Written by Matthew Edwards, Sarah Yoon, & Karyn Keene

the_fault_in_our_stars_by_candy8496-d7oqq8vThe Fault In Our Stars is a wonderful and uncomfortable read. If you are like me and have loved ones who struggled with cancer, it heightens the pain of Hazel and Gus’s tragedy. As Sarah has already discussed, this book is a difficult read, stirring your emotions at the ups and downs in Hazel’s life as she and her boyfriend Gus grapple with cancer.

John Green’s novel first caught my attention with its title—an adaptation of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In TFIOS we see this directly quoted by Peter Van Houten, an author Hazel admires, when he writes to Gus concerning his medical recovery and Hazel’s continued worsening:

“Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed, but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you’re a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars.”

It is the Nature of Stars to Cross

Gus and Hazel, like van Houten, appear to blame their circumstances on the stars. They assume that they must live—and die—with the cards that fate hands them. As they explore life and discover love, they’re always overshadowed by the belief that they are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things—that they do not matter.

That is my concern with TFIOS. It seems to encourage hopelessness in the face of certain oblivion. As the characters count down to their deaths, they do not consider an alternative to a hopeless life.  Given their circumstances, it’s understandable why both appear to give up their fates to the stars.

But they are wrong to do so. 

Facing Challenges

With any book, readers must be mindful of one particular poison: empathy. We tend to automatically support the protagonists’ decisions, actions and worldview, whether or not they are right. And it’s certainly easy to cheer for these two witty, terminally ill teenagers.

I do not in any way mean to take away from the harsh and horrendous difficulty of facing cancer, but cheering for hopelessness is dangerous. Despair kills your soul before your body dies. This is difficult to say after reading TFIOS, because we don’t want to disagree with Gus and Hazel. Their pain and circumstances make their decisions so very understandable. But we must be careful not to take their beliefs to heart.

Rather, we should try to follow the example of Hazel’s parents—who pursue full lives in the midst of certain tragedy. Hazel’s mother confesses she is returning to college, and Hazel’s father assures her that her death will not cause a divorce. Her parents promise to live in the midst of the pain and not to let the loss of their beloved daughter consume and destroy their lives.

In this way, Hazel’s parents don’t allow fate to dictate their actions. Instead of giving themselves up to the stars, they look for a way to continue living, even faced with the certainty of their only daughter’s death. Even though we are shaped by our circumstances, our final form is still in our control. Difficulties can be faced—even the capital “B” Big challenges like cancer. Choosing to live well in the midst of tremendous difficulties is our greatest challenge. We must hold ourselves accountable. So long as we are conscious we have thought; so long as we can speak we have a voice. Find what makes life worth living and then be sure to live your life.

While we should empathize with Gus and Hazel, we must be careful not emulate them. Not all protagonists are role models. We should be conscious readers: mindful of the lessons that we derive from stories. The Fault In Our Stars is a good read and perhaps a necessary one to better empathize with the pain that some must endure. But we need to think about the implications of making Hazel or Gus our heroes. Living hopelessly is giving up. The greatest fault in us all is complacency. Left unattended and unconquered, that belief will be the death of us all.

Since this book creates some strong emotional reactions, please take a deep breath, make some Earl Grey, and drop a comment below to let us know what you think about the role of protagonists and empathy in storytelling!

“The Fault in Our Stars” illustration graciously provided by Lailea J.! Find more of her work on DeviantART or browse her Tumblr.