Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The “Ten Little Indians” rhyme guides the progression of the novel. The singsong, childish verses tell the story of the deaths of ten Indian boys and end with the line that gives the novel its title: “and then there were none.” A framed copy of the rhyme hangs in every bedroom, and ten small Indian figures sit on the dining-room table. The murders are carried out to match, as closely as possible, the lines in the poem, and after each murder, one of the figures vanishes from the dining room. The overall effect is one of almost supernatural inevitability; eventually, all the characters realize that the next murder will match the next verse, yet they are unable to escape their fates. The poem affects Vera Claythorne more powerfully than it affects anyone else. She becomes obsessed with it, and when she eventually kills herself she is operating under the suggestive power of the poem’s final verse.
Dreams and hallucinations recur throughout the novel, usually as a reflection of various characters’ guilty consciences. Dr. Armstrong has a dream in which he operates on a person whose face is first Emily Brent’s and then Tony Marston’s. This dream likely grows out of Armstrong’s memories of accidentally killing a woman on the operating table. Emily Brent seems to go into a trance while writing in her diary; she wakes from it to find the words “The murderer’s name is Beatrice Taylor” scrawled across the page. Beatrice Taylor is the name of Emily Brent’s former maid, who got pregnant and killed herself after Emily Brent fired her. Brent’s unconscious scrawl demonstrates, if not her guilty conscience, at least her preoccupation with the death of her servant. Vera Claythorne often feels that Hugo Hamilton—her former lover, for whose sake she let a little boy drown—watches her, and whenever she smells the sea, she remembers the day the boy died, as if hallucinating.