Both Violet and Finch love language and literature. Prior to her sister Eleanor’s death, Violet wrote content for a web magazine she created with Eleanor, and she planned to attend NYU’s creative writing program. Finch, meanwhile, is a singer-songwriter who “collects” words as part of his creative process. As he and Violet get to know each other, they explore how their changing relationships to language and literature help them feel more in control of their lives and connect with each other—or, in some instances, do the opposite. With this, All the Bright Places shows that a person’s relationship to language or to a work of literature isn’t static. Rather, the way a person uses writing to describe their experiences or draws meaning from literature changes depending on their mental or emotional state. Moreover, putting one’s experiences into words, or borrowing others’ words to describe one’s experiences, can help a person feel more in control of their life.
For both Violet and Finch, repurposing and reinterpreting others’ words—whether that be novels, poems, or even suicide notes—helps them make sense of their lives. Finch habitually reads and memorizes famous authors’ suicide notes. This interest goes hand in hand with his own interest in suicide—these authors’ suicide notes help him think through what death might be like, or what makes a death “meaningful” or “heroic.” However, the novel also makes it clear that Finch’s focus on authors’ suicide notes has a cost—for instance, when he and Violet chat on Facebook and exchange Virginia Woolf quotes, Finch finds that he’s out of his element. Though he has Virginia Woolf’s suicide note memorized, for instance, he’s unfamiliar with her body of work and so struggles to come up with quotes to send to Violet. With this, All the Bright Places suggests that the specific pieces of writing that someone focuses on fundamentally shapes how they make sense of their life. Because Finch focuses so intently on writers’ suicide notes, he never has the opportunity to consider other perspectives that focus on life over death. Violet, on the other hand, reads everything from the Brontë sisters’ novels to Woolf’s novel The Waves to Dr. Seuss’s picture book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. And, as a result, she has a much broader range of works to draw on. In other words, the books Violet reads show her a variety of options when it comes to how to live her life—in comparison to Finch, who focuses mostly on death and suicide.
In addition, the novel suggests that putting one’s experiences into writing gives a person the opportunity to shape their own reality and can thereby make them feel more secure and confident. Violet, for instance, only begins to heal from her grief over Eleanor’s death when Finch convinces her to start writing again. Though Violet loved writing before Eleanor died, she found after Eleanor’s death that she couldn’t bring herself to do it anymore. As Violet starts to write again, she gradually finds herself feeling happier, healthier, and more in control. While she felt unmoored and hopeless during the period in which she couldn’t write, being able to write again gives her control over her life’s story as well as the sense of purpose that she craves. Finch also feels able to face the difficulties of living with an undiagnosed mental illness because he’s nevertheless able to continue writing songs and “collecting” ideas. He keeps a “Wall of Thoughts” on one wall of his bedroom, where he sticks sticky notes and other scrap paper scribbled with words, phrases, and other interesting text. And the notes on the Wall of Thoughts, he explains, form the basis for his songwriting, something that keeps him grounded even as his mental health cyclically improves and then worsens.
All the Bright Places links the inability to control, interpret, or manipulate language to mental health—and it suggests that being unable to effectively describe one’s experience can have disastrous consequences. Despite Finch’s love of words and language, he can’t describe his struggles with mental health clearly. The novel implies that Finch has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and he refers to his cycles of depression and mania as being “Asleep” and “Awake,” respectively. And though these terms describe how Finch moves through the world in a very basic sense, saying that he’s “Awake” doesn’t fully encapsulate his inability to eat or sleep; the sensation that time is “folding”; or his constant terror that Violet is going to find out he’s mentally unwell. Further, as Finch’s mental health deteriorates, he finds himself unable to read, write, or otherwise interpret the written word. As Finch begins experiencing the headaches that he knows signal the end of being “Awake,” he struggles to pay attention in school or read anything. And so instead of taking in new material, Finch can’t help but fixate on words that he knows are self-destructive and unhelpful (such as “worthless” and “freak”) as well as his favorite authors’ suicide notes. He ultimately runs away and commits suicide without leaving a proper suicide note, something that drives home how wholly unable he was to put his thoughts and feelings into words.
Violet, on the other hand, demonstrates how fulfilling and healing it can be to put one’s thoughts and experiences into words. When Finch disappears, and especially after his death, Violet begins to connect with other girls at school through Germ Magazine, an online magazine that she creates. As Violet invites classmates to contribute and spends time with them planning the magazine’s features, she finds that she doesn’t feel so alone anymore—and for the first time in a long time, she feels in control of her life. The fact that she experiences these revelations as she creates a web magazine for others to read and engage with speaks to her understanding of what writing and reading can do: help people discover that they’re not alone in their thoughts or fears, and through doing so, connect them to others.
Language, Meaning, and Control ThemeTracker
Language, Meaning, and Control Quotes in All the Bright Places
The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explains flu kind of way. It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went blank.
Worthless. Stupid. These are the words I grew up hearing. They’re the words I try to outrun, because if I let them in, they might stay there and grow and fill me up and in, until the only thing left of me is worthless stupid worthless stupid worthless stupid freak. And then there’s nothing to do but run harder and fill myself with other words: This time will be different. This time, I will stay awake.
Water is peaceful. I am at rest. In the water, I am safe and pulled in where I can’t get out. Everything slows down—the noise and the racing of my thoughts. I wonder if I could sleep like this, here on the bottom of the bathtub, if I wanted to sleep, which I don’t. I let my mind drift. I hear words forming as if I’m sitting at the computer already.
In March of 1941, after three serious breakdowns, Virginia Woolf wrote a note to her husband and walked to a nearby river. She shoved heavy stones into her pocket and dove into the water. “Dearest,” the note began, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times…So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
In 2013, a man in Pennsylvania committed suicide via carbon monoxide, but when his family tried to rescue him, they were overcome by the fumes and every single one of them died before rescue crews could save them.
I think of my mom and Decca and Kate, and then I hit the opener, and up goes the door, and out I go into the wild blue yonder. For the first mile or so, I feel high and excited, like I just ran into a burning building and saved lives, like I’m some sort of hero.
But then a voice in me says, You’re no hero. You’re a coward. You only saved them from yourself.
“Why are we doing this, Dec?”
“Because they shouldn’t be in there mixed with the good. They like to trick you.”
And somehow I know what she means. I think of the Bartlett Dirt and all its mean words, not just about me but about every student who’s strange or different. Better to keep the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words separate, where you can watch them and make sure they don’t surprise you when you’re not expecting them.
I can go downstairs right now and let my mom know how I’m feeling—if she’s even home—but she’ll tell me to help myself to the Advil in her purse and that I need to relax and stop getting myself worked up, because in this house there’s no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer under the tongue. Things fall into categories of black and white—bad mood, bad temper, loses control, feels sad, feels blue.
“What are you most afraid of?”
I think, I’m most afraid of Just be careful. I’m most afraid of the Long Drop. I’m most afraid of Asleep and impending, weightless doom. I’m most afraid of me.
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.
Most people haven’t heard of [the Nest Houses], but one old man tells me, “Sorry you came all this way. I’m afraid they been ate up by the weather and the elements.”
Just like all of us. The Nest Houses have reached their life expectancy. I think of the mud nest we made for the cardinal, all those years ago, and wonder if it’s still there. I imagine his little bones in his little grave, and it is the saddest thought in the world.
“Why do you do that? Don’t you get tired of people talking about you?”
She goes quiet.
“I do it because it reminds me to be here, that I’m still here and I have a say in the matter.”
She puts one leg in the car and says, “I guess now you know you’re not the only freak.” It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me.
“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.”
In all his words, the preacher doesn’t mention suicide. The family is calling his death an accident because they didn’t find a proper note […]. I stand, thinking how it wasn’t an accident at all and how “suicide victim” is an interesting term. The victim part of it implies they had no choice. And maybe Finch didn’t feel like he had a choice, or maybe he wasn’t trying to kill himself at all but just going in search of the bottom.