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19th Century Novels
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Themes in DNA

Morality and Responsibility

The gang is shown to cast aside their own sense of moral rightness in order to protect themselves from getting into trouble. There are multiple occasions when they justify what they do or shift the responsibility onto others. For example, Mark and Jan claim that Adam in fact enjoyed the hazing ritual they submitted him to, claiming he was “laughing harder than anyone.”

Similarly, Phil makes out that Adam is happier living in the woods than rejoining human civilisation. This makes it more acceptable that they don’t save him.

Phil gives a key argument for the murder of Adam by saying that it is better for the whole group:

“What’s more important, one person or everyone?”


This therefore justifies their crimes, and it is at the core of the groupthink of the gang. It demonstrates how people in groups often lose their own sense of morality. Here, the gang are connected with Leah’s model of chimps, protecting the group at all costs, even hounding and killing an outsider through a long, torturous process.

Despite these justifications for their actions, there are several moments in the play where members of the gang consider taking responsibility for their actions. They consider this alternative instead of getting dragged further into the crime:

  • When the group is first discussing what to do, Brian says, “I think we should tell someone”.
  • After the innocent postman has been arrested, Lou says, “We’re going to have to tell them.”
  • As the decision is taken by Phil to kill Adam, Leah begs him not to, and proposes they tell the authorities, saying, “It won’t be that bad . . . We can go through the whole thing and make them explain.”

Ultimately, though, these moments are ignored by the group. They act in self-preservation rather than doing what is morally right or taking responsibility for what they have done to Adam.


Many of the characters show a fear of getting caught for the crimes, but not all of them experience guilt. Those who do feel guilty suffer a significant mental deterioration as they struggle to live with themselves for their part in it all.

Characters who feel guiltEvidence
BrianHe is deeply upset from the very beginning, “crying” and suggesting they confess their crime. He rapidly goes into a mental decline, and is medicated to help dull his emotions

After he is manipulated into carrying out the killing of Adam, he is not in a healthy state of mind to know what he is doing. Eventually, he becomes so mentally ill that Richard predicts he will soon be sectioned.
LeahLeah goes along with the cover-up plan, and kills her own pet to try to be more like the ice-cold Phil, who she so desperately wants to impress. However, once Adam is found, and she sees the plan to kill him, she pleads with them not to murder him. She even reminds them of Adam’s humanity by recalling childhood moments they shared.

Unable to take the guilt of what they had done, she is a broken shell of herself in her final scene, completely silent and then fleeing in tears. She leaves the school and the gang shortly after this.
John TateAfter being unable to handle the stress of the situation after Adam’s disappearance, John Tate becomes silent while Phil directs the gang in the cover-up. We hear through Leah, at the beginning of Act 2 that he has had a breakdown and refuses to leave his room.

Later, it is revealed that John Tate has joined a Christian group, presumably in the hope of transforming his life into a more moral existence. He wanted to gain redemption for the sins he and the group had committed.
PhilFor most of the play, Phil shows no signs of remorse for his treatment of Leah or the crimes they commit. In fact, he seems outright sociopathic in the way that he orders Adam’s death and shows little emotion about anything that happens.

Therefore, it is a surprise to see how affected he becomes by Adam’s murder. He shows a sudden dependency on Leah (just at the moment that she leaves him) and spends his days sitting in a field, alone. He stops eating, and is no longer able to be part of the gang.

In contrast, some of the characters show no guilt at all for their actions. Cathy is the most obvious example of this, seen “grinning” from the very beginning.

She is surprised when other characters are shocked by her framing of an innocent postman. Also, she takes Adam away to be killed with a sense of excitement that illustrates her growing thirst for violence. It is this ruthlessness, with no weight of guilt, that allows her to rule the gang at the end of the play.


Bullying is shown to be at the core of the gang’s activities, which bonds them together from the beginning. When John Tate reassures Lou of the gang’s ability to protect themselves, he says proudly that “everyone’s scared” of them at school. This emphasises the misery their bullying causes other students, and the power brought to the gang as a result.

The crimes against Adam stem from a sense of gleeful bullying towards an outsider who is always “hanging around” and “trying to be part of” the gang. The acts that Jan and Mark list grow more shocking, starting with eating leaves and stealing vodka to burning him with cigarettes. They even force him to run across a motorway and throw stones at him as he crosses the abandoned mineshaft.

This gives a sense of how bullying can start from something small and gradually escalate in savagery. As the bullies explore the limits of what they can do, they realise the power it grants them to subject others to these acts.

Adam’s death was, in many ways, an inevitable escalation of this awful bullying. Eventually, he couldn’t remember anything of his life or who he was. He was described merely as:

“a boy who looks like a tramp . . . staring at them as though they were aliens”

This demonstrates how bullying can strip away the sense of identity for victims as they are submitted to acts that take away any control and dignity.

Brian, too, is a bullying victim, as established by John Tate addressing him as “You crying little piece of filth” when we first meet him. Later, Phil forces him into making a false witness statement by threatening to kill him.

Brian is sensitive, being deeply affected by Adam’s death. He is also very vulnerable, particularly with his worsening mental state. It is these ‘weaknesses’ that the rest of the gang exploit. This demonstrates a chimp-like mentality where only the strongest and the cruellest members of the group are able to survive and gain the most power. 

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