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Zeitgeist in Contemporaneous Literature

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Zeitgeist in contemporaneous literature

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in comparison to other novels and films


The paper at hand deals with the question whether and to what extent elements of the zeitgeist can be found in Mark Haddon's novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time". In order to be able to draw comparisons other pieces of literature and film will be incorporated when focusing on several zeitgeist phenomena.

First of all it might be appropriate to discuss the issue of zeitgeist on its own since the term is highly controversial. Zeitgeist describes the mentality of a particular period by catching the intellectual and cultural climate of an era. Hereby particular attention is given to the ethos of people who are from one or more generations and share a certain view of the world despite their different ages and social backgrounds.

Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher wrote a critique on Christian Adolph Klotz' work "Genius seculi" and translated "Genius seculi" as "Zeitgeist" into German, shaping the concept in its modern context. The term has multiple meanings, starting with the negative connotation that it puts society under pressure with aspects of fear and hope and ending with more practical approaches such as trends and prevailing tastes.

The following pages will examine the novel with regard to several zeitgeist phenomena.

Zeitgeist in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

When reading Mark Haddon's novel for a while I came to realize that many of the story's aspects reminded me very much of themes I encounter in current movies and TV-series all the time. A classical soap opera - that in my opinion perfectly matches the zeitgeist - is "Desperate housewives" since it includes various popular issues such as adultery, betrayal, murder and splitting up. Moreover it seems to me that a lot of cultural work done nowadays, like film or literature, very much work with an element of surprise. Stories are constructed in a way that the reader or observer can hardly figure out what comes next. Usually we face a straight-forward storyline but at a certain point something totally unforeseeable will happen and it is fairly obvious that this is a stylistic instrument. No matter what film, what book or what genre - nowadays the recipient of artistic work has to "expect the unexpected".

This unexpected turning point is also present in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" when Christopher Boone discovers that his mother is not dead as his father had told him. In fact she is living with their former neighbour - who in turn left his wife with whom Christopher's father had an affair with - in London.

Especially the love life of Christopher's parents seems to embody the zeitgeist to a high degree. The novel depicts modern concepts of family in a proper way. Splitting up being portrayed as the "usual" thing, the reader would not regard Christopher's family situation as something extraordinary, except for the fact that Christopher's father makes Christopher believe that his mother is dead.

Nevertheless I think that even the act of denying reality seems to be connected to the zeitgeist, since repressing seems to be of very high popularity in our society - to put it sarcastically. Sometimes it seems more comfortable to top reality by making up stories than facing one's failure or misery. Although Ed Boone lies to his son one must see that this poor man just tries to rescue respectively relief himself from the harsh facts. From a post-modern point of view Ed Boone's behaviour could even be seen as a sort of constructivist act.

In my opinion a lot of people nowadays construct their own reality; some even go as far as to artificially construct their "new" identities. Even from an everyday perspective one could argue that people just play roles in order to survive in society. Given the case that Ed Boone is a rather weak personality it appears to be perfectly understandable that he only wants to protect himself since he is the one who was left alone in these inauspicious circumstances.

A similar storyline which gives an insight into this mechanism can be found in Nick Hornby's novel "A long way down". In the novel a middle aged-woman explains that she made up very defaming stories such as abuse and rage about her ex-boyfriend - who in fact was a wonderful person - just to save her from the fact that he simply did not love her enough and thus left her.

Another example for this "constructivist approach" is Philip Roth's novel "The human stain", which predominantly deals with the issue of shaping or changing one's identity. Coleman Silk, the protagonist, eliminates his coloured background and lives the life of a respected white university professor. Thus it might be acceptable to state that the concept of reality, truth and identity plays a very important role in contemporaneous literature. In my opinion Mark Haddon's novel adds another nuance to this particular zeitgeist issue.

Another element of the above mentioned "unexpected" is the fact that Christopher - although suffering from Asperger's syndrome - sits the A-levels in maths. It is rather unlikely that someone who is an autistic person and attends a special school is striving for higher education. Thus Mark Haddon succeeds in creating an element of surprise that in fact later on appears to be quite conclusive since the protagonist has a lot of talent



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