Study Guide

Unwind Themes

By Neal Schusterman

  • Morality & Ethics


    We considered making that one word our entire introduction to this section, but figured we'd clarify just a bit. When was the last time you heard a political debate that didn't bring up either pro-life or pro-choice? Even more than gay marriage (which is also briefly addressed in Unwind) abortion is the hottest ethical question in the United States since Roe v. Wade, and Neal Shusterman's novel addresses it one of the strangest possible ways.

    Questions About Morality & Ethics

    1. Why do parents choose to have their children unwound? Just because the procedure is legal, does that mean it's ethical?
    2. Why do you think this law satisfied parties on both sides of the debate? Why would pro-life advocates approve? What aspects do pro-choice people like?
    3. We're going to pose a question that Risa ponders: "Which was worse […] to have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born?" (2.20.31). Is there any middle ground or compromise in this issue? Turn to the text for support.

    Chew on This

    There is no such thing as universal morality. In this world, it is widely seen as okay to unwind a child, so very few people rebel against the Bill of Life.

    There is such a thing as universal morality, and it is never okay to murder a child, not even in this world, which is why our main characters rebel.

  • Betrayal

    Elvis Presley sang, "Don't be cruel, to a heart that's true." But what if that true, healthy heart could be donated to someone else? In the world of Unwind, society doesn't seem to have a problem having its teenagers unwound has long as their organs get donated to someone else. But this doesn't change the fact that families are betraying their children almost from the moment they're born, either passing them to another family's doorstep or intending to have them unwound as soon as possible. It's a cruel, cruel world.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. How does Connor bring himself to forgive his parents for betraying him by wanting him unwound? Be specific, yo.
    2. Is Risa right to feel betrayed when Connor doesn't defend her from Roland in the Graveyard bathroom? Why or why not?
    3. Does Roland feel any remorse for revealing the existence of the Graveyard in an attempt to save himself? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    The Bill of Life encourages betrayal because no parent (the tithing families excepted) wants to tell their child that they're being unwound.

    The Storking initiative encourages betrayal, both from mothers abandoning their babies and those who have been "storked" trying to pass off the child to another family.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Would your kidney revolt against you if it came from your husband's mistress? If you had a uterus transplanted from your own mother, does that mean you'd give birth to your sister? There are all sorts of weird organ transplant stories (seriously—you can Google it), and we can only imagine what new stories might exist in the world of Unwind. In this world, they insist that you remain "alive" through your organs, which makes anyone about to be unwound ponder what exactly it means to be alive.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Does consciousness remain "in a divided state" (1.2.64) after a person has been unwound? What evidence in the book supports your claim?
    2. Did your opinion on the unwinding process change after the scene in which Roland is unwound? Why or why not?
    3. How does the Bill of Life cheapen life? Does it do anything to enhance life experience? If so, what? If not, why?

    Chew on This

    Connor and friends ponder philosophical questions about life and existence the closer they get to the point where their own lives may end.

    It's possible that there is no scientific evidence of people remaining "alive" after being unwound, and they just tell people that to make them feel better about having their children unwound.

  • Rules and Order

    You know the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the one that begins "We the People"? It promises to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves." No document is perfect (the Constitution should promise hot coffee and free donuts to all), hence the Bill of Rights, a.k.a. the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

    In Unwind, we're introduced to the Bill of Life, a new set of laws that seems to dismantle everything the Constitution set out to achieve. Under the Bill of life, there is injustice, chaos, turmoil, and a severe lack of liberty. And it doesn't guarantee donuts, either.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Why is 18 the cut-off for unwinding? Why not 19? Or 16? Explain what this means about the world of the book.
    2. Could the Bill of Life be revised in a way that you would approve of, or does it need to be scrapped altogether? Be specific and support your argument with evidence from the text.
    3. Are Connor and Risa "felons" for running away from being unwound? Why or why not? What is a felon?

    Chew on This

    The government tries to regulate morality with its Bill of Life, but there's no way for a law to dictate what is right and what is wrong.

    The laws in Unwind exist to take away rights and protections from people who need it most.

  • Lies and Deceit

    If "liar, liar pants on fire" were true (it's not—it's a lie), in the world of Unwind we'd have a ton of people running around in their underwear. The Bill of Life might as well be called the Bill of Lies. There are so many liars as a result of these laws—parents lying to children, saying they won't be unwound; children lying to parents and every adult they encounter, running away from home and looking for freedom. In other words, pretty much everyone is lying to everyone to save themselves in this book. It's a wonder the world doesn't burst into flames.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. If you were in Connor's parents' position (well, we hope you wouldn't have your son unwound…) would you deceive him as they do, or would you tell him sooner? Compare his experience to Lev's to support your argument.
    2. In what instances in Unwind is lying okay? When is it wrong for the characters to lie? Do people ever seem to universally agree about this?
    3. Would Connor's opinion of the Admiral change if he knew the Admiral was deceiving him? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Connor and Risa have been lied to and deceived from a very young age, so lying and deceiving comes easily to them.

    Lev has a harder time lying initially because his parents have always been completely honest with him.

  • Identity

    Lots of people encounter a career fair or talent assessment in high school, something to determine what career might best suit you—teacher, doctor, EMT, mime. But imagine going through the same assessment to see which parts of you might best suit others. We don't mean that your hands might be talented enough to play concerts for hundreds, but that your hands—when removed from your body—might help a piano player perform her opus. That's the type of identity crisis many teens face in Unwind, a world where they're not seen as a whole, but merely a sum of parts.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What are Connor's biggest strengths and how does he use them to his advantage?
    2. Risa's passion is to play piano, which she only gets to do at the beginning and end of the book. How does she use her skills in the middle of the book?
    3. What do the three clappers—Lev, Mai, and Blaine—have in common?

    Chew on This

    Being in a state home benefited Risa in one way: It allowed her to discover a passion. Connor, by contrast, is merely known as a troublemaker to his parents.

    Lev has the biggest identity crisis of our three protagonists. He has the clearest idea of who he wants to be at the beginning of the book, and he has to experience his whole belief system—and his identity as a result—crumbling, and then try to rebuild it.

  • Sacrifice

    The average teenager makes pretty small sacrifices in the grand scheme of things. Unless you're being forced to participate in the Hunger Games, you may have had to go without a new iPhone or do homework instead of going out with friends.

    In Unwind, like most young adult novels, the situation is a little more serious. It's literally life and death, and our protagonists either have to make huge sacrifices for freedom or prepare to sacrifice their own lives for what they think is the greater good. Sacrificing video game time to work a part-time job suddenly doesn't seem that bad.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Why are some children considered tithes? Why do these families extend the tithing process to their own flesh and blood?
    2. What sacrifices do Connor and Risa have to make on their journey to freedom? What patterns do you notice, if any, and what does this tell you about the sacrifice as a theme?
    3. Why does Lev have no qualms about sacrificing himself as an unwind?
    4. Lev prepares to sacrifice himself at Happy Jack Harvest Camp, but his reasons have changed. What are his reasons at the end of the book, and why did he change his mind? Does he change his mind again?

    Chew on This

    Risa isn't used to making sacrifices because as an orphan, she's never had anything to sacrifice.

    The children who are told they'll be unwound at a young age come to see it as a noble sacrifice, as if they're giving up something for the benefit of everyone else. And in a way, they are.

  • Religion

    The pro-life, pro-choice abortion debate is often divided down religious lines, with many people who consider themselves devoutly religious being pro-life, and others being pro-choice. Because of this, it comes as no surprise that religion plays a major role in Unwind. Strangely, the parties almost seem to have reversed, though: In this world, it's the religious who willfully give up their children in a process known as human tithing. Which isn't to say that they're the only ones who unwind their children, though their beliefs make their decision a bit more palatable.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What are Connor, Risa, and Lev's religious affiliations, if any, and how does this affect their outlook on unwinding?
    2. Which other characters met along the way might consider themselves religious or believers in God? How do they compare with Lev, who's had the most religious upbringing of all the book's characters?
    3. At the end of the book, Pastor Dan says, "I still very much believe in God—just not a God who condones human tithing" (7.68.60). What does he mean by this? Do you believe Lev will find the same thing?

    Chew on This

    The fanatically religious characters put God before life, and so for them, life is expendable.

    Those who do not have faith believe that life is everything and there is no afterlife, which is one reason they are so scared of being unwound.