Study Guide

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1) Analysis

By Patrick Ness

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We have ourselves two titles to sort through with this book since The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in a series called Chaos Walking. But let's take it piece by piece.

    As far as Chaos Walking goes, this is referenced in Chapter 2 when Todd says that "the Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking" (4.34). The series title, then, is a reference to that chaos inside our heads and what happens when it is broadcast to the entire world.

    Now for the title of this specific installment in the series. The Knife of Never Letting Go is a shout-out to the infamous knife Todd carries with him. In Chapter 6, Todd says: "I never let go of the knife" (6.58), and this is pretty much true until it disappears into Aaron's cold, dead body. The knife is pretty epic when it comes to symbolic punch, so be sure to read up on it over in the "Symbols" section. For now, though, we'll just note that the knife is all about Todd's coming of age process, and the title clues us into just how important this blade is.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    As The Knife of Never Letting Go comes to a close, Todd and Viola are left in Haven. But rather than being in a safe place (as Haven was supposed to be), it turns out that this is the newest HQ for Mayor—pardon us, President—Prentiss. In other words, they've traveled all this way only to find themselves still in the clutches of the very person they've been running from this entire time. Adding to the uncertainly is the fact that Viola has been seriously wounded.

    In other words, this one's a cliffhanger, Shmoopers. But so it goes in series (well, until the last book anyway). So what's up with the ending? You're just going to have to read the next book to find out.

  • Setting

    Prentisstown, the Countryside of the New World, Farbranch

    We see a couple different settings in The Knife of Never Letting Go, so we're going to give you a tour of the highlights: the bad, the good, and the better.

    Prentisstown

    Imagine the worst day you've ever had. Now imagine that being every day. Okay, now you can imagine what it's like to live in Prentisstown.

    Prentisstown is more about how you feel when you're there than what it physically looks like. And it is one Noisy, angry, womanless place. Todd hates "every minute of every day in my stupid, stinking life in this stupid, stinking town" (2.21). The fact that everyone is so unhappy is made way worse by Noise—you don't just hear your own unhappiness, but the unhappy noise of everyone else. It's enough to really bum a person out.

    Basically, Prentisstown is the armpit of the New World. So even though Todd leaves it at the beginning, since the town is where he's been raised, it's responsible for all the anger he carries. The Prentisstown vibe taints everything it touches.

    New World Swamp / Countryside

    Most of Todd's journeys take him through the countryside of the New World. It's a nice break from all those settlements with their weird laws and quirks, and since so much of the book deals with society (and all the things that can go wrong with it), it's important that there's this neutral ground.

    Todd finds the countryside "all just life, going over itself, returning and cycling and eating itself to grow" (1.60). In other words, it's self sufficient and happy, without Noise and people ruining everything. He says there is "no sign of any kind of settlement or people except for the dusty road itself. Which is good in one way but weird in another" (20.52). To Todd, after all, the world as he knows it is meant for people to crowd and control. The countryside, then, offers him a new way of thinking about the world and how to live in it.

    Farbranch

    Farbranch is probably the golden child of the New World (well, until Mayor Prentiss flattens it to the ground). Todd, who's used to towns being like Prentisstown, says that "it feels like I've wandered right off New World into some whole other place altogether" (17.84) when he gets here. People aren't angry and they seem to get along pretty well—even with Noise. Compared to the Noise he's used to, it's "so heedless and safe-sounding to me that it feels like taking a bath in comparison to the black Noise I'm used to" (17.89). Todd's mind's a little bit blow, and that's only a good thing.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

    - George Eliot, Middlemarch

    What's up with the epigraph?

    Without ever saying Noise, the epigraph is a shout-out to the experience of constantly hearing everything. Being tuned into every human thought is akin to being tuned into every sound in the world, and Eliot's point in Middlemarch is that this experience would completely overwhelm us—in her assessment, to the point of death.

    While people in The Knife of Never Letting Go who have Noise are decidedly alive, a metaphorical death of sorts has taken place in Prentisstown. All the women have been killed and Todd is the last child left in a community of men, all of whom have become men by passing through a coming-of-age ritual that involves murder. So while the inhabitants of Prentisstown are technically alive, life as they once knew it is most definitely dead. This is a new society, one established "on the other side of silence" and governed by the "roar" that exists there.

    And that, Shmoopers, is what's up with the epigraph.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Line

    The Knife of Never Letting Go isn't tough to get through, per say, but it definitely takes some getting acquainted with in order to get into the groove of things. After all, we're in a completely made-up place, and the way things work can take a little getting used to. For instance:

    Cuz you can lie in the Noise, even when everyone knows what yer thinking, you can bury stuff under other stuff, you can hide it in plain sight, you just don't think it clearly or you convince yerself that the opposite of what yer hiding is true and then whose going to be able to pick it out. (2.21)

    See what we mean? This take a bit of sorting: People can hear your thoughts all the time, but they also can't because you can still hide them… It's nothing like the way thoughts work in our real world. And, of course, there are some spelling liberties taken, too.

    This said, once you get the hang of things, this book is pretty smooth sailing. So just bring a little patience with you at the start, and then get ready to be rewarded as you find yourself completely caught up in this strange new world.

  • Noise

    Ah yes, Noise—in a way, we really couldn't have the book without it. It's not really a means to an end, per say, or a wrench in the overall plot, but it gives the book its mood and majorly contributes to its vibe. What's one word that we could use to describe the world of Todd Hewitt in The Knife of Never Letting Go? Chaos. And that's largely thanks to the Noise.

    Todd tells us that "The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking" (4.34). Think about the inner-workings of your own head—it's a hot mess, right? Ours are anyway as the good, the bad, the ugly, and (of course) the brilliant all swirl together. In the world we live in, though, we get to reign this all in, choosing what to show the people around us and keeping the rest where it belongs: under lockdown inside our brains. But in Todd's world, Noise makes that impossible, it lets it all hang out. And the result is chaos.

    Noise mimics the chaotic side of human nature. Todd says that "men's minds are messy places and Noise is like the active, breathing face of that mess" (4.33). More than the constant stream of sound, though, perhaps most unsettling thing about Noise is this: You'd think that a world where everything was out in the open would be a pretty honest place, right? Wrong. Big time.

    Noise is full of "pictures of memories and fantasies and secrets and plans and lies, lies lies. Cuz you can […] bury stuff under other stuff, you can hide it in plain sight" (2.21). Instead of making the truth plain and clear, then, Noise shows that people are so despicable that they lie in their own minds. To themselves, just like they do to everyone else. So reading someone's Noise doesn't even guarantee that you know what's actually going on in their life. As Todd explains:

    It usually adds up to one big mash of sound and thought and picture and half the time it's impossible to make any sense of it at all. (4.33)

    Noise also really plays up the whole totalitarianism thing that the story has going. With everyone's thoughts out in the open, nothing can be hidden, privacy becomes pretty much obsolete—Noise represents a loss of control. As Cillian tells Todd, "Keep yer thoughts quiet. That's more important than you know" (4.83). To this end, when you're living with Noise, your best bet is ignorance. After all, what you don't know can't hurt you.

    Okay yes, there's still the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: Why do men get it and the women don't? No scientific answer is given, and instead it's just the way it is with Noise. But it might actually be the real reason that they all went crazy: "They couldn't stand the silence. They couldn't stand women knowing everything about them and them knowing nothing about women" (36.70). Noise also represents the madness men came to in response to not being able to figure women out, their violent discomfort in the face of feminine mystery.

    Of course, we all know the horrible thing that this led to: the men of Prentisstown murdering all the women. Although Todd doesn't actually get the idea to kill Viola, trying to communicate with a "quiet" person is really difficult if you have Noise. When he's first getting used to her, he asks, "how can you know for sure when a person's got no Noise? How can they be a person if they ain't got no Noise?" (7.42). It completely baffles him—he's not even sure how someone can be human without Noise, even though Noise is a germ.

  • The Knife

    The knife is a really big deal. As in, the book is named after it, it kind of embodies all the angst and confusion in the book, and it's Todd's right hand man (other than Manchee, of course). Think of it as this super-strong, driving force that makes the story happen.

    Ben gives Todd the knife when Todd leaves Prentisstown. It's a "hunting knife, the big ratchety one with the bone handle and the serrated edge that cuts practically everything in the world, the knife I was hoping to get for the birthday when I become a man" (5.89). Every boy's dream birthday present… right? It's certainly Todd's anyway, and for him, it's strongly associated with becoming a man. Because of this, the knife represents manhood in the book, though in more ways than just because it's dangerous and powerful.

    It's Not Just A Knife

    So the first thing to know about the knife is… it's more than a knife. It's a choice. Check it:

    A knife ain't just a thing, is it? It's a choice, it's something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don't. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again. (8.76)

    Okay, so the knife represents duality and decisions between two things. This is a really interesting idea. We tend to think of an object as, well, just being an object—but a flowerpot and a gun have totally different uses, right? When you have a knife in your hand, it gives you the option to kill. The knife, then, also represents a certain set of choices, and arguably the kind you shouldn't make until you're pretty mature. To find yourself considering the same options with a flowerpot, it would need to be really heavy.

    Phase 1: The Knife is a Bad Guy

    Todd gets a little carried away with this idea. The way he talks, it seems like the knife is some kind of berserk magic wand that's going to act of it's own free will: "my knife's gonna have to do it. It's gonna have to act, even if it's against a machete" (19.65). The knife can't act on its own, though. It's just an ordinary knife, so here we see it representing Todd's inability to really appreciate the power he possesses. He may be holding a man's weapon, but he understands it with a boy's eyes.

    Phase 2: The Knife Makes People Do Bad Things

    Todd moves from thinking that the knife has a mind of it's own to thinking that the knife makes him guilty. After he kills the Spackle, Todd blames the knife:

    I look at the knife again, sitting there on the moss like a thing without properties, a thing made of metal as separate from a boy as can be, a thing which casts all blame from itself to the boy who uses it. (26.101)

    Not only is the knife making him kill, it's something that's totally "separate" from the one who uses it—and yet places blame for its action upon the user. Here the knife clues us into how clueless Todd is about guilt. Sure, in Prentisstown everyone lives in guilt, but a byproduct of this is that it's not something that's clearly explained to him. To do so, after all, would be to have a conversation about Prentisstown that reflects pretty poorly on the place, and no one's really willing to do take that risk.

    So Todd is a little misinformed. He knows that guilt exists, but he doesn't understand where the line's supposed to be drawn (more on this over in the "Themes" section). The knife enables him to sort this out a bit, though, to attach his own action with the result and, in doing so, is kind of figure out that he's accountable for his own actions. Thanks, knife.

    Phase 3: Todd is the Knife Master

    The knife becomes something that can come alive, but there's a catch: It has to be owned. When Todd is getting ready to free Viola from Aaron, he says:

    The knife is alive. As long as I hold it […] the knife lives, lives in order to take life, but it has to be commanded, it has to have me tell it to kill, and it wants to. (31.20)

    Kind of like a magic wand with a gruesome twist. Here we see the different ideas Todd's had about the knife coming together. The knife kind of is a bad guy—it's ready to do bad things—but it can't do them unless Todd commands it to, a.k.a. uses it.

    It's clear here that, all in all, the knife is kind of a learning tool. Through it, Todd learns to be responsible in his actions, realizing that he's the one in control, and as he does, the knife serves as a measure for his maturation process. And here we thought knives were just good for cutting things.

  • The Book

    The journal that Todd inherits from his mother is kind of like his fairy godmother. It pops up when he and Viola most need it (a.k.a. they conveniently remember that they have it), and it gives them helpful clues and moral support. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.

    Todd's mother wrote it "starting from the day [he was] born, Todd. Till the day she died" (5.17), and Ben and Cillian have been hiding the book away for him (you know, since the Mayor outlawed books). They give it to him in his moment of need, at the beginning of the story when he has to run away. Right away, then, the book represents Todd's isolation—his surrogate family gives him notes from his dead family as he ventures out into the world alone.

    The book is supposed to be really helpful to Todd—full of clues and all that—but because Todd can't read, the helpfulness comes a bit too late. For example, when they read Ben's warning—"you must get to Farbranch as fast as you can and when you get there, you must warn them" (21.38)—Farbranch is already long gone. So unfortunately the helpful part is kind of negated by Todd's bad timing.

    But what's most important about the book is that it contains Todd's mother's voice. This is matters because it's the only tie to family that Todd has, and it's really meaningful to him. The last words that Viola reads to Todd before they close the book are "yer calling for me, son, and I will answer" (38. 60), and Todd says that this stays "in my Noise forever" (38.61). See? It's a really big deal for him to have this connection to his past. Plus, these might be the nicest thoughts that float around in Todd's usually angst-y Noise.

  • The Sea of Things

    In their travels, Todd and Viola come across a sea of magically peaceful cows. We don't get an actual species name, but they're described as "twelve feet tall, covered in a shaggy, silver fur with a thick, fluffed tail at one end and a pair of curved white horns at the other reaching right outta their brows and long necks" (22.14). Okay, cool.

    What's more important than their awesome silver fur, though, is the sound they make: They sing the word here in unison. Because of this, these cows represent the fact that peace and harmony do exist in the world, which is something that Todd and Viola need to be reminded of, since they're running from town to town from an army that threatens to destroy this very same world. We're told:

    It's like the song of a family where everything's always all right, it's a song of belonging that makes you belong just by hearing it. […] If you have a heart, it breaks, if you have a heart that's broken, it fixes. (22.24)

    It's a song of hope—and a symbol of hope, too—for two kids who could really use something bright to hold onto. Thanks, silver-furred cows.

  • The Spackle

    Todd describes the Spackle: "he's tall and thin like in the vids, white skin, long fingers and arms, the mouth midface where it ain't sposed to be, the ear flaps down by the jaw, eyes blacker than swamp stones, lichen and moss growing where clothes should be" (25.8). Sounds like a mystical, woodland alien, right? And that's exactly what it is. But more than being mystical, the Spackle is innocent—and that's his place in the story.

    The Spackle is the ultimate victim. And this particular one that Todd meets and kills represents the whole race. Todd's people saw that they were different from themselves and destroyed them. Oh, after settling in their land. Todd's mother explains in her diary: "They're very sweet creachers. Different and maybe primitive […] but I don't agree with some of the thinking that the Spackle are animals rather than intelligent beings" (38.31). The Spackle clearly represent racism, oppression, and violence against those that are thought to be different. They are 'the Other.'

    The scene where Todd kills the Spackle is pretty heart wrenching, and the moment where he realizes "he's weaker than me" (25.44) is a real turning point. Todd attacks based on what he's been told about the Spackle, but when he kills it, it's "Noise is filled with pain and bafflement and fear" (25.57). It's only after that Todd realizes what he's done—killed a totally innocent creature—and comes to see how his knowledge can't be trusted.

    The Spackle represents how vulnerable the innocent are, including Todd, and how corrupt the big, ugly world can be. Because of the corruption of New World, Todd is tricked into killing an innocent creature, and when he does, his own innocence dies a bit, too.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    This is very much a story told from the main character's point of view, complete with all the limitations that come with it.

    With the main character, Todd, telling his story, we've got ourselves some serious pros and cons. Pros: We get to know the main character really well thanks to front-row seats to their personal reactions to everything that happens. Cons: We get their personal response to everything that happens, leaving everyone else way more of a mystery.

    Plus, Todd is a very moody guy. So when he gives us an assessment of what happens, can we believe it completely? Not really. Todd tends to get really carried away with emotions like anger and judgment, so sometimes we get the feeling that if he calmed down and saw things a little more rationally, we'd get a better view.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition

    Meet Todd

    Todd's your average kid from a parallel universe where everyone's thoughts can be heard all the time. He's frustrated with life in cranky and unhappy Prentisstown until something weird happens—he hears silence—and he has to leave with no real explanation as to why. Pretty quickly, boy meets girl, and girl happens to be the source of said silence. Not only is she the first female boy (okay, Todd) has ever seen since the ladies are all supposed to be dead, but she's also the first person he's ever encountered whose thoughts aren't broadcast constantly. So what now?

    Rising Action

    On the Run

    Todd and Viola (the silent girl) are on the run. Aaron, this malevolent preacher from Prentisstown, is in hot pursuit, as well as an army of men. At first, Todd and Viola aren't too sure where they need to go, but they eventually decide to head to Haven, the largest—and original settlement—where they can be safe from the army and Viola can send a message to her people in space.

    Climax

    Moment of Truth

    Todd finally learns the truth about Prentisstown: The men killed the women and are all being controlled by Mayor Prentiss. Yikes. And once he came of age, he was going to be forced to kill an innocent person in order to become part of the Prentisstown pack. Some club, that one.

    Todd and Viola finally come head to head with Aaron, who has been chasing them all along (seriously—dude just doesn't quit). And when they do, it turns out that Aaron has been hoping that Todd will kill him and fulfill his Prentisstown destiny—Aaron's trying to carry on the Prentisstown legacy and prohibit Todd from escaping. Todd knows that he has to kill Aaron, but still can't make himself do it. Luckily for him, Viola kills Aaron instead, finally ridding them of their evil pursuer. Now things can wind down a bit.

    Falling Action

    Worst Case Scenario

    Todd carries an injured Viola to Haven, but when they get there, the city is empty except for one man: Mayor Prentiss. Ugh. Mayor Prentiss explains to Todd that everyone in the city left because there was a rumor of an army coming. The residents' departure set the stage for the Mayor, who now calls himself President, to catch Todd by himself.

    Did we say things would start winding down? We should have added an ish to that—they're winding down-ish.

    Resolution

    Or Lack Thereof

    This book doesn't get a resolution so much as it gets a cliffhanger. We are left on the empty streets of Haven with Viola, Todd, and President Prentiss, wondering what the next step will be until we get our hands on the sequel.