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

Religious Imagery

Since its publication, critics and religious figures have often cited Bless the Beasts and Children as a work rich in religious imagery. Cotton bears many similarities to Jesus Christ, including his initials, and the Bedwetters have adopted the role of the Disciples. Despite others' scorn and jeers, Cotton remained faithful to his misfit Bedwetters. At the end of this book John Cotton sacrificed his life for the boys just as Jesus Christ did for his disciples. In addition, Cotton gave whiskey to his boys only shortly before his death, much as Jesus partook of the Last Supper with his disciples.

Popular Culture

Popular culture appears throughout the novel, in the form of Western movies, the latest radio hits, idiomatic expressions, and television programs. Westerns in particular have profound impact on the Bedwetters' behavior. They emulate the heroes of these films, and adopt their fashions, mannerisms, and expressions. In addition, the Vietnam War has made a significant impression on the group, and particularly on Cotton, who had watched quite a bit of footage of the war back at home. The general atmosphere around the country at that time had been one of turmoil, transition, and a questioning of established norms and authoritative figures and institutions. The boys absorbed this sentiment, and experienced these phenomena in their personal lives as well. In addition, a certain cynicism arose out of the expired or frustrated ideals of the 1960s. This novel reflects this disillusionment, while somehow simultaneously maintaining an acute sense of morality and hope.

Sense of Place

Swarthout vividly describes not only the physical traits of the land but also the general atmosphere and emotional effect of this land. The mystique of the American West, especially for these boys who have come from around the United States, represents a powerful force. Committing many pages to descriptions of the land, Swarthout invests the reader with an acute sense of place.

Tragedy and Comedy

This novel contains many bittersweet moments. Even Cotton's death at the conclusion of the novel both exhilarates and saddens the Bedwetters. While the characters often amuse the readers with their eccentricities and their banter, they also negotiate incredibly difficult issues. Without the comedic aspect of the work, the novel might have appeared overly self-righteous or self-conscious. Swarthout strikes a balance between these comedic and tragic elements to entertain, yet inform, the reader.