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.
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.