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We’ve all seen them time and again, but you might not know what they’re called or what they really do. Never fear! In this lesson, you’ll learn all about leitmotifs and get to see them employed in some famous literary examples.

Literary D;j; vu: Leitmotif Defined

Have you ever seen the movie The Sixth Sense? If you have, maybe you remember seeing the color red pop up again and again. You might’ve thought ‘Isn’t there a lot of ‘red’ in this movie?’ or, perhaps more importantly, ‘Why do I keep seeing it?’In reality, M.

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Night Shyamalan included the color intentionally through the film to indicate that characters in the scene are actually dead; even though they might appear perfectly healthy. In literature, such recurring images, actions, words, or other often metaphorical elements that contribute to the narrative are known as leitmotifs.Originally, the German leitmotiv (‘leading motive’) was used to describe repeated thematic melodies in larger musical pieces – particularly the imaginative symphonies of Wagner.

German author Thomas Mann, however, adopted the term to refer to individual elements of a story that authors used repeatedly to contribute to the overall telling of the tale.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) may have adopted this musical term because he noticed so many recurring elements in his own literary works.
Darkness in Heart of Darkness

If you couldn’t tell from the title, darkness is a prevalent theme in this novella by Joseph Conrad. Over the course of the story, Conrad regularly employs the leitmotif of physical darkness to illustrate this theme. It’s seen everywhere: from the gloomy weather of England and France, to the impenetrable canopy of the Congo. By continuously repeating the appearance of physical darkness, Conrad can use this as metaphor for the prevalence of the darkness he finds in the imperialistic practices represented in his work.

‘Tiger’ in Death in Venice

The author who adapted the term’s use for literature was himself a prolific user of leitmotifs. In his Death in Venice, Thomas Mann uses several examples of leitmotif to flesh-out his narrative – some of them quite subtle. For instance, the recurrence of the word ‘tiger’ appears only three times in the novella; however, these three appearances are at crucial points in the plot’s development.

The first and second occur when the protagonist Aschenbach imagines vacationing in an exotic locale (India) but settles on closer foreign coasts (Italy). The word is last seen when Aschenbach realizes that he did not have to ‘go to the tiger,’ but it instead came to him in the form of a virulent strain of cholera imported from India.

The Ghosts of A Christmas Carol

Many of the leitmotifs and metaphors in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be a little transparent, but some are a bit more complex than they first appear. For example, we’re all familiar with the three Ghosts of Christmas who sequentially haunt Scrooge; however, you may not know that these specters are a leitmotif essential to the protagonist’s character development! Not just a representation of time, these Ghosts symbolize Scrooge’s memory and reason. Ultimately, his ability to recall the sharing of joy and warmth, as well as his capacity to rationally foresee the consequences of his present actions are what redeem Ebenezer, making him a new man by the novel’s end.

Robinson Crusoe‘s Desert Isle

When Daniel Defoe dropped Robinson Crusoe on his desert island in 1719, little did he know that it would become an extremely popular leitmotif! Although commonly found in individual works, leitmotifs can also recur in an author’s entire body of work or even across multiple pieces and authors of a genre. The Robinsonade, for instance, is a fiction genre which is based on the continued use of the setting from Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe’s island, then, has become a quintessential leitmotif in this genre of so-called ‘desert island fiction.’ Since the 18th century, authors have employed this recurrent setting element as a metaphor for separation – from civilization and even from oneself.

The desert island leitmotif has even found its way into popular films like Castaway, starring Tom Hanks.
Movie poster for __Castaway__

Summary

Leitmotifs are recurrent (often metaphorical) elements in literature that contribute to the overall structure of a narrative.

The German leitmotiv was originally used in music to describe repeated melodies in a larger piece; however, the term was adapted by Thomas Mann for use in literature.Leitmotifs are commonly associated with an author’s theme, but they can also contribute to the development of a narrative’s plot, characters, or setting. These literary devices may recur within a single work, or might be seen across an entire body of work or genre (i.e.

desert island setting of the Robinsonade).

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