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“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”
Recently I’ve been hearing about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The title intrigued me and the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation even more so. And so it was that, armed with a Barnes and Noble gift card from my parents for my recent birthday, I found myself purchasing a copy (along with Patricia Wrede’s Across the Great Barrier and Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, books I have been anticipating reading for quite some time).
Due to massive snowfall last night and closed workplaces today, I had some extra time on my hands and finished Green’s book this morning between breakfast and lunch.
On the surface, The Fault in Our Stars is a touching, tragic love story, rather in the spirit of “Romeo and Juliet” (although, admittedly, slightly less tragic). The protagonists, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, meet at a cancer support group where they bond over a shared joke involving the group moderator’s misuse of the word “literally.” Hazel has terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs; Augustus is in remission after losing his leg to osteosarcoma. At first reticent to love Augustus for fear of hurting him—“I’m like a grenade, Mom,” she laments. “I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”—she finally admits she loves him, no matter how futile their romance must be. And in that romance they both find hope and comfort.
But The Fault in Our Stars is not just a sappy paperback romance; it is not even just an exploration and challenging of cancer stereotypes. It is an intellectual, philosophical work. Green’s protagonists are intelligent teenagers who reference numerous influential authors, from Shakespeare to Allen Ginsberg to T.S. Eliot to William Carlos Williams to Sylvia Plath to the apostle John, among others. Green’s writing style is engaging and thoughtful (although, fair warning, he is not afraid to curse) and encourages the reader to ask deep questions such as “What happens when we die?” and “How should we live our lives?” and “Why do we suffer?”
The Fault in Our Stars drips with metaphor, both as an expression of the personality of “Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus” who “smokes” unlit cigarettes—“You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing”—and as situational elements of the story itself. The pair’s visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, for example, where families fought to live only to fall victim to Hitler’s mass genocide, illustrates the futility of Hazel and Augustus’s own fight against the looming specter of death by cancer.
As a philosophical work, The Fault in Our Stars disappoints. Although Mr. Green raises important questions and hints at the soul and an afterlife, ultimately his world is nihilistic. On their first meeting, Hazel addresses Augustus’ fear of oblivion with these words: “There will come a time . . . when all of us are dead. . . . There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything . . . will be forgotten and all of this . . . will have been for naught. . . . [I]f the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” Later, after losing a video game, Augustus states, “All salvation is temporary.” This theme of the falsity of “forever” runs as a common thread throughout the entire book.
Logically, a world that ends in oblivion with no promise of eternity, a world where, according to the author himself, “nothing any human being ever does will have any overall effect on the universe,” is a meaningless world. If nothing has any lasting significance, humans should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Indeed, Augustus “decided a while ago not to deny [him]self the simpler pleasures of existence . . . particularly given that . . . all of this will end in oblivion.” And yet. And yet—the characters live largely in direct contradiction to this stated pointlessness. Hazel is vegetarian so she can “minimize the number of deaths [she is] responsible for.” She cares immensely about the people she will leave behind. Augustus wants to be remembered for something heroic rather than “just another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease” and laments that “the marks humans leave are too often scars.”
Mr. Green’s is a world without God, a world where the soul’s existence is dubious at best, a world where nothing matters and yet, somehow, “We must still serve our fellow humans, and the idea of life itself, as best we can,” for “that’s how we make . . . lives meaningful.” The nihilist’s challenge is the reconciliation of meaningfulness with meaninglessness. The result is a world that is at best, illogical and at worst, depressing, for an existence that ends in oblivion is not an existence at all.