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


The motif of copies and copying begins with the students themselves, who are clones copied from models in the outside world. Kathy later notices that the students at the Cottages copy their gestures and mannerisms from what they watch on television, and sees Ruth copy her idea of a perfect future from a magazine ad. These observations confirm for Kathy that the students are living in imitation of the real world. Copies reappear in Norfolk, where Kathy finds a copy of her lost tape after a disappointing search for Ruth’s “possible.” Yet although the students are copies, the novel ultimately speaks to their originality and individuality. For instance, Tommy’s imaginary animals are a counterpoint to the gestures of copying that Kathy observes at the Cottages. His drawings are intricate and surprising creations, difficult to interpret and highly compelling. In this way, Tommy’s drawings parallel the novel itself: Kathy’s narrative is not a copy, but a complex and compelling account that is deeply personal to her experience.

Pretending and Fantasy

This motif recurs throughout the novel, where most of the characters participate in some form of pretending or fantasy. Hailsham itself is an elaborate act of pretending, signaled by the “sham” embedded in its name. In order to shield students from their future, for instance, the Hailsham guardians refuse to speak directly about donations. Ruth’s childhood make-believe games at Hailsham are another form of pretending, a fantasy in which she has control of secret information that others do not. However, even fantasies at Hailsham reflect a shadow of reality: the imagined plot against Miss Geraldine reflects the students’ real fears about what lies beyond the walls of Hailsham, as well as their fears of losing the guardians who protect them. As they grow older, the students engage in various fantasies about the future, such as Ruth’s dream of working in an office and the rumored deferrals on donations. These fantasies become increasingly limited as time goes on, until Kathy is left alone with just the fantasy of Tommy on the horizon.

Read about the related theme of fantasy’s inability to overcome reality in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Lost and Found

This recurring motif begins with Miss Emily’s description of Norfolk as a “lost corner,” which causes the students to imagine that all lost property found in England winds up in Norfolk. The idea of finding lost objects in Norfolk is a childhood comfort to the students at Hailsham. It reassuringly suggests that if loss is inevitable, what is lost can always be found again. However, this fantasy becomes less compelling to the students as they grow older and begin to experience human loss. Although Kathy finds a copy of her lost cassette tape in Norfolk, it only awakens a wish to believe in Norfolk’s power. When Kathy returns to Norfolk after Tommy’s death at the end of the novel, she does so only to indulge one last time in the fantasy of recovering what she has lost. Ultimately, Kathy can recover her losses only in her memory and in her imagination.