John Mullan analyzes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Part One: The Inadequate Narrator
The (London) Guardian, April 23, 2004
There is a special type of first-person narrative that requires the reader to supply what the narrator cannot understand. Much of what "happens" in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not grasped by Christopher, its narrator. The reader comprehends, as Christopher never will, the farcical drama of parental discord that he witnesses. Even when he discovers the truth about his mother, but living in London with a lover, he has no idea of his father's reasons for lying (his cowardice and protectiveness).
Christopher, the book jacket tells you, has Asperger's syndrome, though this is never named in the novel. He has no understanding of others' emotions, though he doggedly records their symptoms. "He looked at me for a long time and sucked air in through his nose," he observes, when his father is, we infer, near despair. Yet requiring the reader to fill in these gaps allows for a tragicomic intuition of characters' feelings that a more adequate narrator could not manage.
The "inadequate narrator" is not an established critical term. Yet the more usual "unreliable narrator" seems inaccurate for a narrator who, however un-comprehending, is entirely trustworthy. We are not invited to be sceptical about what Christopher tells us. As he says several times, "I always tell the truth". Indeed, his very truthfulness is a kind of limitation on his understanding of the world. He cannot negotiate his way through conversations.
Narrative inadequacy is not so unusual in fiction. Think of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, whose narrator is qualified by her inarticulacy. We infer what she suffers through her inability to express it. Then there is the model for the inadequate narrator, the eponymous heroine of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740). A 15-year-old servant girl, she is too innocent to comprehend the schemes of her predatory master, though we as readers see them all too clearly. These narrators are innocent, like Christopher, but they are also limited by their language. One effect is a satirical indictment of those nominally sophisticated adults whom each narrator describes and tries to understand.
Christopher's peculiar ingenuousness is as much fictional device as medical condition. You do not have to check him against a psychiatric textbook to believe in him as a narrator. The reader is left to piece together the meanings and motives of the characters around him; he never explains or interprets. "When I was little I didn't understand about other people having minds... But I don't find this difficult now." He has decided to turn life into a detective story, for "if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it".
The inadequate narrator lets us glimpse the inadequacies of all the adults he encounters. The reader senses the torments and forbearance of Christopher's father, uncomprehended by him. Christopher knows things about others only by their conventional signs. When his father shouts, this means anger. When there are tears "coming out of his eyes", he must be sad, though he wrongly and characteristically supposes that the cause must be the death of their
neighbour's dog, Wellington.
Christopher is also detached from his own torments. When things become too much, he curls into a ball and hides in a small space, or simply screams. When he reads the letters from his mother that his father has hidden from him, he has no description to offer of his feelings, just an account of a kind of seizure. "I couldn't think of anything at all because my brain wasn't working properly." This is no figure of speech. When the patterns of thought and habits of behaviour on which he depends collapse, there is nothing else.
The irony is that his inadequacy as a guide to human psychology is balanced by a fastidious accuracy in matters of report. "I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like." His exactitude shows up the evasions of the other characters. Imagining things is what makes Christopher frightened. "And this is why everything I have written here is true."
· John Mullan is senior lecturer in English at University College London