The Curious Relationship Between Facts and Truth in Mark Haddon’s Novel
The title of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a reference to a famous Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Conan Arthur Doyle. Baker Street’s most famous resident deduces who committed the crime in this particular story by interpreting a clue in a much different way than normal: the mystery gets solved not on account of a what a dog did do but rather on account of what did not do: bark. In light of its relation to Haddon’s novel, it is interesting to note that the character of Sherlock Holmes has moved from being seen merely as a emotionless, robotic calculating machine into, as one very famous recent TV show described him, a high-functioning sociopath. The facts of Sherlock Holmes remains unchanged; it is the interpretation that has changed. If The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time had been written twenty years ago, the interpretation of the narrator’s unnamed “behavioral condition” might have been interpreted as retardation or even mild schizophrenia. Today, it is easy to interpret the condition as autism or Asperger’s. The real lesson that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time seems to aiming for is that facts detached from interpretation do not equal truth.
Point of view is everything in the novel. Christopher Boone at one point observes that “the mind is just a complicated machine.” The book is full of declarative observations of facts or opinions like this, but this assertion is one of the few times that he makes an attempt at interpreting what is a fact to him. What eventually adds up into a great big pile of brutally honest factual statements by Christopher should by all accounts have the effect of making it incredibly easy to understand him. But, as Christopher observes, “the rule for working out prime numbers is really simple, but no one has ever worked out a simple formula for telling you whether a very big number is a prime number or what the next one will be.” For Christopher, this is merely mathematical fact and any interpretation will be equally applied to math, but the reader can interpret that what is true for prime numbers is also true for people. There is no simple formula for using just the facts of someone’s life to figure out what’s really going on inside their mind.
Christopher almost seems to intuitively realize this. At one point he admits “I didn’t understand about other people having minds.” That may seem like the kind of bizarre statement that only someone suffering from a brain disorder like autism could make. (Or like someone suffering from schizophrenia could make if you were interpreting it twenty years ago.) However, he then goes on to say that he worked around this failure by deciding to look at how other people think as “a kind of puzzle, and if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it.”
While it may seem bizarre to not understand that other people have minds, isn’t that really how most people treat others most of the time? Just because you realize that other people have minds of their own doesn’t mean you don’t expect that mind to work exactly the same way as yours. So it makes sense that the whole book is driven by Christopher’s desire to solve the mystery of who killed the dog. If you are going to try to solve a crime, you have to expect that you can think like the person who committed the crime. Since Sherlock Holmes is such an important “character” in the novel, it’s hard to ignore the difference in point of view between the books about him and this book about one of his biggest fans.
Christopher writes down a lot of information like facts and opinions. These fact and opinions build up over time to become clues and evidence as we try to figure him out. Every time Sherlock solves a crime and Dr. Watson writes about it, the reader gets more clues and evidence to solve the mystery of Sherlock himself. But if you stop to think about it, everything that is ever known about Sherlock Holmes is only known because Dr. Watson says it’s so. Christopher seems to realize this when he observes it is Dr. Watson who writes that Sherlock’s mind is always trying to connect various disconnected bits of information to form a logical conclusion before going on to add “that is what I am trying to do by writing this book.” The reader’s initial response to the story told by Christopher Boone is that it must be one-hundred percent truth since, according to Christopher himself, “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.” Throughout the book, Christopher demonstrates not just an inability to tell lies, but a rather strange inability to even determine what a lie actually is. He often misapprehends any kind of statement that is not literally true as a lie, even those lacking any inherent attempt at deception. Over time, these example of how much Christopher hates lies build into a kind of theme that suggests you can never really get at the truth of someone unless you can get at just the facts. And yet all those facts the reader learns about Christopher don’t really help to understand him, either.
One example of how Christopher doesn’t seem capable of interpreting the difference between lies comes when he himself is brutally honest: “I like Sherlock Holmes, but I do not like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” Christopher dislike of Arthur Conan Doyle has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. He dislikes Doyle because he was so easily fooled into thinking obviously faked photographs of fairies were real and author’s belief that “you could communicate with the dead.” Christopher’s reasons for disliking the man who created the fictional character who’s had the greatest influence on him is especially interesting. After all, are there not still many people who think believing you can communicate with someone suffering from mental issues like autism or schizophrenia is just as impossible as communicating with the dead?
By the time the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is reached, most people will have to admit that you really can’t honestly say you know how Christopher’s mind works any better than when you started reading. Christopher begins his story by informing the reader that it’s a murder mystery novel. Only through interpretation of this fact does it prove true. He ends by writing “I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” That closing assertion is one of the few times that he provides interpretation alongside fact, but the average reader must surely find this interpretation highly dubious, not to mention a supreme example of overconfidence. From the reader’s perspective, nothing that has happened to that point provides any clue that Christopher should feel such confidence. But maybe that’s the point. Christopher starts the novel by telling us it is a murder mystery and ends with an affirmation that he is capable of doing anything. Maybe the real murder victim here was that part of Christopher that was holding him back and maybe he is the only one who can know this fact happens to be a truth because he is the only one capable of interpreting the facts of the novel accurately.
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The title of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a reference to a famous Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Conan Arthur Doyle. Baker Street’s […]