Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

The Chorus

As a number of critics have noted, O'Neill's so-called Greek plays a function according to a choral logic. Note, for example, the repetition and circulation of motifs among various voices, moments of counterpoint between multiple sets of characters, the choreography of their passing into and violently out of sleep, and the play's many songs. Critics often identify the choral aspect of O'Neill's work as one of the more expressionistic elements at work in his largely realist frames.

O'Neill's dramaturgy also distinguishes itself by the multiplicity of character voices. Hope's saloon serves as a sort of microcosm of down-and-out America, O'Neill's vocal arrangements showing tremendous range in accent, diction, and tone. Despite the appearance of many voices, or of "polyvocality," the play is quite monologic, revolving around the leitmotif of the pipe dream and its limited number of permutations. The play is formally conservative in this respect.

Death and Sleep

Early in the play, Larry quotes Heine's "Death and his Brother Sleep ('Morphine')." It opens by posing a "mirror likeness between those two shining, youthfully-fledged figures" of sleep and death. The play similarly begins with this likeness. The saloon is continually described as a "morgue" and "graveyard," and its pipe dreaming residents are dead to the world. In contrast, a kind of brutal waking death appears upon the demystification of the group's pipe dreams. By forcing his friends to kill their fantasies of tomorrow and face the reality of their desires, Hickey turns them into zombies or wax figures bent on mechanically drinking themselves into oblivion.

The Feast

Two celebrations occur in the course of the play. The first is Hope's birthday party in Act II—the occasion for Hickey's visit. The second is the "second birthday party" that closes the play. The first shows the characters as they begin to crumble under the weight of Hickey's gospel: each miserably pledges to act on their pipe dreams and almost come to blows with anyone who might deride their plans. Foreshadowing their imminent falls, this celebration takes on an ominously prophetic function. Cyrus Day argues that the party evokes the Last Supper with Hickey as its Antichrist. Larry imagines Hickey as the divine hand from the feast of Belshazzar that foretells the host's doom. The second party takes place after Hickey's arrest and declaration of insanity. It is a "second birth" of sorts as the removal of Hickey enables the group to revive their pipe dreams.

The Refrain

O'Neill's vocal arrangements often feature refrains, whether circulated among the group or located in a single character. The dominant refrain is Hugo's, who will intermittently rouse from drunken stupor to denounce the crowd, whine for a drink, and address the kingdom of Babylon. His occasionally mechanical quality, one that recalls a wind-up doll, prefigures the group's transformation into despondent, wax-like automatons upon the demystification of their pipe dreams. Hugo's refrain on Babylon will also give a unified voice to the group's delusions at the end of the play, when the group chants it jubilantly upon Hickey's departure and the revival of their fantasies. This refrain dramatizes how the pipe dream serves as the characters' "essential action."