Madness and Sanity in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog In The Nighttime

I found a cheap copy of Mark Haddon’s A Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime at Booksale and proceeded to check the thing out. The back cover blurb seems right in his description of the tale; a mixture of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and little bit of Kafkasque elements. It was an experiment in the stream of consciousness technique by a crazy narrator, who turns out be a genius.

The story is about Christopher John Francis Boone, the protagonist and narrator of the novel. The story presents itself as Christopher’s attempt to write a book about his Sherlock Holmes-type adventure about the death of a neighbor’s dog. As he progresses towards his ‘investigation’, the reader itself is challenged to complete a puzzle of insanity, life, and its accompanying struggles— which is Christopher’s life itself.

Quite obviously, Christopher is a mentally-challenged (but very intelligent) adolescent. His being a genius is constantly illustrated by his innocent observations of the ‘stupidity’ of everyday life and the people around. He perceives all the people around him as stupid, doing things that are irrational, which terrifies him. He has a strong distaste for the color yellow, and he doesn’t like being touched. He keeps a Swiss Army knife in his pocket, ready to be taken out in case someone tries to touch him.

Through Christopher indifferent eyes, the reader will encounter the complexities of adult relationships. A character names Siobhan, obviously a teacher in special education, is close to Christopher and constantly tells him how to understand things and react to them. Other than Siobhan, everyone treats him like a child, or a crazy person.

The novel compels us to introspectively reflect on the notion of madness vs sanity. For Michel Foucault, for instance, madness is a social mechanism, an oppressive category which relegates those who do not conform to normative institutions or the prevailing discourses of knowledge to categories of abnormality and therefore must be isolated from the civic life. It is ‘the result of social contradictions in which [humans are] historically alienated’ (Foucault, cited in Eribon 1991: 70). In this category, madness is not a stable status that runs counter to a stable set of principles that determine ‘sanity.’ Hadon’s novel plays on this uneasy polemic, exploiting the tendency of ‘sane’ readers to treat the material ambivalently.

My favorite part is Christopher’s concluding words towards the end of the novel, wherein relays to us his dreams and ambitions amidst the confusion he and his parents are in:

And I am going to pass it (A-level math exams) and get an A grade. And in two years time I am going to take A-level physics and get an A grade.

And then , when I’ve done that, I am going to go to a university in another town…And I can live in a flat with a garden and a proper toilet. And I can take Sandy (a dog) and my books and my computer.

And then I will get a First Class Honors degree and will become a scientist.

There is an uneasy feeling of triviality and dread here. Christopher, the ‘insane kid’ will live like a ‘normal’ man and live with ‘normal’ people? And he will try to kill other people, as he planned to do with his father, policeman, and other people who annoy him? This fear comes from a cemented sense of ‘normality’ that the reader has imbibed from the social discourses of normalcy (schools, the State, and of course the psychiatric discipline of medicine). Other than this, there is a level of jealousy, a feeling of uneasiness coming from the fact that ‘this insanely dangerous guy is going to be successful and famous and rich, etc.’

Haddon then gives a potent critique to these notions of normalcy, not by presenting insanity as a deplorable state and pathetically reciting ad misericordiams, but through subjecting the reader to a guilt-trip, giving him/her a taste of his/her own medicine. By presenting the discursive freedom of insanity from the pretentions of normal life, the ‘sane’ reader has been effectively and painfully castrated.

Eribon, D. (1991) Michel Foucault, (trans. Betsy Wing), Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press.

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2 thoughts on “Madness and Sanity in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog In The Nighttime”

  1. I haven’t read Foucault before reading this book, so I took it in as something just like Catcher in the Rye. Although the entire story can be pinned down in a few sentences, it’s still a joy to be in another person’s shoes. I can vaguely remember the book but it seemed to me that the narrator was quite successful in expressing the kid’s psyche in the book.

    1. Yes, it is really like The Catcher in the Rye. But I think that book is multiple times more engaging than Haddon’s. Haddon’s protagonist is obviusly ‘crazy’ by standard, while Salinger’s protagonist (I forgot the name) is effortlessly nuanced. He seems to be the normal/crazy adolescent we all were.

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