It’s the first Sunday of July, which means it’s time for a new discussion series. This is when I write to think more deeply about books, why we read, and why literature is so important in our lives. This new collection of discussion posts is called Stories, and aims to explore four of my favourite books, discussing characters and their relationships with each other, and how they are affected by predominant symbols in the story. Here is the first official installment to the Stories series…
The Fault in Our Stars
In which we explore Hazel and Augustus’ relationship with regards to An Imperial Affliction
Hazel and Augustus have what one might call a ‘love at first sight’ relationship, but it consists of so much more than their love for each other. Hazel is a teenage girl suffering from leukemia, and is our narrator throughout the novel. Augustus, or Gus, is a teenage boy who is introduced to us as being in remission after suffering with osteosarcoma. They meet at a cancer support group, and it is clear that they instantly have a connection. They begin dating, and become each other’s support during tough times throughout their lives, particularly Hazel’s terminal illness, and eventually Gus’ as well. Gus relapses and eventually dies after a lot of suffering and termination of chemotherapy. As for the ultimate binding of their relationship, that is all thanks to An Imperial Affliction, the metanovel in The Fault in Our Stars, that Hazel sees as her ‘personal bible’. It accurately translates her life- how she feels about her illness and how it will affect the people around her- into a relatable story. Soon after they meet, she shares this novel with Augustus, as a way of describing her ‘story’, not the story of her diagnosis, but her ‘real story’, what she really enjoys in life. Augustus is determined to read An Imperial Affliction, and after doing so, Hazel and Gus bond over the sincere messages and important themes throughout the book, and how they have come to work in both of their lives. They decide to contact, and eventually get the chance to meet, the author of the novel for answers about how the characters continue with their lives after the book. This becomes extremely important for how An Imperial Affliction works as a symbol that is in constant motion throughout Hazel and Gus’ relationship.
Hazel and Gus connect instantly when they meet at support group. After some smooth yet somehow awkward seduction on Gus’ part, they both go back to his house and end up swapping their favourite books, which means Hazel has to tell Gus about An Imperial Affliction. Through this, while Gus gets a taste of Hazel’s world, Hazel gets a taste of Gus’, through reading his favourite series ‘Counterinsurgence’. Once Gus has finished reading AIA, he completely understands how it reflects a life ridden with illness, and shows his affection for the novel by discussing it in great depth with Hazel. It is here that they realise they share the same, and some contrasting, beliefs about life philosophies. After the realisation that they both want answers to some things in the novel, Gus manages to email the assistant of Peter Van Houten, who is the author of AIA. This shows how much he cares not just for the book, but also for Hazel, because she previously mentions not being able to contact him in any way.
An Imperial Affliction begins, and in a way remains, as a form of comfort and support for Hazel. Putting it in this role not only means Hazel can draw real value from what is written in the book, but also means it becomes a guide to another source of support which we see in Augustus. In a way, having someone to share AIA with makes her beliefs in the content, and it’s value, stronger for her. Most people understand fiction as just a story, but we can see that AIA definitely has more value, through how Hazel uses it as some sort of ‘personal bible’ for living with her illness, but also showing how fiction can bring people together and bring joy to people’s lives. The value of the fiction becomes stronger in these circumstances because Hazel and Gus both have limited time with each other.
Hazel and Gus journey to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten in hope of answers about what happens to the characters at the end of An Imperial Affliction, particularly to those who are left behind after the protagonist dies. Unfortunately for Hazel, who has been longing for these answers for years, Van Houten turns out to be very unhelpful and quite rude. The summary of his discussion with Hazel and Gus is that AIA is ultimately a work of fiction, and that the characters cease to exist when the novel ends. Gus agrees to write Hazel a sequel, which he declares will be better than anything Van Houten could write. He then later reveals to Hazel that his cancer has come back quite seriously, and will be undergoing chemotherapy when they return from Amsterdam.
An Imperial Affliction is what brings Hazel and Gus to Amsterdam, which makes up quite a large chunk of the middle part of the novel. Their discussion with Van Houten is, on the surface, a failure, as they do not receive the answers they seek. However, the philosophies he speaks of helps them appreciate their life as an infinity, and how “some infinities are bigger than other infinities” (Green, 189). They learn that their relationships and, further from that, their lives, are just one personal infinity within and among larger ones. The ultimate reason why An Imperial Affliction is so important during the development of their relationship is because they want to get answers not just about the characters in the story, but the people in their story, and what will happen to them when Hazel and Gus die. An Imperial Affliction brings them closer through their shared interest of this, and also their awareness of how one death will affect the other person.
Gus begins to undergo treatment for his cancer as soon as they return from Amsterdam. Hazel stays by his side the entire time, and is one of the only people in his life who can truly sympathise with what he is going through, having gone through it herself, and continues to do so. Towards the end of Gus’ life, he asks Hazel to write him a eulogy. He wants to be able to read it before he dies, to know he has made a difference in her life. Her eulogy talks about how their relationship and their lives were infinities, and references how Van Houten was influential to what she has written. Her eulogy is weighted heavily with what Van Houten was trying to communicate to them, in a way which Hazel understands. We understand that An Imperial Affliction is a work of fiction, but clearly the value of fiction is tested again, through how Hazel talks about Gus’ life, and their relationship. We know now that the book has led them to Van Houten who gave them the answers they didn’t realise they wanted. Eight days after Gus hears what Hazel wrote, he dies. From this, Hazel gets the answers she has always been looking for, but not in the way she expected. She comes to learn what happens to your loved ones when you die, through first hand experience.
To summarise, An Imperial Affliction plays a very crucial role in Hazel and Gus’ relationship, and ultimately drives their storyline. It takes them on a journey for answers, and brings them closer together in the process. It leads Hazel to Augustus, and continues to be her guide through their relationship. An Imperial Affliction gives Gus to Hazel as it’s way of saying ‘everything you want answers to, you will get through Augustus’. It begins as a guide to Hazel’s life specifically, and ends as something that has led her to a life where she will find out what will happen when she dies, which is Hazel’s main goal in the story. The novel brings Hazel and Gus together, and helps them to realise how important their lives are, despite having less time than most others. As Hazel says, Gus ‘gave me forever within numbered days’.
If anyone has any thoughts on anything written here, then please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, as it will be very interesting to see what others have found when reading this particular book.
Until next time…