Paper Towns

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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.
Human Connection Theme Icon

The events of the novel cause Quentin to consider multiple different philosophies about the ways in which human beings build connections with one another, and about the nature of those connections. Reading Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” he becomes interested in Whitman’s idea that all human beings are tied together, like blades of grass that share the same root system, and have a limitless ability to understand and empathize with one another. He eventually concludes, however, that Whitman’s philosophy is overly optimistic about the extent to which people can get into one another’s heads. He decides it is more accurate to think about human beings as vessels that start out perfect, but become cracked and damaged as they experience pain and loss. He believes that people can see one another through the cracks in their vessels, meaning that experiencing pain makes it easier for a person to understand the pain of others, and also makes that person easier for others to understand.

Though Paper Towns tells the story of Quentin’s effort to understand and empathize with Margo, characters in the novel often question whether the kind of intimate understanding he desires is even possible. Quentin’s parents, both of whom are psychologists, talk with him about the difficulties of understanding other people. His father believes human beings “lack good mirrors,” meaning they struggle both to understand themselves and to help other people understand them. His mother adds that people have a hard time seeing one another as complex human beings, and instead idolize them as gods or reduce them to animals. The tendency toward fantasy and oversimplification appears over and over in the novel as a barrier to real human intimacy.

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Human Connection Quotes in Paper Towns

Below you will find the important quotes in Paper Towns related to the theme of Human Connection.
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. 


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Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

“I didn’t need you, you idiot. I picked you. And then you picked me back … And that’s like a promise. At least for tonight. In sickness and in health. In good times and in bad. For richer, for poorer. Till dawn do us part.”

Related Characters: Margo Roth Spiegelman (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Though Quentin feels sure Margo is only using him — that she would never deign to include him in her plans unless she stood to gain something from doing so — the truth is that Margo desperately needs a friend at this tumultuous moment in her life. Margo has concocted this nighttime crusade as a way of incinerating all her most cherished relationships, and she knows she will be leaving her family and community behind in just a few hours when she runs away to start a new life. At this moment of profound uncertainty and loneliness, Margo seeks support from Quentin, with whom she shares a history of friendship. Though their relationship has fizzled over the years, Quentin is now, essentially, the only friend Margo has left. 

And I wanted to tell her that the pleasure for me was in planning or doing or leaving: the pleasure was in seeing our strings cross and separate and then come back together.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

After breaking into SeaWorld at the end of their night of adventure, Margo confesses that doing interesting things never feels as good to her as planning them and looking forward to them. The park, for example, is unremarkable at night, when all the animals have been moved to different tanks. To Quentin, though, the only important thing is that he is sharing this experience with Margo: that he is watching the "strings" of their lives, which were interconnected in childhood, come back together after so many years of tepid acquaintanceship. Unlike Margo, who plans her adventures in hopes of finding the clarity and freedom she craves, Quentin relishes what the experience really offers: a moment of human connection, full of promise and possibility. 

Part 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

I refused to feel any kind of sadness over the fact that I wasn’t going to prom, but I had — stupidly, embarrassingly — thought of finding Margo, and getting her to come home with me just in time for prom, like late on Saturday night, and we’d walk into the Hilton ballroom wearing jeans and ratty T-shirts, and we be just in time for the last dance, and we’d dance while everyone pointed at us and marveled at the return of Margo, and then we’d fox-trot the hell out of there and go get ice cream at Friendly’s.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

After a phone call with Ben, Quentin reflects on his decision — about which he has been adamant since the first pages of the novel — not to attend prom. Always something of an outsider, Ben describes his hope that the people who ignored or bullied him for so many years will have to revise their idea of him when he arrives at the prom with beautiful, popular Lacey on his arm. 

Though Quentin dismisses Ben's fantasies over the phone, it is clear that he feels a similar desire to reinvent himself and break out of the mold of the conventional, obedient suburban kid in which he has been trapped all his life. In his imagination, he and Margo — a girl who represents the independence of mind and spirit he has never been brave enough to claim for himself — reject the shallow, conventional ritual of prom, showing up late in jeans and t-shirts instead of the formal clothes their classmates agonize over. At the same time, they are the stars of the evening, attracting the attention and admiration of all their classmates. Quentin longs both to find acceptance and to transcend the need for acceptance. 

Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

“I know it’s impossible for you to see peers this way, but when you’re older, you’ll start to see them — the bad kids and the good kids and all kids — as people. They’re just people, who deserve to be cared for. Varying degrees of sick, varying degrees of neurotic, varying degrees of self-actualized.”

Related Characters: Connie Jacobsen (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen, Tom Jacobsen
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

During a dinner conversation about Quentin's longtime rival, Chuck Parson, Connie Jacobsen draws on her experience as a psychologist to counter her son's tendency to reduce other people to tropes and stereotypes: the bullheaded jock in the case of Chuck, the cold-hearted popular girl in the case of Becca Arrington, the beautiful mystery in the case of Margo.

Her profession gives Mrs. Jacobsen unique insight into the complexities of the human mind, but the wisdom she offers Quentin has less to do with her background in psychology than with her compassion and maturity: two qualities Quentin is still lacking, though he has made progress toward developing them. In his journey toward developing greater empathy, Quentin has focused largely on learning to understand and appreciate Margo — a person he already admired and cared for, even if his reasons for doing so were flawed. In order to develop true empathy, though, Quentin must recognize that every person, regardless of how difficult or unpleasant they might seem to him personally, has a deep and significant inner life and struggles in his or her own way. 

“The longer I do my job … the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, and so hard for us to show anyone who we feel.”

Related Characters: Tom Jacobsen (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen, Connie Jacobsen
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

After Quentin dismisses their sympathetic comments about Chuck Parson during a dinner conversation, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobsen speculate about the reasons people have such a difficult time empathizing with others. Mr. Jacobsen's hypothesis — that most people simply do not know how to express their emotions in ways other people can understand — captures the essential loneliness and frustration of being human. Through Quentin's experience searching for Margo, which forces him to think critically about his perception of others and brings both his best and worst qualities to the surface, Quentin comes to understand that every person — from goofy and childish Ben to actively vicious Chuck Parson — acts mostly out of a need for patience, acceptance, and love.  

The fundamental mistake I had always made — and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make — was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel, Quentin constantly discovers and rediscovers Margo's humanity. In this moment, during an illuminating dinner conversation with his parents, he perceives both Margo's complexity and the tremendous ordinariness of that complexity. Though he has already confronted the fact that Margo's inner life may have been much darker than he realized — that she may have planned to take her own life, for instance — he still has not been able to think about her as an ordinary person.

Even at the darkest and most frightening extremes of his imagination, Quentin has always related to Margo as a character in a story, someone larger than life whose mind and experience bore no resemblance to his own. Now, imagining the possibility that Margo may have suffered from something as ordinary as loneliness and a sense of isolation — that she may have fled Orlando, not because she was living in a grand and dramatic narrative, but because she felt trapped and had no idea what else to do — Quentin begins a new stage in the development of his empathetic imagination. 

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. 

She can see it in my face — I understand now that I can’t be her and she can’t be me. Maybe Whitman had a gift I don’t have. But as for me: I must ask the wounded man where he is hurt, because I cannot become the wounded man. The only wounded man I can be is me.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Related Symbols: “Song of Myself”
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

After Quentin hears Margo's explanation of her disappearance, he tells her that he understands her reasons for leaving Orlando, but that he believes she can come back with him and resume her life on her own terms. When Margo immediately rejects this idea, Quentin is forced finally to release his dreams of a neat and tidy ending to their story. As much as he wants Margo to come home with him and continue building the relationship that has only just started between them, he has to recognize that her needs are different from his own. She is not able to give him what he wants — a stable, sure relationship — while still being true to herself. Their relationship is insufficient to draw her back into a life she does not want, or to protect her from falling back into her old ways. Likewise, Quentin cannot do what Margo will soon ask of him — run away to New York and start a new life with her — while still being true to himself. Quentin sees this truth through Whitman's "Song of Myself," of course, and here recognizes that he isn't as fundamentally optimistic about human connection as Whitman is — Quentin believes in empathy and connection, but not in the kind of perfect union Whitman describes (in which a person can become another). Margo and Quentin have achieved remarkable understanding of and love for one another, but this does not resolve all the problems and complications in their lives, and it does not guarantee that their relationship will be an easy or successful one.

Imagining isn’t perfect. You can’t get all the way inside someone else. I could never have imagined Margo’s anger at being found, or the story she was writing over. But imagining being someone else, or the world being something else, is the only way in.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

During their day together in Agloe, Quentin hears Margo's version of their shared story: the death of Robert Joyner, their years of tepid friendship throughout high school, their night of adventures, and her disappearance. He realizes that, as hard as he has tried to understand Margo, he can never presume to know her fully. This is an important addendum to all the lessons Quentin has learned about compassion and empathy; before he can truly humanize others, he has to recognize and accept that there will always be parts of them that he cannot access. To proceed through life without this understanding would be arrogant, and would ultimately be just as dehumanizing as never trying to empathize with others at all.

At the same time as he acknowledges the limits of empathetic imagination, Quentin recognizes that his efforts to see Margo more clearly have been powerful and necessary. Though he will never know everything about her, he has to make the effort of imagining himself into her heart and mind, if only because that effort shows his willingness to see her in all her complexity. 

When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

In Agloe, Quentin searches for a metaphor that can capture his new understanding of the complex way in which human beings relate to one another: the impossibility of ever really knowing another person, as Whitman's metaphor of the interconnected roots of grass suggests, and the desperate hunger for love and compassion that he has come to understand during his search for Margo. He conceives of the metaphor of human beings as watertight vessels that become cracked and imperfect over time, until they eventually split open to reveal their contents. Like those vessels, whose contents are invisible to begin with, human beings keep their deepest and truest selves hidden from others as long as they can. As life goes on, however, pain and other profound experiences "crack" people open, making it impossible for them to hide their true selves. 

Margo's disappearance exposes Quentin to the most difficult and frightening experiences of his life, and forces him to recognize the deep pain that was always part of Margo, but which he was never willing or able to see. When he finally reaches Margo, he perceives his own fragility and vulnerability in how deeply he has come to care for her. In crafting his metaphor of cracked vessels, Quentin recognizes that love and intimacy are the products of compassion. People must allow one another to see their weakness and pain before they can experience deep connection — but in exposing those darker parts of themselves, they open themselves up to the healing forces of love and friendship, and allow the best and most worthy parts of themselves to shine through to others. 

After we kiss, our foreheads touch as we stare at each other. Yes, I can see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 305
Explanation and Analysis:

It is important that this final line of the novel, after Margo drops Quentin off at his motel and they prepare to part ways, ends not with a kiss but with Margo and Quentin looking directly into one another's faces. While a kiss represents a fairy tale ending — the thing Quentin wanted and expected when he first began searching for Margo — this moment of eye contact represents a new willingness on both their parts to see each other for who they really are. 

It is also worth noting that the novel ends where it began: in the middle of the night, the period when one day transitions into the next. Just as they were on their first night of adventure, Margo and Quentin are here on the brink of a major transition, both in their personal lives and in their relationship to one another. Both are preparing to start new lives — Quentin at college, and Margo in New York — and it is  unclear whether they will ever see each other again. Unlike the fairy tale, which ends with all conflicts solved and questions answered, this final line acknowledges that life is a series of transitions, and that real life is never truly finished.