Abstract

This article analyzes Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, using a combination of disability studies and ecocriticism. The author argues that the novel's main character, Christopher Boone, presents a social model of disability by challenging dominant society's treatment of him as "not normal." Christopher is ostensibly diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, although the novel never explicitly labels him as disabled in any way. Through Christopher's views of nature, language, knowledge, and social constructions of disability, we learn that disability is an unstable category, and that dominant society can be disabling. Importantly, though, Christopher's critique of society is, as the author argues, fundamentally environmental. That is, Christopher's views of language, knowledge, and even the more-than-human world itself are central to his destabilization of the category of disability. Christopher's environmental sensibility and critique of society's disabling qualities emerge primarily through his discussions of language, which he finds suspect because it distances humans from the world it describes. Thus, the novel suggests that the disabling features of society that Christopher encounters are the same features that distance humans from nature, particularly through language.


Mark Haddon's 2003 national bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel about an average 15-year old boy, Christopher Boone, living in contemporary England. Christopher's parents are separated, and he is being raised by his father in a middle-class neighborhood in Swindon. Readers are never explicitly made aware of what makes Christopher "not normal," but his ostensible "disability"—possibly Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism—shapes the narrative. In this article, I offer a disability studies analysis of the text, and conclude that the novel presents a liberatory model of disability, in part precisely because Christopher's disability is never named, raising the possibility that disability is in the eye of the reader, not the character himself. But perhaps a less obvious reading of the novel notes the way its treatment of disability is informed by an environmental sensibility. That is, as I hope to demonstrate, Christopher's environmental awareness—especially as evidenced through his views of language—create the foundation for the novel's critique of disability. Combining disability studies theory and ecocriticism, then, this article argues that Christopher's disability offers an environmental sensibility and vice versa—Christopher's environmental sensibility shapes his and the novel's critique of disability.

The most important way that the novel achieves its message that disability is a social construction is through point of view and using form to critique the dominant novel form: the novel is written from Christopher's perspective, rather than being about Christopher. The story opens with Christopher writing a story—which is the novel itself—about finding his neighbor's dog murdered by a pitchfork. He writes this murder mystery novel (which is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) as an assignment for his special education teacher, Siobhan. That Christopher is in a special education class is the strongest evidence that he has a disability, but, as we will see, a disability studies perspective suggests that this evidence is more a reflection of how society perceives Christopher than an ontological reality. Christopher's "disability" is not easily categorized; even those who are supposed to be experts about his condition, such as Siobhan, cannot figure out quite how to treat him. By never explicitly diagnosing Christopher, author Mark Haddon suggests a disability studies perspective from the outset: the "medical model" of disability is not central to Christopher's own experience of the world. Haddon accomplishes this critique of the medical model by writing from Christopher's perspective, which further emphasizes the value of personal experience, as opposed to expert authority, in helping us access "truth." The critique of the novel form—illustrated by Christopher's literal rewriting of it—further speaks to the importance of perspective for a disability studies analysis. Writing about Christopher from any other point of view would have undermined the novel's critique of dominant ableist society: "normal" is not an absolute; it is a social construction that reflects more about society than a person's mental or physical attributes.

Such a message is counter to conventional wisdom, which insists that there is one objective way of knowing the world, and that therefore there are some people who know it "better" than others. In this view, people with disabilities are disabled precisely because they lack some access to this knowledge and truth. They are measured against an absolute scale of intelligence, potential, and capability, and are therefore ab-normal. People with disabilities are perceived as having less intelligence, potential, and capability; indeed, the very definition of disability is the need for special accommodation to "allow" them to fulfill functions otherwise deemed "normal." In Christopher's case, his "autism" makes him a social outcast, "other," "special needs"; it even causes the breakup of his nuclear family—an important symbol of "normalcy" in Western society, despite the fact that fewer than a quarter of households in Britain are "normal" in this sense. In many ways, he is not what we think of as "normal," particularly in terms of how his mind works. But where did the standard and definition of "normal" come from, and what kind of way of knowing the world does the ideal of "normal" assume?

In this article, I explore the emergence of the idea of "normal" as it helps us read The Curious Incident as a critique of ableism. As Michel Foucault and disability scholars such as Lennard Davis have established, the ideal of "normal" emerged out of particular historical and cultural circumstances. The Curious Incident provides a powerful critique of this category of "normal." Paradoxically, by challenging readers to see Christopher as "normal," the novel questions the very idea of "normalcy" in the first place. The novel achieves this critique in part by exploring Christopher's relationship to language. Language organizes the world in ways that often reflect power relationships, and so any critique of "normalcy" is fundamentally a challenge to the power of language to divide the world into hierarchies. Christopher's orientation toward language is one of suspicion; he knows that people often use language to make fun of him, and that language obscures his perception of the world. In these ways, language can "naturalize" disability as abnormal.

Although disability studies scholars and activists have examined this naturalizing power of language, I want to add to this scholarship an ecocritical analysis, one which takes seriously the novel's insights about the relationship between language and the nonhuman world itself. Christopher's views about language are not only liberatory in terms of disability; they suggest a more ethical mode of being in the nonhuman world. Some ecocritics and environmental writers argue that language is a human construct imposed on the natural world in ways that have nothing to do with how ecosystems operate, or nature's best interests. David Abrams captures this logic: "The more prevalent view of language," he writes, "considers any language to be a set of arbitrary conventionally agreed upon system of words, or 'signs,' linked by a purely formal system of syntactic and grammatical rules." Language, then, is "rather like a code; it is a way of representing actual things and events in the perceived world, but it has no internal, nonarbitrary connections to that world, and hence is readily separable from it" (77). In this passage, we see how, as a form of representation, language can distance the human body from direct perception of the material world. Many environmental and proto-environmental writers from Emily Dickinson to Gary Snyder 1 grapple with this question about language and mimesis, posing the question: is language an artifice that divides humans from nature? 2 If language must be as transparent as possible, despite its value as a tool to communicate the value of nature to others, we must be vigilant about the distinction between language (as a product of human culture) and nature. To the extent that language "speaks a word for nature," as Thoreau famously tried to achieve in his writing, it runs the risk of replacing nature's voice with a human voice, thereby silencing it all the more. How can any language speak for nature (or any silenced other) without being tainted by the speaker's interests? Christopher's views about language resonate with this ecocritical view, and, as I will show below, The Curious Incident's disability critique is inextricably tied to its sensitivity to the complicated relationship between language and nature.

No Such Thing as Normal

The concept of normalcy is of central concern to disability studies. Like critical race studies and feminist theory, disability studies does not merely aim to put one more voice at the table of power. Rather, like these other fields, disability studies seeks to challenge the fundamental paradigms that construct that table. Disability studies emerged around the same time as the passage of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Although the Act itself was an attempt to recognize unequal treatment of people with disabilities and give them greater political visibility, the field of disability studies developed a more critical agenda, focused on historicizing and deconstructing the very premises of "disability." The scholarly field questions the very term "disability" on which the Act itself depends, and the social structures that rely on consolidating power by defining disability as a deviant category—as "other."

In his groundbreaking book, Enforcing Normalcy, disability studies scholar Lennard Davis argues that "before the early to mid-nineteenth century, Western society lacked a concept of normalcy" (100). The prevailing paradigm was that of the "ideal." Against the "ideal," everyone falls short of standard, and so real people exist in "varying degrees of imperfection." Drawing on Michel Foucault's arguments about the importance of "docile bodies"—bodies that submit to the demands of social order—Davis claims that it is only with the development of statistics and demography, which saw patterns in human society (such as the concept of the bell curve), that we begin to imagine and value "the norm." In this paradigm, Davis concludes, "the majority of bodies fall under the main umbrella of the curve. Those who do not are at the extremes—and are therefore abnormal" (101). Instead of pursuing an ideal, people in the past 150 years have been encouraged to strive to be "normal."

In response to this "tyranny of the normal" (a type of "tyranny of the majority," perhaps), disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson coined the term "normate," which refers to the imagined figure of the person who is the epitome of normal. She explains that the term "normate" "is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them" (8). The normate is able-bodied and of sound mind, and therefore deserves the power he is granted. By giving a name to this otherwise veiled, implied subject, Garland-Thomson adds "able-bodied" to the list of other qualities dominant society values, such as 'white', 'male,' and 'middle-class.' In these ways, Davis and Garland-Thomson demonstrate that ideas about what constitutes normal are not objective, absolute, or scientifically evident. Rather, "normal" is a social construction that arises out of particular historical circumstances, serves particular social ends, and defines "disabled," along with categories associated with race, gender and sexuality, as its Other.

For example, it is only in the context of the industrialization of production, in which "labor is standardized and bodies [need to be] interchangeable" (Davis, 105), that a person with a disability is seen and rejected as failing to meet the "norm" of ablebodiedness required for work on an assembly line. Or, to put it more crudely, it's not the wheelchair that makes it difficult for a person in a wheelchair to climb stairs, it's the stairs. Historical developments, social expectations, and physical environments all create conditions of disability. Disability is thus not located in the individual so much as it is located in the contingent relationship between the individual and social expectations of behavior and productivity.

Ironically, however, people considered abled rely on a whole set of aids, technologies, and medications to perform according to the norm. Do we think of Gor-Tex being an accommodation we require to be comfortable in bad weather? What about anti-depressants, or Viagra? If "disabled" is defined by requiring accommodations to perform a certain standard, as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act suggests, then why are these "normal" accommodations not associated with disability? Perhaps Christopher in The Curious Incident articulates this point best. In response to being categorized as "special needs," Christopher compares himself to the people around him, trying to locate himself in this order of normalcy:

But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs. (43-44)

Here, Christopher sees his limitations as comparable to using Sweet'n'Lo or wearing glasses. If you struggle to understand quantum mechanics, you have a "learning difficulty." This passage suggests that it is the need that defines disability, not the person. Therefore, disability is relative.

By deconstructing the language, Christopher challenges the assumed dichotomy between "normal" and "special," and subverts the basis for the social stigma of disability. If we view the apparatuses used to accommodate autism as comparable to the apparatuses that help "normal" people function, then the category "special" makes no sense. They are only different in degree, not kind. Disability is therefore an arbitrary social category, and would perhaps be better understood in terms of a spectrum of abilities that are relative to environmental conditions. Disability studies scholars hold that identity is not fixed, but they also add that identity is not static; that is, ability varies according to environment and stage of life. One person's disabling conditions may be another person's ideal conditions. In this passage, then, Christopher articulates one of disability studies' most important critiques of normalcy by challenging what it means to "be," as opposed to "have," "special needs."

Disability theorist Susan Wendell claims that all bodies are in flux, not just those of the disabled. The rigid binary of disabled-nondisabled is a myth: "we are all disabled eventually. Most of us will live part of our lives with bodies that hurt, that move with difficulty or not at all, that deprive us of activities we once took for granted or that others take for granted, bodies that make daily life a physical struggle" (263). Indeed, depending on the situation, one can be abled and disabled at the same time. Disability studies thus exposes the instability of the category "disabled" and the cultural work that it does.

The Curious Incident dramatizes these themes. One way that it does so is precisely by destabilizing dominant notions of normalcy. It paradoxically shows us how normal Christopher is, and, through Christopher's perspective, how silly society's ideas of normalcy are. For example, Christopher's life goals are perfectly "normal": he wants to get a degree and a job, earn lots of money, and "get a lady to marry me […] so she can look after me so I can have company" (45). This characterization of a "normal" life trajectory shows that "normal" people are not any different from him, despite the tyranny of normalcy that constantly stigmatizes him. And, in contrast, normates are irrational, unobservant, and mean to animals (100), in Christopher's estimation. They "leap to the wrong conclusions," as in detective novels (99), they stupidly make decisions based on intuition rather than logic (65), and, as Christopher reasons, "sometimes people want to be stupid and they do not want to know the truth" (90). "Normal" people are inferior to him. Perhaps normal is not ideal.

Furthermore, everybody exhibits idiosyncrasies that make them identifiable to Christopher, differences that mark them as abnormal: Christopher writes, "I see what they are wearing, or if they have a walking stick, or funny hair, or a certain type of glasses, or they have a particular way of moving their arms" (77-78). Nobody can hide behind a veneer of normalcy; everyone is different in some way. And Christopher reads bodies—clothing, affect, accommodations—to prove this. Indeed, at times in the novel, we are struck by the thought that this boy is more normal—or, at a minimum, more adjusted and knowledgeable of himself— than the "normal" people in the novel. This depiction challenges the hierarchy implied by the dichotomy between abnormal and normal, and reveals the instability of the term itself.

The Turn to the Body: Epistemology, Ecofeminism, and Eco-Phenomenology

Another way that the novel dramatizes the insights of disability studies is by privileging Christopher's individual experience and authority over the external, disciplining, normalizing gaze of a third person narrator. Haddon's choice of perspective is crucial; point of view has everything to do with the novel's critique of normalcy. As poststructuralist, feminist, and critical race theorists have argued, there is no objective "truth" out there, other than our own subjective perspectives. Pretenses of "truth"—or "truth regimes"—serve to fortify dominant orders and oppress marginalized groups. The presumption that there is only one way to correctly and fully know the world has the effect of neglecting non-dominant ways of knowing the world. Thus, feminist theorists such as Donna Haraway argue for "situated knowledges," an idea extending Hartstock's theory of "standpoint theory" that allows for multiple ways of knowing the world based on unique perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. For Haraway, all forms of knowledge are partial and based on subjective experience; there is no such thing as objectivity outside of subjectivity. She goes as far as to insist that "only partial perspective promises objective vision" (190). Everyone has their own situated knowledge, but disability studies offers a particularly cogent argument for thinking in these terms, since the world is designed with the normate in mind.

By privileging Christopher's point of view, Haddon reminds readers that knowledge is situated. Indeed, even the fact that Christopher is writing a murder mystery and sees his role as the "detective" reinforces the fact that this novel is fundamentally about epistemology. His role underscores that how we detect and thereby come to know truth is central to the novel's message. Furthermore, the novel's epistemological message is sensual. The novel strips readers of their own epistemological habits and assumptions, and asks readers to "detect" the world through Christopher's senses. This exercise allows readers to investigate their own assumptions about truth and reality.

If our bodies provide us information about the world—that is, our senses tell us what is real and what is not—then different kinds of bodies yield different kinds of knowledges. Disability studies, feminist, and critical race theorists emphasize that the relationship between one's body and one's knowledge helps shape one's "situated knowledge" or standpoint. If the world is designed to accommodate the normate's body, then non-normates are all the more attuned to the material world, as they spend much more energy navigating it. Michael Dorn calls this heightened attention to the environment "geographical maturity." He argues that because the disabled body "remain[s] attentive and responsive to changing environmental conditions," it "exhibits a mature form of environmental sensitivity" (183). Similarly, "differently-abled" people are not "different" because of any absolute, essential, or static condition of their own (which the medical model assumes), but because the world is designed with normates in mind, as Wendell noted.

The novel's attention to Christopher's sensual way of knowing the world emphasizes his "environmental sensitivity." For example, the hypothetical is unimaginable to him, as we see when he discusses how people ask him what he thinks his mother would think about something: these questions are "stupid because Mother is dead and you can't say anything to people who are dead and dead people can't think" (79). Christopher's epistemology is so firmly rooted in the material world that he cannot imagine such an abstraction as the hypothetical. Christopher's observations and senses often overwhelm him because he is taking in more information than normal people do. In his words, "most people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction." This leads them to a truth that is incomplete, in Christopher's view. He writes, "The information in their head is really simple" (140).

He goes on to discuss a road trip when he stopped in a field with cows. He remembers details that "normal" people would filter out: pieces of litter, the precise topography of the landscape, the exact pattern of black and white on the cows, etc. It is not just his sense of vision that absorbs the world around him; his sense of smell provides a "smelltrack"—like an olfactory soundtrack—to these detailed memories. Christopher's heightened senses and observational skills challenge dominant notions of what it means to be disabled. He is extraordinarily abled, here. His sensual relationship to the world also demonstrates his epistemology. His way of knowing the world is not typical, yet it allows him access to information that "normal" people cannot access.

The centrality of corporeal epistemology—exemplified by Christopher's "geographical maturity"— to the novel's critique of normalcy suggests that the text might be read in ecocritical terms, that is, with themes of the environment in mind. Environmental philosophy is concerned with investigating how definitions of the natural world lend themselves to the most ethical treatment of that world, and so questions of epistemology are as central to environmental ethics as they are to feminist theory and disability studies. There are some ways of knowing the world that are better and more ethical for the preservation of that world than others. Ecofeminist Deborah Slicer, for example, calls for women in particular (and even better if men would do this too) to "attend to their bodies as materialized starting points for theorizing similarly materialized nature" (qtd. in Alaimo, 33). Thus, many ecofeminists and eco-phenomenologists argue that we ought to have a more bodily-centered experience of the world because it would foster a better responsibility to the environment.

This turn to the body in much current environmental thought rests on a rejection of Cartesian dualisms. Cartesian dualisms divide the world into sets of opposing values that had once been inextricably linked. Primarily, the mind became separated from the body, and the spiritual world separated from the material world. But a suite of dualisms followed: male/female, human/animal, machine/organism, etc. Scholars like Carolyn Merchant, in The Death of Nature, for example, argue that the creation of these dualisms is at the root of our environmental crisis. Abrams articulates this logic: "Descartes' radical separation of the immaterial human mind from the wholly mechanical world of nature did much to fill this need, providing a splendid rationalization for the vivisection experiments that soon began to proliferate, as well as for the steady plundering and despoilment of nonhuman nature in the New World and the other European colonies" (78). Here, both the human body and material nature become profane, the raw material from which knowledge can be extracted. By subscribing to these binaries, we inherently value one over the other, as ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren has powerfully argued, and so the material world becomes profane, and exists simply to be used by (hu)man(ity). Moreover, dualistic thought made the natural world inferior to the spiritual world, and reinforced the Biblical view that animals are inferior to humans. This diminution of materiality—of the body, of animals, of non-human world—sets us up for unbridled exploitation of nature, according to many of these environmental thinkers, who attempt to redress this problem in part by inverting these dualisms. Eco-phenomenologists in particular (as well as many ecofeminists) argue that it is only by getting back to our senses as a source of truth that we can reconnect with the material world. These thinkers argue for an epistemology of experience and perception, which recovers the body—as opposed to the mind—as a source of knowledge about the world. The logic here is that a better awareness of our bodily presence in the world will lead to a better knowledge of that world, which will lead to a better ethical stance with regard to that world. Eco-phenomenology thus recognizes an inextricable link between body, knowledge, and nature.

The body's perceptions constitute one's knowledge of the world; they don't merely mediate the world. In The Curious Incident, Christopher's heightened interest in a direct connection to the material world and distaste for artifice provides an excellent example of an eco-phenomenological way of thinking. When Christopher dismisses Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of his favorite detective novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, for believing in a photograph of fairies, he elaborates on his own standards for truth in terms of Occam's razor: "no more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary" (90). In other words, the only evidence we can be sure of is that which we can perceive. The fact that Christopher is so struck by the fake photograph of fairies is indicative of the importance he places on the material world as the bearer of truth.

Some eco-phenomenologists go as far as to argue that language itself is an artifice that obscures our ethical perception of the material world. Nature does not have language, which is why we have people like Henry David Thoreau wanting to "speak a word for nature" and Peter Singer trying to include animals in a legal rights framework; these are attempts by humans to provide nature with a voice, "standing," in terms of liberal theory. If the ability to produce and understand language is what separates humans from animals, then language is what makes humans humans. And if animals are closer to nature than humans are, then language is the thing that separates humans from nature. Thus, many environmental thinkers argue that our language alienates us from our animal selves, and therefore from nature. It is associated with the realm of the mind and reason, and we need to return to the body to connect to nature. In this logic, language is to nature as mind is to body as fake is to real. We must reject language and the mind as artifices in favor of nature and the body as real.

Language that does not precisely depict what it describes, language that has more than a one-step remove from the reality it describes, can be understood, then, as un-ecological. Metaphors are even worse. They make no pretense of trying to represent the world directly, as Abrams' passage about language as a code of representation above illustrated. Indeed, Christopher calls metaphors "lies." Because such language attempts to create a figure in our mind's eye about the meaning of that figure, it only gets in the way of our direct experience of reality. Christopher defines metaphors as, "when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn't." When he tries to imagine the metaphor, "apple of my eye," the process of figuring it in his mind confuses him: "When I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone's eye doesn't have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about" (15).

Later, he expounds further on the alienation of language from reality in terms of his name. In response to the news that his name refers to Saint Christopher, who helped Jesus, he writes, "I do not want my name to mean a story about being kind and helpful. I want my name to mean me" (16). The name "Christopher" refers not to Christopher, the boy, but to Saint Christopher, an icon of saintly traits. In this sense, when language refers to something else instead of what it describes, it removes us one more step from that thing itself. This is why Christopher is suspicious of figurative language; in semiotic terms, he wants his name to signify its signified—himself—as closely as possible. No two things can be the same; again, everything is idiosyncratic, and so language should reflect that.

This is also why, when Siobhan is telling him how to write a book, Christopher wants to include photographs, and finds it odd to include only "descriptions of things":

Siobhan said that when you are writing a book you have to include some descriptions of things. I said that I could take photographs and put them in the book. But she said the idea of a book was to describe things using words so that people could read them and make a picture in their own head. (67)

To Christopher, photographs more accurately represent the world than words, and descriptions in words leave too much room for interpretation. The process of reading and making pictures in your own head is not as direct a way to know the world than images, which "cut out the middle man" of language, so to speak, and more directly represent reality. By extension, being in the world provides a more direct access to the world than reading about the world does. Christopher's aversion to complex language is not, as normate society would have it, a sign of his lack of mental ability. Rather, we can see it as a rejection of language's function as representation of reality, as ornament or artifice, as a more authentic, less corrupt, and less anthropomorphized way of being in the world.

Eco-phenomenologists might see Christopher's rejection of misleading language as a rejection of a normalizing society, but it is also a rejection of an anthropocentric society that values humans over nature. For example, imagining his own sort of post-apocalyptic "ecotopia," Christopher fantasizes about being the only person on the planet. This fantasy is a common trope in environmental writing, from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia, revealing Christopher's normative critique of the status quo. 3 Combining environmental and disability studies critiques then, we could see both Christopher's views about language and his aversion to humans as serving to challenge both the stigma of disability and the exploitation of nature. Indeed, such an analysis suggests that there is a relationship between these two forms of oppression. Thus, Christopher undermines the hierarchies implied by dualistic Cartesian thinking, thinking which similarly devalues animals, nature, and people with disabilities.

Christopher's epistemology can perhaps even more easily be read as "environmental" in his observations of the natural world in the novel. Not only is he particularly fond of animals, which is evident in his loyalty to Toby, his rat, and in his ability to better empathize with the dog in the Hound of the Baskervilles than other humans, he is very attentive to the details of the natural world in the text. When he does include images in his book, they are either graphs—figurative representations that he feels can better illustrate reality than words—or features of the natural world: cows, clouds, and constellations. He is thereby "truer" to these natural features than "descriptions of things," as Siobhan put it, would allow.

Christopher also thinks that seeing a constellation—a picture in the stars—is a silly, abitrary exercise; one can connect the dots anyway one likes. Constellations are illusions imposed on stars by the human desire to see the human in nature. Christopher finds this projection to be a lie, for, after all, "Orion is not a hunter or a coffeemaker or a dinosaur. It is just Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Alnilam and Rigel and 17 other stars I don't know the names of." Here, Christopher strips the constellation of its human-imposed order and rejects this form of anthropomorphism. Nature, like the stars, holds no judgment and needs no such artificial framework of order. Unlike the rest of humanity, Christopher doesn't "read into" the stars. The novel emphasizes how important Christopher's way of reading the world is to his knowledge of the world, as Christopher then declares, "And that is the truth" (126). Thus, we can see that Christopher's epistemology informs a particular kind of orientation toward the natural world, which some environmental philosophers might call more "ethical" than "normal."

Similarly, Christopher holds no illusions about death. The death of his mother is comparable to the death of his rabbit in that death simply transforms their bodies into another form. The location of their spirits is not part of Christopher's worldview. Heaven is abstract and a superficial solace for people who "don't like the idea of dying" (33). Dying doesn't scare Christopher because his worldview is so this-worldly, material, phenomenological, if you will. We can see his views of death not as heartlessness, but rather as further evidence of his epistemology being so rooted in the material world. "What actually happens when you die is that your brain stops working and your body rots," he writes. When his rabbit died,

all his molecules were broken down into other molecules and they went into the earth and were eaten by worms and went into plants and if we go and dig in the same place in 10 years there will be nothing except his skeleton left. And in 1,000 years even his skeleton will be gone. But that is all right because he is part of the flowers and the apple tree and the hawthorn bush now. (33)

In this passage, we see Christopher's highly earthly, ecological view of death. He takes solace not in the possibility of people's spirits existing eternally in heaven, but rather in the fact that the deterioration of Rabbit's body feeds flowers and apple trees and hawthorn bushes. His perspective is ecological in this sense, but also because he imagines time in a longer, geologic scale than the more anthropocentric frame of his own lifetime. Christopher even feels this way about his own Mother. He imagines "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). The transformation of dead bodies into the ecosystem is more of a truth and therefore comfort to him than imagining the presence of his Mother's spirit.

Conclusion

I have argued that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time challenges the very terms of normalcy that circumscribe disability, that it does so through the situated knowledge of an autistic narrator, and that epistemology—how we come to know what we know—is central to the novel's critique. I have also argued that Christopher's way of knowing the world is highly corporeal, and that his epistemology is not only important to a disability studies analysis of the novel, but that, because it recovers the human connection to the natural world, it has implications for environmental thought as well.

In these ways, the novel works against the tendency of literature and popular culture to portray disability in a negative light. In films, novels, and even advertising, disabled characters are always marked as outside the norm and they are used to reinforce the value of normalcy. Rather than having "normal" lives and goals, and complex personalities, disabled people always fill the role of the "other" against which the norm is upheld. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues, disabled characters are never just themselves; they are always symbolic of something else. They are pathological (like Ahab in Moby Dick), a symbol of contamination or tragedy (like Christopher Reeves, once Superman bound to a wheelchair in a horse-riding accident), exotic in their difference (the X-Men comics and films are a great example of this), or spectacle (as in circuses and freak shows). Literary critic David Mitchell describes this phenomenon in literature as a kind of "narrative prosthesis." The disabled person is the prosthetic limb that a text uses to hold together its narrative. Even when they are represented in positive terms, people with disabilities are what disability theorists call "supercrips"; think, for example, of Erik Weyenmaier, the blind man who climbed Everest, or Stephen Hawking, whose intelligence is often viewed as remarkable because of his visible bodily impairment. Disabled characters never speak for themselves; they fulfill a narrative function. Disabled characters help resolve plots, and the resolutions are always about repairing deviance in some way. But of course this merely serves to reinforce the norm.

In part because it rewrites the very form of the novel itself, The Curious Incident does not make Christopher's "disability" a narrative prosthesis. It does not resolve the tensions within it by repairing Christopher's differences, nor does it hold Christopher up as "supercrip." The novel does not end with Christopher coming to some terms with mainstream society, nor does it end with his parents reuniting. The "climax"—finding out who killed the dog, as per the novel's title—is in fact anticlimactic, underscoring the importance of not resolving Christopher's abnormalcy in the novel.

Garland-Thomson argues that representations of disability ought to move "from pathology to identity" (135). Literary narratives of disability ought to portray people with disabilities as real people with complicated identities, not just symbols of something else. While any representation of disability has social and cultural implications, The Curious Incident portrays Christopher as complex and motivated by a variety of forces; he is not, as are most disabled characters in fiction, exotic, pathological, tragic, sentimentalized, or an "opportunistic metaphoric device" (15), as Mitchell calls it. Haddon avoids using Christopher as a symbol for autism, a point he takes pains to make by not medicalizing Christopher and not even mentioning the term "autism." Those are labels that normates use to organize people they deem "other;" "autism" is not a label Christopher needs to help him make sense of himself in the world. To use it would be to undermine the power of Christopher's subjectivity. Rather, the novel teaches us about Christopher. Just as we should not associate his name with the story of St. Christopher, which moralizes "about being kind and helpful," the novel avoids turning Christopher into a story about anything else but him.

Works Cited

  • Abrams, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More than-Human World. New York: Vintage, 1996.
  • Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, the Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010.
  • Buell, Frederick. From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century. Routledge: New York, 2004.
  • Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia. Berkeley: Banyan Trees, 1975.
  • Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  • Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London: Verso, 1995.
  • Dorn, Michael. "Beyond Nomadism: The Travel Narratives of a Cripple." Places through the Body. Eds. Heidi Nast and Steve Pile. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
  • Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Vintage, 2003.
  • Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2012.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper, 1983.
  • Mitchell, David. "Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor." In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: MLA of America, 2002.
  • Snyder, Gary. "Blue Mountains Constantly Walking." In The Practice of the Wild: Essays by Gary Snyder. Berkeley: North Point Press, 1990.
  • Tremain, Shelley, ed. Foucault and the Government of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
  • Warren, Karen. Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective of What it is and why it Matters. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
  • Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Endnotes

  1. Gary Snyder writes of a "decomposition criticism," for example, as a way of navigating this problem. If literature comprises "traces" and "leavings," and if there can be a "literature of blood stains, a bit of piss," or "a whiff of estrus," then is it "natural" (112)? Can, as Lawrence Buell put it, "the poem itself be taken as a world" (50)? Or is it artifice, emphasizing two-dimensions and the graphic over the sensual?
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  2. See Scott Knickerbocker's theorization of "sensuous poesis" in Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language as another approach to correcting language's potential to distance humans from the natural world. Knickerbocker argues that some literary forms are more environmental because they attempt to rematerialize the natural world through sound effects and formal devices.
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  3. For the role of apocalyptic narrative in environmental thought, see Frederick Buell's From Apocalypse to Way of Life.
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Copyright (c) 2013 Sarah Jaquette Ray



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