We report optical and near-infrared spectroscopy, and optical spectropolarimetry, of the peculiar variable V838 Mon during the multiple outburst phase in early 2002. The spectral evolution is exceptional. Our earliest spectra (2002 January) are noteworthy for their strong absorption lines of barium and strontium in the optical, and bands of CO and circumstellar H2O in the near-infrared. All but the CO weaken or are absent in later spectra. The behaviour of the CO band during this phase is extraordinary: initially in absorption, it was observed two months later in optically thick emission. The excitation of the CO is probably the result of the propagation of a shock wave at the third maximum. The two spectropolarimetric epochs were taken 6 and 27 d after the second outburst on 2002 February 8. The polarization at both times was measured to be pV~ 2.7 per cent. Nearly all of the measured polarization is believed to be due to interstellar dust, a conclusion that is consistent with previous studies. At both epochs, however, a weak and variable intrinsic component is thought to be present. Between January and March of 2002 the luminosity of V838 Mon increased by a factor of 15 and the apparent diameter increased fourfold.