Themes, motifs and symbols are all commonly discussed in English lessons – but students are often left confused on the exact definitions of these literary terms. They are central to any academic analysis however, so it is important to have a firm grasp of their function and meaning. I am frequently asked about the difference between motifs and symbols especially, and how to discuss these devices in essays. Consequently, I’ve put together a brief guide to these crucial literary elements, as well as examples of how to put them into practice. So, let’s get started.

What is a theme?

The theme of a novel (or poem, play, letter, diary… the list goes on) is simply the overall idea or message that the author is trying to get across. There can be more than one theme in a book, as well as major and minor themes – but essentially, these will consist of the overarching message expressed by the writer.

I will use The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as an illustration (as this is the current GCSE text I’m working on) – in which a major theme is the duality of human nature – and the potential for good and evil within us all. A minor supporting theme might be the importance of reputation in Victorian society – and how this might blur the lines between good and bad. Unusually, the key theme of duality does not emerge fully until the final chapter, when the complete story of the Jekyll-Hyde relationship is revealed.

For more information, practice and quotes on themes in Jekyll and Hyde, take a look at SENECA’s fantastic online module.

What is a motif?

Motifs help to explain and develop a novel’s central themes. If it’s a gothic text – this might include dark alleyways and constant secrecy. For a regency novel such as Pride and Prejudice, this may be the repetition of discussions on courtship and journeys – feeding into larger ideas about love, reputation, family and class. The key point is that motifs recur throughout a novel and help the reader’s understanding of the book.

Motifs in Jekyll and Hyde include violence against innocents, silence and secrecy, and urban terror. Violence against innocents (for example) helps develop the theme of good and evil within us all. Urban terror also develops this theme, but can also be used to discuss reputation – and the idea that even behind respectable city centre houses belonging to lawyers and doctors, evil can lurk. Stevenson frequently links the urban landscape of Victorian London and the dark events surrounding Hyde. Nightmarish imagery, in which dark, foggy streets twist and wind, create a sinister landscape befitting the crimes.

What is a symbol?

Motifs and symbols are easy to confuse – and not helped by definitions such as “symbols can be characters, settings, images, or other motifs that stand in for bigger ideas”. So a symbol is a motif, and a motif a symbol? Not so! Symbols help the reader understand specific ideas (not necessarily just the major themes) and generally occur only a few times throughout a text. For instance, the conch shell in Lord of the Flies represents civilisation and order, whilst Piggy’s glasses represent intellectualism and the fire demonstrates the boys’ descent into savagery.

Symbols in Jeykll and Hyde include Dr Jekyll’s house and laboratory. The scientific lab is described as a “a certain sinister block of building” representing the corrupt Mr Hyde, whereas Jekyll’s main house reflects his upstanding status, described as having “a great air of wealth and comfort.” An observer from the street can’t tell that the structures are two parts of a whole, just like Jekyll and Hyde. Similarly, Hyde’s physical ugliness and deformity symbolises his evil nature. The mask that Dr Jekyll is forced to wear at the end of the book reflects the “mask of respectability” that he’s hitherto maintained.

I hope this helps your writing, and understanding of Themes, Motifs and Symbols. Think of them like the set of concentric circles below…

  • Symbols represent specific ideas and help develop motifs in a text.
  • Motifs (as recurring elements within a novel) contribute to the overall themes.
  • Themes are the big picture. Ultimately, what is this book trying to get across?

Do get in touch with any questions, or to discuss themes, motifs and symbols in the books you’re currently reading – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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