Study Guide

And Then There Were None What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Agatha Christie

What's Up With the Epigraph?

Ten little soldier boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were Nine.

Nine little soldier boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were Eight.

Eight little soldier boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were Seven.

Seven little soldier boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were Six.

Six little soldier boys playing with a hive;
A bumble bee stung one and then there were Five.

Five little soldier boys going in for law;
One got into chancery and then there were Four.

Four little soldier boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

Three little soldier boys walking in the Zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were Two.

Two little soldier boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was One.

One little soldier boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself

And then there were None.

—Frank Green, 1869

The creepy nursery rhyme that serves as the epigraph for And Then There Were None actually goes on to foreshadow the entire story. Each of the stanzas in the nursery rhyme foretells the death of one of the characters:

  • Anthony Marston dies taking a drink, just like the soldier boy dies while “choking.”
  • Mrs. Rogers dies from being poisoned and is found the next morning, just like the little soldier boy who oversleeps.
  • General Macarthur is bludgeoned from behind when he goes out to the island to sit and watch the sea, just like the third little soldier boy goes to Devon and decides to stay.
  • Mr. Rogers dies when he’s chopping firewood for the household in the morning, just as the fourth little soldier boy chops himself in half while chopping sticks.
  • Miss Brent dies when she is poisoned via injection while sitting in the waiting room, just as a bee stings the fifth soldier boy. There’s even a bee floating around in the room when she dies. Nice little touch there, Wargrave.
  • Wargrave (supposedly) dies when he is shot while wearing his judge’s robes, just as the sixth little soldier boy goes in for law.
  • Macarthur dies when he drowns in the ocean after being pushed by Wargrave, just as a red herring swallows up the seventh little soldier boy.
  • Blore dies when he’s hit on the head by a bear statue, just like the eighth little soldier boy hugs a bear and dies.
  • Lombard dies when Vera shoots him with his revolver, just like the ninth little soldier boy gets frizzled up in the sun. (We guess…?)
  • And finally, Vera dies when she hangs herself while overcome with guilt for Cyril’s death, just like the last little soldier boy does.

If you read the nursery rhyme carefully enough, it gives you all the clues you need to predict the crimes, plus, if you read extra carefully, to even solve the whole thing. The “red herring” in the seventh stanza suggests that there is some trickery afoot: Justice Wargrave’s death is the “red herring” and he is the one who ends up killing Dr. Armstrong (or swallowing him). Justice Wargrave set up the murder mystery like a sick game: you have to follow the lines in the nursery rhyme and hope that you’re not too late in figuring out what it means.