Study Guide

The Demon's Lexicon Themes

By Sarah Rees Brennan

  • Language and Communication

    Nick hates words; Alan loves them. Nick's never sure what certain gestures mean or when they're appropriate; Alan's a natural back-patter and hair-ruffler. As brothers, they're different as can be, and as communicators? Apples and oranges, mangoes and kumquats.

    But what's the big deal? Well most people use words, and most animals don't (except for some species of birds and the characters in Animal Farm or Aesop's fables). And as we learn in The Demon's Lexicon, demons don't talk either—unless they're engaged through the communication lines of a dancer's circle. So is the ability to communicate with words (and gestures with verbal meanings, like a pat on the back for good job or a sad look for I'm sorry) part of what makes humans… human? Actually, that's a trick question, because no matter how you answer it, guess what: more questions. Don't believe us? Look below.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. If language and communication are what separate humans from animals (and demons), where does that leave people who can't speak? People who are born without the ability to hear or speak and never acquire verbal language? Monks who take a vow of silence? People with dyslexia or dysphasia or other disabilities that inhibit their ability to communicate? Are these people less human than those who've mastered language and communication? Why or why not?
    2. In The Demon's Lexicon, which characters are good communicators? Which characters could use a little work in this area? Are the best communicators the most human? Are the worst communicators the least human? Explain your answers.
    3. How important are language and communication in the everyday lives of humans? How important are they in your life? Do you think you're a good communicator? Why or why not? Nick is described as being dyslexic and having such a hard time with words that they seem like lies to him when he sees them tumbling across the page. Should people like Nick, for whom words are a major pain in the butt, have to read Shakespeare? Complete four years of high school English? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The ability to communicate with words is a big part of what separates humans from animals… and demons.

    Words, smords. Alan loves them, but he's not a great communicator; Nick hates them, but people always seem to know exactly where he stands. The characters in The Demon's Lexicon prove that there's a lot more to communicating than just speaking or writing.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Lies and deceit and deceit and lies—that's what the lives of the Ryves brothers (and the rest of the characters in The Demon's Lexicon) are built on. Yeah sure, there are some truths in there too, but seriously, this book is loaded with people who aren't what they seem to be; people with mysterious pasts; and people who are so good at deceiving themselves that they can't see what's right under their noses. Misleading appearances, secrecy, self-deception, denial: it's all here, and it starts to make us wonder a bit about the facts of our own lives.

    Do we really know the whole truth about ourselves, our friends, and our families? Are there any ways in which we're deceiving ourselves? Refusing to see the truth? Pretending to be something that we're not? It's all a little unsettling and (truth be told) kind of fun.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. In what ways is Nick honest with himself and others? In what ways is he less than truthful?
    2. Do you think Alan could have told Nick the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his life earlier? Why or why not?
    3. Once you understand what's really going on between Nick and Mum, do your feelings toward either of them change at all? Explain.
    4. Of the four main characters (Nick, Alan, Mae, and Jamie), who seems to be the most genuinely him or herself? Why?
    5. Have you ever pretended to be someone or something that you really aren't? Explain.
    6. People always talk about telling little white lies, small untruths like "I love your haircut," that don't really hurt anyone, but is it ever really okay to lie? Why or why not? And where exactly is the line between a little white lie and a more serious one?

    Chew on This

    It would be impossible to get through an average week without telling at least one lie.

    Sure Alan tells quite a few lies, but they are all justified and he is no less honorable or trustworthy for telling them.

  • Transformation

    From a caterpillar into a butterfly, a tadpole into a frog, a frog into a prince… Okay, so that last one's slightly less likely to occur in the natural world, but transformations are big in life (child to adult, student to master), and they're big in stories, too. Of course, the biggest candidate for transformation in The Demon's Lexicon is Nick, who at first glance appears to be emotionally inaccessible, unkind, and somewhat of a psychopath. When we know his full story, we begin to understand why he behaves the way he does, and we see that he has already undergone one transformation—the one that technically took place before he was even born. But that leaves us with another question: does Nick experience a second transformation? Read on and decide for yourself.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Which characters experience some form of transformation over the course of the book? Consider both the ways in which particular characters seem to change and the ways that your views of particular characters change as you learn more about their circumstances.
    2. Are there any characters that remain the same from beginning to end? Consider both the characters themselves and your view of them. Explain your answer.
    3. Think about the characters that seem to undergo some form of transformation in the story. What factors do you think contributed to their transformations? Were the changes a conscious choice made by each character, or were the characters influenced by someone or something else? Explain.
    4. As people grow older, their views and opinions, likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies tend to change. In what ways have you changed over time? In what ways have you stayed the same? Why do you think people change? Is it about choice? Personal growth? A search for identity? Go ahead—pontificate for us.

    Chew on This

    Nick has definitely experienced a transformation by the end of the book, and he is no longer the entity that Black Arthur believes him to be.

    (Alan/Mae/Jamie) has a great impact on Nick and is a big part of why his transformation is possible.

  • Family

    Sometimes families are dysfunctional, and we'd say the Ryveses in The Demon's Lexicon qualify on that front—even without all their wild supernatural juju. A mother who hates one of her sons so much she can't even bear to meet his eyes? That's pretty weird, and as readers we spend a large part of the novel wondering what her problem is—and why both Nick and Alan seem to just accept it. Is it because you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your family? Are they just stuck with this dynamic, for better or for worse? What obligations do people have to their family members just because they're family?

    Oh, and one last thing: just because you can pick your nose doesn't mean you should.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does your view of the Ryves family and how they relate to one another change over the course of the book as you learn more about them and their history together?
    2. Nick and Alan are pretty much on their own in the world, and so are Mae and Jamie. Why do you think Sarah Rees Brennan set it up so that none of the four young adult characters have positive parental influences? Is the absence of good parents an important part of the story? Why or why not? How would the story be different if Daniel Ryves (Alan and Nick's primary father figure) had lived? What if Mae and Jamie had an involved parent? Do you think Brennan is trying to make any kind of statement about the role of parents and family in the lives of young adults?
    3. In dysfunctional families, children often play one of four roles: hero, scapegoat, mascot, or lost child. Read this description of the roles from the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and see if you think Alan, Nick, Mae, or Jamie fit into any of these roles. Does anyone fit any of the roles? Does anyone fit more than one? Explain.
    4. What is it that makes two people family, anyway? Is it blood? Is it love? Is it growing up in the same household? We said before that you can't pick your family (just your friends, and your nose), but maybe we were wrong. What do you think? And what do you think the characters in The Demon's Lexicon would have to say about this?

    Chew on This

    No matter how dysfunctional a family may be, the members of that family will always be bound together if for no other reason than that they are, in fact, family.

    Books like The Demon's Lexicon, in which there are no reliable or likable parental figures, do a disservice to mothers and fathers everywhere by implying that they are neither important nor necessary in their children's lives.

  • Man and the Natural World

    As you can guess from the title The Demon's Lexicon, there are a few things in this book that aren't exactly natural if we're thinking about nature as we know it. Like, well… demons. The thing is though, that Alan believes demons can take on human characteristics—that they can love and be loved, and that they can become part of the natural order of things. But can they? Can something supernatural fit into the natural world?

    In a lot of ways, the way this theme plays out in The Demon's Lexicon reminds us of the way it plays out in Frankenstein, where we see various human parts stitched together to create a monster, and have to wonder: just how human is that monster?

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. By the end of the book, what is your opinion of Nick: is he more demon than human or more human than demon? Explain.
    2. When Nick is first introduced in the story, how is he described? Do any of his characteristics or behaviors cause you to question his humanity? What about his level of compassion and kindness toward others? These are characteristics he seems to lack, but when you first meet him as a character, do these things cause you to question whether or not he might be human? Why or why not?
    3. Do you know other people who seem kind of callous toward others, the way that Nick does early in the story? Have you ever been in a situation where you kind of thought you should feel bad for someone or sad about something but the feelings just weren't there? We're pretty sure most people have had this experience, so don't feel bad about it—just think about it. Why do we feel compassion when we do? Why don't we feel it when we don't? And which, in your opinion, makes us more human: the moments when we have compassion or the moments when we don't?
    4. Does Nick's level of "humanity" seem to change at all over the course of the story? How? When? And the biggie: why?
    5. What are the things that separate humans from animals? Do you think animals feel love, anger, sadness, sympathy? Why or why not? Are people who have trouble experiencing certain emotions less human than people who experience emotions fairly freely? What about people who are highly emotional—people who cry during Hallmark commercials or get bent out of shape by small things? Are they the most human of all?

    Chew on This

    The ability to experience emotions like love, empathy, sadness, fear, and joy is a major factor that separates humans from animals. And demons.

    Regardless of how much Nick learns about how to behave in the human world, he will always be a demon at his core and will never experience human love firsthand.

  • Isolation

    Everyone experiences isolation. Feeling alienated is, after all, part of the human condition, and that's why it's so interesting that Nick is the most isolated character in The Demon's Lexicon. Because, well, he's not human… or is he? It's kind of hard to tell at times, especially since his feelings of isolation, not fitting in, and being on his own are quintessential human experiences. It's kind of paradoxical: by feeling separate, different, and alone, Nick proves himself to have a lot in common with others. His isolation—the fact that he experiences it and laments it—actually bonds him to others, whether he realizes it or not.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. In what ways is Nick in particular isolated from others? What about the other characters in the book? How are they each isolated?
    2. Is there anyone in the book who is more isolated than Nick, or anyone who isn't isolated in some way? Explain.
    3. Nick is often represented as not having the same emotions as others (he says he doesn't feel fear or understand love). Does his experience with isolation support the idea that he is emotionally deficient? Why or why not?
    4. Have you ever felt isolated from others? If so, when, and what do you think caused you to feel that way?
    5. Do you think isolation is, in fact, part of being human? Is it something everyone is bound to experience at some point? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Nick has such a hard time relating to others makes him appear anti-social at first, but the way he reacts to being isolated proves that he actually craves human connection.

    In many ways, Alan is more isolated than Nick.

  • Love

    Huey Lewis said it best:

    The power of love is a curious thing,
    Make a one man weep, make another man sing,
    Change a hawk to a little white dove,
    More than a feeling—that's the power of love.

    All right. Maybe Huey Lewis didn't say it best, but you have to admit these lyrics are kind of fitting for The Demon's Lexicon. After all, love does make Alan weep and sing, and for Nick it's definitely curious. Add in all the bird imagery and the fact that love has the power to convince a whole lot of people to do a whole lot of things they otherwise wouldn't (like risk their lives and tolerate hair-ruffling), and you might just think this '80s song was written for this story… even though it hit the scene about twenty years early.

    Questions About Love

    1. In what ways is Alan motivated by love? Which of his actions and choices are directly connected to his feelings of love for another character? And what about everyone else? What things are Nick, Mae, Jamie, and Olivia motivated to do in the name of love?
    2. In Chapter 15, Nick says that he doesn't know anything about human love. Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
    3. Who do you think is more capable of feeling human love: Nick or Black Arthur? Explain your answer.
    4. Love motivates many of the characters in the book to do things they might not otherwise do. Are all of these things positive? Is anyone motivated to take negative or hurtful actions in the name of love? Explain.
    5. Sometimes love can knock you silly. Have you ever done anything ridiculous for love? How about something brave? Something you're proud of? Something you regret? Explain one or more of these situations. And remember, love comes in many forms. You can feel it for friends, family, pets, boyfriends, girlfriends—sometimes even people you've never met.

    Chew on This

    Love can only motivate people to do positive things. If a person claims to have done something negative for love (like hurt someone or steal something), then love wasn't the real motivating factor. The real motivating factor was more likely something along the lines of grief, greed, obsession, or vengeance.

    Nick doesn't believe that he knows anything about human love, but in truth the majority of his actions are motivated by his love for his brother.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Ever hear of the Trolley Problem? Here's the gist of it: you're a train yard operator and you see a train coming that's going to mow down five people. They don't have time to move, but you have time to flip a switch that will route the train to a different track—a track where there's only one person in the way. So what do you do? Do you flip the switch and send one person to his death, or do you do nothing and let the original five targets perish?

    There are a lot of different variations of this problem, and most of them remind us of situations faced by the characters in The Demon's Lexicon, who are constantly questioning whose needs—and whose lives—come first.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Are there any situations in which killing someone is okay? Explain. 
    2. If you were faced with the Trolley Problem described in the introduction to this theme, what would you do? Would you flip the switch to send the train barreling toward one person instead of five? How might your answer change if instead of flipping a switch you had to actually push one person in front of the train to save the other five people? 
    3. Do you think Alan makes a good decision when he:
      • gives his talisman to Nick when they are children (3.19)?
      • gives his talisman to Mae in Chapter 2 (2.165-166)?
      • takes on one of Jamie's marks so that they both have second tier marks (5.129)?
      • chooses to keep Nick's true identity secret from Nick?
      • chooses to keep Nick's true identity secret from the people at the Goblin Market?
      • takes Nick, Mae, and Jamie to the House of Mezentius (Chapter 10)?
      • frees Hnikkar/Nick (16.122)?
    4. Which of the characters in The Demon's Lexicon are willing to risk their lives for someone else? Explain. 
    5. Nick is willing to sacrifice Mum for Alan, but he would never do the reverse. What do you think about that? Is he justified in feeling the way he does? Does that make it right?
    6. For whom, if anyone, would you put your life on the line? Who do you think would do the same for you? 

    Chew on This

    Alan often seems to question Nick's morality, but in many ways Nick is one of the most moral characters in the book.

    Morality is subjective. There are no absolutes when it comes to right and wrong because there are exceptions to every rule.