1. As the tide washed in, the Dutch Tulip Man faced the ocean: “Conjoinder rejoinder poisoner concealer revelator. Look at it, rising up and rising down, taking everything with it.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Water,” the Dutchman said. “Well, and time.”
—Peter Van Houten, An Imperial Affliction
This quote is the epigraph that precedes The Fault In Our Stars. Typically an epigraph is a quotation or poem that is intended to serve as a preface, summary, or link to a wider literary canon for the text that’s to follow. Often it will come from a well-regarded work, which can be a way of coopting that work’s authority and credibility to some degree. This epigraph, however, is an excerpt from a fictional book that only exists within the world of The Fault In Our Stars. The effect, once the reader realizes An Imperial Affliction is a made-up work, is to call into question what defines something as authentic. It puts a made-up quote on the same playing field as a real one, and in doing so it suggests a made-up quote can have just as much authority and credibility. The significance of this decision only becomes fully clear in the context of the story we’re told in The Fault In Our Stars. Hazel identifies so much with the book and places so much importance on the fictional characters in An Imperial Affliction that she becomes fixated on learning their fates beyond the book’s ending. The book matters to her in a very real sense. By using a quote from the book as the epigraph, The Fault In Our Stars slyly hints at the importance fiction can have in our lives. Made-up stories, it suggests, can be just as meaningful to us as real ones. The Author’s Note that follows further emphasizes this point of view.
On top of playfully advertising Green’s belief about the importance of fiction, the epigraph introduces one of the novel’s most omnipresent symbols: water. Water represents suffering in both its negative and positive varieties. An example of the negative is the pain of cancer, and an example of the positive is the pain Hazel feels after losing Augustus, which although terrible is actually a sign of how much he mattered to her and how much she loved him. The symbol is vast in that it uses a single image to encapsulate these two different ideas, which are like two opposing poles. The Dutch Tulip Man captures this all-encompassing quality by describing water with opposing names. For instance, it’s a conjoiner, meaning it brings things together, but it’s also a poisoner. It’s a concealer that hides, and it’s also a revelator that reveals. He goes on to link water and time, and his meaning is less certain here. One interpretation is that time possesses the same all-encompassing quality. It’s the thing that allows us to grow, develop, and hit our prime, and it’s also that which causes us to decay, wither, and inevitably die. And both water and time, he suggests, take everything with them in their tide.
2. “All at once, I couldn’t figure out why I was methodically tossing a spherical object through a toroidal object. It seemed like the stupidest thing I could possibly be doing.”
This quote appears in Chapter 2, when Augustus explains his philosophical epiphany to Hazel, and it’s tied to the novel’s motif of existentialism. The action Augustus describes is shooting free throws. By abstracting it as he does, he strips away all the social context, such as the fact that getting the ball through the hoop is the main objective of an extremely popular sport in Indiana, and that being good at it is seen as valuable. Without that context, the act seems somewhat ridiculous, and so Augustus is in a sense stripping basketball of its value. It’s significant that the night on which Augustus shot these free throws was his last before having his leg amputated. Augustus was an Indiana high school basketball star, meaning basketball was a substantial part of his life, but his amputation meant he wouldn’t be able to play competitively any longer. Undoubtedly it was a serious emotional blow, and the quote can be read as his description of how he reassessed what was important in his life since he wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore. In that light the point is less about basketball and more about how Augustus was trying to find a sense of meaning and purpose. These questions were some of the main preoccupations of existentialism—Augustus, in fact, describes the free throws as “existentially fraught” shortly after the quote—and this kind of thinking and questioning carries throughout the book as Augustus and Hazel try to determine what has real meaning in their lives given that they’re both likely to die soon.
3. Augustus nodded at the screen. “Pain demands to be felt,” he said, which was a line from An Imperial Affliction.
Augustus says these words while playing video games in the basement with Isaac, who is grieving after being dumped by his girlfriend Monica. On a fundamental level, The Fault in Our Stars is a novel about coping with harsh realities, and particularly with suffering. We often watch the characters deal with intense pain, physical and emotional, and one of the more prominent ideas that comes up again and again is the notion that pain can’t be avoided. As Augustus puts it in the letter to Van Houten that Hazel reads at the end of the novel, we don’t get to choose whether or not we get hurt. Inherent in this point of view is an undercurrent of stoicism that we see often in Hazel and others. If pain can’t be avoided, the best way to handle it, they suggest, is head on. It’s for this reason that Hazel feels disgusted by all the platitudes about kids with cancer. They are ways of trying to avoid rather than confront all the pains involved with being young and dying of cancer, and as a result they’re intellectually dishonest. What’s more is they don’t eliminate, or even alleviate, pain. Instead, Hazel believes pain should be recognized for what it is, an inherent part of being alive (a “side effect” of living as she might put it), and that it should be acknowledged rather than avoided. The phrase “Pain demands to be felt” in a sense sums up her point of view regarding her cancer.
4. “I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it—or my observation of it—is temporary?”
Hazel’s father says these words during a conversation he and Hazel have after the recurrence of Augustus’s cancer. The quotation touches upon an issue central to The Fault in Our Stars. Throughout the novel both Hazel and Augustus seek to make sense out of the meaning of existence. Hazel’s belief is that the universe is indifferent to human life and suffering, and this view informs her thoughts on the meaning of existence and the possibility of an afterlife. As Hazel suggests to her father during their conversation, she doesn’t think anything happens for a meaningful reason or that our consciousness persists in any way after we die. Her father’s view, which he explains in the quotation, is much more open-ended. Because the universe seems predisposed to creating consciousness, it appears to want to be observed. While this perspective doesn’t go so far as to propose a god presiding over the universe, it does imply that the universe is in some way conscious of the life in it. It also says people don’t have the knowledge or authority to say for certain that a person’s consciousness is temporary.
This idea is significant through the remainder of the novel. Notably, it ties in with Augustus’s beliefs about what makes a life meaningful. Augustus places value in the thought of doing something heroic with his life because he wants others to acknowledge his importance. He feels that only by being remembered by those who live on after him will his life have meaning, as his importance to the world wouldn’t simply end with his death. According to Hazel’s father’s view, Augustus’s importance may not end with his death, and he is in fact acknowledged, perhaps not exactly as he would like but still the universe in some form knows of his existence. Moreover, her father’s words stay with Hazel and alter her own feelings. During her Support Group meeting after Augustus dies, Hazel asks herself why she still wants to be alive, and she concludes that she feels obliged to notice the universe. The suggestion is that her father’s idea has given her a sense of purpose that she didn’t have before.
5. I got my wish, I suppose. I left my scar.
Hazel reads these words from Augustus to Van Houten in the letter that Lidewij sends to her at the end of the novel. The brief quotation touches on two separate ideas. First, it speaks to Augustus’s desire to be remembered after his death, which is a main preoccupation of his throughout the novel. Here he says he left his “scar” on Hazel, and the word suggests something permanent that won’t disappear with his death. It’s not the mark he wanted to leave for much of the novel—he always dreamed of doing something heroic—but it nonetheless satisfies his desire to have made an impact that will survive him.
The quotation also emphasizes the dual nature of pain in the story. The “scar” is not, of course, a physical one he leaves but an emotional one, and the metaphor suggests that a wound, and therefore pain, have been inflicted. In this sense it refers to the fact that Hazel will be hurt by Augustus’s death. The pain that leaves this scar, however, isn’t necessarily harmful, because it signifies that Hazel genuinely loved Augustus and that he mattered to her. This variety of pain is actually a major concern of Hazel’s for much of the story as she worries that she’ll hurt others, specifically her parents, with her death. Hazel’s relationship with Augustus changes her view of this kind of pain, however. As she comes to realize that she wouldn’t trade the pain of losing Augustus for the comfort of never having fallen in love with him, she comes to understand that this pain is actually desirable, or at least not something to avoid. The scar left by losing him is something she would prefer to have.
John Green has also published Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (with David Leviathan), and has worked on a number of short stories and anthologies, most notably This Is Not Tom and Let It Snow (with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle).
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As a die-hard fan of John Green novels, I have read The Fault in Our Stars six times. Augustus Waters is actually seventeen, not sixteen.
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