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

The Desert

The desert is a predominant motif in the play, representing the promise of life outside the boundaries. The desert has an almost supernatural attraction for both brothers and their father. It is the representative of the old West and the myth of an uncharted, romantic American frontier where anything is possible, and where one can form a new identity. Going to the desert means officially abandoning the American Dream and the false hope it represents.


The more a character drinks in the play, the more honest he becomes. To begin with, the old man is a terrible drunk. Likewise, Lee begins the play drinking and ends it pouring beer all over his chest. While Austin avoids drinking for a good part of the play, he eventually gets drunk beyond all recognition. Drinking becomes a numbing device all the characters use to forget the pain of their life and the world in which they live.

The Old Man

The old man is an offstage character but functions more like a motif in the sense that he is omnipresent in the lives of the onstage characters. The old man serves as inspiration for the brothers' dispute and for their transformation of character. His influence on Austin and Lee is huge, as he serves as a model for them about how not to live a regular life. In the brothers' continuing quest for identity, their father is the chief model, a compelling force in both their lives.