The Strings, The Grass, and The Vessel: Symbolism in Paper Towns
John Green’s Paper Towns commences with a prologue that introduces the reader to Q, the novel’s protagonist, and Margo. When Quentin Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman are nine years old, they find a dead man leaning against a tree. Margo soon finds out the man has committed suicide and remarks to Q, “Maybe all the strings inside him broke.” (Green 8) As Q backs away from the body, Margo inches closer. Both establishing the personalities of Q and Margo, and laying the groundwork for what’s to come, this formative experience the two share provides insight as to what the remainder of the novel will encompass: the difference in how we view ourselves and each other. Paper Towns is divided into three parts: “The Strings”, “The Grass”, and “The Vessel”. Each section describes its title as an important metaphor for life while wrapping into the novel’s overall concept of change, maturation, and how our lives are connected.
Paper Towns follows Q as he proceeds through a very liminal time in his life. Three weeks shy of graduating high school, Q experiences a life-changing night after his former best friend and long-time crush Margo shows up at his window and provokes him into joining her on an adventure of revenge. When the night is over, and after Margo has explained her actions, Q thinks the two are going to rekindle a relationship that’s been deteriorating for almost a decade. When he gets to school the next morning, he learns those dreams are dashed, as Margo is missing and no one knows where she is. After discovering a few clues, he believes she left for him, Q sets out on a quest to find out where Margo is, and more importantly, who Margo is.
As previously stated, the three sections of the novel explore three very different views on life, Q’s reaction to them, and how he eventually develops his own metaphor for life and the relationships it entails.
We are first introduced to “The Strings” metaphor when Margo comments on the suicide of Robert Joyner. This simple line of dialogue, “Maybe all the strings inside him broke”, carries a lot of implications. It implies our lives are made up of a series of strings. Each relationship we have is a different string and every time we face a hardship or an obstacle we can’t overcome, one of our strings is severed. When all the strings are gone, when we have nothing left to live for, we end up like Robert Joyner. All our time is over. The simplicity of this explanation is as cynical as it is relatable. Q says, “If you choose strings, then you’re imagining a world in which you can become irreparably broken.” (301) and I’m inclined to agree. Sure, we all face obstacles, we all want to give up sometimes, but wounds heal. People can heal. When one string breaks, we work on strengthening the others.
Despite the easily relatable aspect of this metaphor, it focuses too on much on the pointlessness of our being; that no matter how intrepidly we fight, we all eventually die. I can’t agree with that and I don’t think John Green does either. In the novel, Q remarks, “I like strings. I always have. Because that’s how it feels. But the strings make pain seem more fatal than it is… we are not as frail as the strings would make us believe.” (302)
While “The Strings” represents Margo’s cynical perception of life, the second part of Paper Towns, “The Grass”, is more about connectivity and how all of us are intertwined. Taken from the Walt Whitman book Leaves of Grass, this metaphor explores the idea that we all share a common root system and are infinitely connected. On a positive note, the implication is this: we are all capable of understanding each other. After obsessively reading Leaves of Grass, Q is better able to understand the real Margo, as opposed to the “miracle” he has proclaimed her to be in the beginning of the book, “The grass got me to you, helped me imagine you as an actual person.” (302) It’s easy to understand how Whitman could believe that we are all connected through experiences and emotions and are capable of empathizing with one another, it’s just not that simple.
As noble as the metaphor of “The Grass” sounds, it also implies some very negative aspects of connectedness. It implies that we live together as one organism, connected and dependent. Though we are connected, we are not anyone other than ourselves. We are not successful according to someone else’s accomplishments. We can not live out our dreams through another person. Although relationships with other people are necessary for a self-pleasing existence, Q said it best when he explained, “We are not different sprouts from the same plant. I can’t be you. You can’t be me.” (302) By the end of Part Two, “The Grass” metaphor had overshadowed “The Strings” and I was agreeing more with Whitman than Spiegelman.
The third and final part of Paper Towns, “The Vessel”, is a more complex metaphor for life. This section suggests that people are ever changing, complex creatures adapting to constantly changing surroundings. Margo was a different person to everyone who knew her. For some, it was who they wanted her to be or who they needed her to be. She projected herself differently for different people and allowed them to perceive what they wanted regarding who she really was. One-dimensional and wildly stereotypical, Margo made herself into a “paper girl”. This is the Margo that Q set out to find; his dream girl, his ideal woman.
The paper-girl persona was Margo’s vessel. It protected her from the cruelties of the world and allowed her to swim effortlessly through life, even making her way to the top of she social food-chain. Margo Roth Spiegelman was the ultimate “hunny-bunny”. When she finally decides she’s had enough of the drama cause from being a typical high school cliché, she sets off on a journey of self-discovery. Just like Q and his friends find out, Margo no more knows who she really is than they do.
When Q and his friends set out in a vessel of their own, his newly gifted mini-van, they set out to find the old Margo. Never fully realizing until the end that she is not a “fine and precious thing”, she is not the patron saint of hunny-bunnies, she is “just a girl.” (199)
When Q and his friends finally find Margo, the reader is expecting quite an exciting climax. Instead, Green gives us something a little less than anti-climactic. Margo’s vessel is beginning to crack. She’s not excited to see her friends. She doesn’t look as beautiful as she did when Q last saw her, and she didn’t even expect them to get as far as they did. Her looks and personality have deteriorated and finally, after years of wanting to know the real Margo, Q has an epiphany.
This is the only time Q has ever seen the real Margo and the only time Margo has seen the real Q. He states, “it is the only time we can see each other because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs… the light gets in. The light can get out.” (302)
The idea of a vessel being a metaphor for life is the most appealing and realistic of the three. It seems less aggressive and more calming. Vessels are meant to protect from outside abuse, outside dangers. They can only do their jobs for so long before they start to get a little wear and tear on them. Just like people, they begin to crack. We can recover, we can grow, and cracks can be temporarily mended, but in the end everyone’s vessel will eventually lose strength. Not one crack in the vessel is defining of someone’s life or character. We are ever-changing, constantly getting new cracks and mending old ones. But, like Q said, it’s the cracks that allow us to see what’s underneath the hard-outer shell. The cracks allow us glimpses of the real person on the inside.
The brilliance of metaphors is their innate ability to explain something to us in simple, understandable terms. In Paper Towns, John Green beautifully executes the use of metaphors for describing three very different outlooks on life. Each one perfectly describes the way Q feels about life and the way they change from section to section perfectly mirrors Q’s constantly changing view as well.
By the end of the book Q and the reader are both left with certainty that “The Vessel” is the most appropriate metaphor for life and how we relate to one another. It proves that while we may experience hardships and outside attacks, we are not damaged goods. We are not defined by our scars. The vessel metaphor prove we can move on, we can be repaired, and life is not as fragile as we assumed it to be. Unlike the grass, which implied we are all connected and encourages the reader to live through the accomplishments of others, the vessel reaffirms we are are our own person. A person of our own making. The vessel makes us better people by allowing others to look through the cracks and see the real person inside.