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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2149

Nothing by Janne Teller, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is the story of a group of seventh-grade students who decide to prove that life has meaning. In the process, they destroy much of what they feel matters most.

The novel is set in a fictional town, Tæring, whose...

(The entire section contains 3126 words.)

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Nothing by Janne Teller, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken, is the story of a group of seventh-grade students who decide to prove that life has meaning. In the process, they destroy much of what they feel matters most.

The novel is set in a fictional town, Tæring, whose name comes from a Danish verb that means "to wear away or corrode." This setting is realistic to the extent that the characters exist in a contemporary town, go to school, get grounded by their parents, and so on. However, the story is more allegorical than realistic. The main purpose of the work is not to develop characters or relay an adventure, but rather to ask an existential question: How do we make meaning?

The allegorical feel of Nothing is enhanced by its narrative style. The story has a first-person narrator, Agnes. However, she uses mainly the plural “we,” giving the sense that the whole class is thinking and acting as one. There are moments when the scope of that “we” seems to reach out and include the reader, creating the impression that we too are forced to take on the task of making meaning—and that we too may corrupt everything that matters if we try.

Nothing begins on the first day of school in Tæring. Pierre Anthon stands up in front of his seventh-grade class and says:

Nothing matters. I’ve known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing. I just realized that.

He walks out of the room, leaving the door open behind him, and does not return.

The kids in the class are tempted to follow Pierre Anthon, but they also want to hang onto the idea that they “amount to something.” They reason that if nothing matters, nobody matters. None of them wants to accept that idea, but they are terrified it may be true.

From that day on, Pierre Anthon spends all his time in a plum tree, pelting his classmates with plums as they walk to and from school. He mocks them for going on with life in spite of death and in spite of the fact that nothing they do can have any lasting effect.

The class cannot put up with this treatment. Jon-Johan, the leader, gathers everyone to figure out how to force Pierre Anthon to come down from the plum tree. Agnes suggests that the boys beat Pierre Anthon, who is renowned for being a fierce fighter, but the boys are too afraid. The kids dismiss praying as a stupid idea, and complaining to adults is out of the question because they will have to explain why Pierre Anthon bothers them in the first place:

Which we can’t, because the grown-ups won’t want to hear that we know that nothing matters and that everybody is just making like it does.

Finally the kids decide to throw rocks at Pierre Anthon. At first most of them miss, and Pierre Anthon mocks them, but eventually the kids knock him out of his tree. Everyone is jubilant, feeling they have won. Two days later, however, Pierre Anthon is back up there shouting insults.

Jon-Johan calls another meeting, where Sofie says, “We have to prove to Pierre Anthon that something matters.” Everyone seizes on this idea, and they all gather in an old sawmill to make a pile of objects that matter. At first they bring old toys and objects they collect from old people, such as photos of dead family members and a thirty-year-old rose from a bridal bouquet. The kids are nervous, though, because they know that none of these objects matter enough to them. If that is the case, why would they matter to Pierre Anthon?

Jon-Johan decides the group has to change tactics. Everyone has to bring his or her own most prized possessions instead of those of others. Dennis offers his Dungeons & Dragons books, but he tries to hold back his four favorites. The others bully him until he gives those up, and then Dennis demands that Sebastian give up his favorite fishing rod. Sebastian demands a soccer ball from the next classmate, who demands a favorite pair of earrings from the next. Agnes is forced to give up a pair of sandals she especially loves, and she gets back at Gerda, the girl who suggests this, by demanding Gerda’s pet hamster.

After this, kids begin demanding objects that are more and more dear to the people who own them: a Danish flag, a diary, a certificate of adoption, and so on. Eventually the demands come around to Elise, who is asked to give up her dead baby brother. Digging up a coffin is a big job, but the kids agree it must be done. They draw lots, and the six who lose sneak out to the graveyard to steal the tiny coffin. After it is removed, the kids do not have enough dirt to refill the hole, so they steal two gravestones and bury them in the baby’s place. On their way to the “heap of meaning” with the coffin, they are followed by Cinderella, an old dog who afterward refuses to leave the sawmill.

From this point onward, the additions to the heap of meaning tend to destroy whatever the children hold dear. Ursula-Marie has to cut off her hair and add it to the heap. Then she insists that Hussain give up his prayer mat. When he gives in, his father beats him badly and says he is “not a good Muslim.” The accusation seems to break him, but he does not tell on his friends or end the project.

Not long later, Huge Hans demands that Sofie give up her “innocence” on the heap. Sofie says no, but the kids pester her until she gives in. All day at school, the kids are quiet and nervous, wondering if she will go through with the plan. Sofie says little, and Agnes thinks she is “doing right to grin and bear it.” Afterward, there is little physical evidence of Sofie’s experience except a small cloth with a bit of blood. Sofie refuses to tell Agnes what it was like, but she looks as if she’s

found out a secret that may have been terrible but nonetheless…handed her the key to something of great meaning.

After giving up her innocence, Sofie is far more committed to the plan than anyone else. She demands that Holy Karl, the son of a minister, give up Jesus on the Cross, a statue that hangs in the church. The kids are appalled but inspired by this choice. Even Agnes, who does not believe in God, thinks that Jesus on the Cross is the holiest object in Tæring. Again, the kids draw lots, and in spite of Holy Karl’s tears and objections, they sneak into the church and steal the statue. They accidentally break Jesus’s legs getting him onto the heap. Cinderella, the dog that lives on Elise’s little brother’s coffin, begins using Jesus as his personal toilet area.

Now that Jesus on the Cross is broken and covered in dog urine and feces, the statue is destroyed forever and cannot be returned to the church after the kids are finished with their “heap of meaning.” Karl is livid, and he demands the head of Cinderella from the next classmate. The kids think this is a bad choice at first because nobody cares about Cinderella, but Karl eventually suggests that Pretty Rosa cut Cinderella’s throat. Pretty Rosa is terrified of blood, so the kids agree that this is an appropriate choice: she will be giving up something terrible if she slits the dog's throat. Nobody witnesses the actual killing, but the dog does turn up dead. The kids put the head at the top of the heap and leave the body to rot on Elise’s brother’s coffin.

Pretty Rosa gets to demand the final addition to the pile from the final member of the class. She asks for Jon-Johan’s finger, and Sofie volunteers to be the person to cut it off. Jon-Johan is a guitar player, and he begs the other kids not to cut off his finger. His friends are pitiless, and Agnes says:

I recalled Sofie’s thin-lipped silence back then with the innocence and told Jon-Johan to shut his mouth and pull himself together. Crybaby!

Sofie threatens to take Jon-Johan’s whole hand if he does not submit. Eventually the kids get the job done. Nobody shows any pity as Jon-Johan urinates and defecates on himself from pain and fear.

Afterward, Jon-Johan tells his parents what the kids have been doing. His friends are still in the sawmill with the police arrive. The police describe the “heap of meaning” as “foul-smelling” and “macabre,” and the whole class gets grounded. Several of the kids cry and say they wanted nothing to do with the whole escapade. Sofie, however, stands up to the adults and explains why the class has done what it has done:

Meaning…None of you has taught us any. So now we’ve found it ourselves.

The class is impressed, and Sofie becomes their new leader. However, the class has a new problem: the police have closed the sawmill to visitors. How can they show their meaning to Pierre Anthon? Agnes calls the newspaper, posing as someone else, and soon the “heap of meaning” becomes the center of a media frenzy. Reporters are divided about whether the heap is evidence of incredible corruption or a noble attempt to create art. However, the sawmill is opened to visitors for several hours every day, so Pierre Anthon can go to see the heap.

He refuses. He calls the heap “a pile of junk.” The kids plead with him, but he maintains that nothing has meaning, including the heap. Agnes wonders if the “heap of meaning” can have meaning if Pierre Anthon says it does not. She does not tell anyone about her doubts. Instead she acts more resolute in her belief in the heap, and she tries to convince herself that attention from reporters and camera crews make the heap special.

Agnes and her friends believe they have won the meaning debate when a museum from New York buys the “heap of meaning” for $3,620,000. At this point, those who have previously called the kids depraved change their minds. Everyone in town, aside from Pierre Anthon, agrees that the kids have done something truly special. Then the people stop showing interest, and Agnes is again plunged into doubt. If the heap is meaning, how can it stop being interesting?

Pierre Anthon continues with his insults, and one by one the classmates succumb to their doubts. They begin to think that he is right, that nothing does matter. They become broken and cynical like their parents and the other adults in their lives: “We weren’t even fifteen yet. Thirteen, fourteen, adult. Dead.” Sofie holds out the longest, continuing to fight Pierre Anthon until he says that if the heap really meant anything, “you wouldn’t have sold it, would you?” Nobody, not even Sofie, can argue against him on this point.

The day before the big museum is supposed to take the “heap of meaning” away, Sofie loses her mind in the sawmill. She collapses into a writhing, shrieking mess. The scene erupts into a brawl as the kids attack whoever demanded they give up their most important possessions. Agnes manages to break free, and she runs to Pierre Anthon and demands that he come. To her surprise, he jumps down from his tree and follows her.

At the sawmill, Pierre Anthon’s presence ends the fight. He shouts at everyone, calling them “half-wits.” “If nothing matters,” he says, “then there’s nothing worth getting mad about!” He mocks the kids for giving up what they care about most and then selling it as if it were worth nothing at all. The kids are all ashamed, unable to meet his eyes. But when he turns his back, they pounce on him. This, finally, feels like it makes real sense. Attacking Pierre Anthon is meaningful. Agnes claims she does not know what killed Pierre Anthon: the beating or the fire afterward. Either way, the sawmill burns to the ground.

The kids cry at the funeral because, as Agnes says, they have gained something and lost something, although she cannot explain exactly what. Afterward they convene at the sawmill with bottles and boxes, and each of them takes some of the ashes of their meaning away.

Eight years later, Agnes still has her ashes. Sometimes she looks at them, all the while feeling sure that “even if I can’t explain what it is, something has a meaning,” and that meaning, as Pierre Anthon can attest, is a dangerous thing.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Author: Janne Teller (b. 1964)

Translator: Martin Aitken

First published: Intet, 2000, in Denmark (English trans., 2010)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Parable

Time of plot: 1990s

Locale: A fictional village in Denmark

Principal characters

Agnes, a seventh-grade girl

Pierre Anthon,a seventh-grade boy with a bleak life philosophy

Sofie, a seventh-grade girl who grapples with the meaning of meaning

The Story

Janne Teller's novel Nothing was first published in Denmark in 2000. An English translation by Martin Aitken was published in 2010. The story takes place in a fictional Danish village called Tæring. (In a translator's note at the end of the book, Aitken explains that the word tæring, in Danish, means to corrode or consume.) The book's narrator, a peripheral character named Agnes, is a thirteen-year-old student. The book's action concerns her seventh-grade class. On the first day of school, her classmate Pierre Anthon walks out of class after coming to the conclusion that nothing in the world matters. If nothing matters, he reasons, nothing is worth doing. His classmates are disturbed by this assertion, and they are even more disturbed after Pierre Anthon takes up residence in the branches of a plum tree on the road to the school. He sits in the tree, throwing out plums and bleak reminders of the nothingness that is life. Everyone will die, he reminds them. Even the earth will one day cease to exist. Nothing matters or ever will. Agnes and the children are enraged by Pierre Anthon's taunts. Of course things matter, they tell him. He laughs dismissively. They pelt him with stones. He laughs again. They grow more and more angry and at last decide to prove Pierre Anthon wrong. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Janne Teller.

Courtesy of Anita Schiffer-Fuchs

The class meets secretly at the town's abandoned sawmill. There, they gather things that they decide most certainly have meaning, including Sofie's old doll and Ursula-Marie's comb with two missing teeth. They go around the town collecting meaningful objects from adults. Still, their collection is not enough, or rather not meaningful enough. The children begin to challenge each other, one by one, to bring in more meaningful objects. Dennis asks Sebastian to turn over his beloved fishing rod, and Gerda forces Agnes to forfeit her prized pair of green wedge sandals. The challenges begin to breed resentment. Agnes, as an act of revenge, forces Gerda to give up her pet, a small hamster named Oscarlittle. The objects (and Oscarlittle in his cage) are all relegated to the heap of meaning at the sawmill. The challenges become more horrifying; a diary, the Danish flag, a statue of Jesus, and Hussain's prayer mat are all added to the heap. Then comes a coffin containing the corpse of Elise's baby brother; a small rag stained with blood, proof of Sofie's lost "innocence"; the severed head of a beloved dog; and finally, the talented guitarist Jon-Johan's index finger, all of which are added to the pile.

Jon-Johan puts an end to the horror by telling his parents about the pile of meaning. All the children get in trouble, but as news of their project leaks, the children find support among artists around the world who declare the heap a work of art. The children become famous, and their fame seems to reinforce the meaning of their endeavor. Pierre Anthon is unimpressed, particularly after the children agree to sell the heap to an art museum. How can the objects possibly have meaning if they also have a price, he asks. After a fight breaks out among the children, Pierre Anthon visits the sawmill for the first time. He again rejects the idea of meaning. The children beat him and set the sawmill on fire, killing him—their last meaningful act.

Critical Evaluation

Teller's excruciatingly bleak parable was a 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book and a 2011 Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book and received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. A reviewer for the latter compared the book to William Golding's classic novel Lord of the Flies (1954), in which a group of young boys attempt to govern themselves on a deserted island. Like that book, Nothing features children committing acts of unspeakable cruelty against one another. The ultimate lesson of this parable is that meaning is relative, but the violence at the center of the novel tells another story, about the human capacity for evil, and depicts how quickly and ruthlessly the children turn on each other when the things they love are taken from them.

Nothing, written in a heightened poetic narrative voice, is a broad-stroke interpretation of the maxim that "hurt people hurt people." Huge Hans is devastated when the children decide that he must give up his bicycle, and in return he demands that Sofie give up her innocence, or virginity (to him, no less). In a chilling aside, Agnes, who at first has her doubts about such an exchange, says that there is no way of knowing whether or not these two things share the same amount of meaning, and so she encourages it. In their effort to quantify meaning, the children stumble onto a disturbing relativism: if a bicycle and one's body have the same amount of meaning, then there is no meaning and no differentiation between good or evil, cruelty or kindness. Teller's book is not neatly told; it raises a lot of confusing existential questions that will likely stay with the reader long after the book is finished.

Further Reading

  • Review of Nothing, by Janne Teller. Kirkus Reviews, 15 Jan. 2010, p. 89. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=48311961&site=lrc-live. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  • Review of Nothing, by Janne Teller. Publishers Weekly, 4 Jan. 2010, p. 48. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=47686413&site=lrc-live. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
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