological quest for sources and analogues, the
researches of medievalists in registering the cycles of
romance helped to make an academic pursuit of
Stoffgeschichte—the German compound seems more
appropriate than the endeavor to translate it into
“thematology.” The Italian comparatist, Arturo Graf,
traced such legendary themes as the earthly paradise
and the devil; but this direction ran counter to the
principles of Croce, whose opposition to comparative
methods was grounded in his ideals of organic expres-
sion. The Francocentric school that had its organ in
the Revue de littérature comparée made much less of
parallels than of influences, and reserved its friendliest
scrutiny for the tracing of synchronic currents and
international movements. The programmatic survey of
Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature (1949),
summed up a widespread reaction: “Stoffgeschichte is
the least literary of histories.” That dictum has worn
thin because it stemmed from the narrowly formalistic
assumptions that the stuff of art is mere content, that
subject matter is somehow less relevant than technique,
and that disparities are somehow less revealing than

Meanwhile scholars had learned to look toward
fiction that was anonymous, traditional, and preliterary
for a clearer paradigm of the elements involved. Clas-
sicists like Sir James Frazer and some of his Cambridge
colleagues turned to anthropologists for the light that
ritual had to cast upon mythology. Early collectors of
folklore had been antiquarian hobbyists, recording local
survivals, or travelling amateurs, reporting home from
primitivistic explorations. But, as collections accumu-
lated from all over the world, more scientific ap-
proaches were devised for comparing the lore, for
taking note of its ethnical permutations, and for chart-
ing its geographical diffusion. Those investigations
found their polyglot center in Helsinki, whence an
authoritative series of communications has been issued
under the imprint of the Folklore Fellows. The original
German version of the pioneering classification and
bibliography by Antti Aarne, The Types of the Folktale,
was first brought out in 1910; twice revised, translated
and enlarged by Stith Thompson, in 1961 it contained
some 2340 entries. These are ordered into five major
categories, and subdivided further into a total of thirty-
two lesser ones: e.g., Animal Tales: The Clever Fox.
Aarne's scheme, arrived at by an empirical sifting of
northern European material, fits in equally well with
a wider range of Anglo-American data, as his reviser
affirms. Motifs, in their singleness, tend to be more
universal than the tales they constitute, which are more
closely identified with their respective regions.

On revision, some motifs have been raised to the


status of types, where a tale may hinge upon one salient
trait or underlying situation. Where its subjects over-
lap, it may prove hard to classify. Consequently, the
distinction had to be sharpened between the theme,
wherein motifs are brought together, and the motif
itself as an indivisible unit. Here the Finnish systemati-
zation and the tentative insights of Veselovsky were
pushed further by the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp
in his Morphology of the Folktale (Morfologia skazki,
1928). Based on the standard collection of Russian
popular tales by A. N. Afanasyev (1855-64), even as
the commentaries of Bolte and Polívka were based on
the compilation of the Grimms, it was more selective
and rigorously analytic, rather an organon than a
compendium. Propp was able to atomize motifs with
precision and objectivity by redefining them as func-
tions (e.g., interdiction, violation, gift, test) of the
dramatis personae (hero, villain, donor, helper). These
were identifiable by sigla, which could be simply ar-
ranged to tabulate the composition of any given fairy
tale, and thereby to demonstrate a basic uniformity
in the process and the elements of construction. Propp's
techniques, though they have had wide impact, did not
receive much recognition in Soviet Russia until re-
cently because, at a time when Socialist Realism drew
the strictest ideological lines, they savored of For-
malism—an ironic circumstance, in view of the for-
malistic objections lodged against Stoffgeschichte. But
the notion of motif had meanwhile been critically
refined by one of the Formalists, Boris Tomashevsky.

The past generation has seen the emergence of a
Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, an exhaustive inventory
which lists and classifies incidents drawn from over
40,000 tales, myths, fables, romances, ballads, jestbooks,
exempla, and other modes of narration. This has been
the monumental work of Stith Thompson, an American
scholar trained in medieval English philology, who
prepared himself by studying the lore of the Amerin-
dians and by translating and supplementing the more
limited monograph of Aarne. Thompson uses the
Western alphabet as the outer framework for his list-
ings, which allows him twenty-three classes (I, O, and
Y being omitted to avoid confusion). These are ordered
in a spectrum which ranges “from the mythological
and the supernatural toward the realistic and some-
times the humorous” (1955). Lest it be inferred that
imagination can conceive no more than twenty-three
kinds of activity, the terminal letter Z is left to stand
for miscellaneous addenda. Logically enough, the
inaugural letter A stands for accounts of the Creation,
along with the gods, the cosmos, etc. B covers animals,
including totemism; then C moves on to tabu; and D,
the largest category, is consecrated to magic. The
sequence is filled out through E, the dead; F, other
marvels; G, ogres and witches; H, tests and recogni
tions; J, wisdom and folly; K, deceptions; L, reversals
of fortune; M, judgments, bargains, promises, oaths; N,
luck; P, social; Q, rewards and punishments; R, captives
and fugitives; S, cruelty; T, sex; U, homiletic; V, reli-
gious; W, traits of character; and X, humorous.

This adds up to a conspectus of diverse fortunes and
attitudes which, in the contrasting perspective of
Dickens or Balzac, might help to distinguish the varia-
bles from the constants of human nature. The way in
which the digits fall into place behind the letters indi-
cates the relation between genera and species. Thus
the siglum D 1420 has to do with all cases where
“Magic object draws person (thing) to it,” and there
are about sixty items in the following decade, plus
cross-references. D 1421.16 states an elementary case
where “Magic ring summons genie”; D 1421.5.1, where
“magic horn summons army for rescue,” is slightly
more complex; examples may be sought in the Arabian
or in Grimm. Varying the motif of musical
conjuration, D 1427.1 (“Magic pipe compels one to
follow”) has its famous exemplification in the story of
the Pied Piper, while D 1426.0.1 (“Magic objects help
hero win princess”) is exemplified by an Indian tale—as
it also might have been by Mozart's Magic Flute. One
primary subdivision, X 700-99, “Humor Concerning
Sex,” is left virtually blank, with suggested numberings
near the middle for jokes concerning courtship and old
maids, as well as a note that obscenity is beyond the
scope of the undertaking at hand. This itself would
seem to be a somewhat old-maidish evasion. In his
Rationale of the Dirty Joke the pornographologist
G. Legman has undertaken to fill in the lacunae; but,
significantly, he finds that the space allotted is insuffi-
cient for the missing decades.

Yet the Motif-Index, on the whole, is impressive in
its comprehensiveness, and especially in its linkages of
evidence from East and West, exotic and familiar. Its
taxonomy has already been extended to more literary
spheres, such as that of the novella. In the labelling
and the ordering of topics, it could well be refined upon
by the stricter analysis of Propp. Moreover, with the
motif as with the atom, there is always bound to be
a certain methodological doubt as to the ultimate point
at which the least common denominator may or may
not have been reached. On the analogy of “phoneme”
or “morpheme” as units of sound or verbal structure,
terms like “mytheme” or “narreme” have been pro-
posed to designate the primary segments of myth or
narration. If the suggested term “motifeme” wins
acceptance, despite its ungainliness, the inference may
be drawn that motif itself is not finally an irreducible
element, that it can be further decomposed into what
might be regarded as a motif of motifs (Dundes, 1965).
At all events, it expresses its fullest significance not
in a disjunctive catalogue but in a structural context.


The latter has ordinarily been supplied by the flow
of events as narrated, a procedure which has lately
been labelled “syntagmatic.” The alternative that has
been introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss, which he calls
“paradigmatic,” is more speculative or intuitive. It
seeks an internal pattern which is often a polarity, a
folkloristic version of “the figure in the carpet.”


Proceeding by collection and induction, patiently
heaping up and sorting out enormous quantities of
specific instances, folklorists have developed their
analytic tools: a taxonomy and a morphology. Synthesis
was bound to be more problematic, and not less so
because most of it has been attempted within the
speculative realm of mythography, a borderland for
many other fields rather than a discipline in its own
right. Rather than the pursuit of particulars, it has
engaged in sweeping hypotheses, such as the derivation
of all mythology from solar myths or vegetation rites
or—more subjectively—from a racial memory or a
collective unconscious. The object lesson of Mr.
Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch, who so
vainly promised to give the world A Key to All
has not acted as a deterrent to would-be
mythographers. Some of them have sought to incorpo-
rate the totality of mythical episodes into the life-cycle
of one syncretic hero or heroine: Robert Graves in The
White Goddess
(London, 1948), Joseph Campbell in
The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York, 1956).
Joyce constructed a “monomyth” of his own in
Finnegans Wake, but that remains a unique literary
contrivance. Frazer had gathered his mythological
parallels from diverse cultural contexts, and functional
anthropologists have criticized him for his eclecticism.
Yet, though his Dying God may be a blurred composite,
Frazer retained a comparative awareness of the differ-
ences between Balder and Osiris.

The incidence of themes has provided arguments pro
and contra in the long debate concerning the universals
of human nature. A secondary topic of debate, among
those who accepted the principle of universality, was
the question whether its patterns were naturally in-
herent or had been diffused through transmigration
from a common origin. Answers today would be quali-
fied by an increment of pluralism and relativism. For
example, an anthropological study of fifty differing
cultures has shown that thirty-four of them tell an
analogous tale of the Flood (Kluckhohn, 1960). A two-
thirds majority is not quite the same thing as a universal
manifestation, but it is as high a degree of penetration
as any single motif is likely to reach. In a survey
designed to illustrate the dependence of myth upon
ritual, The Hero, Lord Raglan put together a kind of
conglomerate model for a heroic career, which consists
of twenty-two crises, turning points, or motifs (e.g.,
exile and return). By this scorecard he proceeded to
reckon with a sequence of mythical heroes, ranking
them by the extent to which they fulfil his enumerated
conditions. Oedipus gets the highest grade with twenty-
one, which may lend statistical corroboration to the
primacy he was accorded by Freud. Moses and Theseus
score twenty, Dionysos and King Arthur nineteen, and
so on. The fact that Hamlet would score five confirms
a general impression that the scale is inversely relevant
to the more sophisticated figures.

Jung expectably favored the concept of a universal-
ized Heldenleben, which was recapitulated in the de-
velopment of the individual personality; each stage had
its rite of initiation, but came under the patronage of
a different hero. Folklore, on the assumption that an
act presupposed an agent or an event a protagonist,
had recognized that a motif could be viewed as char-
acteristic of a persona. Literature is full of dramatis
personae who, often by retrospective simplification,
have come to be identified with some outstanding trait,
such as the quixotry of Cervantes' knight. Falstaff has
become the exemplary glutton, Shylock the extortioner
par excellence. Romeo is the eponymous patron of
every young lover, Benedick of every married man.
A person who brings bad luck is labelled a Jonah, one
who laments a Jeremiah. Victor Hugo (1864) seems to
have had in mind this habit of typification when he
described a hero as “a myth with a human face” (un
mythe à face humaine
). If a rounded characterization
can be reduced to a one-dimensional type, it is also
possible for one particular figure to typify various
things to varying men. The actions of Prometheus, his
relations with the gods and with mankind, may present
a more or less unchanging outline from Hesiod to
André Gide. But the very distance between those au-
thors suggests a vast alteration of meaning under
altered circumstances. To consider what others have
written about Prometheus—Aeschylus, Tertullian,
Calderón, Shaftesbury, Voltaire, Goethe, Shelley—is to
retraverse the history of Western thought (Trousson,

Literary variations on a given theme tend, of course,
to go beyond its more traditional versions. Yet the
elementary types, insofar as they continue to exist, are
destined to undergo renewal and change. Their poly-
valence is most strikingly evident in the rich body of
documentation surrounding the myth—which perhaps,
because it claims some historical roots, should be
termed a legend—of Faust. Here a highly elaborate
group of motifs is accumulated, recombined, and sub-
jected to displacements. As a rebel seeking forbidden
knowledge, Faust shares the Titanism of Prometheus,


not to mention the hubris of Lucifer or the curiosity
of Adam. If Faust is primarily a magus, that can be
an ambiguous role, for it embodies both the reverend
sage and the wily trickster. As the latter he has some-
thing in common with Odysseus, who was likewise a
restless wanderer, along with the Wandering Jew and
the Flying Dutchman. That restlessness, which led to
Faust's damnation in the Lutheran chapbook and
Marlowe's tragedy, furnished the very grounds for his
salvation in Goethe's philosophical drama. Changes of
the intellectual climate, between the Reformation and
the romantic movement, explain the displacement.
Faustianism, in the modern sense of endless questing,
had come to be regarded as a virtue. Hence the eternal
voyager of Tennyson's “Ulysses” stands closer to
Goethe's Faust than to his Odyssean prototype, who
ended happily in his own kingdom. The thematic
charge has been transposed from homecoming to

The legend of Don Juan, almost contemporaneous
with that of Faust, has had more than five hundred
reincarnations. The title of the original play by Tirso
de Molina makes explicit how the two principal motifs
were joined together: The Trickster of Seville and the
Guest of Stone
(El Burlador de Sevilla y Convivado
de Piedra
). Don Juan was originally more of a practical
joker than an incarnate philanderer, and his libertinism
had as much to do with freethinking as with free love.
His unrepentant blasphemies propelled him to Faust's
destination, hell; but there are belated and romanti-
cized reinterpretations where, like Goethe's protago-
nist, he is redeemed by womanly love. Redemption of
this sort is a motif, applicable in both cases and de-
scribable in anonymous terms, whereas myth or legend
always has a proper name or at least a local habitation
which it gains from the identity of a hero or concrete
situation. Thus Jean Giraudoux's Amphitryon 38 im-
plies that it has been preceded by thirty-seven earlier
dramatizations of the same myth, whereas the motif
known as “the bed-trick”—also involving the covert
substitution of a sexual partner—is differently handled
by Boccaccio in The Decameron and by Shakespeare
in Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well.
The sad story of Pyramus and Thisbe is a myth,
whether celebrated by Ovid or burlesqued by Shake-
speare. Its motif is the lovers' tryst in the tomb, to
which Shakespeare has given such poignant treatment
in Romeo and Juliet.

Most erotic motifs are triangular, though the di-
lemmas vary from the fabliaux of cuckoldry to Paolo
and Francesca (or Tristan and Yseult). The reduplica-
tion of personae, in the external shape of twins or
mistaken identities, produces farcical situations for
reasons which Bergson has probed. Internalized within
the psyche, it takes on the somber guise of the Double
or Doppelgänger, whose shadow falls so memorably on
the pages of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Poe, Dostoevsky, and
Stevenson. Such avatars can easily be traced, since
criticism has already found them a category. But motifs
are not invariably manifested through plot and charac-
ter; they can be connected with place or time: a
haunted house, a flashback to childhood. Further ques-
tions may arise over the interrelation of motif and
theme. Croce's usage is loosely synonymous, as when
he refers to the motivi of Shakespearean drama (1920).
Critics and historians of art, who speak of motif with
regard to the choice of subject (e.g., a hillside in
Provence), use theme to indicate the manner of treat-
ment (as it would differ between Cézanne and Van
Gogh). Ernst Robert Curtius (1950) seems to follow the
artistic rather than the literary practice, taking Motiv
as the objective factor but making Thema the personal
coloration. Clearly there is wider agreement on the
more technical term. It might be a prudent compro-
mise to save “motif” for the more precise applications,
while employing “theme” as the generic conception,
the catchword for the critical approach.


The stuff of folklore and of mythology resides in
collective tradition, where the actual medium of com-
munication is incidental. They can therefore be con-
sidered in the aggregate, through Thompson's index
or Roscher's lexicon. Sights and sounds and words, on
the other hand, are things in themselves, so that artistic
composition must be approached on a concretely indi-
vidual basis. In music and the visual arts, as noted, the
elements of design are apparent to ear and eye. Litera-
ture, however, offers signs or signals to be decoded
before significant patterns emerge. Yet, just as soon as
it presents a text, it invites a scrutiny of the internal
arrangements. A motif can be as slight as a single word,
so long as that word is repeated in meaningful contexts.
Shakespeare, as a concordance will help to show, made
effective use of key words in many of his plays. Con-
sider the strategic importance of “grief” in Richard
“space” in Antony and Cleopatra, “nature” in King
or “art” in The Tempest. Key phrases, applied
more formally by the Homeric epithet or the Anglo-
Saxon kenning, have been a feature of the epic from
its earliest manifestation. Parry has demonstrated the
functional part that was played by these formulae
under the conditions of oral delivery. Many of them
were metaphors, such as the Old English hronrād
(“whale-road”) for sea, and they enlarged the literal
narration by projecting it onto a figurative plane.

Classical rhetoric had included various figures of
verbal repetition: e.g., anaphora, where the same word


introduces a series of sentences. An acute practitioner
of modern stylistics, Leo Spitzer, in Motiv und Wort
and numerous subsequent studies, looked for psycho-
logical clues to the styles of particular writers in un-
conscious rather than deliberate repetitions. Psycho-
analysis meanwhile was generating motifs of its own,
the Freudian complexes and the Jungian archetypes.
The Freudians, through their journal Imago, and par-
ticularly through the monographs of Otto Rank,
brought their apparatus to bear upon literature. But
most of them were primarily concerned with bringing
out the idiosyncrasies of a writer's personality, whereas
the Jungians sought to probe more deeply into the
common sources of imaginative expression. The English
critic, Maud Bodkin, has exemplified this method by
disclosing the archetypal pattern of Paradise/ Hades
in such poetic creations as Kubla Khan. Jung himself
(1964) virtually equated motifs (“single symbols”) with
archetypes (“primordial images”), asserting that it was
characteristic of either to remain unchanged while its
representations varied. Such conceptions are brought
back into a more formally aesthetic sphere by Northrop
Frye in his updated poetics, Anatomy of Criticism
(1957), where motif is defined as “a symbol in its aspect
as a verbal unit in a literary work of art,” and a poem
itself as a “structure of interlocking motifs.”

The current interest in symbolism, converging from
many viewpoints and from different disciplines, has
conferred a new and central significance on motif.
Poetry has always relied upon it, to be sure, in control-
ling its metaphorical structures—an implicit tendency
which became explicit through the international influ-
ence of the Symbolistes and their recent descendants.
Since metaphor attains its extra dimension by the pro-
jection of images, poets of the past could now be
fruitfully restudied by retracing their characteristic
trains of imagery. It is revealing to note that the title
of a pioneering essay in this field by Caroline Spurgeon,
Leading Motives in the Imagery of Shakespeare's
(1930), finds its operative phrase in the
English equivalent for the German Leitmotiv. Professor
Spurgeon's book, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It
Tells Us
(1935), is comprehensive in its tabulations,
charts, and statistics; but it utilizes that rich material
to sketch a conjectural portrait of Shakespeare himself,
rather than to illuminate his artistry as others have
done, notably Wilson Knight and Wolfgang Clemen.
The continual interplay of brightness and darkness in
the language of Romeo and Juliet, the morbid tropes
of appetite and disease throughout Hamlet and Troilus
and Cressida,
the allusions to horses and serpents re-
spectively attached to the hero and heroine of Antony
and Cleopatra
—in each case the image takes up the
theme and thereby orchestrates the dramatic action.

Readers of prose narrative are less inclined to per-
ceive symbolic implications in its free flow and mani-
fest content. Yet the early Christian readers of the Old
Testament reconciled it to the New by the device of
typology, finding prototypical precedents, and by the
doctrine of figura: e.g., the prefiguration of Christ in
the paschal lamb. Though the trend of the novel has
been predominantly realistic, it has been occasionally
faced with countermovements toward the allegorical
and the emblematic, as in the “romances” of Haw-
thorne. During the present century, indeed, the trend
has been all but reversed, under the impact of Joyce's
many-levelled narrations and Kafka's enigmatic para-
bles. But retrospectively it can be seen that the so-
called naturalists had their symbolistic side, most strik-
ingly Zola. Mario Praz has studied the sophisticated
fiction of the fin du siècle much as a folklorist might
study ballads, and has discerned the visage of La Belle
Dame sans merci
in the heroines of the eighteen-
nineties. Looking farther backward, to the heyday of
the realists, one could test the validity of Mircea
Eliade's remark that, despite its positivistic pretensions,
the nineteenth-century novel has remained “the great
repository of degraded myths” (1952). Thus the novels
of Dickens could be regarded as fairy tales about the
babes in the wood, encountering wicked witches in
protean disguises, while the focal point of Balzac's
work would be the motif of the youngest son who sets
out to seek his worldly fortune.

Recently a group of critics writing in French, several
of them living in Switzerland, has been addressing itself
to the reinterpretation of literature from a point of
view which is sometimes designated as phenomenolog-
ical, but which is also oriented to psychoanalytic and
surrealistic theories of dreams and the subconscious.
Their forerunner was Gaston Bachelard, the philoso-
pher who moved from science to poetry, endeavoring
to explore the workings of “the material imagination”
through a sequence of volumes on the four elements
(fire, water, earth, air) as these have been poetically
apprehended and expressed. The chef d'école would
seem to be Georges Poulet, who has expended both
subtlety and ingenuity in an effort to reveal how vari-
ous writers have been affected by their preconceptions
of time and space. He and his colleagues frequently
talk about structure, yet they seem practically more
interested in texture—and in inner depth, so far as it
is accessible. Deliberately disregarding the formal
aspect or the artistic intention of the individual work,
they seek to bring out the latent configurations of the
author's mind. The key they search for may be con-
ceived as a motif of sorts, albeit one which other
readers may find too elusive or subliminal. Here, as
elsewhere, much depends upon the tact and discern-


ment of the critic. The psychocritical contributions of
Jean Starobinski, further enriched by his background
in medicine and the fine arts, might be cited as effective

There have been some occasions when a genre has
been shaped by a theme (the voyage imaginaire, the
Gothic novel, the detective story). This has happened
more rarely with a motif, yet a striking instance is
afforded by the song of lovers parting at dawn. A
collaborative survey of such songs in fifty languages,
published under the auspices of UNESCO, well attests
the universality of the situation (Hatto, 1965). Within
one single tradition of special relevance, that of
Latinity through the Middle Ages into the modern
world, Curtius has magisterially shown how cultural
continuities have been sustained by means of topoi
(1948). Now a topos is a motif which takes the form
of a literary commonplace or rhetorical set-piece: e.g.,
the comparison between nature and a book or between
the world and the theater. Hence the idea that it
conveys has verbally crystallized. But the history of
ideas in themselves, in spite of their fluid nature, also
has its paradigms, which are inherent in Arthur Love-
joy's method of tracing the unitary or key idea through
a body of literary documentation which registers the
metamorphoses. Within the intellectual pattern out-
lined by The Great Chain of Being (1936), an evolution
is accomplished which reaches from the spiritual hier-
archy of the Neo-Platonists to the Darwinian struggle
for existence. “Yes,” as Alexander Herzen wrote in his
preface to My Past and Thoughts (1876), “in life there
is a predilection for a recurring rhythm, for the repeti-
tion of a motif.


Translations are by the author of this article unless other-
wise identified.

Antti Aarne, Verzeichnis der Märchentypen, Folklore Fel-
lows Communications 3 (Helsinki, 1910); The Types of the
trans. and enlarged by Stith Thompson, 2nd revi-
sion, Folklore Fellows Communications 75 (Helsinki, 1961).
Sven Armens, Archetypes of the Family in Literature
(Seattle, 1966). Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” Archivum
XXII (1938); trans. Ralph Manheim in Scenes
from the Drama of European Literature
(New York, 1959).

Gaston Bachelard, La Psychanalyse du feu (Paris, 1938);
idem, L'Eau et les rêves: essai sur l'imagination de la matière
(Paris, 1942); idem, l'Air et les songes: essai sur l'imagination
du mouvement
(Paris, 1943); idem, La Terre et les rêveries
de la volonté: essai sur l'imagination des forces
(Paris, 1948);
idem, La Terre et les rêveries du repos (Paris, 1948). Fernand
Baldensperger and W. P. Friederich, Bibliography of Com-
parative Literature
(Chapel Hill, 1950). Manfred Beller,
“Von der Stoffgeschichte zur Thematologie,” Arcadia, 5, 1
(1970). Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry: Psy-
chological Studies of Imagination
(London, 1934). Johannes
Bolte and Georg Polívka, eds., Anmerkungen zu den Kinder-
und Hausmärchen den brüder Grimm,
5 vols. (Leipzig,

Arthur Christensen, Motif et thème: plan d'un dictionnaire
des motifs, des contes populaires, des légendes et des fables,

Folklore Fellows Communications 59 (Helsinki, 1925).
Wolfgang Clemen, Shakespeares Bilder, ihre Entwicklung
und ihren Funktionen im dramatischen Werk
(Bonn, 1936);
idem, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (London,
1951). Benedetto Croce, Ariosto, Shakespeare e Corneille
(Bari, 1920), p. 105. E. R. Curtius, Europäische Literatur
und lateinisches Mittelalter
(Bern, 1948), trans. W. R. Trask
as European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New
York, 1953); idem, Kritische Essays zur europäischer Liter-
(Bern, 1950), p. 219.

Wilhelm Dilthey, Die Einbildungskraft des Dichters:
Bausteine für eine Poetik
(1887), in Gesammelte Schriften,
VI (Stuttgart, 1958), 216; idem, Das Erlebnis und die
Dichtung: Lessing, Goethe, Novalis, Hölderlin
1906). Eugene Dorfman, The Narreme in the Medieval Ro-
mance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structures

(Toronto, 1970). Alan Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore
(New York, 1965), p. 208.

J. P. Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten
Jahren seines Lebens,
Vols. I, II (Leipzig, 1836), Vol III
(Magdeburg, 1844), trans. John Oxenford as Conversations
with Goethe
(London, 1930), pp. 81, 85, 350. Mircea Eliade,
Images et symboles: essais sur le symbolisme magico-
(Paris, 1952), trans. Philip Mairet as Images and
Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism
(New York, 1961),
p. 11.

E. H. Falk, Types of Thematic Structure: The Nature and
Function of Motifs in Gide, Camus, and Sartre
1967). Elisabeth Frenzel, Stoffe der Weltliteratur: ein
Lexikon dichtungsgeschichtlicher Längschnitte
1962; revised ed. 1963); idem, Stoff- und Motivgeschichte
(Berlin, 1966). Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four
(Princeton, 1957), pp. 366, 77.

Arturo Graf, Il Diavolo (Milan, 1889); idem, Miti, leggende
e superstizioni del medio evo,
2 vols. (Turin, 1892-93).

A. T. Hatto, ed., Eos: an Enquiry into the Theme of Lovers'
Meetings and Partings at Dawn in Poetry
(London, 1965).
A. I. Herzen, Byloe i dumy, first published 1876; first com-
plete edition, 5 vols. (Berlin, 1921); My Past and Thoughts,
trans. Constance Garnett and revised by Humphrey Higgens
(New York, 1968), I, xliv. Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare
(Paris, 1964), p. 299.

C. G. Jung, ed., Man and His Symbols (New York, 1964),
pp. 53, 67; Wandlungen und Symbolen der Libido: Beiträge
zur Entwicklungs geschichte des Denkens
(Leipzig, 1912);
trans. as Modern Man in Search of a Soul by W. S. Dell
and C. F. Baynes (New York, 1934).

Clyde Kluckhohn, “Recurrent Themes in Myth and
Mythmaking,” in Myth and Mythmaking, ed. H. A. Murray
(New York, 1960). G. W. Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Essays
in Interpretation of Shakespeare's Sombre Tragedies


1937). A. H. Krappe, The Science of Folklore (London, 1930),
p. 1.

S. N. Lawall, Critics of Consciousness: The Existential
Structures of Literature
(Cambridge, Mass., 1968). G[ershon]
Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual
(New York, 1968). Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mytholog-
iques: Le Cru et le cuit
(Paris, 1964); idem, “The Structural
Study of Myth,” Journal of American Folklore, 68 (1955).
Harry Levin, “Thematics and Criticism,” in The Disciplines
of Criticism: Essays in Literary Theory, Interpretation, and
History Honoring René Wellek on the Occasion of his Sixty-
fifth Birthday,
eds. Peter Demetz, Thomas Greene, and
Lowry Nelson Jr. (New Haven, 1968). A. B. Lord, The Singer
of Tales,
Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24
(Cambridge, 1964). A. O. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of
(Baltimore, 1948); idem, The Great Chain of Being:
A Study of the History of an Idea
(Cambridge, Mass., 1936).

Thomas Mann, “Lebensabriss,” Die Neue Rundschau, 41
(1930); trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter as A Sketch of My Life
(Paris, 1930), pp. 30, 31.

Milman Parry, L'Epithète traditionelle dans Homère: essai
sur un problème de style homérique
(Paris, 1928). Georges
Polti, Les Trente-six Situations dramatiques, 2nd ed. (Paris,
1912), trans. as The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (Ridge-
wood, N.J., 1917). Georges Poulet, Études sur le temps
(Edinburgh, 1949), trans. Elliott Coleman as Studies
in Human Time
(Baltimore, 1956); idem, La Distance
(Paris, 1952), trans. Elliott Coleman as The Inte-
rior Distance
(Baltimore, 1959); idem, Les Métamorphoses
du cercle
(Paris, 1961), trans. Carley Dawson and Elliott
Coleman in collaboration with the author as Metamorphoses
of the Circle
(Baltimore, 1967). Mario Praz, La Carne, la
morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica
(Milan, 1930),
trans. Angus Davidson as The Romantic Agony (London,
1933). Vladimir Propp, Morfologia skazki (Leningrad, 1938);
Morphology of the Folktale, Publications of the American
Folklore Society, Bibliographical and Special Series 9, trans.
Laurence Scott and revised by L. A. Wagner (Austin, 1968).

F. R. Somerset, Baron Raglan, The Hero: A Study in
Tradition, Myth, and Drama
(London, 1936). Otto Rank, Der
Doppelgänger: ein psychoanalytische Studie
(Leipzig, 1925);
idem, Der Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage: Grundzüge
einer Psychologie des dichterischen Schaffens
(Leipzig, 1912;
1926). W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen
und römischen mythologies,
6 vols. (Leipzig, 1884-1937).
D. P. Rotunda, Motif-Index of the Italian Novella in Prose,
Indiana University Publications, Folklore Series 2 (Bloom-
ington, 1942). John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1843-1860),
in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, eds. E. T. Cook
and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London, 1903-12), VII,
217; III, 170.

Wilhelm Scherer, Poetik, ed. R. M. Meyer (Berlin, 1888),
pp. 212, 213. Étienne Souriau, Les Deux Cent Mille Situa-
tions dramatiques
(Paris, 1950). Hans Sperber and Leo
Spitzer, Motiv und Wort: Studien zur Literatur- und Sprach-
(Leipzig, 1918). Caroline Spurgeon, Leading
Motives in the Imagery of Shakespeare's Tragedies
1930); idem, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us
(London, 1935). Jean Starobinski, L'Oeil vivant: essai (Paris,
1961); idem, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: la transparence et
(Paris, 1957); idem, Portrait de l'artiste en saltim-
(Geneva, 1970).

Stith Thompson, The Folktale (New York, 1946); Motif-
Index of Folk-Literature: a Classification of Narrative Ele-
ments in Folk-tales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Ro-
mances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-books, and Local Legends,

6 vols., Indiana University Studies, Folklore series 108-10,
111, 112 (Bloomington, 1932-36); Folklore Fellows Com-
munications, 106-09 (Helsinki, 1932-36); revised and en-
larged edition, 6 vols. (Bloomington, 1955-58), I, 20, 21.
Boris Tomashevsky, “Thematics,” in Russian Formalist
Criticism: Four Essays,
trans. and ed. L. T. Lemon and
M. J. Reis (Lincoln, 1965); idem, Teoriya literatury (Moscow
and Leningrad, 1928). Raymond Trousson, Le Thème de
Prométhée dans la littérature européenne,
2 vols. (Geneva,
1964); idem, Un Problème de littérature comparée: les études
de thèmes: essai de méthodologie
(Paris, 1965).

V. N. Veselovsky, “Poetika sujetov,” in Istoricheskaya
ed. V. M. Zhirmunsky (Leningrad, 1940), pp. 494,

Leo Weinstein, The Metamorphoses of Don Juan (Stan-
ford, 1959). René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of
(New York, 1949), p. 272.


[See also Allegory; Ambiguity; Analogy; Criticism, Literary;
Harmony or Rapture in Music; Iconography; Literature and
Its Cognates; Motif in Literature: The Faust Theme; Myth;
Poetry and Poetics;
Style in Literature; Symbol and Sym-
bolism in Literature.