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

The “Ten Little Indians” Poem

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

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.

Read about the similar role hallucinations play as a motif in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Animal Imagery

The narrator’s descriptions of characters in And Then There Were None repeatedly draw on animalistic qualities. Justice Wargrave is often described as a turtle. The most common physical descriptions of Philip Lombard are his wolfish smile and the way he moves like a panther. William Blore’s movements are slow and padding, “like a beast at bay.” Vera Claythorne draws into herself like a wounded bird. These animal comparisons intensify the longer the characters are trapped on Soldier Island, showing the corrosion of their humanity as their fear and suspicion rises.

When they begin to suspect anyone could be the murderer, the characters notice more feral aspects of each other as well. The more they humanize each other, the more they trust each other. Conversely, when they lose trust, they begin to see their fellow houseguests as dangerous and unstable. Vera even points out near the end of the novel that the house has deteriorated from polite society to a zoo.

Vera’s realization comes from referencing the nursery rhyme the murders follow, in which “three little soldier boys [are] walking in the zoo.” The poem has multiple references to animals as causes of death, and those animals turn out to be a human hand each time. The impression of a zoo is further emphasized by the fact that the characters are trapped together on the island, but they have the distinct impression of being watched. The disembodied voice from the gramophone at the very beginning of the novel introduces the idea that someone knows these people’s secrets, and that someone waits to see how they will react. The figurines disappear after each murder, even though no one can account for who takes them. The characters feel keenly that they are on display, unable to escape, and left without all the elements of society that allow them to maintain their humanity.