The Mark of Isolation in Adolescence
Adolescence marks a time for social interaction. Between school, sports and other activities, these social settings are the platform for peer groups to form and either accept a child or create an outcast. “The peer group has been defined as the constellation of associates of similar age and interest” (Lombardi 307). When a child is simply different, they fall outside of this constellation of interest, and therefore, fall outside of the peer group as well. Depending on the stage of development, “peer group influence can be a most significant factor,” ranging from their effect on academic performance to the development of emotional intelligence in youth (Lombardi 308). In Mark Haddon’s “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”, Christopher Boone clearly differs from other youth, and his disinterest in associating with others is readily apparent as well. While Ender Wiggin from Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” also differs from other youth, he maintains an interest in forming bonds with others, and views them as useful for his personal development. This essay argues that even though both characters are isolated and considerable outcasts in their respective peer groups, in contrast to Ender Wiggins who despises his state of isolation and longs for the support of his friends and family, Christopher Boone does not comprehend or desire interactions with others due to his Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis.
As the first person narrator of “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”, Christopher Boone’s Asperger’s syndrome becomes apparent because of his disregard for social norms and desire for isolation from peer groups and society. He begins by explaining the mystery of the murder of Wellington, the neighbor’s dog. He fails to introduce himself as a character until after he explains Wellington in chapter one, thus displaying his pre-occupation with the subject matter, and failing to follow social norms where one would typically introduce himself first. When he finally introduces himself in chapter three, it is almost as if he is following a script starting with “my name is Christopher John Francis Boone” (Haddon 2). He proceeds to explain his interests as if he is answering a question before someone has the opportunity to ask it: “I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7057” (2). These facts are as important to Christopher as his identity; they are the same to him. Christopher goes on to display pictures of smiley faces with differing expressions, explaining how he understands happiness and sadness, but cannot recognize the others. Christopher has significant difficulty recognizing emotions in others where “if [he does not] know what someone is saying, [he asks] them what they mean or [he walks] away” (3). These are the reader’s first hints at Christopher’s features of Asperger’s syndrome where he exhibits “difficulty in communicating, difficulty in social relationships, and often a lack of creativity” (Dosani 33). Although Christopher cannot express or understand his desires, he is “subject to the same hopes and feelings as the rest of us, but [finds] it difficult to learn our ‘social’ ropes” (McClure 1247). One can also assume an individual with Asperger’s syndrome lacks emotional intelligence, which Salovey defines as “viewing emotions as useful sources of information that help one to make sense of and navigate the social environment” (281). Christopher’s lack of emotional intelligence hinders his ability to establish relationships with peers, as he cannot relate to or even recognize emotions in others.
In contrast to Christopher’s inability to read others, Ender has an extraordinary ability to sense his opponent’s weaknesses and extort them when necessary. Ender understands that “no one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do…Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy tells you where he is strong” (Card 263). When Stilson begins to bully Ender, he evaluates the escalating situation where “anything [he says] will make it worse. So [he] will say nothing” (7). Stilson refuses to stop, and even though his entourage releases their grip, Ender takes them by surprise and “[kicks] out high and hard, catching Stilson square in the breastbone. He [drops]” (7). Ender realises he has to “win this now, and for all time, or [he] will fight it every day and it will get worse and worse” (7). Ender is able to evaluate that by taking his opponents by surprise, their strengths are insignificant. To win this, Ender “[walks] to Stilson’s supine body and [kicks] him again, viciously, in the ribs…Ender [walks] around him and [kicks] him again, in the crotch” (7). By shocking his opponents, Ender reduces the possibility of future retaliation by urging them to “remember what [he does] to people who try to hurt [him]” (7). In contrast to Christopher, Ender not only recognizes, but also uses emotions to his advantage. In combat, Ender must completely understand his opponent in order to win; he predicts the emotional responses of others and plans accordingly. The reader notices that Christopher struggles to comprehend the subjects of his investigation, which subsequently suffers. While the consequences of losing are significantly more serious for Ender, Christopher would not be able to accomplish the same emotional understanding even under the pressure of Battle School.
In the highly competitive and dangerous environment at Battle School, Ender’s desire for the support of friends and family is readily apparent while he faces bullying and isolation. Ender’s relationship with his sister, Valentine, remains important to him even in Battle School. Valentine acts as Ender’s protection at home, where if his brother, Peter, bullies him, she diffuses the situation and defends Ender. Although Peter bullies Ender relentlessly, Ender still desires love and acceptance from Peter. He believes that once the monitor is gone, “Peter won’t hate [him] anymore” since that would mean Ender “[did not] make it either” and is “just be a normal kid now, like him” (2). Ender clearly desires acceptance from his brother and others, even at the cost of Battle School. When Ender enters Battle School, he understands his family is not present, but he still “[feels] his family around him, as they always [have] been” (43). But, not even Valentine can defend or support him there, and “the fear [stays], all through dinner as no one [sits] by him in the mess hall. The other boys [are] talking about things…Ender [can] only watch in isolation” (41). As Bernard assembles a group of bullies, Ender begins to recognize that isolation in Battle School not only equates with loneliness, but vulnerability as well. Ender’s inability to fit in on Earth and Battle School puts him in numerous vulnerable positions. His fight with Stilson bears a resemblance to his one-on-eight fight with Bonzo and his friends where “[Bonzo] meant to kill [Ender]” could have ended differently if Ender had more support (Card 212). Maybe the fight would not have happened at all or more people would have been present to break it up. Dink stands by and watches the event unfold, but does not feel comfortable enough with Ender to actually stop the fight. Regardless, Ender’s forced isolation results in Bonzo’s physical injury and Ender’s emotional damage. At least on Earth, Ender has the support of Valentine. At Battle School, Graff prevents Ender’s relationships with his peers resulting in complete isolation. Like Christopher, Ender does not feel like he belongs anywhere; he views Earth “as a planet, like any other, not particularly his own” (Card 30). Christopher and Ender do not have a specific place to call home where they feel they belong.
While Ender desires the acceptance of his friends, family and Battle School associates, Christopher willingly places himself in isolation in order to feel calm and safe. By placing himself in isolation, Christopher avoids the stress of social interaction. He sometimes goes “into the airing cupboard in the bathroom and [slides] in beside the boiler and [pulls] the door behind [him] and [sits] there and [thinks] for hours and it makes [him] feel very calm” (Haddon 50). The reader is offered insight “not only into what makes Christopher tick, but also what makes him afraid, what comforts him and what gives him hope” (Dosani 33). He finds it easier to remain alone where he can “walk up and down the street and pretend that [he is] the only person in the world” (Haddon 2). The notion of being the only person in the world is a recurring idea for Christopher where no one judges him or considers him different. He desires a world where “nearly everyone on earth is dead, because they have caught a virus. But [it is] not like a normal virus…people catch it because of the meaning of something an infected person says and the meaning of what they do with their faces when they say it” (Haddon 198). This type of virus would leave Christopher and others like Christopher immune, then the remaining population would be “people who [do not] look at other people’s faces and who [do not] know what these pictures [of faces] mean and these people are all special people like [Christopher]” (Haddon 198-9). While Christopher clearly desires isolation, this also shows a kinship with others like him and his resentment of his social disorder. In his dream world, he “can go anywhere in the world and [know] that no one is going to talk to [him] or touch [him] or ask [him] a question” (Haddon 199). Christopher can do whatever he wants because no one is alive to stop him. This concerning and morbid perspective on society is due to Christopher’s desire to escape the judgement he faces from his peers. This feeling is common among those with Asperger’s syndrome, where “someone speaks to [him], but [he cannot] listen, unless [he avoids] eye contact. If [he looks] at them, [he cannot] ‘read’ their face. [He cannot] control [his] own, so [he looks] bored when [he is] interested” (McClure 1247). The stress of social interaction forces Christopher to resort to coping strategies, which soothe his anxiety.
While Ender and Christopher differ in many ways, they both excel with and rely on mathematics and numbers in times of anxiety and isolation. Mathematics represents logic and order. When Ender finds himself in times of stress, counting soothes his anxiety. When Peter torments him, “Ender [does] what he always [does]…He [begins] to count doubles” (Card 44). The pattern of numbers removes his focus from the current stressor and places it on an attainable goal, counting doubles. Numbers have a cathartic effect for Ender, providing with a sense of control in an uncontrollable environment. From a young age, Ender focuses on mathematics where “Valentine had taught him arithmetic when he was three” (Card 5). His ability to critically analyze situations results from his focus on difficult math problems from such a young age. He is able to see various angles from which he can solve the problem. For both Christopher and Ender, their mathematical and analytical abilities relate to success in society. Christopher equates his intelligence and mathematical strengths with the ability to “get a job and earn lots of money”, then he “will be able to pay someone who can look after [him] and cook [his] meals and wash [his] clothes” (Haddon 45). Christopher’s perception of success includes paying others to support him rather than struggling to maintain emotional relationships. He also poses that he could “get a lady to marry [him] and be [his] wife and she can look after [him] so [he] can have company and not be on [his] own” (Haddon 45). Rather than marry for love as most attempt to do, Christopher views marriage as a business transaction; if he provides her with A, she must provide him with B. He understands he cannot be alone, but simultaneously lacks the ability to sustain emotional relationships. In contrast to Christopher whose superior math abilities result from the disorder which isolates him, Ender’s isolation becomes the means of preserving his creativity since “isolation is––the optimum environment for creativity” (Card 149). Graff struggles with the balance between Ender’s creative and analytical abilities, deciding to “isolate him enough that he remains creative…At the same time…make sure he keeps a strong ability to lead” (Card 27).
Mathematics and numbers represent a source of sensibility and reliability unlike human interaction, which is unpredictable and requires the intuition that Christopher does not possess. Numbers are analytical rather than creative; they remain unchanged by emotion or opinion; one can always assume that two comes after one, unlike social interaction where Christopher cannot assume all of the possible meanings of a peer’s words. His obsession with prime numbers carries through “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” as Haddon only uses prime numbers for the chapters. Christopher notes that “prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away…prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them” (Haddon 12). While numbers remain consistent, Christopher also notes patterns, which he does not comprehend. This is his comparison between numbers and social interaction, where there are obvious patterns present, but Christopher cannot decipher them. Prime numbers are not only a symbol for Christopher’s minimal understanding of society, but also him as an individual. Wolfram MathWorld defines a prime number as “a positive integer having exactly one positive divisor other than [one], meaning it is a number that cannot be factored.” Mathematics recognizes prime numbers as different from composite numbers; if Christopher identifies with prime number, he recognizes his difference and separation from his peers. Furthermore, significant debate remains over the number one and whether it is prime or not. Wolfram MathWorld defines the number one as “a special case which is considered neither prime nor composite”; one remains in isolation as the only number of its kind, it cannot identify with prime or composite numbers. While Christopher desires this number one position, seeking isolation is space as an astronaut, he currently represents a prime number amongst composites, where he notes the existence of other primes like himself, but they do not interact. In contrast to Ender, Christopher does not have the option of going to space, even though he wishes to be an astronaut where he would be alone. Even though he “would have to talk to other people” he “would do that through a radio linkup and a TV monitor, so they [would not] be like real people who are strangers, but it would be like playing a computer game” (Haddon 51). Ender understands that computer games can be more realistic than one would expect. While Ender is not an astronaut, Graff chooses him to leave his family and attend Battle School in space, where he practices for battle with computer games and also represents a prime among composites. Graff relentlessly struggles between maintaining Ender’s leadership qualities and creativity. His leadership requires interaction with peers, while “Graff [has] deliberately set him up to be separate from the others boys, made it impossible for him to be close to them…It [makes] him a better soldier than he would ever [be] otherwise. It also [makes] him lonely, afraid, angry, untrusting” (Card 167-8). Ender clearly has no option in the matter, even if he attempts to make friends; Graff stops him at every turn. His helplessness in this situation reminds the reader of his adolescence.
Whether by choice or by force, the isolation of both Christopher and Ender has a significant impact on their individual development. While Christopher does not understand social interactions, the reader can sense his desire to understand and have “company and not be on [his] own” (Haddon 45). He inadvertently expresses dislike for his Asperger’s syndrome, which forces his isolation. While he knows his limits with social interaction, he does attempt to further his knowledge and ask others what they mean. Asperger’s syndrome has definitely hindered Christopher’s ability to flourish as a child. Mark Haddon allows the reader to enter the mind of a child with Asperger’s syndrome and we can sense the frustration. The scattered thoughts and images throughout the novel make it difficult to follow, but that is entirely the point. On the other hand, Ender Wiggin strives for friendships, especially while attending Battle School, but Graff prevents these bonds from forming. While Ender flourishes as a solider, his psyche suffers significantly. He not only misses his sister, Valentine, but also bounces back and forth between leadership roles and isolation in Battle School. Friendships and bonds typically form at school, but Ender does not have the same experience as most children due to his gifted status. Both of these children lead far from average lives as Christopher struggles with Asperger’s syndrome and Ender remains a child prodigy. While adolescence marks a time for social interaction, it also marks a time for self-discovery.
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