Paper Towns

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Perception vs. Reality 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.
Perception vs. Reality Theme Icon

Quentin claims, at the beginning of the novel, that he has been in love with Margo since they were children. Though their friendship has fizzled over the years, he is amazed by the rumors he hears about Margo’s adventures: her solo road trip through Mississippi, her three days traveling with the circus, and similar, larger-than-life escapades. He thinks of her as the perfect girl, both beautiful and intriguing. As his investigation of her disappearance develops, however, Quentin comes to understand that Margo is actually a deeply sad and lonely person, who is surrounded by admirers but has no close, trusted friends. As his perception of Margo changes, Quentin stops thinking of her disappearance as an exciting mystery, and begins working to understand her pain. This project helps Quentin to become more compassionate in other aspects of his life, and he grows kinder and more generous toward the people around him as his story develops. Eventually, however, he must confront the possibility that he may never be able to fully understand another person, and that some emotions and motivations must always remain a mystery to him.

His friends and classmates are guilty of similar oversimplifications, not only of Margo, but of one another. Quentin talks about the different versions of Margo that he and his friends have constructed for themselves. He learns to respect and appreciate Lacey, who he considered stupid and shallow before getting to know her. He watches the popular students like Jase Worthington and Chuck Parson, who tormented Quentin’s friends throughout high school, accept those same friends into their social group, and his mother encourages him to consider the possibility that the “popular kids” have struggled in their own ways, though they seem to lead charmed lives.

Though Quentin concludes that it is misguided and dangerous to reduce the people around him to two-dimensional ideas, it also becomes clear that it can be frightening and difficult for a person to allow themselves to be seen as a complex human being. Margo dedicates enormous thought and energy to cultivating her larger-than-life persona, and she admits to taking pleasure in the knowledge that others see her as a beautiful idea, rather than a human being. Being a “paper girl,” as she calls it, frees her from the need to love and trust other people, and allows her to feel powerful and in control despite her unhappiness and shaky sense of self. Her decision to leave Orlando and make a home for herself in New York is Margo’s attempt to push herself out of that comfortable “paper” life and toward a greater authenticity. The pain Quentin feels when he and Margo part ways is a reminder that authenticity, and the intimacy it creates, can be deeply painful, but are ultimately necessary to living a full, real life.

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Perception vs. Reality Quotes in Paper Towns

Below you will find the important quotes in Paper Towns related to the theme of Perception vs. Reality.
Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

Even though I could see her there, I felt entirely alone among these big and empty buildings, like I’d survived the apocalypse and the world had been given to me, this whole and amazing and endless world, mine for the exploring.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Driving through downtown Orlando after a series of acts of exhilarating vandalism, Quentin has become swept up in the adventure and drama of his night with Margo. Where before he was preoccupied with anxiety about getting into trouble, he now feels empowered by the events of the night. The world around him, which seemed so ordinary not just in daylight but all through the days of his life before tonight, now seems beautiful — and, just as importantly, Quentin feels as though this beautiful new world is open to him.

Interestingly, Quentin's feeling of ownership and uncharacteristic willingness to embrace life fully comes at Margo's expense. Thrilled and preoccupied by the new perspective opening up inside him, Quentin ceases to even see Margo. The night has become, from Quentin's point of view, less about following a beautiful girl on an adventure and more about embracing a new vision of himself. The way he fails to see Margo here also hints at the way he (at this point) fails to entirely see the real Margo. She represents a kind of dream or ideal for Quentin, and through the novel Quentin comes to know himself in part by learning how to get to know Margo as a person too.


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Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

[M]aybe Margo needed to see my confidence. Maybe this time she wanted to be found, and to be found by me. Maybe — just as she had chosen me on the longest night, she had chosen be again. And maybe untold riches awaited he who found her.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

This thought occurs to Quentin while he, Radar, and Ben scour Margo's room for clues of her whereabouts shortly after her disappearance.

The fantasy Quentin describes — that Margo has engineered her own disappearance as an elaborate test for him, an opportunity for him to prove that he is worthy of her friendship and love — is impossibly outlandish and self-centered. Here, he reveals the extent to which his perception of Margo has become divorced from reality. Quentin sees Margo as a supporting character in his life, or a kind of beautiful, impossible ideal, rather than a three-dimensional person taking control of her own life.

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 8 Quotes

Standing before this building, I learn something about fear. I learn that it is not the idle fantasies of someone who maybe wants something important to happen to him, even if the important thing is horrible … This fear is bears no analogy to any fear I knew before. This is the basest of all possible emotions, the feeling that was with us before we existed, before this building existed, before the earth existed. This is the fear that made fish crawl onto dry land and evolve lungs, the fear that teaches us to run, the fear that makes us bury our dead.

Related Characters: Quentin Jacobsen (speaker), Margo Roth Spiegelman
Page Number: 140-141
Explanation and Analysis:

When Quentin, Radar, and Ben arrive at the address listed on Margo's note, they are met with an overwhelming stench that Quentin immediately understands must be a rotting corpse. The smell jolts Quentin out of his carefree self-centeredness — his belief that Margo's disappearance is just a game, and that he will surely win the "prize" of her friendship and love when he finds her — and forces him to recognize the grave possibility that Margo may have committed suicide, and that the dead body may be hers. 

Though the corpse turns out to be that of a raccoon, this experience alters Quentin's entire relationship to Margo and her disappearance. After his experience at the strip mall, he feels a real, human connection with Margo, whereas before this confrontation with the possibility of her death, he had still idealized her from a distance. Quentin now begins to consider Margo's inner life more deeply, acknowledging the pain and loneliness that prompted her to run away and working to understand her empathetically. Like the fear that grips him outside the strip mall, this work is painful and sometimes overwhelming — however, as Quentin begins to humanize Margo in his mind, he becomes a fuller and more compassionate person, better able to care for those he loves.

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

“Oh bullshit. You didn’t come here to make sure I was okay. You came here because you wanted to save poor little Margo from her troubled little self, so that I would be oh-so-thankful to my knight in shining armor that I would strip my clothes off and beg you to ravage my body.”

Related Characters: Margo Roth Spiegelman (speaker), Quentin Jacobsen
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

Margo's cynical interpretation of Quentin's actions might have been accurate (though exaggerated) at the beginning of the novel, when Quentin felt sure her disappearance was only an elaborate game. But Quentin has grown and changed a great deal since Margo first disappeared, and her presumptuous criticism shows that her failures of compassion and imagination have been just as deep as Quentin's.

At the same time, Margo's rage at being found — and the shock that rage inspires in Quentin — reveals all the ways in which Quentin, for all his growth, still expected their relationship to follow the patterns of a neat-and-tidy fairy tale story. Quentin has assumed since the beginning that Margo wanted to be found, and though he has released many of his fantastic ideas about what might happen after their reunion, he certainly seems to have expected some kind of gratitude from her. Though Quentin has spent weeks learning about Margo and working to better understand her, this moment is a reminder of the fact that he and Margo still know next to nothing about each other. No amount of imagination can allow one person to understand another as intimately as a real, human interaction can.