Plot & Narrative
How the story works
The story of The Curious Incident... is quite simple, at a basic level. Christopher describes the story himself on the very last page of the novel, like this:
And I know that I can do this (become a scientist) 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 that I can do anything. (p.268)
It's not quite as simple as that. The basic Plot can be analysed, in purely chronological terms of significant events in a simple list like this :-
- Christopher finds the dog Wellington dead, and gets arrested
- The next day, he decides to find out who killed Wellington, and to write the book (p.33)
- He 'does detecting' with various people.
- He tells his father that he is detecting. His father tells him to stop. (pp62-64)
- He meets Mrs Alexander, and asks more questions. (pp.69-77)
- His father finds the book about his detecting, gets angry, and throws the book away (pp.101-104)
- Christopher looks for the book, and finds it, along with some letters from his mother (pp115-124)
- Crisis. He reads the letters, understands what they mean. His father comes home and confesses... (pp.131-144)
- ... and later, admits killing Wellington. Christopher is appalled and runs away. (p. 149-155)
- The journey to London. (163-233)
- After some time in London, his mother leaves Mr Shears (p.252), and they return to Swindon.
- Despite the uneasy situation, Christopher sits the maths exam (pp.257-259)
- His father gives him the dog, Sandy, and there is some kind of peace. (pp.264-266)
But of course it's not as simple as that, either. This basic sectioning of the book leaves an awful lot out - a simple glance at the page numbers will show that. Most of the rest is what I've called Digressions & Meditations, and these tell us a great deal about Christopher and how he sees the world ... novels are not just Plot.
The handout provides the summary above, with questions
Once the students have read the novel (or even, perhaps, at a key stage half way through), ask the students to carry out the Sectioning Exercise that I have done in the list above.
This can be done in class, in pairs preferably - or for homework individually, leading to a class discussion to agree a general Plot sequence. This in turn could lead to ...
Full Sectioning exercise
This would involve accounting for every page of the book in a summary list as above. Always remember that this doesn't mean a simple list of chapters (especially considering Christopher's unorthodox chapter numbering!) - significant units of the structure of this novel often begin halfway through a chapter, involve several chapters, and have Digression chapters in the middle.
Discussion of structure
Once a clear idea of the structure of the novel has been achieved, there should be discussion of (a) why that structure was chosen, (b) whether the structure works effectively, or not, (c) if not, why not? and if so, why? ...
It is a necessary teaching point to ensure that the students are aware that telling a story is a complex negotiation between author and reader, involving the artificial creation of a temporary reality. The skilful reader is both inside this reality, responding to it - and outside, observing it.
Narration, the telling of a story, demands that the reader falls into step with the narrator - and this means that the author (narrator and author can be distinct, as in this case) has to set the rhythm, the rules by which the story is to be understood. This is of particular importance in the case of The Curious Incident... because Christopher is not a normal narrator. Which is an important part of the Point of the novel - how we react to the narration is also how we react to Christopher.
Students should note clearly some very obviously important aspects:-
First person narration This form of narration normally has advantages (being 'inside' the story, immediacy and force of impressions), and disadvantages (limited point of view, since inevitable restrictions in what the narrator can know, possible bias of interpretation, distraction for story). But the disadvantages, in The Curious Incident... are actually advantages - the limitations and confusions of Christopher's point of view are the Point, to a large extent.
Elliptical narration ... The novel is confusing to start with - teachers who have taught the novel report that students are confused for the first fifty pages or so ("What is going on?"). As already suggested, main Plot action and Digressions are continually interwined, as Christopher's attention wanders from one aspect to another. However, everyone soon learns to read Christopher - which in itself is part of the Point of the book: the development of empathy.
... but chronological main Plot Mercifully, the main action evolves in a straight line (as detailed in the Plot list, above). There are flashbacks, occasionally - direct flashbacks such as Christopher's memory of when his father told him that his mother had died (pp.28-30), or 'dialogue flashbacks' such as the father's account of killing Wellington - but these do not demand complex juggling of parts of the story. Although ...
Revelation & Re-plotting ... the revelation that Christopher's mother is not dead causes a major review of the whole first half of the novel. We (and Christopher) have to re-visit and reconstruct everything that we thought we knew up to that point. This is classic sophisticated narration - students should be able to tell you of stories and films in which a dramatic twist has required such revision (or re-vison).
The narrator's view
First person narration inevitably provides us with a specific vision of the story. The narrator's personality will select details and distort what we see - and skilful reading must take this into account, judging the relative truth of what the narrator tells us. In Christopher's case, such distortion is marked due to his condition as an Asperger's person.
But 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, e.g.
when a snooker ball glances off another snooker ball. And the
information in their head is really simple. For example, if they are
in the countryside, it might be
1. I am standing in a field that is full of grass.
2. There are some cows in the fields
3. It is sunny with a few clouds.
4. There are some flowers in the grass.
But if I am standing in a field in the countryside I notice every-
thing. For example, I remember standing in a field on Wednesday
15th June 1994 because Father and Mother and I were driving to
Dover to get a ferry to France and we did what Father called Taking
the scenic route which means going by little roads and stopping for
lunch in a pub garden, and I had to stop to go for a wee, and I
went into a field with cows in and after I'd had a wee I stopped
and looked at the field and I noticed these things
1. There are 19 cows in the field, 15 of which are black and
white and 4 of which are brown and white.
2. There is a village in the distance which has 31 visible
houses and a church with a square tower and not a spire.
3. There are ridges in the field which means that in medieval
times it was what is called a ridge and furrow field and people who
lived in the village would have a ridge each to do farming on.
4. There is an old plastic bag from Asda in the hedge, and a
squashed Coca-Cola can with a snail on, and a long piece of
And consider what happens when he decides to do a description of the garden - see pp. 85-87.
Ask the students ...
? What do they choose to describe, and why? What do they see ?
? Are people "lazy", as Christopher thinks? Or is it that we select in a different way?
? Why should we select in a different way to Christopher - and reduce what we see?
? What governs the way we select what we perceive?
? What part does language play in the way we select our perceptions?
Detail overload The problem for Christopher is that handling all of this detail can be exhausting to the point of breakdown. When he arrives in the station in London (Paddington?) (pp.207-209), the sheer plethora of signs and information brings him to the verge of collapse. Haddon brillantly evokes this state through the layout of the text:
Christopher knows that all of the signs have meaning ...
... but the quantity overwhelms him, and they end up looking like this ...
? What happens when language collapses? Do we cease to think?
'Curious Incident...' selection of detail examples with guiding questions
Digressions These involve memories (which is a normal element of first-person narration), but also miniature essays, or meditations, on Big Issues. My count of major digressions, not including asides of which there are many, comes to around 60 pages - approximately a quarter of the text. How do these contribute to the narration?
This is too big an aspect to deal with here - see the page Digressions & meditations