Teaching the Dead: Themes v Motifs in TWD

Time for an English based lessons.

The difference between a motif and a theme.

I read so many “reviews” from journalists that confuse the two terms, and it drives me batty. As a high school English teacher, I am constantly teaching, retreaching, and correcting this concept with my own students, and I find TWD is a great means to teach the difference.

A motif is a reoccurring convention used in the work. It can be an image, an item, or an event that just keeps showing up in the show or the text. For example, time and timepieces in the show. You can count how many times a watch or clock is shown, or how many times the time is shown in the background. Starting from season 1 with Rick seeing the time 2:17 stopped on the clock in the hospital bed right up to Herhsall’s watch, to Dale’s Faulkner quote on time during the Fish Fry in season 2, time is always popping up. That is a motif.

A theme on the other hand is a message hidden within the work. I tell the students to say to themselves “The moral of the story is…..” and you have the theme. From the Walking Dead, a great example is the theme that permeated season 4 and some of season 5: “Can you come back?”

It’s important to note that a motif can be used as symbolism or to develop a theme. The motif of time, for example, is used to develop the theme that time is fleeting in this new world. Time is something they cannot accurately judge, yet it is something they are always aware of. The symbolism of the watches is important as well. Two “watches” were passed on – Hershall’s to Glenn, and Carol’s to Rick. Hershall’s watch was used to symbolize the future, time moving forward, passing on the mantel, so to speak, and family. Carol’s watch was used to symbolize moving forward as well, but by leaving the past behind – cauterizing it in a way (see “Consumed”).

The interweaving of motifs, symbolism and themes is what I find most interesting in the show and I love to analyze them.

Here’s a short list of motifs I’ve noticed in the show:
Time/time pieces
the color red (Morgan’s “I see red”, the red backpack, machete with a red handle)
amputations (too many to list!)
death of children (esp little blonde girls)
abuse (sexual or physical)
religion and religious artifacts and scripture (also a theme and at times a symbol)
overheard shots

And a short list of themes:
Time is fleeting
Redemption and Recovery (Can we come back from this? Can we move forward? Merle redemption before his death)
Guilt (Morgan’s guilt, Rick’s guilt)
Family (what makes a family?)
Moving forward from the past (burning the past)
Leadership (what makes a leader?)
Society and the attempt to rebuild
Growing up in the ZA
Keeping a sense of humanity
Survival and How Far You Go to Survive
The nature of evil (what is evil?)
Death of Hope/Innocence (death of children)
Biblical interpretation of the ZA

Obviously, the lists could go on and please feel free to add to it. I may be inspired to write and teach about it!


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