Study Guide

A Monster Calls Quotes

By Patrick Ness

  • Versions of Reality

    Chapter 1

    He'd had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he'd been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. (1.3)

    It's interesting that Conor says "the screaming" and "the hands" instead of "his mother's screaming" or "his mother's hands." It's one more form of denial—if he doesn't say it's her in the dream, it might not be (though of course it is).

    Chapter 2

    Only a baby would have thought it really happened. Only a baby would believe that a tree—seriously, a tree—had walked down the hill and attacked the house. (2.11)

    Here's an example of the dark humor Ness intersperses throughout the book to lighten the mood a bit. We see what Conor's thinking, and we're with him in wondering what's up. We're just as dumbfounded as he is as to what's real and what's in his head.

    Chapter 3

    When Conor started having that nightmare, that's when Harry noticed him, like a secret mark had been placed on him that only Harry could see. (3.8)

    Bullies often bully out of fear. Harry could very well be afraid that what's happening to Conor's mom will happen to his, and mocking Conor is a way of mocking death. At the very least, it's a clever parallel between Conor's nightmarish real world (in which he's bullied by Harry), and his all-too-real nightmares (in which he's bullied by death).

    Chapter 5

    Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt. (5.53)

    How can a story "chase and bite and hunt?" Well, all we need to do to answer that question is take look at Conor's dream. It's chasing him down in his sleep (chase), it wants to yank his mom down into a pit (bite), and it won't stop until it gets her (hunt). That's Conor's story. That's the truth the monster wants.

    But what is a dream, Conor O'Malley? The monster said, bending down so its face was close to Conor's. Who is to say that it is not everything else that is a dream? (5.21)

    Welcome to The Matrix. Will Conor take the red pill or the blue? If he's dreaming it all, that explains the yew tree monster—it's just like the pit monster, another figment of his imagination The problem is, the pit monster doesn't leave no stinkin' berries behind to confuse the situation.

    Chapter 9

    You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness? (9.28)

    There's that dark humor again, and we've got an example of turning the expected moral on its head, to boot. The monster's sarcasm mirrors Conor's own, making them worthy foils.

    Chapter 13
    Conor O'Malley

    "I thought it was a dream at first," Conor said […], "but then I kept finding leaves when I woke up and little trees growing out of the floor. I've been hiding them all so no one will find out." (13.26)

    Do you believe these things were really happening, or was it all in Conor's imagination all along? Was there ever really a monster? And how can we know for sure? Okay, we'll cool it with the questions. We just really want to know!

    Chapter 28

    The real monster […], the real nightmare monster, formed of cloud and ash and dark flames, but with real muscle, real strength, real red eyes that glared back at him and flashing teeth that would eat his mother alive. (28.42)

    Giving a monster red eyes is one way of making it human-ish, but it's also just different enough to keep things super scary. Like Bunnicula.

  • Family

    Chapter 1

    He'd told no one about the nightmare. Not his mum, obviously, but no one else either, not his dad in their fortnightly (or so) phone call, definitely not his grandma, and no one at school. (1.6)

    If Conor told family members about his nightmare, not only would he have to admit that his mom is dying, other people might think he was crazy or immature. He may be scared, but he's still thirteen. The kid's got some dignity.

    Chapter 2

    Conor had to sleep on the settee every time his grandmother came to stay. But that wasn't it. He didn't like the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation. An evaluation he was going to fail. (2.50)

    Conor's grandma never says anything negative or judgmental to him; in fact, she pinches his cheeks when she arrives, offers to take him in, and lets it slide when he trashes her living room. So why does he think she disapproves of him?

    Chapter 4

    […] there was his house, small but detached. It had been the one thing his mum had insisted on in the divorce […] after his dad had left for America with Stephanie, the new wife. That had been six years ago, so long now that Conor sometimes couldn't remember what it was like having a dad in the house. (4.38)

    Sad truth alert: losing his dad was like practice for losing his mom.

    Chapter 6

    Conor's grandma wore tailored pantsuits, dyed her hair to keep out the gray, and said things that made no sense at all, like "Sixty is the new fifty" or "Classic cars need the most expensive polish." (6.7)

    Despite what he may say, we actually think Conor's grandma is kind of awesome and hilarious, and wouldn't mind being like her when we grow up. (Although we do like the idea of old lady things like knitting and cats.)

    Chapter 12

    "Hey, son," his dad said, his voice bending in that weird way that America had started to shape it. (12.37)

    Not only does Conor's dad move away from him physically, he moves away from him verbally, too. Everything in Conor's life is changing, even his dad's accent.

    He would come here and pick up Conor, they'd go and see his mum, and then they'd spend some "father-son" time together. Conor was almost certain this was code for another round of We Need to Have a Talk. (12.6)

    Everybody's speaking in code around Conor. But there comes a time when it's insulting to a person's intelligence to keep using euphemisms. And those euphemisms certainly aren't making Conor's life any easier, either.

  • The Supernatural

    Chapter 1

    "Don't be stupid," he told himself. "You're too old for monsters." (1.15)

    Do you think there's actually an age at which you're too old for monsters? Teens might not believe any more that there are monsters in the closet or in the bed, but they still like horror movies and ghost stories and sleepover séances.

    The rest of the tree gathered itself into a spine and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green, furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath. (1.36)

    This is such a wonderful, creepy description. If the monster's body is made of branches and its skin is made of leaves, what might its muscles and lungs be made of?

    The voice had a quality to it, a monstrous quality, wild and untamed. (1.22)

    The monster says stories are wild, so it makes sense that its voice should also be wild. It's a more effective storyteller that way.

    Chapter 5

    The monster smiled. It was a ghastly sight. If I must force my way in, it said, I will do so happily. (5.16)

    By not telling us exactly what the monster's smile looks like, Ness is letting us imagine it for ourselves, which is often scarier than anything anyone could describe (or, in this case, draw).

    Chapter 7

    Even though it walked and talked, even though it was bigger than his house and could swallow him in one bite, the monster was still, at the end of the day, just a yew tree. Conor could even see more berries growing from the branches at its elbows. (7.35)

    The berries on the monster's elbows remind us of the berries Conor found on his bedroom floor after its first appearance. He'll later sleep among them when the monster makes a nest of its arms. Ness is subtly weaving a piece of characterization through the book for those of us who are paying close enough attention.

    Chapter 21

    He was inside the nightmare. (21.26-27)

    One of the ways people who suffer from depression describe it is by saying it changes the color of the world. Suddenly everything looks duller and darker, and it could definitely be described as being inside a nightmare. Metaphor alert!

    Chapter 24

    Conor had felt what the monster was doing to Harry, felt it in his own hands. When the monster gripped Harry's shirt, Conor felt the material against his own palms. When the monster struck a blow, Conor felt the sting of it in his own fist. (24.9)

    Hmm. This is an odd description. How can Conor feel what the monster feels? Well, Shmoop's theory is that fighting back against a bully who's been physically assaulting you can cause you to feel like you're outside yourself, either because of anger or because of fear. Maybe the monster isn't involved at all.

    Chapter 28

    The real monster […], the real nightmare monster, formed of cloud and ash and dark flames, but with real muscle, real strength, real red eyes that glared back at him and flashing teeth that would eat his mother alive. (28.42)

    Why does the nightmare monster have real muscle, even though the tree monster (as far as we know) doesn't? What does it say about the difference between monsters that one has real mammal innards (not to put too fine a point on it)?

  • Suffering

    Chapter 2

    She hadn't tied her scarf around her head yet this morning, and her bare scalp looked too soft, too fragile in the morning light, like a baby's. It made Conor's stomach hurt to see it. (2.35)

    There's something horrible about seeing your parents as children, whether physically or emotionally. It's a primal kind of sadness and fear.

    Chapter 8

    By and by, the king's wife succumbed to grief, as did the mother of the young prince. The king was left with only the child for company, along with more sadness than one man should bear alone. (8.10)

    And yet, so many people tend to isolate themselves when they feel grief. It's another kind of invisibility, except that you choose it instead of having it chosen for you.

    Chapter 10

    "My mum said we need to make allowances for you," Lily finally said. "Because of what you're going through." (10.14)

    Lily seriously needs to learn to keep her mouth shut. Someone needs to teach that girl about filters. Yeah, we know she means well, but every time she talks, we cringe on Conor's behalf.

    Chapter 11
    Conor O'Malley

    "She's got medicine for her pain—" Conor started, but his grandmother clapped her hands together, just the once, but loud, loud enough to stop him. (11.8)

    Conor's grandma can't say "dying" or "cancer" to him either, but at least she attempts to bring him to his senses instead of lying to him. In a family that's all about denial, that one clap has got to count for something.

    Chapter 13

    His mum had been really poorly when they'd gotten to the hospital. They'd had to wait for his grandma to help her out of the bathroom, and then she was so tired all she was really able to say was "Hi, sweetheart," to Conor and "Hello, Liam," to his father before falling back to sleep. (13.6)

    Just as Conor goes off into his own world with the monster, his mom goes off into hers with painkillers. No telling what she's seeing in there—she may have monsters of her own.

    Chapter 15

    The sky darkened, and Conor could hear the coughing of the daughters within the parsonage, could also hear the loud praying of the parson and the tears of the parson's wife. (15.35)

    Praying loudly could be a sign of begging God extra hard, or of wanting the rest of the world to feel and share your grief.

    Chapter 17

    And then she groaned, deep in her chest, her mouth still closed.

    It was a sound so painful, Conor could barely keep himself from putting his hands over his ears. (17.22-23)

    Conor's mom's groans are far more painful to him than the yew tree monster's. After all, she's the one in the nightmare with the truly scary monster.

    Chapter 20

    "Son," his father said, leaning forward. "Stories don't always have happy endings." (20.42)

    This is the best Conor's dad can do at telling him the truth. It's just as vague and complicated a story as the ones the monster tells, and a lot less helpful. Which raises a question: does Conor's dad's presence relieve some of his suffering? Or does he just make things worse?

    Chapter 23

    "Conor O'Malley," he said, his voice growing poisonous now. "Who everyone's sorry for because of his mum. Who swans around school acting like he's so different, like no one knows his suffering." (23.29)

    It comes as a surprise when Harry says this, since Conor seems so determined not to act like he's suffering. He certainly doesn't want to be treated like he is. So why does Harry think he does?

    Chapter 29

    The blackness was wrapping itself around Conor's eyes now, plugging his nose and overwhelming his mouth. He was gasping for breath and not getting it. It was suffocating him. It was killing him. (29.49)

    Note that the monster's not the one actually killing Conor. Instead, it's the darkness, the sadness, the atmosphere itself.

  • Isolation

    Chapter 3

    When Conor started having that nightmare, that's when Harry noticed him, like a secret mark had been placed on him that only Harry could see. (3.8)

    Harry and Lily are the two people who see Conor, but in very different ways. Harry makes Conor his enemy, while Lily's view of Conor is protective, even if she does have a big mouth.

    Chapter 18

    Conor hadn't heard a word of his lessons in school, but the teachers hadn't told him off for his inattentiveness, skipping over him when they asked questions to the class. (18.33)

    When Conor beats Harry up and yells, "Never invisible again," he's not just talking to Harry. He's also using Harry as a punching bag for all his frustration with how everyone is treating him. It's like a mini manifesto.

    And so he waited by himself, leaning against a stone wall away from the other kids as they squealed and laughed and looked at their phones as if nothing in the world was wrong, as if nothing in the whole entire universe could ever happen to them. (18.4)

    His classmates are preoccupied with their phones; Conor's preoccupied with death. He definitely got the short end of the stick when cancer chose him out of all his friends.

    His classmates kept their distance from him too, like he was giving off a bad smell. He tried to remember if he'd talked to any of them since he arrived this morning. (18.35)

    Sometimes we can become so isolated we barely notice our own loneliness; not talking can become the norm. It can cease to surprise you when you realize you haven't used your voice that day.

    Chapter 21

    His grandma still hadn't spoken to him about the destruction of her sitting room. She'd barely spoken to him at all. (21.5)

    If his teachers won't punish him, Conor thinks perhaps his grandma will. But she's just one more person who's more focused on his mother than on him. And hey, she's not exactly enjoying herself over there either.

    Chapter 23

    And then one day the invisible man decided, the monster said, its voice ringing in Conor's ears, I will make them see me. (23.12)

    With each story, the monster plants the seeds (because it's a tree—see what we did there?) of Conor's next outrageous act. Each time it appears, the monster raises the stakes for Conor's misbehavior.

    Chapter 24

    There are worse things than being invisible, the monster had said, and it was right. (24.50)

    One thing that might be worse than being the mom-with-cancer kid is being the mom-who-died-of-cancer kid. Conor will no longer have her to talk to after a rough day at school, which could certainly make the rough days even worse.

    Never invisible again, the monster kept saying as he pummeled Harry. Never invisible again. (24.13)

    Of course Conor was the one who was actually saying this, but just as with the wreckage of his grandma's living room, he needed to pretend that the monster was involved, even if it's just to himself. He's already shouldering the burden of his mom's destruction; he can't also be expected to shoulder the burden of his own.

    Chapter 25

    I see you, read the fourth, with the I underlined about a hundred times. (25.24)

    Just as the most hurtful thing Harry could do is pretend not to see Conor, the most loving thing Lily could do is remind him that she does. If this moment didn't make you cry, well then we don't know what will.

    Chapter 27
    Conor O'Malley

    "What's the use of you if you can't heal her?" Conor said, pounding away. "Just stupid stories and getting me into trouble and everyone looking at me like I've got a disease—" (27.27)

    Conor experiences disease vicariously through his mother. To be ignored by his peers for her disease makes him feel as if he's the one who's sick.

  • Death

    Chapter 6

    "She'll seem better tomorrow, his grandma said, her voice huskier, "but she won't be, Conor." (6.38)

    How could she seem better but not be? Would she just be pretending?

    His grandma was on the settee, holding on to his mum, rubbing her back as she threw up into a small bucket they kept nearby just in case. (6.54)

    This is one of the only times we see Conor's grandma being truly nurturing, acting like a mother to her daughter the way Conor's mom acts like a mother to him. Maybe it's because she knows that this is all her daughter has left—more pain and suffering until she finally dies.

    Chapter 7

    It was three full days after the treatment, about the time she usually started feeling better, except she was still throwing up, still exhausted, for far longer than she should have been. (7.2)

    This is the point when someone should have been straight with Conor, don't you think? The denial also went on far longer than it should have, if you ask Shmoop.

    Chapter 11

    He went over and sat next to her on the side facing the window. She ran her hand through his hair, lifting it out of his eyes, and he could see how skinny her arm was, almost like it was just bone and skin. (11.35)

    What parallels does the description of Conor's mom's arm and skin have with the description of the formation of the monster's body the first time Conor sees it? And what might those parallels mean?

    Conor O'Malley

    "She's got medicine for her pain --" Conor started, but his grandmother clapped her hands together, just the once, but loud, loud enough to stop him. (11.8)

    Grandma may not be able to say the words, "she's dying," and she may not feel it's her place, since Conor's parents seem to want to lie to him. But she has to get through to him somehow; to let him know he's refusing to live in reality.

    Chapter 18

    "It's no place for a kid right now. I'll drop you off at school and go to the hospital, but I'll pick you up right after and take you to her […] I'll pick you up sooner if…if I need to." (18.20)

    Another word nobody can say in this book, besides "cancer"? Any variant of the word "death." This is a seriously euphemistic family. We're betting things are gonna get awkward when it comes time to chat about the birds and the bees (speaking of euphemisms).


    "Your mum's taken a turn, Con," his father said. Conor looked up quickly. "Your grandma's gone to the hospital now to talk to the doctors." (18.18)

    Notice that his dad doesn't even have to say "for the worse." Even as he continues to cling to the hope that his mother will get better, Conor knows she's getting worse. At this point, he doesn't need to hear the truth spoken. He's starting to admit it to himself.

    Chapter 19

    "A couple of different things they've tried haven't worked like they wanted them to. And they've not worked a lot sooner than they were hoping they wouldn't. If that makes any sense." (19.15)

    Conor's mom is already on the last-ditch drug when she tells him this. Once we know the drug's made of yew trees and she's not improving, we pretty much know there's no hope (as if we hadn't suspected that from the beginning of the book).

    Chapter 26

    His mum swallowed. "Things have moved just too fast. It was a faint hope. And now there's this infection—" (26.30)

    Sometimes the cancer itself isn't what makes people die of cancer. The secondary infections can be just as dangerous, as they are in Conor's mom's case.

    Chapter 30
    Conor O'Malley

    "I've known forever she wasn't going to make it, almost from the beginning. She said she was getting better because that's what I wanted to hear. And I believed her. Except I didn't." (30.6)

    It takes Conor so long to say this that we almost think he never will. When he finally does, we're cheering for him and crying for him at the same time—it's the same kind of duality of feelings the monster talks about in its stories.