Study Guide

Nothing Themes

  • Dissatisfaction

    Human beings don't come much more dissatisfied than Pierre Anthon. Say what you will about gloom and doom news in America, but don't even try to compete with the Danes. Pierre Anthon's primary source of dissatisfaction is the fact that people pretend things matter when they don't, which makes their striving all the more ridiculous to him. After all, we're only one step away from monkeys, and the world is overpopulated. Why study? Why try? Why do anything at all other than sit in a tree and eat plums? These are the questions that cause Pierre Anthon, the star of Nothing, to chuck it all and become a 7th grade dropout.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Why does Pierre Anthon choose to retreat to a tree, instead of, say, bed? Why does he pick a place where he can still interact with the world?
    2. Why does Agnes choose to keep pretending something matters, even though she secretly agrees with Pierre Anthon that it doesn't? Have you ever done something similar in your life?
    3. Do you think the adults are really oblivious to the children's dissatisfaction, or do you think they're pretending not to notice just like they're pretending their own lives have meaning?
    4. Do you agree with Pierre Anthon that nothing matters? If you disagree, in what do you find meaning?

    Chew on This

    Pierre Anthon proves that human relationships are meaningful by choosing to continue interacting with his classmates. Way to go buddy, you just disproved your own point.

    Real talk: Pierre Anthon is the only authentic character in the book, existentially speaking.

  • Death

    Let's rack up a body count for Nothing, shall we? There's Emil Jensen, then Cinderella the dog, then Oscarlittle the hamster, who succumbs to the frost when December rolls around. And, last but not least, there's Pierre Anthon, whose death is the culmination of the book. But here's the weird part: that whole death scene? It's pretty flat, emotionally speaking. He's not freaking out, and neither are his killers. In that sense, Teller remains true to the allegorical nature of the story. Events are just playing out as they inevitably must, and people represent their ideas to the bitter end. In going to the sawmill, dissing the heap of meaning, and then turning his back on his peers, it's almost as if Pierre Anthon knows he's there solely to illustrate a philosophy. He's nothing if not true to his ideals.

    Questions About Death

    1. Why does Cinderella refuse to leave Sorensen's grave until the children come along, then readily leave with them? What role does the dog play in the allegory?
    2. Why didn't Elise care more about her little brother? We know these are some emotionless characters in general, but girlfriend's lip didn't even quiver when they dug him up.
    3. Do you think Pierre Anthon went to the sawmill knowing he was going to die?
    4. How might the ending of the book have been different if Teller had shown us Pierre Anthon's fear of death?

    Chew on This

    Nothing teaches us that recognizing the meaninglessness of life removes the fear of death.

    The night Pierre Anthon dies, the heap of meaning dies, too. It's like meaning can't survive in his presence. Dude's a meaning-murderer.

  • Violence

    Nothing just may be one of the most violent young adult books you'll ever read, what with the rape, murder, and chopping off of body parts. It's right up there with Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange in the Violent Banned Books canon. What makes the violence particularly harrowing here is the emotional desolation behind it. It could be argued that Sofie's rape and subsequent calm chopping off of Jon-Johan's finger is way more chilling than the wild brawl at the sawmill. Why? Because we as readers can somehow justify violence if it's driven by—wait for it—meaning.

    Questions About Violence

    1. If you truly believe that life has no meaning, do you become more or less capable of violent acts? Why do you think that?
    2. Would the kids have been capable of the violence they committed if they hadn't been encouraged by the group? Why or why not?
    3. What do you think is the most violent act in the book, and why?

    Chew on This

    A social psychologist named Stanley Milgram found that people were more likely to commit violent acts against an unseen opponent when encouraged by an authority figure. In Nothing, the group acts as the authority figure—authority by majority.

    After being raped, Sofie carries out arguably the most violent act of all when she cuts off Jon-Johan's finger. Violence begets violence begets violence be—oh you get the picture.

  • Sex

    In Nothing, sex unfortunately equals rape. Some might argue that Sofie consents, but it's clear that what goes down in the warehouse is an act of sexual violence that raises some hairy, scary questions about what exactly consent means in the first place: if you go along with it because you know your peers expect it of you, are you really doing it of your own free will? Certainly by the time Sofie gets to the sawmill and it's her against four boys, she has no choice. However, the next day at school, she acts as though she has an important secret, and she refuses to give Agnes details. Agnes even compares her to a martyred saint. There are no easy answers about sex in Nothing, just a lot of difficult, uncomfortable questions.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why do you think Teller chose Agnes as the narrator instead of Sofie, given that Sofie is the female character who loses the most in the book? Would Sofie have been an unreliable narrator due to her mental breakdown, and if so, how would this have affected the allegorical nature of the book?
    2. Do you think Sofie explained what happened to her once she was sent to the mental institution?
    3. Does the cultural significance of female virginity cause Sofie to cling harder to the meaning than her classmates do? Why might it?

    Chew on This

    Huge Hans had sex too, but we don't see him reacting like Sofie. Either he wasn't a virgin, he didn't have a preexisting mental illness, or it's different for boys in this book.

    Sofie refuses to talk to Agnes about her experience at the sawmill. She could be keeping her secret because she's discovered true meaning, or she could be dealing with shock and trauma and is unable to talk about what happened.

  • Defeat

    Defeat in Nothing is a pretty high-stakes loss. To admit defeat to Pierre Anthon is not just to lose, it's to lose to the dude who's been spitting plum pits at you and telling you the best thing you could do for the world is die. It's not like losing a game of cards, it's like losing the game of life itself. Add a 7th grade mindset to that and you might as well have Wile E. Coyote standing beside you with a powder keg. Things get really ugly, really fast when your opponent is an existential nihilist.

    Questions About Defeat

    1. Agnes and the rest of 7A feel briefly victorious when the international media turn them into art stars. Does celebrity create meaning? If not, is it an adequate replacement for meaning?
    2. If life has no meaning, can victory and defeat even exist?
    3. What does Agnes mean when she says their victory felt like defeat? How many people have to approve of something before it can be considered a victory, and how many have to disapprove before it can be considered defeat?
    4. If meaning is determined based solely on individual perception, are victory and defeat determined that way, too? If you perceive something as a victory that the rest of the world perceives as defeat, would the existentialists say it's still a victory based on the authenticity of your experience? How do you think Pierre Anthon would answer this question?

    Chew on This

    Pierre Anthon's death is a defeat.

    Pierre Anthon's death is a victory.

  • Appearances

    Quick, name two places in which appearances are really, really important. If you said "7th grade" and "the art world," give yourself a gold star, because now you're thinking like a Danish YA author (in which case maybe you should get your Dannebrog on and give yourself a red star with a white cross.) In Nothing, we see that adults are fronting just as much as kids are, but adults are doing it for money. Case in point: the newspaper reporter who at first denounces the heap of meaning, then after the MOMA deems it worth millions, says he didn't recognize the art at first because he only saw it from one side.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Do you agree with Pierre Anthon that we all wear masks to hide who we really are? If so, why? What might the world look like if we all took them off for a day?
    2. Agnes wants to be a fashion designer, working in an industry that makes millions generating beauty and artifice (in other words—masks). What are some other professions that do the same?
    3. Ursula-Marie wears a very striking mask every day: she dyes her hair blue. Yet when she's forced to sacrifice her braids, Agnes says she won't be Ursula-Marie anymore. Do you think it could be argued that she's even more authentically Ursula-Marie without them? Are there times—for example, in the case of unnatural hair colors, tattoos, and piercings—when the outside we construct makes us more authentically ourselves, rather than less?

    Chew on This

    Being an adult just means you've had more time to develop your masquerade. You become less authentic the older you get.

    When Agnes sees Jon-Johan crying before Sofie cuts off his finger, she realizes she prefers who he pretends to be to who he really is.

  • Revenge

    Nothing ends with a big ol' revenge-fest. Agnes manages to get away from Gerda's fists of fury and bring Pierre Anthon back to the sawmill at long last, only to participate in his murder. The desire for revenge is justified, although, of course, the murder isn't. Everyone has lost something of major importance, only to see Pierre Anthon scoff at it. They're mad at him, they're mad at the person who made them give up whatever they gave up, and it all gets really Jerry Springer really fast. Interestingly, the aftermath of revenge is respect: after killing Pierre Anthon, they actually cry sincere tears at his funeral.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Can you ever really get revenge on a nihilist? If someone thinks the noblest thing you can do is die, do you get vengeance when you kill him, or do you just become the vehicle by which he lives out his philosophy?
    2. Is Agnes's revenge on Gerda made even more sinister by how calculated it is? Why or why not?
    3. Does Jon-Johan truly get revenge by telling on his peers, since in doing so he also makes them famous?

    Chew on This

    Holy Karl gets revenge on Elise by demanding that Pretty Rosa kill Cinderella. This is more important to him than having Pretty Rosa sacrifice something that's truly meaningful to her.

    Eight years later, Agnes is still questioning the nature and reality of meaning, and it still makes her uncomfortable. In a way, Pierre Anthon is still getting revenge on his classmates long after his death.

  • Sacrifice

    Sacrifice is perhaps the most straightforward of all the themes in Nothing. There's no metaphor here; people are literally giving up the things that are most important to them. In the case of Oscarlittle, Cinderella, and, ultimately, Pierre Anthon, they actually sacrifice their lives, though not intentionally. Which leads us to ask: if it's not intentional, is it still a sacrifice?

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Does Pierre Anthon intend to sacrifice his life when he walks into the sawmill? How can you tell either way?
    2. Who do you think makes the greatest sacrifice? Who sacrifices the least? What makes you say so?
    3. There was never any discussion of reclaiming the sacrificed items once Pierre Anthon had seen them. What do you think the kids originally planned to have happen to them, before the sacrifices became unrecoverable?
    4. How do you think the museum planned to preserve the heap of meaning for display? (Okay, that one's a little off-topic, but we're really curious.)

    Chew on This

    Each sacrifice is exponentially greater than the one before.

    The heap of meaning would have looked very different if there had been a rule forbidding revenge sacrifices.