The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time include observations on the dramatic irony at work in the play – ironically it’s not as simple as we may think – as well as the uncommon and common challenges of parenting, and the peeling away of labels.
Much of the emotional impact of both the novel and the play comes from the dramatic irony built into the perspective, where we know or understand more about what is happening than Christopher does. We either intuit the truth, or in the case of the play we often actually see more by how the other characters react, and we recognise when Christopher is misreading a situation. When his mother is in hospital, for example, and Christopher wants to write to her or visit, we appreciate that his hope is futile. The pathos we feel for Christopher comes from this dramatic irony.
As does the humour. Our understanding precedes moments when Christopher gets it and calls out the truth in unexpectedly plain terms. We’re set up for his punch line. For example when Mrs Alexander tells him that his mother and Mr Shears were “very, very good friends” – “Do you mean they were doing sex?” And of course throughout the play Christopher often responds inappropriately because he is not reading the situation as we conventionally are: “Did you mean to hit the policeman?” – “Yes”. Or when he asks Mrs Alexander to look after his rat Toby while he is in London, and she asks how long he is going for: “Until I go to university.”
Finally it is Christopher’s unique view of the world, his response to the usual flow of things that is so funny, engaging, and even challenging to our understanding. That’s also dramatic irony – where we think we know everything and in fact he shows us otherwise.
Connor Curren as Christopher,
UK Tour 2021-22,
We’ve all been there
When watching the play I had an even stronger alignment with Christopher’s parents than in the novel. This is partly to do with the perspective of the play which allows us to see them in the flesh so to speak, rather than just in Christopher’s mind. And of course as a parent what strikes me so powerfully is how hard it is for Ed and Judy. They have all of the usual challenges of being a parent, and then some. When they lose their temper or give up because Christopher is unreachable, we do not judge them as much as empathise with them. Who has not faced the humiliation of dealing with a child’s tantrum in public, for example, as Judy does with Christopher in the shop at Christmas? Or snapped at an adolescent who simply won’t budge, as Ed does.
Judy feels, and says, that she is a bad parent. She admits to not having the patience or stamina. We all sometimes fail to overcome our own selfishness or weaknesses to prioritise our children’s needs. She feels shame about her failures as a parent – perhaps such shame that it prevents her from coming back to see Christopher after she’s left. Her writing to him clearly does not resolve her shame, she carries it with her. It takes great courage for her to face that, and the practical challenges of living with Christopher on her own when she returns. The beauty of the play is that it does not sentimentalise the realities of being a parent.
We talked in the podcast about the fact that Mark Haddon has repeatedly said that Christopher isn’t a representative of a category of people who share a defining label, such as “Asperger’s Syndrome” or “Autistic”. The National Autistic Society identifies several behavioural traits that it suggests could be collected under a definition of a condition:
• significant difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication
• restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour
• have intense and highly focused interests
• trouble expressing feelings in a conventional or socially appropriate way
We recognise these things in Christopher, but as Mark has pointed out these traits are often manifest in our own behaviour. We are more comfortable in repeated patterns of behaviour, our usual routine. We become obsessive about a particular pursuit, hobby or sport. And I’m sure we are all challenged at times by social interaction. It was particularly instructive to learn from Mark that several of the “odd” concerns that Christopher has, such as
his not eating foods that have touched each other on a plate, or not using a toilet someone else has used, are observances that he borrowed from people he knows – people who have not been labelled in a particular way.
I don’t mean to be glib in these comparisons however. It is of course a matter of degree and comfort, and the telling differentials are when our mental concerns cause us intense recurring anxiety or impact our ability function in day-to-day life.
For Mark Haddon the key is that Christopher is an individual, as we all are:
good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. a diagnosis may lead to practical help. but genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group.
If you want to find out who someone is, just ask them.
Mark Haddon, asperger’s & autism, markhaddon.com, 16-07-2009
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