Even though sometimes I find reading fiction a waste of time, I think every book that prompts people to think about life and death has some value in it. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is one such book of fiction.
From the first page, I am intrigued: “Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.)” p.3
This curious statement results from Hazel’s originally nihilist view on life. Possibly due to her illness, she has this understanding that as soon as we are born, we are dying. We are born to die. She does not believe in an afterlife, nor the existence of a “purpose” to our lives. Oblivion is inevitable.
On the other hand, Augustus has a view that is almost diametrically opposed to that of Hazel’s. He believes in Something with a capital S—presumably God—and never stops searching for meanings in life and indeed seems to always find different “metaphorical resonances” in life’s situations. The way he originally understands “meaning”, though, is that it is something that depends on other people. He thinks that if no one remembers him—if he doesn’t leave a mark in this world—then his life has no meaning.
As the two characters meet and interact, both begin to ponder and modify their philosophies. (The following quotations do not come from the book but rather my general understanding of the characters.)
Hazel wonders: “If we are born just to die, then why don’t I just die now? Why should I struggle to stay alive? For my parents? But I am going to die soon anyway, so why not die now? What is the reason that I am struggling to stay alive now?”
Likewise, Augustus begins to doubt: “If the meaning and honor of life comes from being a hero and saving the world, then what about the ill—who are dying, who not only cannot contribute to the society, but whose very survival depends on the pity of the society?”
As the story continues to develop, the answer to these doubts emerges in the form of a view that synthesizes the original views of Hazel and Augustus: Yes, Hazel is right, we are all going to die, and there will be a day when even the universe will end—probably. But this does not mean that our life has no meaning. So Augustus is right in this respect. However, this meaning does not depend on other people’s remembrance of you, or the marks (or scars) we leave in this world, as Augustus believes. The meaning of life is to marvel at the majesty of creation (p.174-175), to notice the elegance of the universe (p.223).
This, incidentally, is actually very close to my own view on the meaning of life. As a Muslim, I believe that God created us to worship Him. Worshiping God doesn’t only mean doing the daily prayers though; it means doing things that will please God, like being righteous and being thankful of God’s blessings etc. You will find it easier to do these things if you have a stronger faith, and the strength of your faith depends on your knowledge and your personal relationship with God. Knowledge, here, does not only mean religious knowledge. It is the knowledge of everything: God, and His Creation. Without having a deep understanding of His Creation, you cannot have a deep appreciation of God. In this way, marveling at the universe is also part of the purpose of our life.
In any case, by the end of the book, both characters seem to agree on the truth of this synthesized view, as evident in the passages on p.294-295, as well as on p.311-312.
Perhaps it’s not the most accurate way to conclude, but as an individual, subjectively reading the book, this is what I feel is the final meaning of the story: Although these star-crossed lovers are destined to die young, that is not really a fault in our stars. It is all God’s design. The Dutch Tulip Man that is not really a con man, after all.
Augustus says: “My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.” Using the same elements of his analogy: As individuals, we are stars that are arranged by God into splendid constellations. Together, our lives and deaths—the smaller infinities within the greater infinity—make a beautiful and scintillating Design.
*The Dutch Tulip Man is a character from An Imperial Affliction, Hazel’s favorite book. The author of the fictitious book, Peter Van Houten, once remarked that The Dutch Tulip Man symbolizes God.
Like Augustus, I am bad at pulling thoughts together, so I always have some leftover thoughts that are not integrated into the main post itself. Here are two of these:
“And in freedom, most people find sins.” —-the Dutch taxi driver, p.156
This is true. God gives us free will, which allows us to have the potential to either be better than Angels OR worse than animals. By consciously restricting our will to God’s Will (which is really what we want to will anyway), we are becoming better than Angels, who have no choice in their obedience to God. On the other hand, by consciously rejecting to accord our will to God’s Will, i.e. following our lusts, we become worse than animals, who have no choice but to follow their own lusts. Unfortunately, most people follow paths that are closer to the latter, as the Qur’an remarks in various verses.
Reading fiction/watching drama as a sociocultural study
As I mentioned, sometimes I feel like reading fiction is a waste of time, in the same way that watching TV dramas is a waste of time. However, any activity could be a somewhat useful exercise with the right attitude. For example, reading TFiOS, one is able to learn quite a few things about the American (white/suburban/upper-middle class) culture: everyone drives everywhere, even 16 year old kids with cancer; teenage premarital sex is normal, etc. And you could probably learn a lot more if you think more deeply about what you observe.