Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Christopher’s condition affects the way he connects and communicates with others. Although his IQ appears above average, Christopher’s experiences and interactions are very limited by his developmental disorder. In the first half of the novel, the majority of Christopher’s interactions are with people who know Christopher very well and understand his unique needs. Although Christopher’s father becomes easily angry, he builds his entire life around accommodating Christopher’s disorder and obviously has an inexhaustible supply of love for his son. Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher, is specially trained to help Christopher navigate the demands of life. Even Christopher’s neighbor, Mrs. Alexander—who does not play a major role in his life—seems to know him well enough to exhibit patience and adjust her expectations according to his condition. For the most part, Christopher does not socialize beyond this small handful of adults, and any exceptions tend to be catastrophic, such as when he is arrested for striking a police officer who touches him. Christopher’s social circle is extremely restricted for a fifteen-year-old boy, and these social limitations offer a glimpse into the limited opportunities he will likely face as an adult, despite his many talents, as the bulk of the population is ill-equipped to understand and accommodate Christopher.
The range of Christopher’s interactions expands when he travels to London by himself, and this journey underground offers a more vivid glimpse into just how harrowing the world can be to someone like Christopher, and how much the world misunderstands him. For example, Christopher has an extreme aversion to physical touch. At school and home, people accept Christopher’s aversion and know to keep their distance. Christopher and his father even develop a special “hug,” which involves holding up their palms and touching fingertips, like a secret handshake to show affection in a way that doesn’t upset Christopher. In public with strangers, Christopher resorts to barking like a dog to keep people away from him. When he rocks, groans, or hides on a luggage rack for hours at a time, people mock or yell at him. Although Christopher has loving parents and a highly trained, compassionate teacher, his journey to London demonstrates the obstacles he will face as he grows into an adult and seeks his independence.
Because Christopher struggles to understand his emotions and the emotional worlds of others, his worldview and means of expression rely almost entirely on logic. Christopher’s logic-based perspective both helps and hinders him in his murder investigation, as well as in his life. In the context of the investigation, logic helps Christopher analyze his observations and draw reasonable conclusions, like the fact that Wellington was probably killed by someone who knew him, and whoever killed Wellington had a personal grievance with Mrs. Shears, which turns out to be incredibly true. Furthermore, Christopher is gifted in mathematics and physics, and he believes these proficiencies will create opportunities for him in the future, such as attending university and becoming a scientist.
The challenges that come with Christopher’s extreme dependence on logic are evident when he processes difficult information. For instance, when his father tells Christopher that his mother died of a heart attack, the only emotion Christopher reports is surprise. He’s surprised because “Mother was only 38 years old and heart attacks usually happen to older people,” so he asks his father what kind of heart attack she had. In this extremely logical response, there exists a noticeable lack of what society would consider “normal” emotional reactions, such as sadness and anger, and the effect is eerie and disconcerting to the reader, as well as to Christopher’s father, who simply remarks it is not “the moment to be asking questions like that.” Nevertheless, Christopher’s logical approach to life also provides an interesting contrast to his parents, who often behave impulsively and irrationally, according to whichever emotion they experience in the moment. Although Christopher did not have the “appropriate” response to the news of his mother’s death, he would also never become so angry at someone that he would stab their dog with a garden fork. The contrast between Christopher’s and his father’s use of emotion and logic prompts the reader to rethink society’s expectations for our behaviors.
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.