Pain demands to be felt. So goes one of the wise lines from John Green’s bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars. The line is prominently featured in the movie of the same title—and rightfully so, given that this dictum on the necessity of feeling pain is a key reason the story is so compelling.
The inevitable pain of reading a novel about young people with cancer was likely the key reason I avoided reading the novel until I had heard so much about its greatness that I felt compelled to do so.
It was indeed a painful read. Achingly so. I cried reading it. I cried with most of the audience at the screening I attended. Never before have I heard such sustained, audible sobs at a movie.
The romantic story of “star-crossed lovers” also draws people to The Fault in Our Stars, inspiring them to swear they will never love any book more, that they will read it again and again, and promise to watch the movie over and over, no matter how much it makes them cry.
But I think it is not so much the romance that has made The Fault in Our Stars one of the “it” stories of the moment; rather, it is the pain.
We live in a world mired in pain. And though this has always been true, the immediacy of the Internet forecasts our pain loud and clear and constantly—in news stories, blog posts, Facebook status updates, tweets, memes, pins and Instagram photos. The pain of mass shootings, stolen girls, seemingly endless wars, children stabbing one another and people being beat simply for being who they are wracks our society. Of course the pain of experiencing loved ones suffer and/or die also must be endured by most, if not all, of us at many points in our lives.
U.S. society is not one that likes to revel in pain, though. Instead, we are encouraged to focus on accomplishments and dreams, on the “greatness” of our nation. Unlike many other cultures, pain is not to be shared and publicized but to be endured, preferably stoically.
This is why The Fault in Our Stars resonates so strongly—it encourages pain, even celebrates it, rendering it beautiful, real and necessary.
While its romantic story is surely a draw, it’s not the sort of romance we have come to expect. There is no bodice ripping, no knights or damsels, no delayed and obsessive focus on sex and sexual desire, no conquests or betrayals or battles. Rather, there is romance in the expansive sense—not only the excitement and mystery of falling in love with another person, but our deep romantic attachment to life, to humanity, to the world around us.
The Fault in Our Stars also explores our romance with fiction, and not with the romantic genre of adventure and heroism set in a distant time and place but with a realist story of now. Sadly, such stories are often very painful. The romance of the now also doesn’t last, as the now never can last. Much like novels, the last page of “now” looms, and any moment, we may be at the end, left hanging mid-sentence.
The main characters’ fascination with the fake novel An Imperial Affliction, and with its author, Peter Van Houton, captures the romantic love we have with stories and the way we idealize their creators. Hazel and Augustus, much like their audience, must learn that stories often don’t have the endings we want, and their creators are often not the heroes we hope they will be. Rather, stories end abruptly, leaving us to return to the pain of reality.
The Fault in Our Stars forces us to face up to the pain of romance, of love, of the inability to find adequate answers or satisfying endings. This is the romantic journey the story and its compelling characters takes us on. This is why it is so passionately loved—not so much for the beauty of love as for the pain we need to feel about love and letting go and endings.
We are, rather, accustomed to admitting that illness and death are painful, but we like to kid ourselves that love is eternal and sexy and fun, and that it will last forever, much like two of the characters in The Fault in Our Stars who text “always” to each other ad nauseum regarding their love.
In contrast, Hazel and Augustus settle for “okay.” They eschew using the word “always” and Hazel especially tries to avoid love altogether. Instead, she casts herself as a grenade that one day will blow up and cause casualties. She is painfully aware of her illness and nihilistically jokes about the oblivion our lives afford. She is funny and wise in the face of her illness, refusing to be the simpering dying girl who only dreams of true love. She is yet another contemporary female hero of the best sort, a hopeful sign that Hollywood has finally recognized our enduring love for strong, complex, brave females such as Merida and Katniss, Elsa and Maleficent, Patsey and Hushpuppy.
Shailene Woodley as Hazel is particularly exquisite at embodying unbearable pain. The rest of the cast is stellar as well, notably Ansel Elgort as the metaphor-loving Augustus and Laura Dern as Hazel’s indefatigable mother. For once, the film adaptation of the book is not a letdown but a beautifully rendered complement.
As for the much-maligned stories of Shailene Woodley’s recent comments on feminism, well, this, too, is about the pain of romance.
Woodley’s denial of feminism was so cutting for the feminist community because many of us have a long romance with feminism; we believe we will always love it, and to hear it decried and belittled cuts us to our core. We adore it, and it hurts us when others do not—much like it hurts a parent when someone does not adore her child. Yet, as feminist lovers and friends and parents, we must feel the pain and keep loving anyhow, hoping that all will see the beauty and the promise that lies within feminism—one of, if not the greatest grenades of all time. One that has the ability to obliterate the misogynistically driven pain of the atrocities listed above: sexual violence, murder, war.
Feminism may not cure cancer and can’t bring an end to death, but it certainly can help us navigate the fact that, as Hazel notes, “The marks humans leave are, too often, scars.” And as Augustus puts it, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world … but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” Here, Augustus is referring to falling in love as a choice that allows someone to hurt you. However, I like to think of the choice to love feminism as a choice that allows us to make all hurt more bearable.
I like my choices.
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.