The terms trope, figure, theme, and motif are often used in literary studies and are important for writers in the discipline to know. Having a clear sense of the meanings of these terms will sharpen your critical vocabulary and improve your ability to articulate your ideas. 

Trope and figure both refer to figurative or metaphorical language (“Trope”; “Figure,” def. 5a).

Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 introduces the trope of bare trees as “ruined choirs,” which until recently had their own occupants: “late the sweet birds sang” there (257). 

The river in Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “By the River” could be a figure for time, which draws along “the willing and the unwilling” (101).

But figure also means a personage or character (“Figure,” def. 10), whereas trope does not have this meaning. Writers may get tripped up and mistakenly use trope when referring to a character.

The writer now known as Haki R. Madhubuti is the central trope in Rita Dove’s early poem “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream.”

To fix this error, simply substitute figure for trope.

The writer now known as Haki R. Madhubuti is the central figure in Rita Dove’s early poem “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream.”

A theme is a subject or topic in a work of art (“Theme”).

My essay takes up the theme of gender in Eavan Boland’s later work.

A motif is a type of theme, usually one that recurs, is essential, or embodies a dominant idea in a work (“Motif”).

The arid North African landscape is a motif in J. M. G. Le Clezio’s novel Désert.

Our class discussed the pearl motif in several paintings by Johannes Vermeer.

Theme may also refer to a writing exercise on a given subject.

“Theme for English B” is a poem by Langston Hughes written in the voice of a Black college student struggling with a writing assignment.

Works Cited

“Figure, N.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, 2023,

“Motif, N. (1).” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, 2023,

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Arden Shakespeare, 2004.

“Theme, N. (1a).” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, 2023,

Tranströmer, Tomas. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. Translated by Robin Fulton, New Directions, 2006.

“Trope, N.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, 2023,

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Michael Simon

Michael Simon is associate editor at the MLA. He received an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and a BA in comparative literature from Brown University. Before coming to the MLA, he worked as an editor for several academic publishers.