Motif Paper
LITR 495

First, a dictionary definition...from Merriam-Webster's online dictionary

Main Entry: mo·tif
Pronunciation: mO-'tEf
1 : a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts); especially : a dominant idea or central theme
Now a literary definition...
"In literature, recurrent images, words, objects, phrases, or actions that tend to unify the work are called motifs"
--C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon in A Handbook to Literature (6th ed.)
The motif paper is a short, analytical paper, of about four pages (not counting the appendix mentioned below), double-spaced. Your paper should produce an efficient condensation of your ideas that not only clearly identifies the motif you have chosen, but also clearly states what larger meaning you think is conveyed by the author in using this motif. The composition process should be divided up into two stages, as follows:

The Research Stage

1. Pick a recurring word or phrase (a color, an object, an action, an adverb, etc.) in one of the books we have read so far this semester. If you're not sure whether something is a motif or not, PLEASE ask me via e-mail or in person. This needs to be something specific (i.e., the word "Dead" in Song of Solomon or the word "father" in Arrow of God, or references to the color white in Invisible Man, the word "dream" in Devil on the Cross) not a larger category of things (i.e., names, colors, or animals in general).

2. Identify occurrences of this motif in the text briefly (for example, if you are tracing the motif of "invisibility" in Invisible Man, your first entry -- after the title, of course -- would read as follows: 1. First paragraph, pg. 3 -- occurs twice). This list should appear -- with proper page citations -- as an appendix at the end of your paper.

3. Examine the context of each appearance of your motif, and use these contexts to think about the meanings connected by the motif. As you do this, note such contextual details as to what/whom is the motif connected to within the sentence and/or paragraph in which it occurs? Is the application of the motif consistent -- i.e., does it always seem to happen at similar occasions and to the same character -- or does it vary within the book? In either case, ask yourself why this might be? Your notes and initial observations do not need to appear anywhere in the paper that you turn in, but you need to discriminate between more and less important occurrences of the motif at this point to determine which you will discuss in your actual paper.

Only after you have catalogued the various prominent appearances of the motif in the novel you have chosen to work with should you begin to write your paper. This stage should take anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, depending on the length of the book.

The Writing Stage

1. In your introduction, isolate the motif you will be discussing and state explicitly how and why you think it is used in the novel. State explicitly whether it is associated with individual characters or places. Also, state how and why you think this motif is brought to the readers' attention (i.e., why it becomes an intentionally repeated, and therefore significant, motif, rather than simply a coincidental detail).

2. Interpret your findings. Looking at several instances and/or clusters of associations of the motif, what points of contact do you find

among them? Having identified and interpreted the key instances of the motif, find the commonality among them and check your ideas against your understanding of the text. You can summarize overlapping occurrences of the motif, rather than enumerating each, but give page references for each mention. How does the motif work to reinforce some of the prominent ideas that you feel the author is trying to convey in the book? Organize your findings by the logic of your analysis, NOT by the order of appearance of the motif in the book. If you consider that the order of the motif's occurrence is important, make that a separate part of your report.

3. Include a separate appendix listing all mentions of the motif with page numbers in order of their appearance in the text.

General principles

1. The paper should be a kind of lab report, in which the occurrences of the motif within the text constitutes the complete data set. Your task in the paper is essentially to pick out the passages in which the motif occurs, select a number of the most prominent (i.e., meaningful, in terms of what you think the author is trying to get across in the book as a whole) and explain how the use of a single motif drives the process of conveying meaning along.

2. Whenever you cite text, interpret the cited passage and state what you think it demonstrates for your purposes. Do not assume that any particular interpretation is self-evident to your reader -- it is your task to defend your interpretation of this motif within the context of the book by demonstrating its function within the novel.

3. Avoid structuring your statements explicitly around what page your motif appears on ("On page 3, flying is mentioned" etc.). Such information belongs in citation parentheses, e.g. "Robert Smith wants to fly at the start of the novel" (2-3).

You may write about any of the novels that are assigned for the class this semester, but, obviously, if you choose one we haven't covered yet in class discussions, you'll need to have read the whole thing so you can be prepared to discuss its larger meanings. The paper will count for ten percent of your final grade and will be due in class on Tuesday, April 16. The remainder of the schedule for the final paper will remain the same, so that means you also need to be preparing for the paper proposal, which will de due on Tuesday, April 18. In other words, plan ahead and get some work done before you vanish for Spring Break. The motif paper can reasonably be completed in about five or six total hours of directed effort (i.e., not while watching television or eating dinner, but focused, intense work...), so plan accordingly. If you want to work on a motif that you think will be related to your final paper, that is fine with me, but you don't have to arrange it that way (it does make sense, though...).

As always, if you have questions, ask me early and often, in person or via e-mail (