Coming-of-Age in Nothing
This essay written by R.S. discusses the coming-of-age elements and criticism of existential nihilism in Nothing, written by Janne Teller.

Nothing, written by Danish author Janne Teller is a coming-of-age novel containing commentary on existential nihilism that sprung out of Denmark in the early 1800s thanks to existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard.

The novel begins with one of the main characters Pierre Anthon stating that “Nothing matters. I have known that for a long time. So nothing is worth doing, I just realized that.” (Teller 1). Such a bold and easily arguable statement automatically calls for a response from the book’s audience. Many people, at some point in their lives, can relate to feeling the way Pierre Anthon does, especially teenagers and young adults, the audience in which the book was written for. Young people often go through an existential period due to changing hormones from puberty and the levels of stress in which those changes produce.

After Pierre Anthon states that ‘nothing matters,’ he walks out of his seventh grade classroom and and climbs into a plumb tree. As his former classmates pass by each day on their way to and from school, Pierre Anthon pelts them with plumbs and his existential words of the meaninglessness of life. This constant wall of negativity that the children pass through each day very quickly becomes something they resent.
“Nothing had ever indicated that Pierre Anthon was the smartest among us, but suddenly we all knew he was. He was onto something...We didn’t want to live in the world Pierre Anthon was telling us about. We were going to amount to something, be someone,”exemplifying what the children believed to be true in the beginning of the novel (8-9). The teens, distraught and dissatisfied with their new and unwelcome realizations about life, set out to prove to Pierre Anthon that there are things that give life meaning.

Pierre Anthon’s perception on life is incorrect. The group of seventh graders prove this by forming a “heap of meaning.” The heap is comprised of items that mean a great deal to each individual. Each item that that is given up is chosen by someone else, which causes a lot of hostility between the children. The reactions that follow with growing severity of each item show that the children have actually found objects and belongings that will cause a certain amount of pain or distress in the members of the group. When the items do in fact have meaning for the children violence follows, “...and then there was almost no room for anyone else to kick and punch Pierre Anthon at the same time.” (216). This is the author's way of showing the scale of meaning, if there is a lot of meaning, a dog is killed, or someone is raped. Violence seeming very childish is used by the author to parallel the existentialist views with child-like actions.


Throughout the novel, each member of the group learns a multitude about life, the other members, and most importantly themselves. In on scene, the narrator, Agnes, discovers that cheating can often result in losing big. The group draws cards to see which four will accompany Elise in the retrieval of her dead baby brother from the cemetery. “...and all I could do was pick up the the topmost card with its unblemished gilt edging shining at every corner,” even though Agnes tried to swindle the group, cheating didn’t help her in any way (74).

The most significant piece of a coming of age novel is the loss of innocence, “How do you know my neon yellow bike doesn’t mean as much to me as Sofie’s innocence means to her?” (106). This next item to be added to the pile changed the course of the following donations. Sofie’s rape sparked a change in all members of the group but most significantly Sofie and the three that followed. Something that Teller makes known in the novel is that each demand is an act of revenge, although the revenge is never taken out on the person that required the item. And with each act of revenge, a new victim is created and begins searching for the best was to cause equal amounts of pain to the next in line. It is a circle that keeps on going, and never leaves the aggressor any happier.

The other important piece of a coming-of-age novel is the gaining of knowledge. After the group kills Pierre Anthon and the heap of meaning burns in a fire along with his body, Agnes says at his funeral, “We cried because we had lost something and gained something else. And because it hurt both losing and gaining. And because we knew what we had lost but weren’t as yet able to put into words what it was we had gained.” (222). What they gained from what had happened is unknown; they lost their childhood and their innocence. A guess as to what they gained would be closure. No longer would they have to face someone constantly reminding them that life is meaningless, whether it in fact is meaningless or otherwise. They could go on seemingly blissfully ignorant as everyone assumes children their age are. Or maybe they gained something entirely different, maybe it was something different for each, just as the pieces of the heap of meaning had been.

Nothing is a coming-of-age novel with ideas that many young adults can relate to (even if they’ve never cut off a boy’s finger or killed a boy by beating him to death and setting him on fire). With its core centered around criticizing existential nihilism, Janne Teller effectively portrays forced maturity in the characters that gave the greatest to the heap of meaning.
(R.S. 2015)