Study Guide

Nothing Death

By Janne Teller


"Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die. That's how it is with everything." (2.21)

Just because something has to end doesn't mean it's meaningless. In fact, it could be argued that the inevitability of death makes life even more meaningful.

I don't think Elise was too sad about her baby brother being dead. And I don't think she was too sad that he was going onto the heap of meaning. I think Elise was more afraid of her parents than of us, and that that was why after a long silence she said, "We can't." (9.22)

Fear is a big motivator in these kids' lives: fear of parents, fear of their peers' wrath, fear of Pierre Anthon being right. Do you think fear more often motivates us to do the right thing, or the wrong thing, as it does for these student?

"The dead are to rest in peace."

Peace. More peace. Rest in peace. (9.27-28)

Teller does this funky three short sentence fragments thing throughout the book. It's a hallmark of her distinctive voice as a writer, and often these fragments are about death. Sometimes rhythm is just as important as content.

It was Cinderella, Sorensen's old dog. After the old man had died, Cinderella had refused to reside anywhere else than on top of her master's grave. (10.35)

And yet Cinderella makes the stunningly bad decision to follow these kids back to the sawmill, where she'll end up peeing on rosewood Jesus for the rest of her tragically short life. Welp, sometimes that's just the way it goes.

A law of physics we had never learned: When a physical body is removed from the ground, the level of earth at the place occupied by the body will diminish relative to the body's volume. (10.38)

Reasons to stay in school instead of climbing up a plum tree, part 23849729384: future grave robbing preparedness. Who says math will never come in handy after high school?

In the bright neon light it didn't seem so scary anymore. It's just a dead child with some wood around it, I thought to myself as I considered more closely the coffin that had now been placed at the foot of the heap of meaning, it being too heavy to be put on top. (10.54)

This is one of the few strangely, perhaps unintentionally humorous moments in Nothing: the phrase "a dead child with some wood around it" is a particularly brilliant bit of translation. Are you as grateful for these moments of levity as we are?

She sat completely still, all pale in the face like little Emil's coffin must have been when it was new, and yet calm and almost collected, like I imagined a saint would look who was about to meet her death. (13.10)

Girls often perceive the loss of virginity as a kind of death, while boys often perceive it as a conquest. What's that about? And what does it tell us about these particular characters?

"There are six billion people on Earth. Way too many! But in the year 2025 there'll be eight and a half billion. The best thing we can do for the future of the world is to die." (13.12)

Oh, Pierre Anthon, you kidder. You really know how to sweet-talk a girl.

When we got to the sawmill on a cold and stormy afternoon in the late fall, Cinderella was no more; her head lay gaping resentfully at us on top of the heap, while her carcass lay draped across little Emil's coffin, that was now more red than crackled white. (15.23)

The word "resentfully" is an interesting choice here. Agnes perceives Cinderella as resentful instead of terrified, tortured, or any of a number of other words that might more accurately describe how Cinderella actually feels (especially since resentment seems like a bit of a complicated emotion for a dog to have). We think Agnes might be projecting a bit here.

And although we'd sworn we'd never become like them, that was exactly what was happening. We weren't even fifteen yet.

Thirteen, fourteen, adult. Dead. (22.10-11)

The kids are afraid of becoming like adults, even as they long to grow up and have adult careers like fashion design or astronomy. Growing up is full of contradictions—like the fact that it's an awesome time full of life and vitality, but it's also bringing you ever closer to death. Oops, did we just kill the party?

"The reason dying is so easy is because death has no meaning," he hollered. "And the reason death has no meaning is because life has no meaning. All the same, have fun!" (25.22)

Obviously Pierre Anthon is being sarcastic here, but the awareness that life has no meaning shouldn't mean you can't have fun. Those existential nihilists were some major buzz kills.

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