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Paper Towns

Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Road Trips as Coming-of-Age Experiences

Road trips anchor the beginning and the end of the novel. The first road trip that Margo and Quentin take through Orlando is its own self-contained set piece, an adventure of revenge that begins and ends in a night. Quentin could have forgotten all about this road trip and resumed his normal life. Indeed, physically, the road trip ends exactly where it started: at Quentin’s house. However, Quentin is transformed by this initial trip with Margo. He grows obsessed with Margo’s disappearance, which occurs directly after this adventure. Quentin uses this experience to fuel his own journey of both searching for Margo and searching within himself.

Quentin asserts his independence through driving. Taking small-scale road trips around Orlando to find Margo makes Quentin feel more in control of his life, rather a passive follower of the rules as he has always been. For the first time in his life, Quentin skips school to go to pseudovisions looking for Margo, and the simple act of driving to these locations gives Quentin a sense of agency and adventure he never knew he had. 

Though driving and road trips equate with independence and self-realization, they also highlight and solidify friendships. Though the purpose of Margo’s Orlando adventure with Quentin is to take revenge on her enemies, the unintended consequence is that it cements a bond between them. The same happens in Part Three. The purpose of Quentin, Ben, Radar, and Lacey’s road trip is to find Margo, but the trip ties the four together in a shared experience they will always remember. 

Road trips alter Quentin’s geographic location, but they also signify changes within Quentin. During both road trips, Quentin has coming-of-age revelations about himself and the world he inhabits. The first road trip with Margo makes him realize that there are ways to experience the world outside of comfort and routine, and the second with his friends makes him realize that he can be content with his values and with himself. In this way, road trips highlight the inherent differences between Margo and Quentin, and, ultimately, their incompatibility. Margo’s solo road trip to New York shows that her coming-of-age process involves escape. On Quentin and his friends’ road trip, he drives with his friends from home in a minivan that anchors him to his roots and parents. For Quentin, growing up doesn’t have to mean cutting all of one’s ties and letting go of the past.

Making and Breaking Routines

Quentin and Margo both rely on plans and routines to feel some sense of control in their lives. However, for both of them, part of the journey of growing up and of self-discovery is learning to adapt and to trust what happens when routines and patterns don’t go as planned.

Quentin feels most comfortable when he follows routines. His father, a therapist, once told Quentin about a patient of his who drew circles obsessively on a piece of paper, and Quentin can sympathize with the soothing nature of this habit and ritual. Quentin’s days follow a typical pattern. He hangs out with friends, attends classes, plays video games, does homework, instant messages, and sleeps. Quentin feels most comfortable on the periphery of events, rather than in the spotlight, so that he can see what’s going on and plan his level of involvement. For example, Quentin’s friends are all band geeks, but Quentin doesn’t play music. Quentin also isn’t interested in going to the social event of the year, the prom, because doing so would disrupt his routine tremendously. He has worshipped Margo from afar for so long that even this idolizing has become a routine of its own, and going to prom would mean that he would have to recalibrate all his mental space for being in love with Margo into being a good date. Finally, Quentin likes to be precise about everything he does during his routine; for instance, when he notes a time of day, it’s the exact time and not rounded.