Examining the Case Against The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Books are often challenged or banned schools when the contents are taken out of context. Read this article to understand the details behind one such novel.

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Left: Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Book Cover. Right: Photograph of Mark Haddon.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is a novel that follows Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. As per the title, the story is framed around Christopher’s attempt to solve the murder of his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington. Written in the first-person point of view, the book is portrayed as a documentation of Christopher’s quest to find Wellington’s killer while highlighting the advantages and pitfalls of his autism.

In addition to being an award-winning piece of literature that tugs at your heartstrings, it is notorious for its perpetual place on banned or challenged book lists across America. These bans and challenges are most frequently led by parents, primarily of high school students, whose distaste for the novel leads them to take action to remove it from public settings. Let’s examine the case against this popular novel.

A Quick Synopsis

The novel begins with the mystery of Wellington’s murder, for which Christopher is accused, but quickly escalates into something much deeper. While investigating the truth behind Wellington’s murder, Christopher incidentally reveals a great deal about his own past while giving the reader an insight into his internal reality and how he copes with the confusion of the outside world.

the Curious Incident of the Dog in the NIghttime Book Cover featuring read background and upside down silhouette of a poodle.

Christopher’s condition causes him to be unable to fully understand or connect with most other people and often leads him to become frustrated, frightened, or volatile in certain situations. At the same time, he has an impressive intellectual ability; he makes observations most people could not make or are too uncomfortable to acknowledge, and above all, he values the truth; lies simply confuse him.

Throughout the novel, Christopher is constantly challenged to go beyond his comfort zone, and he is forced to reassess his values and idiosyncrasies in the name of finding answers and granting forgiveness. By the end of the novel, not only does Christopher do what he set out to and more, but he also grows from the experience. By the end, he is better able to cope with his issues and how they affect his perception of the world around him.

Controversy Surrounding the Novel

Although it is not the original reason for complaints by parents and readers, the novel has been scrutinized for its inaccurate representation of a person with autism. While Christopher does exhibit characteristics of autism that are true to life, many critics felt the depiction was stereotypical, and Haddon himself admitted to never having done any research about the condition. Nevertheless, there are many fans of the novel who are also on the spectrum, and feel that in spite of these stereotypical depictions, the novel does a sufficient job of outlining the social and sensory difficulties that autism can create.

Author Mark Haddon pictured in black and white.

While Haddon may have fumbled with his lesser-educated depiction of autism, the main reasons for challenges against this book are due to profanity and atheism. While not the center of the novel by any means, it does contain a decent amount and variety of swear words and obscenity. Additionally, Christopher himself is an atheist, which becomes clear in his criticism of Christianity at certain points in the novel.

The Use of Profanity in the Novel

Throughout the book, there is a variety of curse words used in different contexts, situations, and by different characters. By a rough count, they appear upwards of twenty times over the duration of the story. Some instances seem harsher than others, but it is reasonable to conclude that any type of profanity would carry disapproval from parents. Several of the times in which this language is used, they are directed angrily toward Christopher.

Graphic of a dog being impaled with a gardening fork, as in the novel.

When Mrs. Shears stumbles upon Christopher just after he discovered her dead dog, she says, “What the fuck have you done to my dog?” (4). Later on in the story, Christopher’s father discovers the book that he had been writing about solving the mystery and exclaims, “Holy fucking shit Christopher, how stupid are you?” (81). He also proceeds to call him a “little shit” and rhetorically asks, “What the fuck am I going to do with you?” (82).

In addition to cursing in fits of rage, the book also contains cursing in more casual situations. The particular scene being referred to is one in which Christopher is walking through a train station and encounters several people and signs. These obscenities contain slightly more sexually explicit language but occur in passing as a result of Christopher’s observation and not as a result of a major plot point or of Christopher’s own actions.

The Representation of Christianity in the Novel

Christopher’s rejection and criticism of Christianity is another major gripe that parents have with the novel. In one instance, he is explaining where his name came from, and tells of a story about how St. Christopher had gotten his name because he carried Jesus over a river. He then says, “this makes you wonder what he was called before he carried Christ across the river. But he wasn’t called anything because this is an apocryphal story, which means that it is a lie, too.” He even expresses dislike towards the linkage of his name to that story, as he would rather it represent him than a moral of kindness and helpfulness (16).

light and dark depiction of a holy temple.

Not long after, Christopher is once again found putting down religious beliefs while speaking to a Reverend. Christopher believes that “…when [his] Mother died, she didn’t go to heaven because heaven doesn’t exist… I think people believe in heaven because they don’t like the idea of dying, because they want to carry on living, and they don’t like the idea that other people will move into their house and put their things into the rubbish” (32).

Context is Key: How Do These Controversial Elements Fit Into the Novel?

To address the inclusion of profanity in the novel, we must take a look at how it is used and by whom. In some of the earlier examples I gave, it’s evident that the majority of the profanity comes from the adults in Christopher’s life, if not from the outside world. In the instances I mentioned above, the use of harsh language is in aggression toward Christopher. In each of these cases, an adult in Christopher’s life was frustrated with him and reacted by hurling obscenities at him.

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher Boone holding letters surrounded by the company of The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime also holding letters.

Having read the entirety of the book on several occasions, I see this more as a way to indicate Christopher’s struggles and experiences to the audience and to paint a more accurate picture of adulthood than to encourage readers to use profanity. It is understandable that a parent would not want their child to use this language or be exposed to it, but it stands to reason that as adolescents, the primary audience for the novel, they would already have been. The inclusion of profanity says something about the world around Christopher, about the world that we live in, and is not intended as tasteless vulgarity.

As for Christopher’s criticism of Christianity, it is far more nuanced than Haddon simply hoping to promote anti-Christian beliefs. An integral aspect of Christopher’s character is his disdain for lies. It goes a step above morality, as Christopher’s entire perception of reality is extremely literal. Believing in a higher power is not grounded in physical reality but in a more mental, social, and cultural abstraction. Before making the comment about Heaven and death above, he also asserted that he could not conceive of Heaven being real because then “dead people would have to be fired into space on rockets to get there, and they aren’t, or people would notice” (32).

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher Boone laying on the body outline of a dog.

Death is a central aspect of the novel. After all, the story arises from the murder mystery of a dog and includes the supposed death of Christopher’s mother. Religion and death are essentially intertwined on a social and cultural level. However, Christopher’s perspective on religion is particularly unique because he doesn’t like metaphors, even if they are for morality and death. Not to mention the fact that he can only make genuine sense of things in physical and logical terms.

Even if it wasn’t simply an inevitable part of Christopher’s character for him to maintain this view of Christianity, his criticisms and insights are still technically valid. Religion truly does serve as a coping mechanism in times of uncertainty, whether or not Heaven is real. If that idea is enough to shake your belief — if the idea that we can’t blast dead bodies into space didn’t already convince you — then I’d be inclined to say the problem here is not anti-religious teachings. Besides, not every person or every reader necessarily holds the same religious beliefs. Books give us access to different perspectives on all kinds of things — including life and death.

While I can understand the cause for concern on behalf of parents, I ultimately believe that the reasons for challenging this novel fall short of its true value. This book has been challenged and banned at the high school level, but during my first read at fifteen years old, I fell in love with the story. It did not make me want to curse or hate Christianity; it made me laugh and despair, it showed me a new perspective, and it encouraged me to be more understanding of others.

If you liked this article, check out another one by the same author here!