The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

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How is Christopher an unreliable narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

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Christopher is not so much an unreliable narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as an imperfect one. This is due to his being on the autistic spectrum, which makes him see the world differently to most people. As a result, he thinks that his father will kill him just as he killed his neighbor's dog.

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One must make allowances for Christopher's autism in evaluating the reliability of his narration. As a young man with Asperger's syndrome he sees the world differently to most people. Christopher's world is very small, a product of his autism, his youthfulness, and his immaturity. It would be more accurate to say, then, that he's an imperfect narrator rather than an unreliable one.

This means that though Christopher is very logical and good at making connections in his observations, he isn't always able to put everything he sees together coherently. This accounts for his getting the wrong end of the stick concerning his father.

Once Christopher has established to his satisfaction that his father will do to him what he did to the neighbor's dog, he embarks upon a bold and eventful journey to London, where he intends to stay with his mother. This way he hopes to escape what the thinks are the evil clutches of his father.

Though Christopher may not have been completely accurate in his telling of the story, there's no doubt that his viewpoint gives us privileged insight into the mind of someone with autism. The reality that Christopher sees around him is not so much distorted as heightened. It is a version of reality rather than its negation. It may be difficult for us to understand, but it isn't that far removed from our own perspective of the situation.

Christopher may not pick up on certain details of what he sees and misconstrue others, but his general account of reality is really not that wide off the mark.

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Christopher's worldview is limited in scope in part because of his neurodiversity, but also because of his lack of maturity and exposure to life experiences.  Because of his youth, self-selected interest areas, and his parents' choices, Christopher has had little opportunity to acquire wisdom and perspective about the world around him.  His narration demonstrates a lack of understanding of the nuance and sophistication of the emotions and motivations of the adults he interacts with over the course of the story. It reflects his inability to comprehend of the complexity of his universe.

Christopher's motivations are simple, straightforward, and based primarily on his personal logic, i.e. my father killed a dog, therefore he is dangerous to me. His narration reflects these conclusions and limits his perspective of the events that unfold as pertaining solely to the motivations that resonate within his own sphere of understanding: namely survival, following rules, and problem-solving.

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Christopher is to some degree an unreliable narrator because, as a person on the autism spectrum, he finds human emotion and motivation confusing. For example, he thinks that his father is going to kill him because his father killed the neighbor's dog. The reader, on the other hand, knows that Christopher's father, while feeling overwhelmed by raising a boy with autism, is a loving father who is committed to raising his son and who is not murderous. 

On the other hand, in some ways, Christopher is very reliable. He is flawless when it comes to observing material facts. He is very logical in certain ways and is committed to figuring out who killed the neighbor's dog. He notes that he first sees the dead dog at seven minutes after midnight and that the dog must have died when someone stuck a garden fork in it because there were no other wounds, and a person was unlikely to have stuck a fork in the dog after it had died in some other way. He is adept at observing material facts, such as the number of holes in one's shoes, and, in this sense, he is a reliable narrator.

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Christopher is an unreliable narrator, in part, because he has an autism spectrum disorder. People on the spectrum often perceive the world around them differently from people who are not on the spectrum because they can have difficulty reading social cues and sorting through sensory information. Christopher's difficulty in reading social cues is likely why he does not realize that his mother is having an affair despite the fact that it is obvious to us. In addition, his response to death of the dog named Wellington is curiosity as opposed to horror or shock, which makes him seem guilty to people who do not understand the way his mind works. Christopher's processing difference might affect the kinds of information he shares as well as the way he shares it.

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I can address the idea of Christopher as an unreliable narrator.  There are many instances in the novel when the reader can piece together more of the situation than Christopher himself.  For example, a careful reader can figure out Christopher's mother has been having an affair with the neighbor's husband without Christopher having to mention the fact--or even realize it.  His voice as an unreliable narrator adds humor to tense situations (like in the opening scene where he punches the police officer) and offers a unique perspective throughout the story.  The title itself seems like one that Christopher would pick out.  Not many people would describe a deadly attack on a dog as "curious"--it seems far too understated. Unreliable narrators may be limited to their own skewed perspective of reality but careful readers can usually re-create what is actually going on by piecing together subtle details the narrator himself may not understand.

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Is it true that Christopher is an unreliable and ineffective first person narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?

Actually, depending on how you look at it, Christopher's condition as having autism makes him probably one of the most truthful narrators you could possibly imagine. He himself says that he cannot tell lies and has to tell the truth. However, what your question is pointing towards is the way in which we tell the truth from our own perspective. And this is the important point for this excellent novel. Christopher does, as he says, tell the truth, but we are forced to recognise that he is only able to tell the truth from his reality and understanding. As his autism makes his understanding of human interactions limited, we are often in a position that we, as readers, are able to see the real truth of what Christopher is observing, when he is only puzzled by what is happening. You could use some of the interactions between Christopher's father and his mother, or his father and the neighbour, Mrs. Shears to see this. Christopher, throughout the novel, struggles to understand the complex actions and motives of the adults that surround him, and why they have deceived him, such as his father lying about his mother's "death."

Thus I would question the words "unreliable" and "ineffective" in your statement. Christopher is actually incredibly truthful, but it is his ability to understand the complex interactions of humans that make his account partial and limited.

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