Against the Rhetoric of Sadness: Theory of Mind and the Writing Process in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Jennifer Marston William

July 10, 2012


Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been lauded as well as criticized for its portrayal of the presumably autistic narrator-protagonist Christopher. I argue that the novel’s greatest contribution lies not in its representation of autism or Asperger’s, but in the attention the work calls to the highly individualistic processes of Theory of Mind (ToM), a faculty that constitutes a common bond as well as differentiator for human minds. Christopher’s reflections on his own ToM and that of others, as well as his creation of an autobiographical detective novel, refute author Haddon’s own indications in interviews that his narrator lacks a ToM. Further, the novel does not engage in the “rhetorics of sadness” (Duffy and Dorner) that characterize much literature about autistic persons, nor does it depict the neurologically atypical as being “mindblind,” a metaphor condemned by Disabilities Studies scholars in recent years.


Against the Rhetoric of Sadness: Theory of Mind and the Writing Process in

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time



            In their recent article “The Pathos of ‘Mindblindness,’” John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner persuasively take issue with the blindness metaphor employed by cognitive psychologists (most notably Simon Baron-Cohen, but others as well) to describe a perceived cognitive deficiency in autistic people. Their critique centers largely around the concept of Theory of Mind (ToM), which I address at length below, and in particular they highlight the “rhetorics of sadness that underlie much of the ToM literature” (214) as it relates to autism. Duffy and Dorner suggest that to work against such rhetoric we need to rely more on “stories that speak less to difference and division and more to inclusion and ways of living that acknowledge common values, understandings, aspirations and possibilities” (ibid.). As a fictional autobiography of a teenager who is generally assumed to have some form of autism, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time contributes to this proposed project with a narrative that lacks the typical “emotional persuasions that beg the reader to lament the autistic’s emotional state” (Duffy and Dorner 210). Through his protagonist’s conscious reflections on writing and on his own Theory of Mind, the novel’s author Mark Haddon accentuates the shades of gray that much ToM scholarship has neglected in its pronouncements on autism. I will argue here that this novel’s greatest contribution lies not in its representation of an autistic character, but in the attention the work calls to the highly individualistic processes of ToM, a faculty that serves as a common bond as well as a differentiator for human minds.

            Haddon has admitted that the first-person narrator of his novel, Christopher Boone, could be diagnosed as having the form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome or disorder. Yet he uses neither the term “autism” nor “Asperger’s” in the book, as he explains: “I don’t want him to be labeled, and because, as with most people who have a disability, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most important thing about him” (NPR “Fresh Air” broadcast, 17 June 2005). Haddon remarks later in the same interview, “If we talk about Christopher as a whole—everyone talks about Asperger’s syndrome and autism and talks about him as a kid with a disability, and yet every single little oddity of his behavior I have taken from someone that I know who doesn’t have that label, who is not called a disabled person, who’s not labeled with Asperger’s or autism.” Nonetheless, reviewers and critics have persisted in applying such labels to the narrator-protagonist. Stephan Freißmann describes Christopher as “an autistic adolescent” (395), and James Berger labels him “a person with Asperger’s syndrome” (278). Bennett Kravitz sees Asperger’s Syndrome as Christopher’s “handicap” (43), while arguing that he uses his condition to his advantage to succeed in his quest to find his mother (54). Interestingly, the Executive Director of the Asperger’s Association of New England, Dania Jekel, came to the conclusion that Christopher is a high-functioning autistic rather than a character with Asperger’s (Burks-Abbott 294).[1] The many differing opinions on this matter underline that it is less the specific diagnosis of Christopher that is important to the text than it is the work’s reflections on ToM and its role in the social interactions of all kinds of people.   

The process of novel-writing that structures Haddon’s work functions as an account of Christopher’s struggles with his own Theory of Mind—that is, with his on-again, off-again ability to interpret the mindsets of those around him. By writing an autobiographical novel in which he consciously reflects on his own ToM, Christopher effectively shows not only how he is different (a fact that he presents as self-evident, not as remarkable), but also how he is similar to his prospective readers.[2] Without these points of identification, it is doubtful that Haddon’s first novel would have been such a success, with millions of readers in more than 40 countries. At the same time, one must remember that this novel is not an actual autobiography. Haddon himself has had some experience working with the disabled, including some who were cognitively impaired and (he realizes in retrospect) with autism, but he is not on the autistic spectrum himself.[3] Thus, later in the essay I explore briefly the potential problems inherent in assuming that one can write from the point of view of someone with a form of autism—that is, to appropriate authoritatively a Theory of Mind so different from one’s own. My contention in this respect is that ToM is so unique to the individual that, unless one subscribes to the increasingly outdated view that neurological atypicality marks someone as radically divergent from a “norm,” Haddon is not undertaking anything fundamentally different from any fiction writer who creates and then adopts a character’s individual perspective and way of seeing the world.

            An overview of Theory of Mind, also known by cognitive scientists as “mindreading,” should make its relevance clear to those who are familiar with Haddon’s work. In her book Mindreading, Sanjida O’Connell describes ToM as the “educated guesswork” that “forms the cornerstone of our interactions with people” (5). As used commonly in cognitive studies today, Theory of Mind refers to a mostly unreflected process; the “theory” component of the term may be something of a misnomer, since there generally is no prolonged conscious theorizing going on about other minds as we interact with one another while employing this faculty. As Lisa Zunshine summarizes, ToM is “effortless in the sense that we ‘intuitively’ connect people’s behavior to their mental states […] although our subsequent description of their mental states could run a broad gamut of mistaken or disputed meanings” (2010, 202). In the case of protagonist Christopher Boone, however, ToM seems to require more deliberation, as he relies on educated guesswork based on past experiences to figure out how he should respond in social situations.[4] Moreover, because he elaborates on these processes self-consciously in his writing, his readers gain an unaccustomed access to the workings of an individual’s ToM, albeit that of a fictional character who is apparently neurologically atypical in some way. This essay will demonstrate why it is inaccurate to state that Christopher simply lacks a ToM, as author Haddon himself has indicated.[5] As is the case with many who are diagnosed with Asperger’s, Christopher exhibits a “self-consciousness and at least some power to introspect and report” (Sacks 247), qualities that seem prerequisite for composing a novel. His writing reveals that he is not only concerned with recording his own experiences, but also with relating them to others—and therefore, to a certain extent, putting himself into the shoes of an imagined readership.

Mark Haddon hands the reins of Curious Incident over to his narrator Christopher right away, as signified by its chapters that are headed not with the customary cardinal numbers, but with Christopher’s cherished prime numbers. Christopher sets out to write an autobiographical mystery novel, first recounting his investigation into who killed Wellington, the dog of his neighbor, Mrs. Shears. The murderer is revealed a little more than halfway through the novel to be Christopher’s own father, who stabbed the dog to death with a garden fork after his romantic relationship with the neighbor had soured. The second part of the novel revolves around another mystery, namely the fate of Christopher’s mother, whom he presumes to be dead. Upon discovering letters from her in his father’s bedroom written after the alleged death date, Christopher eventually grasps that he has been lied to, and that she is still alive and living in London. The remainder of the book becomes a suspense story, as the sheltered Christopher ventures out on his own to find his mother in the big city. Interspersed among his idiosyncratic descriptions of these events are his reflections on a variety of topics, including his labeled status as a “special needs” child, his everyday routine, his atheistic views, and his grappling with the writing process.

While the novel opens with a seemingly objective description of the apparently murdered dog Christopher has found, the very first paragraph already displays evidence of the protagonist’s ToM:

I decided that the dog was probably killed with a fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this. (1)

In reference to this passage, Haddon has remarked that this is “a very strange thing to be thinking” (NPR, Fresh Air). But most important to the present discussion is the fact that Haddon portrays Christopher as someone who thinks about the possible motivations, beliefs, and intentions of others, i.e. he is displaying the nuances of Christopher’s ToM. Through the narrator’s ruminations, the usually invisible workings of ToM are laid bare. His uncertainty about this scenario with the dog may strike some readers as funny, indeed as abnormal or “strange.” However, his musings are quite analogous to the self-doubts many people have when using ToM to evaluate social situations, as in: “I don’t think he said that to hurt my feelings, although I cannot be certain.” Christopher’s uncertainty signals some confusion about typical human motivations, to be sure, but at the same time it confirms his ToM, his “ability to understand that other people also have mental states such as thoughts, desires and beliefs about the world” (O’Connell 5)—despite his difficulty at times discerning what those beliefs might be.

In Lisa Zunshine’s groundbreaking monograph on ToM and literature, she warns against “casually pronouncing some texts, individuals, or groups somehow deficient in their mind-reading ability” (2006, 11). Individuals exhibiting autistic qualities still tend to be on the receiving end of such pronouncements, although some scholars in Disability Studies have taken up the fight against this type of bias. David Smukler provides a convincing critique of the “missing puzzle piece” metaphor often used with autism,[6] arguing that to describe persons with autism as lacking a ToM—a characteristic described by some scientists as that which distinguishes humans from other animals—posits those persons as deficient with regard to a norm and even as being less than human (17). Smukler also points out the flaws and biases in the “false-belief” tests that have been used as evidence that people with autism lack a ToM, a proposition that Duffy and Dorner also point out as being still unsupported by empirical evidence (205).[7] Since most readers of Haddon’s novel will diagnose the protagonist Christopher as falling somewhere on the autistic spectrum, it is essential to recognize that he does indeed (regardless of the author’s intentions) possess a functional Theory of Mind. Although Christopher is a fictional character, he nonetheless has come to represent high-functioning autism and/or Asperger’s for many readers of popular fiction in the past decade. Thus it is fortunate that this representation, while in some ways stereotypical, is in many other ways as nuanced and complex as the phenomenon of neurodiversity itself. His character serves as a reminder that a blanket statement regarding ToM and autism cannot be supported scientifically at this time.

Christopher’s own consciousness of his ToM, enhanced perhaps because of the experiments performed on him throughout his life,[8] contribute to the originality of his (and thereby his creator Haddon’s) novel. At the same time, as Zunshine notes, because Christopher does not supply the usual attitudes and emotions of a more typical first-person narrator, the readers of Haddon’s book must “supply those missing mental states, thus making sense of the story” (2006, 12).[9] Readers will do so mostly unconsciously, using ToM while being confronted with Christopher’s less concealed one. It is precisely this interplay of the invisible and the visible mindreading that makes the novel so compelling. Robin Dunbar notes that with the presence of third-order ToM,[10] which enables one to imagine the response of an imagined person, “[w]e can begin to create literature, to write stories that go beyond a simple description of events as they occurred to delve more and more deeply into why the hero should behave in the way he does, into the feelings that drive him ever onwards in his quest” (102). Although at times Christopher’s story remains a simple description of events, Haddon has his narrator/protagonist/writer Christopher include subtle, and less subtle, indications of his feelings and motivations that hook us into his narrative. From statements highlighting his talents: “I think I would make a very good astronaut” (50), to blunt expressions of his feelings: “I was nervous. […] But I was excited, too” (59), Christopher gives us occasional insights into his character and mindset. We come to know not only his likes and dislikes, but in some cases, the reasons behind his preferences, for example when he outlines what he likes and does not like about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (71).

Haddon’s own assessment of his protagonist that “[t]he one thing he cannot do is put himself in someone else’s shoes” (Welsh)—a common metaphor for ToM—is inaccurate. Not only does Christopher demonstrate that he has a ToM, he also reflects on it in his writing. He knows that he did not always possess one: “when I was little I didn’t understand about other people having minds. And Julie said to Mother and Father that I would always find this very difficult. But I don’t find this difficult now. Because I decided that it was a kind of puzzle, and if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it” (116).[11] Christopher has developed strategies that allow him to understand the mental states of others, at least to a certain degree.

Through his narrative, Christopher inadvertently reveals even more about his ToM and his sometimes contradictory thoughts about it. Mark Haddon declares that Christopher is not a reliable narrator (NPR, Fresh Air)[12]; thus the latter’s claim that “everything I have written here is true” (20) must be questioned—but then, any first-person narrator who feels compelled to stress the veracity of the story being told should strike the critical reader as suspicious.[13] Christopher contradicts himself on several occasions, and his stated fundamental beliefs about himself prove false within the course of the novel:

(1)   he believes that he cannot tell jokes;[14]

(2)   he believes that he can only tell the truth because he does not know how to lie;[15]

(3)   he believes that he cannot imagine as other people can.[16]

Yet he includes at least one intentional joke among other perhaps less intentional humorous lines, and he lies several times, an act that necessitates a ToM.

Burks-Abbott correctly observes, “Haddon’s uncritical acceptance that Christopher lacks a theory of mind is not sustained while telling the latter’s story. Not only does Haddon have Christopher state that he can learn theory of mind but he also has Christopher demonstrate theory of mind in the cat-and-mouse game he plays with his father” (292). That is, when Christopher finds the book fragment that his father had confiscated from him, he reasons out his next move with a classic example of ToM: “So I decided that I would leave the book where it was because I reasoned that Father wasn’t going to throw it away if he had put it into the shirt box and I could carry on writing in another book that I would keep really secret and then, maybe later, he might change his mind and let me have the first book back again and I could copy the new book into it” (Haddon 94).  Such thinking from the protagonist supports Kravitz’s assessment that “[d]espite his cold, scientific veneer, Christopher is a more devious or more complex character than first meets the eye” (49). Deception necessitates a ToM, as O’Connell explains: “Our ability to lie depends crucially on Theory of Mind. When we attempt to deceive another, we are altering another person’s beliefs and thus, for full-scale deception, we need to be able to mindread” (156). O’Connell calls deception and empathy “by-products of Theory of Mind” (18). Christopher possesses both; not only does he deceive his father, he also displays empathy in caring so well for his pet mouse Toby. This empathy is exemplified when he realizes Toby is missing:

And then I realized that Toby was missing because he was not in my pocket, and I didn’t want him to be missing because we weren’t in Father’s house or Mother’s house and there wasn’t anyone to feed him in the little station and he would die and he might get run over by a train.[17]

Christopher also gives his best guess about his father’s emotions when he’s crying (21); even if it is a simplistic and inaccurate understanding, he still seems to get the general idea of others having emotions and what they might be in a given situation. Granted, Christopher’s ability to empathize seems to be not fully developed; as Berger rightly points out (282-83). For instance, Christopher does not know what to make of his mother’s wailing upon finding out that he had thought her to be dead, although I surmise that many children would react similarly awkwardly to such sudden outbursts of emotion from a parent.

Although Christopher remarks, “I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me” (5), it becomes clear that he can imagine how others will react in certain situations. Not only does he understand the concept of imagination, explaining it coherently (78, 117) and thus implying a more advanced ToM than he gives himself credit for, he is also able to anticipate the reactions of others. For example, Christopher knows that his father will be upset to discover that his son is continuing the investigation of the murdered dog, leading him to find ways to deceive his father so that he can persist without the anticipated repercussions. Christopher knows that his father could believe, falsely, that his son has given up his detective work. Thus, although he failed the Smarties “false-belief” test when he was younger, he passes this real-life false-belief test with flying colors. One wonders if Christopher has mistakenly come to accept that he cannot lie, joke, or imagine after years of hearing such from his family and teachers, who view him as not only socially challenged but also as cognitively impaired (despite their simultaneous acknowledgment of his mathematic genius). Christopher proves on occasion he knows that he knows himself better than others think they know him—and the fact that he is aware that he knows himself better than they do adds another level of intentionality and provides more insight into the workings of his ToM. He writes,

Mr. Jeavons said that I liked maths because it was safe. He said I liked maths because it meant solving problems, and these problems were difficult and interesting but there was always a straightforward answer at the end. And what he meant was that maths wasn’t like life because in life there are no straightforward answers at the end. I know he meant this because this is what he said. This is because Mr. Jeavons doesn’t understand numbers. (62-63)

Numbers, Christopher then confirms through a detailed explanation of the “Monty Hall Problem,” are “sometimes very complicated and not very straightforward at all” (65), demonstrating not only his intellectual superiority, but also the extent to which he is misunderstood by the adults around him.

            Persons on the autistic spectrum may be less able to engage in communicative acts of mimetic representation, which require an understanding of the intentions of the person being modeled (see Donald 171 ff.). But Christopher devises a strategy to decipher the mysteries of body language: “I got Siobhan to draw lots of these faces and then write down next to them exactly what they meant. I kept the piece of paper in my pocket and took it out when I didn’t understand what someone was saying” (3).[18] Eventually, upon the suggestion of his facilitator Siobhan that he was making people uncomfortable with this tactic, he destroys the page. But this apparent act of frustration signals both Christopher’s acceptance of his own limitations and the implicit recognition of his ToM: “And now if I don’t understand what someone is saying, I ask them what they mean or I walk away” (ibid.). Even when he does not comprehend exactly what people mean when they speak figuratively, he still knows that they mean something beyond the literalness of their words. He confirms on several occasions that although he cannot intuitively comprehend most metaphors, he understands the concept quite well (e.g. 15) and knows when people are being metaphorical. The fact that he is not a proficient face reader does not preclude him from being a mind reader.

Christopher also displays his acute awareness of others’ mental processes when he comments that

people are different from animals because they can have pictures on the screens in their heads of things which they are not looking at. They can have pictures of someone in another room. Or they can have a picture of what is going to happen tomorrow. Or they can have pictures of themselves as an astronaut. Or they can have pictures of really big numbers. Or they can have pictures of Chains of Reasoning when they’re trying to work something out. (117)

Even when he makes such generalizations as if they do not apply to him, Christopher has an intricate understanding of (and an apparently intense interest in) how people think and imagine, and how human brains differ from those of animals. Indeed, he concentrates on these issues more often and more intensely than probably the majority of the novel’s readers, whose reading experience and knowledge base about cognitive processes may be enriched by the amount of light Christopher casts onto these often hidden mental workings.

Christopher’s investigative and writing skills are enabled by his ToM, and also lead to a further sharpening of his own mindreading. Alan Palmer writes about the connection between observation and ToM, “Many philosophers and psychologists now argue that the sort of privileged first-person access that is implied by the term Cartesianism is an illusion and that the sole interpretative device that we have for examining our own internal mental states is a theory of mind that is based on our observation of others” (127). Christopher seems to know intuitively that observing others and then reflecting upon his observations is one means of gaining better understanding of his own ToM. Reading, according to Palmer, provides another means of understanding ourselves: “We enter the minds of characters necessarily in order to follow the plot. But it is more than that: we do it because it is enjoyable and because it is good for us. In finding out more about the minds of others, we find out more about ourselves” (147). This assertion is significant because not only is Christopher a writer, he is also a reader, and he seems to have learned some mindreading skills from reading books.[19] While questioning his neighbor Mrs. Alexander during his investigation, for example, he repeats a certain question, “because in a murder mystery novel when someone doesn’t want to answer a question it is because they are trying to keep a secret or trying to stop someone from getting into trouble, which means that the answers to those questions are the most important answers of all” (58-59). While he loathes literature laden with figurative speech, citing a particularly opaque passage from Virginia Woolf as an example (4-5), he generally enjoys Sherlock Holmes because he can identify with the detective’s capacity to concentrate on one activity to the exclusion of all else. Christopher claims that his own ability to detach his mind “at will” allows him to excel at games of skill, such as chess (73). Sherlock Holmes is generally not thought of as cognitively impaired or possessing a deficient ToM, yet Christopher is thought of in that way because he does not conform to all the established norms of social interaction.[20]

            In addition to groaning and doing math problems, writing is one outlet at Christopher’s disposal for releasing his frustrations in this respect. He states that he likes writing the book and enjoys the difficult challenge of the endeavor (91). Writing allows him to reflect on his struggles with ToM and with social interaction on his own terms. Psychiatrist Oliver Sacks observes that, in general, “autistic writers seem to get ‘out of tune’ with their readers” and that they “fail to realize their own or their readers’ states of mind” (253, FN 4). This statement applies to the writer Christopher at times, for instance when he includes detailed math and logic problems—including an appendix—that likely fall outside of an average reader’s level of ability and interest (the math buff Haddon made up all the problems himself). Yet such inclusions make the narrator’s writing distinctive and fresh, while giving us an inside look at his brilliant mind.

            The idiosyncratic narrative voice of Haddon’s novel could be considered problematic in that the author assumes the ability (or author-ity) to write from the point of view of an autistic person, a position to which he might have felt privileged after working with cognitively disabled patients for a time. To claim, if implicitly, to understand the workings of an autistic person’s mind so intimately as to write from that perspective may be considered presumptuous, or even an unscrupulous act of exploiting a disability for profit.[21] Yet this problem may be inherent in first-person narrative in general, as no individual ToMs are the same—an author has the prerogative, indeed the duty, to invent and then assume the perspective of his first-person narrator and to relate a story accordingly. One can also keep in mind Haddon’s claim that he did not intend to create an autistic character when he began the novel. In any case, Haddon seems to hit the nail on the head with a representation of how a high-functioning autistic person might write such a story, or in any case how a neurologically typical person might imagine it to be written. As Gregoriou writes about the novel, “the depiction of autism correlates with the way people understand autism” (101). The style Haddon creates for Christopher, however, often mimics that of the famous autistic veterinary doctor Temple Grandin, whose straight-forward observations and analogies to everyday objects ensure a likewise compelling read.[22] In Sacks’s foreword to Grandin’s autobiography Thinking in Pictures, he writes of the “touching simplicity and ingenuousness of Temple’s writing, her curious lack of either modesty or immodesty, her incapacity for evasion or artifice of any kind” (13-14). The same could be said for the writing style predominant in Curious Incident; both Christopher’s narrative and Grandin’s autobiography contain numerous declarative statements beginning with “I”, yet with their obvious interest in human nature and the behavior of others, each narrator refrains from egotism. This narrative style could be thought of as “detached,”[23] but it is arguably an anthropological, ethnographic approach in which humans in their social environment are very much the focal point. Indeed, Vivienne Muller views the narrative as “a rich canvas of experiences for an ethnographic study of this particular cognitive condition [Asperger’s syndrome]” (119).

            As cognitive-literary scholars such as Howard Mancing and Zunshine have noted, Theory of Mind makes literature possible (see Mancing 136 and Zunshine 2004, 132). ToM makes not only the creation but also the reading of literature possible (and interesting). Curious Incident underscores the vital interconnectedness of ToM and the processes of writing and reading. Without a ToM, it would not occur to Christopher to engage in writing literature to be read by others. Haddon asserts that Christopher “has no real idea of there being a reader out there” (NPR, Fresh Air). The author views this aspect of his protagonist-writer as positive and refreshing in that the reader is not led in one direction or another, but is left to make up his or her own mind about the story. However, not having a specific audience in mind does not imply an unawareness of the concept of readership: Christopher is a reader himself, is cognizant of differences between literary genres, and takes advice from Siobhan about how to structure the book for the ease of the average reader, e.g. “Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people’s attention. That is why I started with the dog” (5). Zunshine notes that we are engaging in mindreading when we compose something “and try to imagine how this or that segment of our target audience will respond to it” (2006, 6). While Christopher does not describe his “target audience” and apparently needs Siobhan’s counsel when it comes to his readers’ possible responses—signaling an awareness that his own mindreading skills are not always to be trusted—it is clear that he does not intend the book for his eyes only. He takes Siobhan’s wisdom to heart as he writes for his readers, adding details and descriptions deliberately “so that people could make a picture of them in their head” (67).

Early in the novel, Christopher states as one of his goals, “to prove that I’m not stupid” (44), which he hopes to accomplish by taking his A level exams in math. He ends up scoring the highest possible grade on the exams, but even before accomplishing that feat, he has already proven his aptitude in the realm of novel writing. Whether or not he is a realistic character in terms of Asperger’s or autism, Christopher is portrayed realistically as a human being—just like each of his readers, neurologically typical or not, he is fallible and inept in some ways, yet uniquely talented in others. Berger is right on the mark when he asserts that Christopher’s “symbolic and social limitations […] render him both different from and similar to others. His autistic qualities locate him on a neurological spectrum shared by all people” (285).[24] While those with Asperger’s may appear solipsistic to the rest of the world, Palmer reminds us of “the very large number of people whose behavior is so selfish that they appear not to believe in the existence of other minds”—as demonstrated particularly during rush hour! (138) Christopher’s awareness of a readership, along with the many examples from the text discussed above, prove that he is keenly aware of the existence of other minds and of the mindreading process.

Christopher ends his novel with newfound confidence as he outlines his plans for attending university and then becoming a scientist. Memories of his recent experiences have given him self-assurance: “And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything” (221). In Christopher’s own terms, he now has “pictures” in his head of events that have not (yet) happened. Through writing, he has granted his readers a glimpse not only of his quirks, but also of the common ground they share with him. The novel-composing character of Christopher also serves as a counterexample—albeit a fictional one, but paralleling to some extent real-life writers with autism such as Grandin[25]—for those scientists and scholars who assert that autistic people have no ToM, cannot imagine the minds of others (and thus could not possibly write a novel), and who do not possess the ability to empathize.

Through a portrayal of a more nuanced and complex ToM than even the author himself has admitted, Curious Incident prompts reflection on the process of mindreading that has been the focus of many (now somewhat controversial) studies involving children with autism. Yet various armchair diagnoses of Christopher’s character notwithstanding, the novel points to some larger problems that can result from ToM interactions by anyone; as Jurecic reminds us, no one is a perfect mindreader: “imagining the minds of others is a complicated task for everyone” (3). Multiple scholars have commented on the potentially positive effects of Christopher’s story as told by Christopher. Muller has cogently argued that Haddon’s novel “posits Christopher as both same and other in the social and symbolic order,” contending that “the narrative invites us to ask questions about the foundationalist terms and processes we set up in our society to describe, categorise, judge and manage people and behaviours, including those that have been labelled as abled or disabled” (123). Berger asserts that Christopher’s investigation exposes the fact that “the social order is itself on the autistic spectrum. That is, his society is characterized by its members’ isolation and inability to communicate with each other” (279). Relating this to the character’s difficulties with ToM and other interactional skills, Berger asserts that Christopher “is an extreme example of qualities possessed in lesser amounts by everyone” (281).[26] Murray expresses eloquently the mark that the quirky Christopher may leave on his readership:

In the same way that each of the chapters of Christopher’s narrative is labelled with a prime number, a digit both utterly unique and yet part of a wider, potentially infinite, collective group, Christopher’s exceptionality is the normative basis for the narrative that we, as readers, receive. His difference thus becomes—within the created world of the novel—normal, the ultimate goal for much study on the contemporary representations of disability and impairment. (37)

Without erasing Christopher’s uniqueness, in other words, the novel does not dwell on which piece of the human puzzle he might be missing. It also does not engage in the “rhetoric of sadness” that mourns autism; the novel avoids “a language of differentiation and division that speaks to the strangeness, terrors, and desolating sadness of autism” (Duffy and Dorner 211). As such, Curious Incident does not invite the reader to take the superior stance of “Oh, poor Christopher!” Instead, one becomes immersed in his world and comes to understand that what makes perfect sense to one person will be confusing to the next, regardless of how each might present on the neurological spectrum. In the process, Theory of Mind is brought to the forefront as almost another character in Haddon’s story, serving as a reminder that “mindblind” is an inappropriate metaphor to describe anyone with an atypical way of seeing the world.


Works Cited

Apperly, Ian A. “What is ‘theory of mind’? Concepts, Cognitive Processes and Individual Differences.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 65.5 (2012): 825-39.

Baron-Cohen, Simon. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Berger, James. “Alterity and Autism: Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident in the Neurological Spectrum.” Autism and Representation. Ed. Mark Osteen. London: Routledge, 2008. 271-88.

Burks-Abbott, Gyasi. “Mark Haddon’s Popularity and Other Curious Incidents in My Life as an Autistic.” Autism and Representation. Ed. Mark Osteen. London: Routledge, 2008. 289-96.

Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind. Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and             Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

Duffy, John and Rebecca Dorner. “The Pathos of ‘Mindblindness.’ Autism, Science, and

Sadness in ‘Theory of Mind’ Narratives.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5.2 (2011): 201-15.

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[1] For a summary of criticisms leveled against the novel see Muller (122).

[2] Clare Walsh effectively uses schema poetics to explain the identification with certain aspects of Christopher’s personality and situations in both an adult and younger readership, explaining that “the radical newness of such texts means all readers are without a ready-made text schema to guide them through the work” (112).

[3] Welch 3. Here the author also admits (although he did not start out intending to write a book about a character with autism or Asperger’s) that Christopher does have autism of some form, albeit less severe than the people with whom Haddon once worked.

[4] An example of Christopher’s reliance on past experiences is found in his description of doing a “Search” of his memories (78). He seems to be analogizing his strategy to a computer search function, while Temple Grandin, a professor known for adapting remarkably to her autism, had in her mind a collection of “‘videos’ of how people behaved in different circumstances. She would play these over and over again, and learn, by degrees, to correlate what she saw, so that she could then predict how people in similar circumstances might act” (Sacks 260).

[5] See for example the interview with Dave Welch, in which Haddon states about Christopher, “The one thing he cannot do is put himself in someone else’s shoes” (1). The metaphor of putting oneself in another’s shoes is often used to explain the cognitive phenomenon of ToM.

[6] As put forth for instance in Uta Frith’s Autism: Explaining the Enigma (2003) and Simon Baron-Cohen’s Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (1995).

[7] Apperly (2012) points out the diverse interpretations (conceptual, cognitive, and social) of the standard false-belief test, noting that “this very narrow experimental approach is surely problematic for research on ToM in three- to five-year-old children, for it seems highly unlikely that the very same false-belief score can simultaneously be the optimal experimental tool for investigating all three aspects of ToM” (835). Apperly also outlines how these false-belief tests are unable to distinguish inferences made by subjects based on an understanding (or lack thereof) of another’s false belief from those made due to an ability (or inability) to resist interference from one’s own perspective (831).

[8] For example, he recalls taking the “Smarties test,” a well-known false-belief test, when he was younger (115-16). In this test, a pencil is taken out of a candy tube, shown to the subject and put back in the tube. The subject is then asked what someone just entering the room would assume is in the tube. The “right” answer would be candy, whereas the “wrong” answer indicating a lack of ToM is pencil. Christopher recalls giving the wrong answer, reflecting retrospectively, “That was because when I was little I didn’t understand about other people having minds” (116). He does not indicate his age at that time; neurologically typical children are generally not able to pass such a false-belief test until about the age of four.

[9] See similar statements from Walsh (113), Gregoriou (102), and Freißmann (410).

[10] The hierarchical “orders of intensionality” in ToM discourse constitute a chain in which a belief about something signals the first order, my belief about your belief the second order, and my belief about your belief about my belief the third, and so on. Dunbar notes, “Humans seem to be capable of following arguments through to fourth-order intensionality without too much difficulty” (102). Six orders is considered the upper limit of what humans can readily keep track of, in most cases.

[11] William Schofield, an 18-year-old with Asperger’s who has reviewed Haddon’s novel, has stated that he is quite similar to Christopher but that he, Schofield, is “older, more mature and more aware of the way the ‘normal’ world works” (Guardian article online). Although their age difference is only about three years, Schofield’s comments suggest that he believes his own ToM to be further developed than Christopher’s. This claim marks an interesting parallel to Christopher’s awareness of how his ToM has advanced since his childhood; whereas most of us take the onset and then continued existence of a ToM for granted, those with Asperger’s may feel compelled to confront its (often somewhat delayed) arrival, and to reflect on its previous absence in ways that someone without Asperger’s would not. Temple Grandin also comments in her autobiography Thinking in Pictures on her own ToM, which apparently developed with age: “Twenty years ago I did not realize how weird I seemed” (106).

[12] The issue of Christopher’s reliability has been addressed often in the secondary literature on the novel. Kravitz relates him to literary predecessors Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, describing Christopher as “an unreliable narrator who nevertheless reveals truth” (46). Gregoriou argues along similar lines, “The novel’s first-person narrator is limited in his understanding of the world around him and hence is, narratologically, unreliable” (105). Freißmann claims however, “Though Christopher cannot really be described as an unreliable narrator, he is a ‘limited narrator’: his report is honest but his perspective and his knowledge are severely limited in comparison with ordinary persons” (396).

[13] Alan Palmer argues in Fictional Minds that “first-person ascription [how we ascribe motives and intentions to our own actions] can be less reliable, and third-person ascription [how we ascribe motives and intentions to the actions of others] more reliable, than is commonly supposed” (124-25). While Christopher does not inject countless analyses of his own motivations and actions into his first-person account, this fact in itself should not evoke suspicion.

[14] “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them. [...] If I try to say the joke to myself, making the word mean the three different things at the same time, it is like hearing three different pieces of music at the same time, which is uncomfortable and confusing and not nice like white noise. It is like three people trying to talk to you at the same time about different things” (8).

[15] “I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies. [...] A lie is when you say something happened which didn’t happen. But there is only ever one thing which happened at a particular time and a particular place. And there are an infinite number of things which didn’t happen at that time and that place. And if I think about something which didn’t happen I start thinking about all the other things which didn’t happen” (19).

[16] “Other people have pictures in their heads, too. But they are different because the pictures in my head are all pictures of things which really happened. But other people have pictures in their heads of things which aren’t real and didn’t happen” (78). Cf. the first sentences of Grandin’s autobiography Thinking in Pictures: “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head”(19). Christopher, representing the digital age, mentions being able to do a “Search” of his pictures, which serves as his primary mnemonic device.

[17] Christopher also fantasizes about taking Toby with him into space, “if I could think of a good experiment you could do with a rat that didn’t hurt the rat” (51). Kravitz refers to Grandin’s understanding of the minds of animals as described in her autobiography: “She does much more than empathize with animals; she can visualize their plight. In fact, she makes herself see what they are seeing” (42).

[18] Haddon includes illustrations of these symbolically emotive faces, marking but one instance of the many visual aids that Christopher includes in his novel, seemingly for the sake of an implied reader. See Ekman’s Emotions Revealed for cross-cultural research on emotions and how they can be discerned through often universal facial expressions.

[19] The jury is still out on whether reading fiction actually enhances ToM skills. Zunshine has contended that fiction “offers a pleasurable and intensive workout for [her] Theory of Mind” (2006, 164), implying that reading fiction has the potential to hone one’s ToM. Raymond Mar et al. have conducted a study that “indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did” (Oatley 159), with fiction readers performing best on tests that are thought to measure empathy. Suzanne Keen represents another camp of scholars who question “whether the effort of imagining fictive lives, as George Eliot believed, can train a reader’s sympathetic imagining of real others in her actual world” (xxv).

[20] O’Connell diagnoses Sherlock Holmes with Asperger’s, however: “Sherlock Holmes is typical of someone with Asperger’s: he is eccentric, odd and highly intelligent. He is absent-minded in relation to other people, but single-minded with regard to certain issues; untroubled by the simple events of everyday life, he attends to trifles that seem insignificant to others – but usually end up being vital clues to the mystery. In true autistic fashion, Holmes has written a monograph on the ashes of 140 different types of pipe, cigar and cigarette tobacco” (195).

[21] Berger also briefly addresses the ethics of “using” the disabled character, and in this case argues along the lines of his own interpretation of the novel that “in Haddon’s understanding of human neurological features as a continuum, the presumed other is not other in any radical sense, which therefore mitigates the ethical problem of speaking for or about the other” (286). This positive take on Haddon’s intentions is refuted by Gyasi Burks-Abbott,  a writer with autism in the same edited volume as Berger’s piece, Autism and Representation. Burks-Abbott criticizes the novel’s author unequivocally, referring to a quotation from Haddon in which he declares that the only way to get inside the head of a character like Christopher is to write a novel about him: “In declaring that people like Christopher are unfathomable unless written about … at the same time claiming that Christopher would have trouble writing for himself, Haddon has relegated the autistic to otherworldliness while establishing a non-autistic author like himself as the necessary medium between autistic and non-autistic reality” (295).

[22] For instance, the description in Emergence of her childhood psychiatrist is reminiscent of Christopher’s style: “To me, Dr. Stein looked like one of the men on the Smith Bros. Cough Drops package. He was the nice guy I talked to and played games with. He kept M & M’s in a candy dish on his desk for me to enjoy. Ferreting out the roots of my mythical psychic injury was impossible, but Dr. Stein was helpful because he advised Mother on how to work with me” (53).

[23] See for instance Walsh’s characterization of Christopher as “the ultimate detached narrator” (114). This judgment is validated at times through the emotionless language used, such as when Christopher explains the process of cremation in relation to his mother, whom he believes has been cremated (33). However, later in the same passage we then get an inkling of Christopher’s imagination, which he claims to not possess: “… sometimes I look up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or in snow somewhere” (33-34).

[24] See also O’Connell: “There’s a little bit of Asperger’s in many people: the literal-mindedness, the inability fully to understand another person’s point of view, the desire for the security of lack of change, the single-minded dedication to one issue” (195).

[25] Burks-Abbott’s essay provides a good starting-point list of personal accounts by other writers with autism (295).

[26] I would clarify this statement further with the phraseology “in lesser or greater amounts by everyone.”

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Jennifer Marston William "Against the Rhetoric of Sadness: Theory of Mind and the Writing Process in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available July 10, 2012 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 10, 2012, Published: July 10, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Marston William