Study Guide

The Art of Racing in the Rain Themes

  • Control

    Control sounds like it could be a scary theme, but in The Art of Racing in the Rain, what we're talking about is maintaining power over the self. This book's all about having the ability to make your own decisions and choices—not to mention the ability to remain in control of a situation that isn't going your way.

    The biggest metaphor for control in this book relates to Denny and his racing. Having control over a racecar in slippery conditions (or even in fair ones) is similar to maintaining control when your career, your marriage, and your life threaten to fly off the tracks.

    Questions About Control

    1. What does it mean that Enzo, a dog who is dependent on his human caretaker for a lot of things, is the one who can most expertly talk about control?
    2. Does Denny's job as a racecar driver help him in the situations life throws at him? How might he have handled them if he were a lawyer, a dentist, or a schoolteacher?
    3. Do you think Eve's fear of doctors stemmed from a desire to have control over her own life or control over her health?

    Chew on This

    Denny lives his entire life by trying to predict what's going to happen keep control everything in his path. It's kind of ironic, then, that his entire life spirals out of control over the course of three years.

    The novel shows that you never know what kinds of effects your actions will have, so you should be conscious of everything you do.

  • Money

    Money—who has it, who needs it, and how those who have it can exploit those who need it—plays a big role in The Art of Racing in the Rain.

    Take Trish and Maxwell, for example. They grill their daughter about Denny's contributions to the family and deem Denny's financial standing inconsequential enough for them to suggest taking custody of Zoë after Eve passes away. What, only money makes a good parent? These two think that because they have money, they would be able to take better care of the kid than her own father could. Couldn't they have just offered to pay for her college tuition and let Denny keep his daughter?

    Throughout the novel, in fact, we see how access to money determines which characters will get respect, social standing, even justice. Is it just us, or is that messed up?

    Questions About Money

    1. Why do Maxwell and Trish think that Denny can't support their daughter or their granddaughter? What does this say about their opinion of his financial standing, and of their own financial standing?
    2. What social class are Denny and Eve probably in? How does this change the decisions they've made?
    3. How does Denny pay for his lawyers?
    4. What is the financial standing of Denny's parents? What about Mike and Tony?

    Chew on This

    Denny's independence makes him proud, in the sense that he wants to be able to take care of himself. He handles paying for his races with a home equity loan, he manages odd hours so he can pay child support and still have time to spend with Zoë, and he even sells his house so he can pay off his lawyers. Say what you want about him, but dude's relentless.

    Even when Denny does go through financially tough times, there's no indication that he lets Zoë see how much of a toll it takes on him—he doesn't want to burden her. She seems to be oblivious to all the trouble her father is in. That's A+ parenting.

  • Death

    Death is like that one topic that we don't want to talk about, ever. It's a natural part of life, sure, but it's not fun. It's scary, it's unknown, it's sad, and it signals an ending. There are a lot of endings in this book, and most of them have to do with death. So as much as we don't want to, we have to talk about it.

    Death, and the way humans deal with it is all over The Art of Racing in the Rain. By telling the story of a man's life from the perspective of a dying dog, the book taps into the beauty of life, not just the sadness of death. In this book, life is what matters, but without the finality of death and the fragility of life, life itself wouldn't be nearly as important or valuable as it is.

    Questions About Death

    1. When Enzo wonders at the end of his life whether he has wasted his "dogness," does it seem like he believes that he has?
    2. Why does Eve decide to celebrate the first day that she "doesn't feel dead"? What does this signify?
    3. Why is Denny not allowed to go to Eve's funeral?

    Chew on This

    Eve knew she couldn't hold on any longer than she did, mostly because she had listened to the doctors who had diagnosed her. Maybe she knew all along what was wrong with her, and that's why she didn't want to go to the doctor all those times Denny tried to convince her.

    Maybe Denny has also come back in a new form, just like Enzo eventually does. How else could we explain his racing chops?

  • Travel, Separation, and Distance

    As they say, life's about the journey, not the destination. But since we're all going at different speeds, that also means it can be difficult to keep track of and hold on to each other, or even to remember where we are at all. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, distances can be metaphorical: sometimes, the less actual distance there is between two people who care about each other, the more that distance feels like a physical obstacle that needs to be overcome and torn away. In the same way, though, emotional closeness and support can also combat the distance between people bring them back together, even in times of stress or sadness.

    Questions About Travel, Separation, and Distance

    1. Why does Eve leave with Zoë for three days, and what does she say her reasoning is for leaving Enzo?
    2. Why is Eve so adamant that Denny come back when he goes off to race?
    3. What does Denny vow to do so that he can stay with Eve when she's in medical trouble?
    4. Does it seem like the distance from Denny helped Eve during her illness? Would physical proximity to her husband have made her feel better, or would it not have made a difference?

    Chew on This

    Denny's much more comfortable with distances than Eve is because he's actually traveled during his life.

    Even though Denny travels at hundreds of miles an hour when he's doing his job, his life, especially the court cases, move with staggering, almost glacial slowness.

  • Love

    Folks, The Art of Racing in the Rain is about a dog and his master. There's no way love is not going to be a huge theme in a book like that, and you know it. Lots of kinds of love come into play in this novel, though: marital love, parental love, sibling love, companionship, friendship, lust, and love for pets. Oh, and let's not forget love of racing. Frankly, it's kind of hard to listen to Denny and Enzo talk about racing and not fall in love with it.

    Questions About Love

    1. When Annika says she loves Denny, does she really mean it? Does she know what she's saying? Is she using the best logic she can to articulate what she's feeling?
    2. How do Maxwell and Trish try to undermine Denny's love for his daughter and use it to their own advantage?
    3. How does the love that Eve's parents show her and the love that Denny's parents show him differ? Is there a "right" kind of parental love?

    Chew on This

    We can call Denny's adoption of Enzo a case of puppy love.

    Zoë's love for her stuffed animals is a representation of her love for her family.

  • Humanity

    The dictionary defines humanity as "the quality or state of being human." Um, no surprise there.

    But dictionary also defines humanity as "the quality and state of being humane." The Art of Racing in the Rain backs both of those definitions up: it shows that having humanity isn't just about being a person, it's about being a good person— which seems like it should be a no-brainer, but given how some of the people in this book behave, we guess it's not. Maybe Enzo, who wants to be human more than anything else, could take the place of some of our less-than-favorite humans here.

    Questions About Humanity

    1. Who of the characters most embodies the trait of humanity?
    2. What key traits that Enzo decides are necessary aspects of human existence? What behaviors does he practice in order to prepare his soul for a human body?
    3. By the end of Enzo's life, has he learned all he needs to know to become a person? If you could give him one piece of advice about being human, what would it be?

    Chew on This

    If Enzo is waiting to possess his humanness, does he possess his "dogness" in the meantime?

    If the dewclaw is considered an unformed opposable thumb, and if cats and dogs both have these "thumb" claws, then maybe cats are pretty close to humans on the tree of evolution, too.

  • Food

    Those of you who have a dog already know that food is, like, maybe the number one thing on a dog's mind at all times. In The Art of Racing in the Rain, Enzo doesn't just think about food a lot; he also thinks about the way others relate to food. It turns out that you can learn a lot about a person by paying attention to what that person eats. You are what you eat, after all, right?

    Questions About Food

    1. Why does Eve get so upset when Zoë won't eat her chicken nuggets? What does the fact that the chicken nuggets were bad say about Eve's health and state of mind at that moment?
    2. Maxwell and Trish are often seen drinking, and their food includes variety, like spicy peppers and chicken with cream sauce. What does this say about their social status, or about how child-friendly their home is?
    3. What does it say about Denny that he pays so much attention to Zoë's meals and the things he feeds her? How does this compare to how her grandparents feed her?

    Chew on This

    Enzo's distrust of Maxwell and Trish stems from that bad pepper that Maxwell gave him early in their relationship. Enzo even takes this as a sign that he should never trust anyone who tries to offer him strange food. This scene foreshadows the type of people Maxwell and Trish become, and their lack of regard for other people's—and dogs'—needs.

    While Maxwell and Trish think that Denny is a bad parent, the fact that he pays attention to Zoë's food needs says otherwise.

  • Family

    The saying goes that when the going gets tough, you learn who your friends are, but you also learn who your real family is. Family is part of the human condition. When it comes right down to it, humans are as bonded and territorial as a pack of wolves—maybe even more so, since we can bond over dessert, too. It seems that all the characters in The Art of Racing in the Rain have different perspectives on what makes a good family, and when those differing perspectives play off each other, things can get messy.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does it take so long for Denny to connect with his parents again?
    2. Why do Maxwell and Trish feel so protective of Zoë, and why do they blame Denny for Eve's death?
    3. Why does Denny take Zoë to visit Eve's extended family in Methow Valley?

    Chew on This

    Think about Denny and Eve's backgrounds and the way their parents treat them. They come from completely different families, and they interact with their parents differently. Eve loves her parents and visits them often, since they live close by, while Denny hasn't seen his parents since high school. These relationships influence how each of them sees the world and underlie their conceptions of responsibility and independence.

    Enzo thinks of family as a small and closed-off thing, which he probably learned from Denny. He doesn't trust Eve's parents or her extended family, he instantly dislikes Annika, and he sees his immediate family—Denny, Eve, and Zoë—as the only family he needs. He doesn't even like Eve at first; he has to learn to be open to her.