Throughout the novel, 17-year-old Finch is caught up in figuring out who he is. He changes his identity every few weeks, cycling through “80s Finch,” “Badass Finch,” and finally “Dirtbag Finch.” Finch’s undiagnosed mental illness makes him unsure of which aspects of his identity are real—but his quest to figure out who he is nevertheless reflects a struggle that most teenagers go through. Similarly, as Violet processes her grief for her sister Eleanor’s death, she also changes her identity to try to be more like Eleanor—even going so far as to wear Eleanor’s glasses. As Finch, Violet, and their classmates experiment with their identities, it becomes clear that it’s all too easy for others to misunderstand or misinterpret a person’s chosen identity. All the Bright Places thus suggests that while people have the power to craft their own identities and be who they want to be, they still have to contend with the possibility that their peers won’t see them in that way. Identity is, in other words, a community project: a person can present any identity, but they can’t totally control how others see them. And when people make assumptions about others’ identities, it can be extremely damaging.
All the Bright Places shows that people’s identities are often in flux. This is best illustrated by Finch’s habit of changing up his persona. As he cycles through his various personalities and fashion styles, he learns things about himself. He wants to look attractive but not too clean-cut, for instance, and he wants to be healthy, but not so healthy that he can’t smoke. Though Finch’s mental illness means that he’s consistently unsure if he’s a real person or not, his experimentation shows how easy it is for a person to change their identity and feel like a new version of themselves. Violet, on the other hand, shows how grief can change a person’s identity. Following Eleanor’s death, Violet feels like she’s lost everything that made her who she was, from her ability to write to being able to take pride in her appearance. And over the course of the novel, as Violet heals, she changes into a version of herself that’s better equipped to handle life’s challenges.
But the novel also shows that as much as a person might try to portray a certain identity, this doesn’t guarantee success—identity, the novel suggests, comes partially from how others see a person. So, although Finch enjoys being “Badass Finch” (an invented character from London) and even manages to convince a freshman that he’s British, classmates who know Finch well aren’t convinced. At school, Finch is constantly fighting against the cruel nickname that his former best friend Roamer gave him in eighth grade: Theodore Freak. To his classmates, it doesn’t matter what Finch looks like—he’s still someone who’s “weird” and unpredictable. Peers’ assumptions affect Violet, too. Though Violet has made outward changes to her appearance since Eleanor’s death, such as wearing Eleanor’s glasses and styling her hair like Eleanor styled hers, her friends seem unable to grasp the depths of Violet’s grief. So, while Violet feels mired in her grief and unable to be the person she used to be before Eleanor’s death, few others see that. In this sense, Violet maintains her status as a pretty, popular girl—but who she is inside doesn’t match that identity.
All the Bright Places suggests that it’s damaging to make assumptions about what kind of a person someone else is, though the tendency to do so is natural. Finch knows that people constantly make assumptions about him, and he even knows that his counselor, Mr. Embry—the one person at school who doesn’t bully him—wouldn’t believe him if he were to say that he doesn’t want to die. Mr. Embry treats Finch like a constant danger to himself, and Finch implies that this assumption keeps Mr. Embry from ever getting to know who Finch is. But Finch isn’t innocent: he, too, makes assumptions about other people. For instance, when he realizes that Violet is on the belltower with him, he notes that she’s not the kind of girl one would expect to find there. This suggests that from his point of view, popular, pretty girls shouldn’t have enough to worry about to justify trying to kill themselves, a perception that unwittingly puts pressure on Violet and other girls struggling with mental illness to not ask for help. Other people’s perceptions make it seem like Violet shouldn’t need help, which the novel shows isn’t true. This idea also extends to Finch and Violet’s classmates. Ryan Cross, Violet’s ex-boyfriend, is widely considered perfect and irresistible. But Violet tells Finch that Ryan steals compulsively, and his bedroom is a mess because of this. Similarly, Finch eventually discovers that their classmate Amanda Monk, a popular bully, attends a support group for teens who have considered or attempted suicide—she isn’t perfect either. It’s impossible, the novel suggests, to identify what a person “should” be like just by looking at outward characteristics. And especially in cases like Amanda’s, the pressure to make one’s feelings match up with others’ perceptions only contributes to feelings of worthlessness.
Though All the Bright Places doesn’t tie up its exploration of identity neatly, it nevertheless suggests that it’s impossible to fully understand how another person sees themself. Readers, for instance, only see that Violet is healed and confident in her identity as an aspiring writer at the end of the novel because her first-person narration allows for that. There’s no guarantee that Violet’s peers are going to see her for the driven, passionate person she’s become. But through this, the novel also suggests that assumptions about another person’s identity can make people feel alienated, misunderstood, and unable to ask for help—it’s important to show people respect by allowing them to show who they truly are.
Individuality and Identity ThemeTracker
Individuality and Identity Quotes in All the Bright Places
I have a headache. Probably from the glasses. Eleanor’s eyes were worse than mine. I take the glasses off and set them on the desk. They were stylish on her. They’re ugly on me. Especially with the bangs. But maybe, if I wear the glasses long enough, I can be like her. I can see what she saw. I can be both of us at once so no one will have to miss her, most of all me.
I look in the direction Brenda pointed and there he is. Theodore Finch leans against an SUV, hands in pockets, like he has all the time in the world and he expects me. I think of the Virginia Woolf lines, the ones from The Waves: “Pale, with dark hair, the one who is coming is melancholy, romantic. And I am arch and fluent and capricious, for he is melancholy, he is romantic. He is here.”
I made the mistake of talking about it once. A few years ago, I asked my then good friend Gabe Romero if he could feel sound and see headaches […] and he went home and told his parents, and they told my teacher, who told the principal, who told my parents, who said to me, Is it true, Theodore? Are you telling stories to your friends? The next day it was all over school, and I was officially Theodore Freak. One year later, I grew out of my clothes because, it turns out, growing fourteen inches in a summer is easy. It’s growing out of a label that’s hard.
I set her glasses down on her dresser. “Thanks for the loan,” I say. “But they make my head hurt. And they’re ugly.” I can almost hear her laughing.
For once, I don’t want to be anyone but Theodore Finch, the boy she sees. He understands what it is to be elegant and euphoric and a hundred different people, most of them flawed and stupid, part asshole, part screwup, part freak, a boy who wants to be easy for the folks around him so that he doesn’t worry them and, most of all, easy for himself. A boy who belongs—here in the world, here in his own skin. He is exactly who I want to be and what I want my epitaph to say: The Boy Violet Markey Loves.
The thing I know about bipolar disorder is that it’s a label. One you give crazy people. I know this because I’ve taken junior-year psychology and I’ve seen movies and I’ve watched my father in action for almost eighteen years, even though you could never slap a label on him because he would kill you. Labels like bipolar say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses.
I want to get away from these kids who never did anything to anyone except be born with different brains and different wiring […] I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood. I want to get away from all the labels.
“Listen, I’m the freak. I’m the weirdo. I’m the troublemaker. I start fights. I let people down. Don’t make Finch mad, whatever you do. Oh, there he goes again, in one of his moods. Moody Finch. Angry Finch. Unpredictable Finch. Crazy Finch. But I’m not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I’m a person.”
All I know is what I wonder: Which of my feelings are real? Which of the mes is me? There is only one me I’ve ever really liked, and he was good and awake as long as he could be.
I couldn’t stop the cardinal’s death, and this made me feel responsible. In a way, I was—we were, my family and I—because it was our house that was built where his tree used to be, the one he was trying to get back to. But maybe no one could have stopped it.
“You have been in every way all that anyone could be…If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”