Paper Towns

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Authenticity and Artificiality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Perception vs. Reality Theme Icon
Authenticity and Artificiality Theme Icon
Human Connection Theme Icon
Leaving Home and Growing Up Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Paper Towns, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Authenticity and Artificiality Theme Icon

Margo struggles to find meaning in the wealthy, suburban environment where she and Quentin have grown up. She disdains the interests and values of her family and friends, whom she believes to be superficial. Her favorite metaphor, which Quentin adopts after her disappearance, is that Orlando is a “paper town” full of “paper people,” where nobody cares about the things in life that truly matter. Quentin finds the idea intriguing, and he uses Margo’s language to justify his own bitter attitude toward his community and classmates. He finds his cynicism challenged on his last day of school, however, when he reflects on the way his adolescent experiences have shaped him and think “[t]he town was paper, but the memories were not.” There is a sense that the world appears artificial because Margo — and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Quentin — chooses to see it that way, and that people are shallow and two-dimensional only when the person observing them does not make the effort to see their humanity.

Both Margo and Quentin have a difficult time being honest and direct about their thoughts and feelings. Each of them deals with this in different ways. Margo plans grand gestures and allows other people to interpret her actions however they wish, which spares her the responsibility of explaining her feelings to anyone. Quentin accepts the status quo and works to fulfill others’ expectations for him, making it easy for him to move through life without questioning himself or being questioned by others. Both rely on words written by other people to express themselves in conversation. Margo is constantly quoting poetry and novels, and Quentin learns to do the same as he immerses himself in the poetry she loved. However, in his final conversation with Margo, Quentin designs a metaphor of his own for talking about loneliness and connection—that people are born as perfect vessels that then develop cracks through their lives—and in doing so illustrates a new willingness to make himself vulnerable by speaking what he truly thinks.

Quentin’s conversation with Margo about the different metaphors for human experience and connection also illustrates the ways in which his pursuit of her has helped him think more deeply about his own values and desire. His final decision to return home and continue on his chosen path rather than following Margo to New York forces Quentin to recognize how difficult it can be to know one’s true self. He believes that returning to Orlando and going to college is what he sincerely wants for himself, but Margo, who hoped that including Quentin in her adventures would liberate him from the confining values of their community, questions whether he is simply afraid to do something unconventional. Though her effect on Quentin is different than the one Margo planned, his ability to make choices for himself rather than following her prescription for him is strong evidence that he has abandoned his “paper” way of living and committed himself to a search for personal happiness.

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Authenticity and Artificiality Quotes in Paper Towns

Below you will find the important quotes in Paper Towns related to the theme of Authenticity and Artificiality.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

It was so pathetically easy to forget about Chuck, to talk about prom even though I didn’t give a shit about prom. Such was life that morning: nothing really mattered much, not the good things and not the bad ones. We were in the business of mutual amusement, and we were reasonably prosperous.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Ben Starling, Radar, Chuck Parson
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Quentin describes the ordinary day leading up to his adventure with Margo. Before Quentin becomes entangled with Margo, he lives a life almost entirely without extremes. He has few troubles and no great sorrows — but at the same time he has no real sources of joy. Quentin captures the mild emotional power and low stakes of his life when he describes his activities, including his relationships with his best friends, as "amusement." Though he seems successful on paper — he has friends and a social life, good grades, and has been admitted to an elite university — his life is emotionally shallow.

This moment, like a calm before a storm, will provide a contrast with the strong emotions and powerful ideas Quentin will encounter as he delves more deeply into Margo's world. His deepening love for and understanding of Margo will help Quentin better appreciate the relationships and experiences he has always taken for granted, and challenge him to evaluate his life with a more critical eye than ever before, disrupting his contentment and shocking him into a deeper and more intense experience of life.


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Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“Did you know that for pretty much the entire history of the human species, the average life span was less than thirty years? You could count on ten years or so of real adulthood, right? There was no planning for retirement. No planning for a career. There was no planning … And now life has become the future. Every moment of your life is lived for the future.”

Related Characters: Margo Roth Spiegelman (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Margo and Quentin have just begun their night of adventure. They are buying supplies in Wal-Mart when Margo launches, seemingly unprompted, into this speech. Though she uses abstraction and impersonal language to create the illusion of having emotional distance, it is clear that Margo is really expressing her own frustrations about the attitude many people around her — including Quentin himself — seem to have: a focus on the accumulation of material goods and accomplishments at the expense of profound experiences in the present.

Margo hungers for deeper and more intense experiences than are readily available to her, and she longs for a life molded around values and ideals rather than the desire to meet the expectations of others. Her comments begin to shed light on her reasons for planning the epic adventure in which she has enlisted Quentin, as well as her other legendary schemes. Her rash and often dangerous actions allow her to live entirely in the present, and to create some distance, however temporary, from the disappointments of her life. 

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

“It’s a paper town. I mean, look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And all the people, too. I’ve lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anone who cares about anything that matters.

Related Characters: Margo Roth Spiegelman (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Margo shares these reflections with Quentin while they look at the dark streets of Orlando from the top floor of the SunTrust Building. Her speech is a response to Quentin's claim that he finds the deserted streets of the city "beautiful."

Here Margo adopts the language of "paper" as a metaphor for the emptiness and short-sightedness of the world she comes from. Just as paper can be easily ripped or crumpled, people and communities that organize themselves around poorly chosen values — ideals Margo describes as"paper-thin and paper-frail" — cannot hope to produce anything meaningful and lasting. She disparages the materialism of her society, in which people spend their entire lives accumulating wealth and possessions but sacrifice relationships, beauty, and a sense of responsibility to others in order to do so. She characterizes that materialism as a kind of mental illness, which makes people "demented with the mania of owning things." 

The contrast between Quentin's perspective and Margo's highlights the fundamental difference in their personalities. Quentin is optimistic to the point of being naive. Now that Margo has disrupted the routines of his life, he is eager to see the world around him as being full of beauty and adventure, and he either cannot see the underlying darkness, or refuses to do so. Margo, by contrast, is so cynical that she cannot appreciate beauty at all. Rather than allow herself to see Orlando through Quentin's eyes, she has to counter his positive view of the city with a dark alternative. 

Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes


Related Characters: Margo Roth Spiegelman (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen, Ben Starling
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Quentin, Radar, and Ben find this proclamation spray-painted on the wall of the abandoned strip mall where they expect to meet Margo. Since they discover the message shortly after their encounter with the dead raccoon, it forces them to once again consider the possibility that Margo may have taken her own life (or be planning to do so). The assertion that she will "never come back" is frightening for Quentin and his friends. 

Later, in Agloe, Margo explains to Quentin that her escape to the "paper town" — the imaginary place that became real — was intended as the symbolic first step in transforming herself from a "paper girl," who lacks substance and self-definition, to a real person who can live with purpose and conviction. Though Margo never intends to commit suicide, as Quentin fears she might, she believes that the part of herself that hungers after praise and popularity and the good opinion of other people must die before she can live an authentic life. With her spray-painted proclamation, Margo commits to the destruction of that part of herself. 

Part 3, Agloe Quotes

“People love the idea of a paper girl. They always have. and the worst thing is that I loved it, too. I cultivated it, you know … Because it’s kind of great, being an idea that everybody likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way.”

Related Characters: Margo Roth Spiegelman (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen
Page Number: 293-294
Explanation and Analysis:

In her conversation with Quentin in Agloe, Margo acknowledges that she was complicit in her own objectification — that she encouraged other people to see her as a beautiful idea rather than a human being, because it was easier to fulfill their expectations than to make herself vulnerable to rejection by exposing her flaws and the messiness of her inner life. It is important for both Margo and Quentin to recognize that being "paper" is something a person can actively choose when they do not feel brave enough or safe enough to show their true selves to others.

Authenticity takes courage, but it is also a necessary step before a person can find real happiness and connection. Margo tried to live as a "paper girl" in Orlando, but found she could never ignore the things that made her complex and human. She runs away because she can no longer abide her own cool, aloof persona — to be fulfilled in life, she needs to form relationships based on honesty and sincerity, and gain a deeper understanding of her real self.