Searching for Meaning: Literary Motifs & Close Reading

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Sometimes it's not just that kids don't know...they just don't care to hear one more time what teachers think about what or how a text makes meaning. We can teach them to care by making them the discoverers of their own understanding.

Sometimes it’s not just that kids don’t know, they are tired of hearing what or how the teacher sees the text making meaning. We need to teach them to care by making them the discoverers of understanding and the supporters of their own thought.


During the heydays of The Sixth Sense,  I spent countless hours marking the DVD at scenes where the image of red recurred. I asked students to pay close attention to the recurrence of red and after playing several short vignettes, I asked them what possible relationships they could infer between the repetition of the red and the corresponding action in the film. The room was pretty much silent. And when I showed them the discussions of producer and director regarding their conscious inclusion of red to indicate connections between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the students vehemently denied the possibility. They claimed that producers only positioned themselves as having designed the juxtaposition after finding the coincidence. As a teacher, I found their naiveté humorous, but dangerous to critical thinking. Moreover, I couldn’t understand their abject denial to thoughtful planning and deliberate choice on the behalf of professional writers.

The experience proved momentous to my teaching. I realized that although my students appeared to be sophisticated, they were unable to conduct what we now call close reading; they were unable to identify clear (much less subtle) and meaningful signals in a text. Even more importantly, I discovered they lacked motivation to use such signals to better understand the richness of the text. Their lack of analytical skills resulted in shallow readings and understandings of the plays and movies we viewed/read, as well as the books and poetry we studied and discussed. From that experience, I realized that students had to learn, on their own, the important effect of motifs (recurrent images, allusions, words, and actions) on an author’s message and a reader’s take-away.  AND they had to learn how to identify motifs independently–without my help. I set to work developing a project that would make them the discovers of a motif’s presence and meaning.

Teacher: Why do you think authors repeat images, expressions, actions or words?

Student: Because they forgot they had already said that.

Motifs of Macbeth: blood, birds, daggers & weapons

Motifs of Macbeth: blood, birds, daggers & weapons

I began my work by identifying a number of motifs in the text we were studying: Macbeth. In my own reading, I found countless references to blood, clothing, animals, drinking & feasting, motherhood & breastfeeding, books & pages & theatre, stars & planets, and several more. I shared with them my simple one-word identification of motifs. Then, I put them in groups for the work of analyzing how simple descriptions and references related to clothing, animals, drinking, etc., evolved from imagery to motifs across the text. Their task: as a group, students were to trace a single self-selected motif throughout the Macbeth text. First, they were to record every reference to each image and allusion that could be tied to the motif under study, citing the Act, scene, and line numbers. Once done, they were to write a statement of the motif’s role in each act analyzed, especially noting whether the role of the motif changed (as in blood, which begins in Act I as a thing of honor, but in the following acts, becomes related to murder and then guilt). In some instances, images supporting a motifs may be absent in an act. In those situations, I urged students to consider why the motif was not present: “Absence,” I always remind them, “is as important as presence.”

Contract format for image tracing with Macbeth project

Contract format for image tracing with Macbeth project

Once the entire play was scrutinized and the motifs were analyzed act by act, students were to determine how the images evolved over the course of the entire play and use that analysis to determine a central message or theme the motif supported. The actual assignment was a week-long project (much done outside of class) represented by a grading contract and culminating in a presentation with a handout that was useful for students and not just a throw-away (Macbeth: Image Tracing Contract Grading Assignment complete with scoring rubric).

Having had students discover for themselves the importance of recurrent images and allusions, they began to see motifs without my prompting. When reading Frankenstein, the students identified their own selected images for tracing and analysis, developing a list that ranged from creator vs. creation; birth, adoption, and abortion; broken promises; denial and rejection, and on and on. In our study of Romantic poets, the students were able to identify motifs as they were developed among individual poets and use those motifs as a means to identify authorship and support that authorship with citations from texts we had studied. The assignment became so popular, I extended it into other texts and other classes.  Though the efforts to increase student awareness of the power behind literary motifs began with the classic study of literature within the canon, the exercise grew to include contemporary literature as well and across all grades I taught.

In looking back on my career as a classroom teacher, I can easily identify the most empowering skill I taught to students on the path of independent thinking: identifying and analyzing recurrent features in a text. Though I could have easily laughed off my students’ assertion that authors repeat simply because they don’t remember, I used it as a learning experience and from that honed a series of lessons they enjoyed and took away as a life-long skill.

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