1. How do the novel’s various characters seek relief from their pain? Does the novel suggest that some ways of coping with grief are better than others?
There are a variety of methods with which the characters of The Fault in Our Stars deal with their pains. Hazel tries to deal with her pain honestly and directly, but she also finds comfort in Peter Van Houten’s An Imperial Affliction, discovering there a mirror of her own experience. Augustus tends to deal with his pain through humor and dramatic gestures like sacrificing himself in a video game or keeping an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Hazel’s mother, not being sick herself, copes with pain in other ways. First she hovers around Hazel, caring for all her daughters needs, but she also studies secretly to become a social worker so she can one day help other families in crisis. Peter Van Houten, who has already lost his child, has a multitude of outlets for his pain. The most obvious is drinking himself silly, which often leads to him taking out his grief on others. Less obvious is the way in which he intellectualizes his emotions rather than deal with them as pure emotions, treating the situations that cause him discomfort as philosophical puzzles. Lastly, the process of writing An Imperial Affliction, of creating a fictional future for his deceased daughter, is another way Van Houten sought to exercise his feelings and deal with his grief.
The novel doesn’t declare outright that one method of dealing with pain is the correct way, though it clearly indicates some methods are healthier than others. Van Houten, for instance, exemplifies some poor ways of dealing with pain. In essence he tries to avoid it by drinking to numb himself and by intellectualizing his suffering rather than allowing himself to feel it. Augustus, in a similar albeit less destructive way, tries to mask his pain with his performances. The characters who deal with their pain directly, such as Hazel and her mother, generally have beneficial strategies. Neither is able to escape their pain anymore than Van Houten can escape his, but they are also able to turn it into something positive. Hazel eventually comes to realize that she wouldn’t trade the pain of loving Augustus for anything, and through this realization gains a greater sense of her purpose in the world. Her mother similarly uses her pain to find a new path in life as a social worker. The novel in essence sides with an idea mentioned repeatedly in the novel: Pain demands to be felt.
2. The Fault in Our Stars is a novel about kids with cancer that seeks to dispel many of the conventions regarding the subject. How does the novel accomplish this feat? Is it successful?
One major theme of The Fault in Our Stars is the realities of terminal cancer, and in various ways the novel regularly comments on how those realities differ from common tropes about the terminally ill. The first and most obvious example is through the characters’ own feelings about these conventions, which is regularly revealed in the sardonic tone they take when talking about cancer stereotypes. It’s evident in the first chapter, for instance, that Hazel and Isaac are thoroughly familiar with and disenchanted by the rote, feel-good cancer survivor’s clichés touted at Support Group, and they become immediately sarcastic when confronted with these clichés. The same tone is evident when Hazel and Augustus discuss the idea of cancer perks, and when Hazel mocks the idea that anyone sick with cancer is supposed to be fearless and an inspiration to those around them.
But another method the novel utilizes is deconstructing the phenomenon of popular conventions more broadly to highlight their backwardness. The most humorous and memorable way the novel examines conventions is through Hazel’s questioning of why scrambled eggs are classified as breakfast food. But by questioning something so mundane, Hazel raises a point about social conventions in general. She reveals them for what they are: habits based predominantly on cultural assumptions and not reality. For example, in Amsterdam Hazel finds that deli meats are the breakfast staple, underscoring the fact that what foods one eats for breakfast are determined by culture and not because any food is inherently meant for breakfast. It’s not the most serious example, but it does the job of showing that conventions only have authority because people give them that power. When we see how this idea applies to cancer the baselessness of conventions is even more pronounced. Talking to Hazel about how his ex-girlfriend, Caroline Mathers, became meaner as she got more sick, he points out that, statistically speaking, kids with cancer aren’t more likely to be good than anyone else. Such examples appear throughout the novel, effectively dismantling many of the conventions about kids with cancer.
3. What role does cancer play in the novel? How are the characters’ concerns different from those of healthy teenagers as a result of their cancers?
Cancer creates a sense of urgency in the novel that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Because the characters are terminally ill, they view questions about life and its meaning very differently than their healthy counterparts, and their love is more meaningful to them than it might be to the average teenager. The reason is that death isn’t an abstraction to them. Hazel knows her cancer is terminal and that she will likely die before she becomes an adult. She also personally knows other kids who have died. Augustus has already had a girlfriend pass away from cancer. Because they know they likely have little time to live, they don’t have the luxury of figuring out what they believe about purpose and meaning over the course of several decades. The questions become immediate concerns that demand to be answered as soon as possible, whereas for healthy teenagers they’re more like philosophical questions. It also means that Hazel and Augustus realize their relationship may be the only significant one each has, even for Hazel who will likely live a few years, though perhaps not beyond that. As a result their love becomes that much more intense and meaningful.
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