Study Guide

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

By Patrick Ness

  • Manipulation

    In The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd grows up in a world made up of lies, thanks to the manipulation of Mayor Prentiss and his minions. Todd's journey through the big wide world is pretty jarring as he realizes over and over again that much of what he's grown up thinking is true is, in fact, false. How was this web of lies woven? Through religion, Mayor Prentiss's chosen vehicle for manipulating the citizens of Prentisstown into behaving exactly as he wants—a.k.a. forming his army.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Why do you think the people in Prentisstown are so easy to manipulate?
    2. Are people like Todd responsible for their actions when everything they've been told about the world has been manipulated into a lie? Why or why not?
    3. Mayor Prentiss's claims about religion are obviously geared toward death and chaos, so how does he get people to believe him? Use the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    Manipulation in this book is all about chaos, and how it can be used for and against people.

    Religion is an easy way to manipulate people because it asks for their faith—a.k.a. to trust in something they can't completely understand.

  • Rules and Order

    Rules and order are a hot mess in The Knife of Never Letting Go. On the one hand, we have people who have come to the New World to start anew, to shirk the old rules and build better lives. But on the other hand, we're a few generations removed from the original settlers at this point, and during this period of time, in Prentisstown in particular, all kinds of terrible rules have cropped up—you know, like you're not a man until you murder. And the Noise only complicates things further, creating chaos that people want contained, which makes rules only more desirable, and a critical relationship with them all the more unlikely.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Do you think that all rules and order eventually become corrupt? Are there any examples of rules that are only good?
    2. Think about the different settlements. Are there similarities between their rules? Any key differences? Are there any rules that work for absolutely everybody?
    3. What makes rules good? How about bad? Use the text to support your argument.

    Chew on This

    The ultimate purpose of rules is to bring order, but in the process, rules often bring chaos.

    Noise is chaos, but men find ways to control it and bring order to their lives.

  • Language and Communication

    So there's this thing called Noise in The Knife of Never Letting Go, and it kind of throws a wrench into the whole idea of communication by making it so everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts all the time. Importantly, Noise is a germ, meaning it's an infection, something that isn't normal to human life, so humans aren't naturally equipped to navigate it well. And because of this, chaos ensues where Noise is involved, and one of the things that gets particularly out of whack is communication. People definitely interact with each other differently here.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Is Noise exclusively bad for communication? Are there ways in which it enhances people's ability to communicate? Explain your answer using the text.
    2. How does having Noise affect Todd's communication style? How does his communication shift when he's interacting with someone else with Noise versus with someone who doesn't have it?
    3. Would you classify Noise as a language in itself? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    A key part of Viola's power is her silence.

    The most violent thing in this book is Noise because it relentlessly exposes people.

  • Choice

    In some ways, the entire plot of The Knife of Never Letting Go hinges on choice. Todd is the last kid in Prentisstown—literally—but when he flees right before becoming a man, instead of following the rules of Prentisstown on autopilot like everyone else has, he finds himself facing a world of decision. Does he want to be a man by Prentisstown's standards? Or are there other ways to come of age? And as for how things are run in Prentisstown, well, as Todd encounters the wider world, he realizes there are actually lots of options there as well. It's all a matter of choice.

    Questions About Choice

    1. What do you think about the knife being a choice, rather than just an object? Read up on it over in the "Symbols" section to help you dig deep.
    2. Is choice the only freedom that Todd has in a world where everyone's thoughts are shared? Why or why not? Is choice part of freedom for Viola?
    3. What's the difference between choices in which we know the outcome and choices in which we can't possibly? Use the text to support.

    Chew on This

    Todd comes of age when he realizes he has the power to make his own decisions.

    Choice is limited because one person's choices always come up against those of others—so our choices are always influenced.

  • Coming of Age

    The Knife of Never Letting Go isn't your average coming of age story because the society Todd lives in—Prentisstown—has a pretty stunted sense of what coming of age involves. In some societies it's all about finding yourself and learning to take responsibility, but in Prentisstown, it's all about murdering a sacrifice and joining the army. In other words, Todd is coming of age in a town that hasn't really come of age fully itself. And yet, Todd desperately wants to become a man. Fortunately, though, he finds his own way of doing so, and it doesn't involve blood on his hands.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. In the end, what does being a man mean to Todd? When does is this definition formed?
    2. How much of Todd's obsession with coming-of-age is because of the fact that he's the youngest member of Prentisstown? How much of it comes from just wanting to grow up? Use the text to support your answer.
    3. Does Viola come of age? How can you tell? How is her experience similar and different to Todd's?

    Chew on This

    Todd's coming of age story is a journey from ignorance to knowledge about the world around him.

    In the end, Todd is more of a man than anyone else in the book, besides maybe Viola. Not because she's a man, but because she is of age, too.

  • Gender

    As if Noisy thoughts, animals talking, and settlers coming in from other planets wasn't enough, The Knife of Never Letting Go has some weird gender issues going on. Mainly this is presented by questioning gender roles. Such as: should the guys or the girls be in charge? Also, why does the author choose for only the men to have the Noise germ, and not the women? And then there's Todd, who doesn't even see a girl until he's thirteen.

    The thematic role of gender in the book isn't defined, per say, but there are so many ways that the issue presents itself that it's our job to do the detective work. What does it mean that a whole lot of stress has been put on becoming a man in a world where women are extinct? Why are women treated and respected differently from town to town? So many questions that, without further ado, we'd best get started.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What does being a man mean when there aren't any other gender options to compare it to? How does masculinity get defined then?
    2. How does not having any women around impact society in Prentisstown? What stresses does it create? Are there any it alleviates?
    3. How does masculinity get defined through Todd? How does femininity get defined through Viola? Explore similarities and differences between these gender definitions.

    Chew on This

    While everyone's obsessed with gender, Todd and Viola both fail to fit neatly within gender stereotypes, showing that gender isn't such a concrete thing after all.

    Despite its fascination with manhood and masculinity, ultimately this book is a feminist text.

  • Individual vs. Society

    In The Knife of Never Letting Go, it's pretty much Todd—our thirteen-year-old main man—versus the rest of the world. Some odds, right? And making things even trickier is the fact that in the world Todd lives in, there's not a whole lot of love given to individualism. Instead, in Prentisstown (and elsewhere, though in different ways), there's a lot of emphasis placed on conforming to society. Todd's ultimate disinterest in doing so drives his journey through this book as he struggles to let go of society's expectations and be true to himself. Go, Todd, go.

    Questions About Individual vs. Society

    1. How would you construct a society that gives the most amount of freedom to the individual? Seriously—tell us all about it.
    2. Is Noise the main problem in the story that makes individual freedom difficult? What else could be a factor? Use the text to support your answer.
    3. Compare Todd, who grows up in a society that doesn't respect the individual, to Viola, who grows up in a world that does. How do they relate to themselves differently? How about to others? Are there similarities?

    Chew on This

    Todd's coming-of-age adventure is a journey toward defining himself as an individual. He has to separate himself from his society, even though he's a part of it.

    The different settlements in New World are the author's experiment with how society treats the individual.

  • Guilt

    Guilt has a heavy hand in The Knife of Never Letting Go. The story really digs into the idea of where guilt comes from and who should feel it. As we read, we ask questions like: Is Todd guilty by association? Is he justified in killing someone if it's out of self-defense? Why do some people who do the worst things not feel guilty? Ultimately, Todd really struggles with guilt, but fortunately for him, as he travels and encounters different people and values and societies, he begins to form his own meaningful definition of what is legit cause for guilt, and what is not.

    Questions About Guilt

    1. Why is it so important that Todd is complicit in the crimes of Prentisstown? Is he really complicit?
    2. Why does Todd project guilt onto the knife? Hop on over to the "Symbols" section to read up on the knife a bit. 
    3. How is guilt tied to free will? Can someone make another person guilty? Use the text to support.

    Chew on This

    Todd grows as a character because he comes to understand innocence and guilt more accurately, to define them for himself instead of by Prentisstown's standards.

    Todd comes to realize that guilt makes sense because it isn't an end—it's a means toward redemption.