Study Guide

We Need to Talk About Kevin Themes

  • Guilt and Blame

    Back when she was first lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "It takes a village to raise a child." Easy for her to say: Chelsea Clinton didn't murder anyone with a bow and arrow the way Kevin does in this book. Who is to blame for the actions of a child, especially when the actions are so heinous? In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian tries to find out who, in her metaphorical village, is responsible.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Is Eva to blame for Kevin's actions? Perhaps more importantly, which would be worse: if Eva were to blame, or if she were not?
    2. Why does Kevin say he is entirely responsible for what he did?
    3. Why doesn't Franklin ever assign any responsibility for Kevin? Does Franklin's laissez-faire parenting enable Kevin's bad behavior?
    4. Why does Laura Woolford's mother sue Eva? What does she hope to gain by legally blaming Eva for Kevin's crime?

    Chew on This

    Kevin takes the blame for his crime, but he doesn't feel guilty about it.

    Eva often complains about people's lack of accountability. By trying to assign blame to someone, she and others are trying to get people to be accountable for their actions. But blame means taking responsibility after the fact, when it's too late.

  • Forgiveness

    Don Henley tried to get to "The Heart of the Matter," and he decided that "it's about forgiveness" even if you don't love someone anymore. Or maybe you never did. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, it certainly seems like Eva never loved Kevin, but she is, in her own way, also searching for forgiveness. Maybe she wants to forgive Kevin and herself by proxy. Whatever her reasons, forgiveness doesn't necessarily require love, but it may lay the stones on the road to love.

    Questions About Forgiveness

    1. Why does Eva forgive Kevin in the end? Or does she simply give up trying to blame him? Are those two things—giving up on assigning blame and forgiving someone—the same thing?
    2. Why does Eva want Franklin to forgive her for being a bad mother? He's dead. By asking this of her dead husband, is Eva really trying to forgive herself?
    3. Which characters forgive Eva? Why do they do that? By forgiving Eva, does this mean they blame her for the crime in the first place?
    4. Why are some characters unable to forgive Eva or Kevin? Do they need to forgive, or is it okay to have anger?

    Chew on This

    Eva has to work her way through forgiving others—like Kevin, or her own mother—before she can forgive herself.

    Eva seems to see forgiveness as something passive, as an absence of hatred or resentment, instead of something active to work on.

  • Manipulation

    While no one uses the word "sociopath" to describe Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, he fits the profile. He's got few, if any, real friends. He lies and cheats. He's got a complete lack of guilt and empathy. He's a master of deception and manipulation (source). We'd recommend Martha Stout's book The Sociopath Next Door to Eva—except for the fact that Kevin isn't next door… he's inside her own house.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. What are Kevin's most effective tactics for manipulating people? Does he use the same tricks on everyone, or does he know how to get certain people to do what he wants?
    2. Did Kevin learn any of his manipulative behaviors from either of his parents?
    3. Do Eva and Franklin manipulate each other in any way? Do they know they're doing it, or does it happen subconsciously?

    Chew on This

    Kevin is a born manipulator. He manipulates Eva from the second he is born, all the way until his eighteenth birthday, when he convinces her to forgive him.

    The only person Kevin's manipulations don't work on is his English teacher. A good teacher, who has a bit of distance from the situation, is able to see right through him.

  • Dissatisfaction

    While most modern-day hipsters develop an affectation of dissatisfaction, Kevin Khatchadourian in We Need to Talk About Kevin is an OG hipster, having come out of the womb completely dissatisfied with life. He wears boring, bland clothes that are a couple sizes too small, having outgrown "normcore" before the word was even invented. Kevin shows us it's not just the angry outcasts we should be worried about—it's the ones who seem to not care about anything at all.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Kevin doesn't hate everything. Why does Kevin like his squirt gun? And why does he like it when Eva destroys it?
    2. What dissatisfies Eva most about pregnancy and motherhood?
    3. Why won't Franklin allow Eva to express her dissatisfaction with Kevin? How does this make things worse?

    Chew on This

    Kevin is a paradox because he is satisfied with being dissatisfied with everything and everyone.

    Franklin seems happy, but perhaps he is masking is own dissatisfaction by over-correcting in the opposite direction, and thus being fake enthusiastic all the time.

  • Family

    Many people believe in a traditional family unit—a mother, a father, 2.5 children, maybe a pet and a picket fence. But in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kevin Khatchadourian tries to prove that having a traditional family that looks "wholesome" on the outside can still be terrible on the inside. Kevin tries to divide his parents, and he reduces the number of children from 2 to approximately 1.93 when he causes his little sister to lose an eyeball. And that pet? Kevin probably shoved it down the drain. The Khatchadourian clan isn't the Brady Bunch. It isn't even the Bundy clan from Married… with Children. They're more like the Ted Bundy Bunch.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why do Eva and Franklin decide to have a child to complete their family? Do they have different reasons for wanting a child?
    2. Why does Eva decide to have a second child against Franklin's wishes? What are the consequences of her actions?
    3. Do you think the Khatchadourians look like a "normal" family to an outsider? What makes a family seem "normal"?
    4. What other family units are depicted in the book—like Eva's family, or Franklin's parents? How are these family units different from Franklin and Eva's family? How are they similar?

    Chew on This

    Because Franklin and Eva decide to have children for different reasons, Kevin pulls them in two different directions. They aren't a solid family unit.

    Kevin tries to destroy everything, and his family is just one more thing on his list that needs to be broken.

  • Marriage

    Michael Chabon must be quite the catch. In 2005, Ayelet Waldman, wife of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, wrote that she loved her husband more than she loved her kids. Moms across the world were furious, as if Ms. Waldman said she hated her own kids, their kids, everyone's kids. We Need to Talk About Kevin, written before Ms. Waldman's inflammatory essay, explores this issue. Franklin thinks Eva doesn't love him with his entire heart, so when Kevin comes along, Franklin loves Kevin with 99.9% of his, leaving only that .1% for Eva. Eva finds out that she loved Franklin more than she showed, and she definitely loves her husband more than she loves her own son. This imbalance tears their marriage apart.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. How would you describe Eva and Franklin's marriage before Kevin? Are they happy? How does having a baby change their marriage?
    2. Does Eva think that having another child will save her marriage, or does she have Celia for a different reason? Does Celia help or harm the marriage?
    3. Do you think Kevin is surprised when Franklin asks Eva for a divorce? Was that Kevin's plan, or did he not think about the consequences of his actions?
    4. If Franklin had not died, would he and Eva still be married?

    Chew on This

    Eva and Franklin had one fundamental flaw in their marriage: they loved each other differently. Kevin only helped them realize the difference.

    At the end of the book, Eva finds herself "married" to Kevin in a way, which is appropriate because they love each other the same way: begrudgingly, and not very much.

  • Violence

    If we were to do an acrostic for Kevin, it would look like this:

    K—Kruel
    E—Evil
    V—Violent
    I—Insane
    N—Narcissistic

    We cheated a bit on K, but it's true. Kevin seems to only care about himself. Without the capacity for empathy, Kevin can be kruel—er, cruel to other people and violent, all without feeling any guilt or remorse. Maybe one reason he commits the violent school massacre is to test his own limits and see just how far his cruelty can go—since in his mind, the further he can go, the better he is than other people.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What are some early signs of Kevin's violent tendencies? Could his parents have done anything to curb them?
    2. When does Eva use violence against Kevin? What are the results of her actions?
    3. Before the crime, would you consider Kevin a violent teenager?

    Chew on This

    Franklin says that "violence is no way to get your point across." Franklin is wrong. Kevin definitely gets a point across by committing his violent act—we're just not sure exactly what his point is.

    Kevin is internally desensitized to violence. He doesn't watch violent movies or play violent video games or live in a violent household, but violence simply doesn't seem to affect him.

  • The Home

    A person's home is supposed to be his or her safe place. That's why the classic horror movie trope of "it's coming from inside the house" is so scary. But We Need to Talk About Kevin shows that you can't hide at home if that's where the evil is. Eva lives with Kevin. She can't get away from him. And even when Kevin is in jail, she has the repercussions of what he did hanging over her. Wherever she goes, Kevin will be her roommate, and she will probably always be uncomfortable at home.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What does Eva like about New York City? Does her opinion of the city change after Kevin is born?
    2. Why does Franklin move the family away from New York City? Why doesn't he consult Eva before uprooting her?
    3. What doesn't Eva like about the new house? How is her new house similar to the apartment she inhabits in the "present" day?

    Chew on This

    Eva has to make peace with Kevin, and that means welcoming him into her life and her home. This is why she keeps a bedroom prepared for him at the end of the book. She will have to live with him mentally and physically.

    By moving Eva without her consent, Franklin takes away any opportunity she might have to make a safe place for herself, making it more difficult for her to cope with Kevin.

  • Identity

    Mother. Father. Wife. Husband. Son. Daughter. These are all identities, but they are also ways to identify someone based on their relationship to someone else. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva is a mother to Kevin and Celia. A wife to Franklin. But what is she when her husband and her daughter are killed and her son is in jail? She is no longer a wife, and she has no desire to be a mother. Eva has to figure out who she is when she is all by herself.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How would you describe Eva before she gave birth to Kevin? Does having a child change her?
    2. What words does the general public use to describe Eva's personality? Is their assessment of her accurate?
    3. What aspects of Eva's personality does she share with Kevin? What aspects does she share with Celia? How are Franklin and Kevin similar or different?

    Chew on This

    Eva tries to maintain one cohesive identity, but Franklin splits himself, creating two different and seemingly opposite personas: loving father and antagonistic husband.

    The more Eva thinks about Kevin, the more she realizes how similar she and her son actually are. And that is a scary thought.

  • Society and Class

    "The name on everybody's lips is going to be… Kevin." If we learned anything from the musical Chicago, it's that the public is fascinated with true crime. Crimes simultaneously attract us and repulse us, and in We Need to Talk About Kevin, the situation is no different. One reason to read the book is a fascination with the psychology behind any of the numerous real-life school shooters. And in the book itself, Kevin considers himself an entertainer and even gets a documentary made about him. Take away the glamour, the singing ability, and the cute blonde bob from Roxie Hart of Chicago fame, and you basically have Kevin. That's a sobering thought.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does society dictate Eva's behavior when pregnant? Or when she's a new mother? When Eva feels differently from how society expects her to feel, how does she react?
    2. Is Kevin rebelling against society? If so, why and how does he do it?
    3. How does the public view Eva and Kevin after the murder?
    4. In the real world, if someone like Kevin committed this crime, would he or she be remembered for it forever? Or would society eventually forget and fixate on another crime?

    Chew on This

    Society puts a lot of pressure on mothers, making Eva feel a lot more pressure than Franklin does. If the roles were reversed, and Eva were killed and Franklin had lived, we doubt people would point fingers at him the way they do at Eva.

    Eva is very critical of society as a whole, and Kevin seems to be the physical embodiment of her criticism. The act he commits forces her to examine herself, and reevaluate her views on the society she lives in.