Finch is standing six stories up, wondering if today is a good day to die. He asks himself this question all the time, whether he’s eating dinner or lying awake all night. Finch doesn’t remember climbing up here—but then again, he doesn’t remember anything before last Sunday. This happens “every time,” but Finch still isn’t used to blanking out like Rip Van Winkle. The last time was the worst; Finch was “asleep” (which means he was awake but “completely empty”) from the middle of November through New Year’s. He's been awake for six days. This is his first day at school since November.
The way the novel begins makes it clear that Finch is struggling with suicidal thoughts and some sort of mental illness. The aside that Finch regularly experiences memory lapses (and that they seem to be getting longer) indicates that Finch’s symptoms are getting worse over time. He describes his period of being “asleep” as being awake but “completely empty,” which means that he wasn’t literally asleep. Rather, these months-long periods of “sleep” are perhaps his way of describing depressive episodes. Missing months of school also makes it clear that whatever Finch is dealing with is seriously affecting his day-to-day life.
Finch puts his arms out and shouts, welcoming everyone to his death. He acknowledges that one might think he should welcome people to his life, since he just woke up. But he only thinks about dying when he’s awake. Finch overbalances and almost falls but continues shouting. There are a few people below, but because it's the first week of the last semester of senior year, they don’t care about much—including Finch. To them, he’s just “Theodore Freak.”
The fact that Finch only thinks about dying when he’s awake (that is, more mentally sound) implies that he contemplates different things when he’s asleep (in the throughs of his mental illness). Furthermore, although his “awake” periods initially seemed preferable to his “asleep” periods, this passage suggests that he becomes suicidal once he emerges from his depressive episodes. Noting that Finch’s classmates don’t care about Finch and even call him “Theodore Freak” makes it clear that Finch is a victim of bullying—he may not have a robust support system.
One kid looks up and points, but not at Finch. Finch looks over and sees a girl standing on the ledge on the other side of the tower. She’s staring down, frozen. Calmly, Finch tells her not to look down. When she looks at him, he notices her chunky glasses. As she wobbles, Finch tells her that from up here, the town looks prettier. The girl’s name is Violet, and she’s extremely popular; she dates people like Ryan Cross and hangs out with Amanda Monk, a “queen bee.” She’s not the sort of person one would expect to find on the belltower ledge.
Finch is seemingly less popular among his peers than Violet is, as everyone pays attention to Violet rather than him even though they’re both in danger up on the ledge. As Finch explains what kind of a person Violet is, he implies that he doesn’t think popular girls have enough wrong in their lives to be justified in considering suicide. This is a narrow view, but the fact that Violet is contemplating suicide nevertheless makes the case that anyone—even popular people—can experience mental health issues.
Finch introduces himself and chats to distract Violet. He notes that it’s starting to rain—which means the rain will wash away the blood if he jumps, but he also doesn’t “want to look like [he’s] been run through the wood chipper at [his] funeral.” He says that although he wants to be cremated, Finch’s mom doesn’t believe in cremation. Privately, Finch recalls Finch’s dad saying that they didn’t need to talk about that and upset his mom. He tells Violet about how terrible the undertaker’s job would be, and just then, someone shouts Violet’s name. She begins to say, “Oh God.”
Finch begins rambling to try to gain control of the situation. He doesn’t want Violet to jump, and as he talks through what dying from jumping off the belltower would be like for him, he seems to conclude that he doesn’t want to die like this either. What he reveals about his parents confirms that Finch doesn’t have much of a support system at home—Finch’s dad, at least, seems to underestimate how interested Finch is in death.
Finch shouts for Violet to stop trying to save him and then, quietly, he coaxes her over the ledge into the protected center of the belltower. Once she’s safe, Finch imagines stepping off. He imagines how peaceful and weightless he'll feel, but then Violet starts to talk him through climbing back over the railing. The urge to jump passes. Finch laughs and imagines the look on Amanda Monk’s face if he were to fall—but his laugh makes him wobble. Suddenly, Charlie Donahue, Finch’s best friend, appears in the belltower and says that the cafeteria is serving pizza today.
Finch believes that dying is going to feel peaceful and weightless. He makes it sound like something that intrigues him, at least in fleeting moments. But Violet’s presence seemingly convinces him not to jump, which shows how important support can be for someone with a mental illness. And though Finch might not have a ton of parental support, it seems at least some of his classmates are willing to help him.
From below, Finch hears Gabe Romero—Roamer—tell Finch to “get it over with.” In response, Finch shouts a thanks to Violet for saving him. He catches his counselor, Mr. Embry’s, eye below, and he allows Violet to help him over the wall. People applaud for Violet, “the hero.” Finch notices how beautiful Violet is, even with the glasses. As Violet starts to say that she didn’t climb up here to kill herself, Finch asks if she believes in “a perfect day” where nothing bad happens. She isn’t sure if she believes this, since she hasn’t experienced a perfect day before. Violet kisses Finch’s cheek, thanks him, and heads down the belltower stairs.
Roamer’s comment to “get it over with” offers some explanation as to why Finch might be considering suicide: he doesn’t feel like anyone wants him around. But helping Violet save face and control the narrative of what happened on the belltower shows that Finch does want to connect with people.
Then, Charlie asks Finch why he’s doing this. Finch replies that they all have to die someday, but this isn’t the real reason. His real reasons change daily: school shootings, kids dying of cancer, Finch’s dad.
Finch suggests that for him, life is perhaps too overwhelming and sad to be worth living—especially when there are other young people dying all the time.
Finch has been on probation this year because last year, he got in trouble: he threw a desk into a chalkboard, smashed a guitar, and got into fights. So now, he has to endure weekly counseling, keep his grades up, and join a club (he chose macramé because of the pretty girls in the club). After coming down from the belltower, Finch heads for the counseling office, and soon, Mr. Embry waves him in. Mr. Embry asks why Finch was in the belltower and whether Finch plans to hurt or kill himself. Finch jokes to avoid the questions, but Mr. Embry doesn’t laugh. Instead, he threatens to call Finch’s mom. Finch promises to behave, take a drug test, and come to counseling twice per week going forward.
As Finch explains what happened to him last year, his nonchalant tone suggests that he’s not taking his problems seriously. This is also why he jokes with Mr. Embry instead of answering Mr. Embry’s questions truthfully. On some level, Finch doesn’t seem to want help for whatever he’s dealing with. Rather, he’s being forced to receive counseling, which suggests that the school is committed to keeping their students safe and monitoring their mental health.
This settled, Mr. Embry asks about Finch’s illness at the end of last semester, supposedly with the flu. Finch was sick—but not with the flu. He’s found that people are sympathetic if they can see what’s wrong, and he wishes he had smallpox or something visible. This would be better than the truth, which is that one minute he was fine; the next, he just shut down. But he tells Mr. Embry that he’ll stay in school and keep up with his classwork. Finch thinks that he really does want to stay alive, though Mr. Embry wouldn’t believe this if Finch were to tell him. Standing up in the belltower is actually about having control, so he doesn’t “go to sleep again.”
Finch articulates why he doesn’t want to accept help: he’s concerned about the way mental illness is often stigmatized. He suggests that it’s easier to explain smallpox to others—and get help for it—than it is to try to explain “shutting down” and “go[ing] to sleep.” With this, Finch implies that one of his problems is that he doesn’t have the words to appropriately articulate how he's feeling. Without the right language, it’s even harder to ask for help.