Study Guide

A Monster Calls Themes

By Patrick Ness

  • Family

    The O'Malleys aren't exactly the Cosbys. Conor's got an absent father, a grandmother he doesn't exactly get along with, and a mother with a terminal illness. It's a recipe for a lot of family drama, and sure enough, we get it in spades. We enter Conor's life at a time when his notion of family is changing really fast, and A Monster Calls is all about how our boy copes with that fact.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why doesn't his dad want Conor to come to America and live with him? What does that tell you about the guy? And what does it say about Conor that he wants to move to the States with his old man?
    2. Why are both Conor's parents so reluctant to tell him that his mother is dying?
    3. Do you think Conor and his grandma will make it work when he moves in for real? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Conor's grandma's denial that she's aging is similar to his mom's denial that she's dying.

    When Conor's dad says that his house is too small for Conor to come live with him, what he really means is that his life (or maybe his heart) is too small. He's only got room for one family, both literally and metaphorically.

  • Death

    Oof, where to begin? A Monster Calls has death on every page, because Conor's mother's cancer is the central truth of the novel. No matter how much he tries to deny, avert, cheat, or even flat out ignore death, that ol' monster keeps right on knocking. In the end, though, Conor learns that while he can't avoid death and loss, he can learn to cope with them, which is the real truth he's been searching for.

    Questions About Death

    1. Does Conor's mom admit to herself she's dying, or is she truly as in denial as she encourages Conor to be? How can you tell?
    2. Could Conor's grandma be the most realistic about his mother's death just because at her age, she's seen more people die? Can you think of another reason she might find it easier than Conor and his parents to face facts?
    3. Are we supposed to think that the pit monster is death? Does this mean that in this book, death is straight up evil?

    Chew on This

    To deny aging, like Conor's grandma does, is another way of denying mortality. She's just as bad as the rest of 'em.

    When it comes right down to it, because he can't handle death, Conor's dad chooses his sick daughter over his grieving son, at the time his son needs him most.

  • Versions of Reality

    Conor's a dude with some seriously scary nightmares, not to mention way too many (two too many, to be exact) monsters for one person to handle. Somehow, though, the kiddo manages to flit between the monsters' realities and his own reality and he takes us with him when he goes. Throughout A Monster Calls, the real world and the monster world inform each other. We can understand what goes down in monster land because we understand what's going on in Conor's life and vice versa.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What makes Harry start bullying Conor at the same time Conor starts having the nightmare? How do you think those two events are connected? And does this reveal anything about Harry?
    2. What is the monster trying to tell Conor by leaving pieces of itself on his floor?
    3. Which of the monster's three stories is more relevant to Conor's situation, and why?
    4. You knew this was coming: is the yew tree monster real?

    Chew on This

    Conor subconsciously summons the monster because he needs somebody to be honest with him, just like he needs to be honest with himself.

    The remnants of the monster that come back to the real world with Conor after its visits are similar to the ectoplasm that supposedly covers psychics after séances. In other words, they're total, irrefutable proof that the monster is real.

  • The Supernatural

    Two monsters, both alike in dignity, in fair… oops, wrong book (although R&J could only have benefited from the addition of monsters). In all seriousness, we think the monsters in this book, with all their supernatural powers and keen ability to scare the pants off us, are serving a deep purpose. Back in the day, people used to blame supernatural, demonic spirits for mental illnesses and other health problems. And in A Monster Calls, the pit monster is connected to Conor's mother's cancer, while the yew tree monster is connected to Conor's own grief and bad behavior, just like in ye olden times. Only here, it turns out Conor's got all the power, and the monsters are merely there to play along.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. If the monster comes back in the future after Conor's mom is gone, will people think he's suffering from a mental illness if he tells them about it? Or will they still write it off as grief?
    2. Does the tree monster already know about the monster in the pit? Is the pit monster as ancient as the tree monster? Do they hang out at monster reunions?
    3. Do you think Conor's mom also sees the monster? Could that be why she tells Conor she heard him in the night, and why she asks him to watch over the yew tree?

    Chew on This

    Conor's monster is a version of the ancient Green Man myth.

    Conor's mother isn't at peace with her own death, which is why she screams for Conor to hang on when the pit monster grabs her. In denying her death to Conor, she's also convinced herself she can prevent it with enough willpower.

  • Suffering

    Who's to say which is worse—physical suffering or emotional suffering? While Conor's mom is obviously in a tremendous amount of pain, she gets to be at peace and out of pain, eventually, while the rest of the family has to stay alive and suffer the grief of her loss. But, to be fair, they also get to live. No matter which way you slice it, there's enough suffering for everyone in A Monster Calls and then some. You'd better bring the tissues.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Would you want special treatment if you were in Conor's position, or would you get angry like he does? Have you ever known anyone in his situation? How did they act?
    2. Is it truly possible to die of grief, like the king's wife in the monster's second story?
    3. Why do we never see any signs of suffering from Conor's dad? Or do we?
    4. Do the monsters ever seem to suffer? If so, how so?

    Chew on This

    Note the parallel between the king's wife in the monster's story crying for her daughters and Conor's grandma crying in her bedroom for hers. The monster tells Conor the second story in part to help him deal with his grandma's emotions.

    Conor's wrecking of his grandma's house might be a way of causing someone else as much pain as he's feeling, of taking away something as precious to them as his mom is to him. It's not healthy, but it sure is cathartic.

  • Isolation

    Conor wasn't always isolated, but he's definitely hopped on board the lonely train since his mom got sick. Not only do her treatments take her away from him, but his classmates and teachers are ignoring him so as not to set him off. Nobody knows what to say to him in the face of a dying mother, because most of them haven't experienced it. He becomes an outsider, a "them" in the mindset of "us and them." Sometimes when you don't know what to say to someone, it's easier to say nothing at all. Yet A Monster Calls shows us how harmful that tactic can be.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why did Harry start bullying Conor the day he found out his mom was sick—or, as Conor says, when he started having the nightmare? How do you know?
    2. Why does Conor want his teachers to punish him? Does this make any kind of sense?
    3. When Harry says he'll do the most hurtful thing to Conor he can, he stops bullying him and ignores him. In what ways is being ignored better or worse than being physically hurt?
    4. What does the monster mean by, "There are worse things than being invisible?" What could be worse?

    Chew on This

    One reason Conor called the monster is so that he'd have someone to talk to; someone who actually sees him. The monster may be a monster, but it gives Conor its full attention.

    Conor needs the monster to give him the courage to do highly visible things, like wrecking his grandma's place and giving Harry a beatdown. Only by believing the monster is responsible is he able to carry out his actions and get noticed.