Literary Elements & Techniques
Literary Elements and Techniques in To Kill a Mockingbird
We will be focusing on several elements and techniques while we read TKaM. To better understand them, please be responsible for the following information.
An important note about "theme" and "motif":
They are NOT the same thing, as you will learn below. Unfortunately, many websites that students use to help them study literature give you INCORRECT INFORMATION. While searching for the THEME of a piece of literature, you will often be show MOTIF. This is a perfect example of, "Don't believe everything you read on the internet." Many of these sites use theme and motif interchangeably. THEY ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE. If you continue to perpetuate this, you will only raise flags that you not only did not think about the literature yourself, but you copied nonsense off the internet. A THEME is not one or two words; that is generally a motif. A theme is a STATEMENT. Two of the LARGEST websites that students use are both guilty of this SO BE AWARE.
- What exactly is the theme of a piece of literature? The theme is the main idea or message of the work. There may be more than one theme. In fact, there are often several. The theme of a work may be profound, difficult to understand, or intended to teach a lesson or point out a moral injustice. You generally need to read DEEPER than just the plot to understand the theme of a piece of literature.
- Why is the theme important? Theme is important for many reasons. It helps the reader understand part of the reason why the author wrote the work. It gives a richer meaning to the literature, allowing a deeper appreciation for it. Some feel the theme is important because it helps us connect literature to issues in real life and help us better understand the world and people in it, and become more compassionate towards others by forcing you to think about issues that may not directly affect you.
- How do I figure out the theme? And why can't you just TELL me the theme? There are several ways to help you discover the theme or themes of a piece of literature. The overall question is, "What is the author trying to TELL me in this work? What is the significance of what the author wrote?" Sometimes it's not easy to see that. Often you have to read the entire piece before you can start figuring it out, other times it becomes clear early on. Understanding and interpreting literary elements such as metaphor, symbolism, motif and characterization can help (however, we are NOT limited to only those!).
Sometimes we will point out a theme to students, but as you get older we like you to discover that for yourself. Reading literature is a personal experience, and different things resonate with different readers. Some things just stand out more to some than others. Two people can come up with two different themes and be correct...as long as they can back up their ideas with evidence from the text.
- How do those literary elements and techniques help me understand the theme? Think about the metaphors in the story...in The Cay (think back to 7th grade!), Philip becomes blind. His blindness is a metaphor for his inability to see someone for more than their skin color or position in society. The first night on the raft, when he can still see, he is startled when their bodies accidentally touch while sleeping. His racism towards Timothy is evident in many of the things he says as well. His blindness forces him to become dependent upon Timothy for survival, and because he literally can't SEE Timothy, loses his preconceived notions about him based on his skin color. Eventually he considers Timothy a friend and mourns the loss of his friendship when he dies. He regains his sight much later, after his rescue.
Also think about the characterization of Philip. He starts out as a young boy playing war games, scared, and angry with his mother. But by the end he is stronger, both physically and emotionally, climbing the elusive, tall coconut tree, and fishing near a shark-infested reef even though he is blind. He not only befriends a man his mother would certainly have disapproved of, but he credits Timothy with teaching him a great deal about life and survival. He is a dynamic character who undergoes great changes in the story. Using these two elements, we can say that a theme of The Cay would be something like this: Racism and prejudice can be overcome with education and a willingness to work together.
- What exactly is the theme of a piece of literature? A motif is a recurring object or idea in a work (such as water, shoes, fish). A motif can also be something abstract, such as an emotion or quality (such as love, hypocrisy, bravery or integrity).
- What is the difference between motif and theme? Motif is easily confused with theme. Remember: the theme is a larger statement or moral. A motif is a smaller idea that we see come up again and again in the book. A motif can be used to help develop or determine the theme.
- How do I recognize a motif? By reading. There aren't any shortcuts. Only by actually reading will you start to recognize continuous references to things like water, characters acting with bravery, discrimination or government oppression. It also helps to discuss literature with others. Avid readers often read something several times and claim they learn more each time they read it. I'm not asking you to do that...however, it is my hope that when you read for pleasure, you will reread your favorites and recognize new things each time you read it.
- How is a motif different than a symbol? Generally, a symbol is used two or three times, depending on the length of the work, and it often has a figurative meaning, not a literal one. A motif is something that is repeated throughout the story. Its meaning can be literal OR figurative. For example, in The Cay, Racism is a motif. It is demonstrated by Philip often in the story, especially in the beginning when he is questioning Timothy. It is referenced when we learn his mother is the source of his racial attitudes. It's referenced again when Philip asks Timothy, near the end, if he is still black. The coconut tree is a symbol. It is mentioned a few times in the story because they both long for the fresh milk and meat the coconuts can provide but Philip is the only one strong enough to climb the tree. Because of his blindness and fear, he initially resists but eventually climbs the tree and they feast on coconut and it becomes a valuable food source for Philip when Timothy dies. The coconut tree symbolizes the challenges Philip must face and overcome to survive.