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Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols


The Struggle to Become Independent

Christopher’s goal in the novel resembles that of many teenage protagonists in coming-of-age stories: to become independent and find his role in the world. Because of his condition, Christopher cannot be as independent as he would like. Since he has trouble understanding other people, dealing with new environments, and making decisions when confronted with an overload of new information, for instance, he has difficulty going places by himself. When he feels frightened or overwhelmed, he has a tendency to essentially shut down, curling himself into a ball and trying to block out the world around him. Christopher, however, still has the typical teenage desire to do what he wants and take care of himself without anyone else telling him what to do. As a result, we see him rebelling against his father in the novel by lying and disobeying his father’s orders. We also see this desire for independence in Christopher’s dream of being one of the few people left on Earth, in which no authority figures are present, and in his planning for college, where he wants to live by himself.

Christopher’s struggle to become independent primarily involves him gaining the self-confidence needed to do things on his own and moving beyond his very rigidly defined comfort zone. Solving Wellington’s murder figures into his efforts to be independent in that it forces Christopher to speak with a number of people he doesn’t know, which he finds uncomfortable, and it gives him confidence in his ability to solve problems on his own. The A-level math test also represents an avenue to independence for Christopher. By doing well on the test, Christopher can use the test to eventually get into college, allowing him to live on his own. Finally, Christopher’s harrowing trip to London serves as his greatest step toward independence. The trip epitomizes everything Christopher finds distressing about the world, such as dealing with social interactions, navigating new environments, and feeling overloaded with information. By overcoming these obstacles, he gains confidence in his ability to face any challenge on his own.


Christopher’s condition causes him to see the world in an uncommon way, and much of the novel allows the reader to share Christopher’s unique perspective. For instance, although the novel is a murder mystery, roughly half the chapters in the book digress from this main plot to give us Christopher’s thoughts or feelings on a particular subject, such as physics or the supernatural. To take one example, he tells us about the trouble he has recognizing facial expressions and the difficulty he had as a child understanding how other people respond to a given situation, explaining his preference for being alone that we see throughout the novel. As the story progresses, the book gradually departs from the murder-mystery plot and focuses more on Christopher’s character, specifically his reaction to the revelation that his mother never died but rather left the family to live with another man while his father lied about the situation. Throughout these events, the reader typically understands more about Christopher’s situation than Christopher does. When Christopher discovers the letters from his mother hidden in his father’s closet, for example, Christopher invents different reasons to explain why a letter from his mother would be dated after her supposed death. The reader, on the other hand, may recognize immediately that his mother never died and Christopher’s father has been lying to him.

Although the reader recognizes that Christopher has an uncommon perspective of the world, the novel suggests that everyone, in fact, has a subjective point of view. By giving detailed explanations of Christopher’s thoughts, the novel allows the reader to empathize with Christopher. Moreover, by pointing out the irrational behaviors of so-called normal people, such as Christopher’s father’s habit of putting his pants on before his socks, the novel implies that Christopher’s eccentricities are actually typical to a degree. As a result, the reader is able to take on Christopher’s perspective as his own and to understand Christopher’s reasons for behaving as he does. Christopher’s point of view loses its strangeness and seems merely unique.

The Disorder of Life

Christopher has an urgent need to see the world as orderly, and he has a very low tolerance for disorder. He obsesses over schedules, for instance, and even describes the difficulty he had going on vacation with his parents because they had no routine to follow. Moreover, because Christopher has such difficulty connecting to people on an emotional level, he relies heavily on order and logic to understand and navigate the world. The narration, as a result, frequently veers away from the main storyline to discuss topics, such as physics or even the rate of growth of a pond’s frog population, that have clearly defined and logical rules. When the narration moves back to Christopher’s life, the messiness of the social and emotional lives of Christopher and those around him becomes even more apparent.

Over the course of the novel, Christopher experiences a series of increasingly destabilizing events, such as learning of Mother’s affair and Father’s deceptions, revealing that Christopher’s narrow focus on order at the beginning of the novel actually keeps him—and the reader—blind to the complex tangle of relationships within his family. This disorder grows increasingly prominent as the story progresses. When Christopher leaves Swindon to find his mother in London, he becomes literally paralyzed at times by the disorder of the massive urban landscape he passes through, which symbolizes the disorder he faces in his family. The novel concludes with the various characters resolving some of their issues, but with their lives remaining essentially as untidy as ever.

Coping with Loss

Each of the major characters endures his share of loss in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The novel opens with a death: Wellington’s murder, which prompts Christopher to think back on an earlier moment of loss in his life—the death of his mother. At the time, he coped with his mother’s death by accepting that his mother was gone and moving on, in spite of the fact that he could not say goodbye before she passed. Later, he often remembers her in his writing, sharing detailed memories of her manner of speaking, dress, and temperament. Father also copes with the loss of his wife, Christopher’s mother, though he does so by breaking off contact with her and cutting her out of his—and Christopher’s—life, telling Christopher she is dead. Father’s feelings of loss arise again when Mrs. Shears ends their relationship, and he works through his loss violently by murdering Wellington, effectively setting the events of the novel in motion. Ultimately, the book ends as it began, with a death, this time of Christopher’s pet rat, Toby. Christopher copes by acknowledging that Toby lived a very long life for a rat, and he rejoices in the arrival of a new puppy, Sandy.


Frustration with Christopher

Many of the characters in the novel become irritated with Christopher at one time or another because of the difficulty they have communicating with him. Christopher has trouble understanding metaphors, such as the dog was stone dead. He also has difficulty with nonverbal forms of communication, such as body language, facial expressions, and even the tone of someone’s voice. He tends to take statements literally and requires very specific instructions in order to follow a command. He says, for example, that when people say “Be quiet” they don’t specify how long he should be quiet for. As a result, we often see characters struggling to make Christopher understand them since their ordinary way of speaking fails to communicate their meaning to him. These exchanges underscore how Christopher’s condition affects his social skills, and they emphasize for the reader the difference in perspective that Christopher experiences compared to the average person.

Science and Technology

Christopher’s frequent asides about science and technology, such as his fantasies of astronauts and space shuttles and musings about alien life forms and the workings of the human mind, recur throughout the book. Christopher feels most comfortable with subjects that he views as logical, such as physics and math. As a result, he thinks about these topics continually. But Christopher also displays a fascination with subjects that appear to him vastly greater in scope than human life, such as the relationship between time and space or the nature of stars, which he breathlessly describes as “the very molecules of life.” These subjects appear to allow Christopher to put his own life in perspective, helping him to cope with the difficulties he encounters on a daily basis.


Christopher often finds solace in interacting with animals and displays great consternation when he sees them harmed. He engages with animals so readily because he finds them easier to understand than people. An animal expresses its wants and needs plainly. Dogs, for example, growl when they feel threatened and wag their tails when they feel happy. Christopher can understand these simple visual cues. He even praises the nature of dogs early in the novel, saying they’re faithful and honest and more interesting than some people. Consequently, animals often serve as a foundation for trust between Christopher and other human beings. Christopher speaks with Mrs. Alexander in part because she cares well for her dachshund, Ivor. Later, after Father hits Christopher when he finds Christopher’s detailed record of his investigation, he takes Christopher to the Twycross Zoo to apologize, because he understands that Christopher will find the environment comforting. Animals also provide Christopher with the companionship he doesn’t find in other people, particularly Toby, Christopher’s pet rat, which serves as Christopher’s constant travel companion. When Toby dies, Father buys Christopher a puppy, hoping to rebuild his trust with Christopher and to provide Christopher with a new companion.


The Murder Investigation

Christopher’s book begins as a mystery novel about the murder of his neighbor’s dog, but as Christopher’s investigation progresses, it comes to represent Christopher’s search for the truth about his mother and father. As Christopher searches for clues about Wellington’s murder, he finds evidence revealing that his father has been lying to him about his mother’s death. Investigating Wellington’s murder becomes an excuse for Christopher to uncover the secrets that Father has kept from him, and Father’s deception acts as a crime in itself. Ultimately, we learn that Wellington’s murder and Father’s deception constitute separate parts of the same investigation. Father lied to Christopher in large part because of the feelings of loss and anger he felt when Christopher’s mother left him. When Mrs. Shears broke off her affair with Father, those same lingering feelings of loss and anger caused him to lose control and kill Wellington. Christopher’s search for the truth about Wellington essentially leads him to the truth about his mother and father.

Logic Puzzles, Math Problems, and Maps

Logic puzzles, math problems, and maps symbolize to Christopher the part of the world that is ordered and logical. Accordingly, Christopher uses these items as tools to organize his thinking, like when he uses the so-called Monty Hall problem to explain why his intuition regarding Mr. Shears has been wrong, and they serve as Christopher’s primary means of achieving a sense of security. These items recur continually throughout The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but they appear most often when Christopher encounters new information that he has not fully processed, or when he experiences a particularly confusing or disturbing event. When his thoughts become jumbled in the train station in Swindon, for instance, Christopher thinks of the visual riddle called Conway’s Soldiers to pass the time. He also regularly uses maps to navigate and achieve his goals. He uses a map when he searches the neighborhood for Wellington’s murderer, again when he attempts to find the train station in Swindon, and yet again in his effort to find Mother’s apartment when he arrives in London. In essence, these different items provide Christopher with a strategy to follow when a problem involves too many variables for him to reach a clear solution.

The A-level Test in Math

For Christopher, the A-level math test represents a way for him to validate and feel proud of himself. Because of his condition, Christopher is socially inept and attends a school for children with disabilities. But Christopher does not feel that the other children in the school are really his peers. His condition, while a handicap, doesn’t limit him to the extent that the other children’s disabilities limit them. Christopher recognizes this fact and also knows that he is exceptionally gifted in math and science, causing him to feel generally superior to his classmates. Christopher, however, seeks to prove this superiority, and the A-level math test gives him the opportunity. His preoccupation with the test in the later sections of the novel shows how much he wants the opportunity to prove his ability.

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What does Christopher cherish and value?
Chaos and creativity
Order and stability
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