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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time | Study Guide

Mark Haddon

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time | Context



The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is narrated by Christopher Boone, a teenager with self-described "behavioral problems" resulting from a condition that seemingly belongs on the autism spectrum, most likely Asperger's syndrome. Because of his disability, Christopher struggles to understand that people around him have their own minds, so at no point in the novel is he able to offer speculation regarding the thoughts or feelings of other characters. Because Christopher describes events exactly as they occur, without emotional response, the reader is required to fill in gaps of information, frequently understanding much more about situations than Christopher. Christopher likes familiarity and simplicity, which is reflected in his somewhat childlike sentence structure, particularly when he is feeling overwhelmed or stressed. He doesn't weigh down his prose with confusing clauses or literary devices, preferring short, declarative sentences.

Christopher's unwavering voice—declarative sentence after declarative sentence using a fairly limited vocabulary—could easily become repetitive and tedious for readers if not offset by brief, tangential chapters in which Christopher explains things that interest him, such as the main elements of a Sherlock Holmes novel, or an interesting math problem. Christopher uses prime numbers rather than cardinal numbers to label his chapters simply because he prefers them. Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and the prime number itself which makes sense thematically as Christopher only concerns himself with how events affect him.

Parallels to Sherlock Holmes

The narrator Christopher's favorite novel is The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), a Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about the legend of a supernatural, killer dog or hound. The crime novel stars famous detective Sherlock Holmes, who, like Christopher, views the world in an entirely logical, analytic way. Sherlock Holmes has little time for (or potentially understanding of) human emotion and focuses solely on logic, fact, and reason to solve crimes.

Modern literary scholars have debated whether Sherlock Holmes may have Asperger's syndrome, as well as whether it's ethical to assign a psychological diagnosis to a fictional character. Regardless of a formal diagnosis, Christopher's worldview clearly parallels Sherlock's, and Christopher admires the detective. The novel borrows many elements from the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, including the title and "red herrings" or false leads, which Christopher describes in the text.

Asperger's Syndrome and Its Controversial Portrayal in the Novel

Asperger's syndrome is a mild form of autism, a developmental disorder that affects communication and interaction, in which individuals live highly functional lives marked by unique characteristics. Most people with autism struggle with interpersonal relationships, exhibiting "serious deficiencies in social and communication skills." Characteristics of Asperger's syndrome as listed by the Asperger Autism Spectrum Education Services include:

  • difficulty recognizing facial expressions
  • difficulty developing friendships
  • inflexible adherence to routines
  • fascination with maps, globes, and routes
  • superior memory
  • sensitivity to environments: noises, clothing, food
  • difficulty understanding others' feelings

Because Christopher clearly exhibits characteristics of Asperger's syndrome, Mark Haddon is regularly asked to advocate for autism causes. He always refuses, claiming, "I know very little about the subject. I did no research for Curious Incident" and acting as an advocate would "completely undermine [the novel], and make me look like a fool."

However, this explanation wasn't good enough for many in the autism community, including journalist Greg Olear, who, in an editorial for The Huffington Post, claimed Haddon exploited the autistic community and waited six years to apologize for the Asperger's syndrome tie-in after maxing out his financial gains. Olear's criticism was echoed by Spectator reviewer Nicholas Barrow who called Christopher's portrayal "patronizing, inaccurate and not entertaining." In response Haddon states, "Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's ... I slightly regret that fact that the word 'Asperger's' was used on the cover. If anything it's a novel about difference." This apology was viewed as half-hearted and inadequate for journalists like Olear, who questioned, "Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's? Sure—and Moby Dick is not a book about a whale."

Critical Response

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was published as a crossover title, meaning the publishing house marketed the title to both traditional markets and young adults. Years earlier this approach wouldn't have been taken, but the wild success of English author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and English writer Phillip Pullman's Dark Matters series have made this type of marketing possible. The risk proved successful as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was popular with both audiences and won a range of literary prizes, including the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (adult fiction), the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. Despite the controversy over Christopher's condition, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time remains one of the most noted autism novels of all time, selling over five million copies and being adapted as a play, which premiered in the West End before going to Broadway.

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