The Pact

The Pact Themes


The Pact begins with a bang—literally—as Emily is killed with Chris nearby. It ends with Chris released from prison, finding a blank note sent by Emily at some point during their childhood. While reading the novel, the reader is asked to serve alongside the jury in putting together facts, perceptions, and clues in a search for the truth about what happened on the night that Emily died. The reader is also asked to delve further into the role of truth in law and in life. What does it mean for something to be true? What does it mean to be guilty? What truths about Emily's life led to her desire for escape by suicide?

Through the beliefs of two of its characters, the novel presents two different accounts of truth. Jordan McAfee, Chris's lawyer, professes that there is no place for truth in law and that all lawyers can try to do is lay out persuasive narratives of an event for the jury. Bringing too much truth into a case, he believes, may actually ruin your chances at winning. On the other hand, Chris himself feels the need to reveal the truth about what happened on the night of Emily's death. He does not always feel this way, as he lies to many people in the process of deciding whether to share the truth and even, himself, has difficulty figuring out what the truth really is. But Chris is eventually found not guilty due to his decision to tell the truth. Thus, Picoult seems to imply that the law should discover and make available the truth, and that people will respect the truth when it is revealed.


The theme of gender manifests itself in many ways throughout The Pact, including Chris and Emily's exploration of sex and bodies at a young age, the topics of sexual assault and pregnancy, and the way Picoult contrasts motherhood and fatherhood. In the "Then" flashbacks that Picoult intersperses through the novel, Emily and Chris's mutual fascination with gender and sex differences are clear. In one flashback, they compare genitalia at the beach, wanting to match and learning that they cannot; in one, they steal a book with pictures of human anatomy from the library and are embarrassed to be found out by their parents; in another, they prank call someone with the last name Longwanger, finding this hilarious. Through these experiences, Chris and Emily's early exploration of sex differences is shown to be healthy and normal. Picoult then calls attention to the differing risks for young girls and young boys with regard to sexuality. While males can certainly be targets for sexual assault and are affected by teen pregnancy, the risks for young girls are higher. These two factors are much of what causes Emily to contemplate and eventually commit suicide, meaning her death is inextricably linked to her gender. Finally, Picoult exposes gender differences in parenthood. While she does not suggest that parenting style is linked to gender (as Gus, Chris's mother, and Michael, Emily's father seem more similar in their empathetic parenting styles), she notes that there is a fierce protectiveness in mothers that is not the same for fathers. This is shown in Melanie's desire for revenge after her daughter's death and Gus's preparedness to protect Chris in any way possible during his trial.


While religion is not the most prominent theme in The Pact, Picoult demonstrates throughout the novel the large and small ways people turn to religion in times of great stress and grief. Specifically, she makes allusions to the Hartes' turning to Christianity. The biggest example of this is Chris; while in the isolation cell in prison, he asks for someone to drop something to help him and receives a Bible from an unknown source. With nothing else to do, Chris reads it closely, connecting with some of the themes and finding others ironic. After this he prays and even has hallucinations of voices speaking to him reassuringly. This helps to comfort him while in prison and at his trial. On the other hand, the Hartes demonstrate the little ways in which religion provides a framework for a family's stability. For example, while contemplating how Emily must have felt trapped in a confusing relationship, Gus Harte "closed her eyes and offered up a quick prayer" (p.347). Picoult also shows that grief can turn one away from religion through the Hartes forgetting Christmas, which upsets their younger child; the important religious and cultural tradition being sidelined makes her feel as if her family is falling apart.


Revenge is one manifestation of grief that Picoult demonstrates, especially through the character of Melanie. After Emily's death, Melanie, who was once a quiet librarian and caring mother-figure both to Emily and Chris, turns against many and attempts to get revenge as a way to soothe her grief and her shaken conscience. She tries to get revenge directly on Chris and the Harte family by cutting off communication with Gus and, in a surprising moment, trying to run Chris over with her car. Though her husband Michael prevents her from doing the latter, she seems unremorseful. Besides these direct actions, Melanie tries to externalize her grief and force it upon others by doing her job poorly. While she used to love answering people's questions at the library, following Emily's death she begins to give people the wrong directions to books and other library locations. This does not seem to make her feel better, showing that revenge is not a healthy manifestation of grief. Michael, on the other hand, recognizes that it would be easy to want to blame someone for Emily's death, externalizing the issue from himself and the fact that they didn't see the suicide coming; however, he chooses to visit Chris and speak for the defense, knowing this kind of revenge only causes more grief.

A desire for revenge is also seen in Chris's actions toward Emily after she rats him out about drinking the parents' alcohol. Chris takes Emily out to a ski slope that is too hard for her, hoping to scare her, but she is badly hurt and he is quickly repentant for his malicious actions. This event causes Chris to feel even more as if he has to protect Emily in the future, which plays a role in his decision to help her kill herself.


Grief is a major theme in The Pact as nearly all the main characters in the novel are impacted greatly both by Emily's death and Chris's incarceration. Throughout the novel, Picoult shows that there are many ways of dealing with grief, though some are healthier than others. As discussed in more detail above, Melanie's grief is expressed through a desire for revenge. Because she can not fathom Emily committing suicide, and not having seen signs of depression in her daughter, she seeks revenge by trying to have Chris put in prison and even trying to kill him (by running him over with her car). On the other hand, her husband Michael deals with his grief in a more productive way by remaining focused on his work and privately grieving by looking through Emily's things and keeping in touch with Gus and Chris, two people who can empathize with him about missing Emily. Gus and James, Chris's parents, also grieve for his incarceration in different ways. James, who was raised to think that showing or even feeling emotion was a weakness, tries to pretend that everything is okay; this results in him sending Chris back to school, leading to an increase in isolation and embarrassment felt by his son, as well as a prolonged silence between him and his son when Chris decides he cannot deal with his father's attitude toward the situation any longer. Gus, on the other hand, grieves passionately when alone, sobbing privately downstairs in the Harte house, and vows to herself and to Jordan McAfee that he will do anything to protect her son. Finally, Chris shows even more manifestations of grief. As perhaps the closest person to Emily, her death hits him hard and results in him feeling a lack of control over his emotional responses. Sometimes he laughs, and often he cries; he even has nightmares where he yells her name in his sleep and faints multiple times due to shock. However, Dr. Feinstein, his psychiatrist, assures him that these are all normal responses to a highly stressful event.

Childhood and Adulthood

Besides building suspense, Picoult's structural choice to jump back and forth between the present and various points in the past is useful in calling attention to child development and the differences between childhood and adulthood. After showing how Chris and Emily have turned out—Chris fairly stable, Emily fatally unstable though outwardly normal until her death—the story jumps back to formative moments in which the two children met, discovered their sex differences, and explored their sexuality together. It is shown that events can also cause someone to jump ahead into adulthood or regress into childhood. Emily's sexual assault could be said to mature her, warping her views about sex, compared to Chris's typical adolescent lust and immature attempts to pressure her. This quick maturity brought on by negative circumstance is then passed on to Chris, who feels his life speed up as he tries to convince Emily that life is worth living and wishes he could go back to when "his mother...could make it go away" (p.412). In one telling moment, on Chris' eighteenth birth, Chris is feeling content with his newfound adulthood until he is suddenly arrested for Emily's murder. Immediately he regresses to childhood, calling out for his mommy as he is led out the door in handcuffs. After this, while in prison and on trial for murder, living in constant fear and contemplating life imprisonment cause him truly to grow out of childhood.

Parenthood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood

One major theme of The Pact is the lack of communication between parents and their children. Neither Emily's parents nor Chris's foresaw Emily's death or Chris's role in it, even though the teens were deeply distraught and perhaps looking for someone to ask them about it and provide solutions besides the ones they saw available. Analyzing deeper, Picoult also focuses on the difference between motherhood and fatherhood. She does not seem to suggest that one parent's role is to be the more compassionate, as Gus is the more emotional parent to Chris but Michael the more empathetic of Emily's parents. However, Picoult shows and even says directly that mothers will become fiercely protective—in ways that are harmful for those around them, and even immoral—when their child is threatened. This is shown both through Melanie's rage and attempts at revenge after Emily's death and Gus's willingness to say anything in court to protect Chris.