A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How is the concept of "denial" relevant to A Monster Calls?

    As the most prevalent of the novel's major themes and one of the common stages of grief, the concept of denial plays a crucial role in A Monster Calls. When Conor learns of his mother's terminal diagnosis, he enters such a deep state of denial that he can't use the word "cancer," even in his thoughts. Ness replicates this denial in the narrative voice, as the narrator never names Conor's mother's illness either. Similarly, by refusing to discuss his mother's treatments in anything but optimistic terms, Conor upholds the pretense that his mother's cancer is nothing to worry about because she will ultimately survive. However, Conor admits later in the novel that he has known all along that his mother would not survive. The monster explains to Conor that the need to lie to himself (i.e. to be in denial) was necessary to mask the pain that comes from knowing intuitively that his mother would not live much longer. In this way, Ness shows Conor's denial as an understandable response to the incomprehensible nature of death—a coping mechanism that gets Conor through the pain of watching his mother slowly die. Ultimately, Conor overcomes his denial with the monster's help, and he can say goodbye to his mother and accept her impending death.

  2. 2

    What is the significance of anger in A Monster Calls?

    As a common stage of grief, anger is one of the major themes in A Monster Calls. Because Conor believes it is his responsibility to maintain optimism about his mother's treatments, Conor also believes that he doesn't need any help or for anyone to be concerned about him. As a result, when people at school or in his extended family attempt to express sympathy to Conor, he responds in anger as a means of refusing to accept their care and what their care implies. Using anger, Conor keeps people at a distance, allowing him to remain isolated in his lie and uphold his denial. Although Conor finds satisfaction in releasing his anger by destroying his grandmother's possessions or lashing out at Lily Andrews, he often feels a reflexive shame after his outbursts. Conor's mother and the monster both tell Conor that his anger is warranted, but it later becomes clear that Conor is seeking to be punished for his angry outbursts because he believes that his pessimism about his mother's condition means he deserves to be punished by an authority figure. In this way, Conor has a paradoxical relationship to his anger, as he subconsciously uses anger not only to keep people away but to attract attention.

  3. 3

    What is the truth the monster wants Conor to tell? Why?

    During one of the monster's early visits, it informs Conor that it has come to tell three tales, after which Conor will tell his own story—a story that will be "the truth." Having simultaneously established the novel's premise and created mystery around the truth Conor is unwilling to tell, Ness leads the reader toward multiple understandings of what Conor's truth is. Conor's first truth is the truth of what happens in the nightmare that haunts him throughout the novel. In the nightmare, Conor lets go of his mother's hand as she falls to her death; the shameful truth of the nightmare is that Conor feels relief when he lets her go, as it puts an end to the uncertainty that stalks his life as he watches her slowly die. Conor refuses to let anyone know how he feels because he believes he must hold out hope that his mother's treatments will save her. However, the monster informs Conor that it is understandable simultaneously to wish for his mother to get better and to wish for her to die to end her and his pain. While Ness leads the reader to believe this is the extent of Conor's truth, the monster convinces Conor to speak another truth when Conor is at his mother's bedside. The second truth that Conor says to his mother is that he doesn't want her to go. It is this deeper truth that Conor could not face, but once he accepts the truth of his mother's condition, he can be honest with her and admit his genuine feelings before she goes.

  4. 4

    Of all the forms the monster could have taken, why might Ness have based the monster on a yew tree?

    Ness likely based the monster on a yew tree because the yew tree is a symbol of both healing and of death. Living for hundreds of years and commonly grown in graveyards, the evergreen European yew tree is known as "the tree of the dead." Historically, monks have believed yew trees to be poisonous because their roots suck up poisonous substances from graveyard corpses. The yew's mystical aura is also likely informed by the tree's ability to regenerate new shoots from seemingly dead heartwood. While most parts of the yew tree are poisonous, the bark is used in anti-cancer drugs; this aspect of the yew has direct relevance to the plot of A Monster Calls, as Conor's mother's doctors put her on a yew tree–derived drug as a last resort. The yew's symbolic significance develops further when the yew monster reveals to Conor that it has come to help Conor heal emotionally. Through telling tales gleaned from its centuries of wisdom, the yew leads Conor through his denial and helps him accept death as an unfair reality. As a result, Conor begins to heal from the pain of knowing his mother is going to die and the monster fulfills its symbolic role.

  5. 5

    Explain the relationship between isolation and Conor's dilemma.

    Because Conor's impulse is to deny that his mother is dying in favor of feigning optimism, he instinctively isolates from anyone who might try to have him accept the truth of his devastating reality. After Lily Andrews lets the teachers and pupils at school know of his mother's illness, Conor notices that other people's behavior toward him changes. Their expressions become mournful and they are unwilling to act normally or show happiness around Conor. In response, Conor senses that he must isolate himself if he is going to keep up the pretense that his mother will be fine, which no one's mournful reaction would suggest. Conor rejects his friendship with Lily Andrews, and then grows increasingly isolated, eating alone at lunch and speaking to no one, as though invisible. Similarly, Conor isolates from his family, as his father and grandmother are more realistic in their attitude toward Conor's mother's impending death. And while Conor's denial unites him with his mother in that they both pretend she is going to get better, denial also isolates them from each other because neither is willing to admit to the truth they both conceal. Ultimately, the monster prompts Conor to move out of isolation by teaching him to accept the unfair truth of his mother's diagnosis and his true feelings about wanting her to die so she and he will no longer have to live in uncertainty and pain.