The main characters of the novel all have their lives well-planned by their parents. Colin’s parents plan for him to get through school quickly and then achieve great and “special” things. Hassan’s parents plan for him to go to college. Hollis plans for Lindsey to get out of Gutshot, leaving her boyfriend, TOC, behind. As each of these characters grow up over the course of the novel, they are forced to grapple with their parents’ hopes and plans for them and how those plans conflict with their own hopes and dreams for themselves. Initially it seems as if this negotiation around which plans to follow in the novel is about resistance and acquiescence — about how much to resist, and how much to give in. But as the novel works to its conclusion, it becomes clear that, in fact, the characters’ growth depends instead on recognizing the deeper motivations behind their own impulses and their parents’ hopes for them, and then choosing for themselves.
When the novel begins, Colin has never disappointed his parents in his life. But in the aftermath of getting dumped by Katherine XIX, he decides to go on a road trip with Hassan that his parents don’t think fits in with the path needed for him to fulfill his “greatness.” In other words, the novel starts with an act of rebellion. It is a mild rebellion, perhaps, but Colin still perceives the road trip as being full of spontaneity that goes against the carefully planned path to distinction Colin’s father has lain out for him over the course of his childhood. Yet it is evident that Colin himself has also confined himself to a particular, rigid path. In some ways, that rigid path is tied into his desire to please his parents. For instance, Colin has only ever dated girls named “Katherine” ever since his first two-minute relationship with Katherine at the age of eight. That first Katherine was the daughter of his tutor, who his parents hired to help Colin in his “child prodigy” studies. In this way, Colin’s fixation with Katherines is thus connected to his fixation with pleasing his parents through high-achievement in school. And yet, at the same time, it is something Colin has chosen for himself, as well. More broadly, Colin seeks to deal with the pressure of his “child prodigy” past by controlling the world around him. At one point during the road trip, as Colin stares past his headlights while driving, he thinks to himself that his problem is his inability to see the future. And his effort to create the Theorem, which he hopes will predict the outcomes of relationships, is another attempt to control the future. Colin’s growth in the novel, then, occurs not when he chooses his own future versus the future his parents want for him. Rather, it occurs when he ceases to try to control the future. The unexpected turns he takes over the course of the novel lead literally to an exciting and identity-affirming adventure in Gutshot, Tennessee. It is this adventure that leads him to break his Katherine streak by dating Lindsey, even though he does not know what their relationship will become or where it will lead. Colin thus needs the instability of unexpected change in order to make sense of himself as separate from his parents. But just as importantly, in order to be happy, he must learn to accept that parts of his life will reside out of his control.
Lindsey is similarly resistant to her mother’s plan for her because she believes it will involve too much change. While Hollis wants her daughter to leave Gutshot, go to college, and have a life away from the tampon factory, Lindsey feels that to do so would be to disrespect the tradition that lies at the core of her identity. Lindsey tells Colin that in elementary school, when all the Gutshot kids went to school in a larger neighboring town, the Gutshot kids stuck together because the other kids perceived them as dirty and poor. Lindsey is not eager to go to college with the rich kids who think so little of her hometown, which has made her who she is. Lindsey’s status as the daughter of Hollis, the textile factory owner, gives Lindsey a particularly strong connection to the town and its traditions. Lindsey and Hollis’s family has owned and operated the factory for generations. Lindsey has thus been raised right alongside the town. Because her mother cares for the town the way she cares for Lindsey, Lindsey feels a deep familial attachment to Gutshot. She feels that Hollis is being hypocritical and betraying their family by pushing Lindsey out of the town. Lindsey gets very emotional and nostalgic when she listens to the Gutshot factory workers tell stories of their pasts. She is also distressed at the idea that Hollis might be selling land to a developer because a new subdivision would transform her world into unfamiliar territory. By the end of the novel, she realizes that Hollis is doing everything she can to take care of the factory workers, but that the factory is inevitably going to close. In other words, Lindsey finally accepts her mother’s plan for her when she realizes that the plan is not motivated by a desire to uproot her from everything she knows, but rather by a desire to help her stay afloat in a changing world.
Living up to others’ expectations is important to Hassan, but he knows he will always be unable to exceed them in the way Colin can with his incredible smarts. While Colin and Hassan’s parents insist that going to college will allow Hassan to distinguish himself, Hassan chooses instead to assert his uniqueness by resisting what everyone wants him to do. Like Lindsey, Hassan eventually exchanges his own plan for the plan his parents and friend have always advocated. However, even as he does so he makes it clear that it is his plan now, not anyone else’s. Hassan’s parents have raised him as a Muslim, and his faith dictates that he behave in certain ways. Hassan kind of follows these dictates. For instance, at one point he drinks a beer (Islam forbids the drinking of alcohol) and tells Colin that it is really getting drunk that is forbidden. Hassan clearly does not want to entirely reject the life his parents and faith have set out for him, but he wants to conform to that life on his own terms. Hassan tries on “hats” of various identities to imagine what his life would be like were he to choose another path. For example, he decides to go hunting with TOC, and he dates Katrina to prove that he can date a college girl without going to college. The fact that Hassan is not upset when he later catches TOC and Katrina having sex suggests that, for him, these relationships are less about his bond with TOC or Katrina and more about visualizing an alternative life to the one his parents and Colin think he ought to have. At the end of the novel, Hassan finally registers for college, even though he admits it will mean less time to watch Judge Judy. He is very careful to tell Colin not to get too excited. He wants his friend to be proud of him, but he also wants to be clear that he is defaulting to the original plan of his own accord, not caving to pressure from Colin or his parents. Hassan thus conforms to the plan but leaves himself a window of opportunity to change it at any time he chooses.
Colin, Lindsey, and Hassan all confront change in their lives. While all of them seem to a degree afraid that they will forget who they are as a result, change actually allows them to grow into more mature versions of themselves. Lindsey, for example, breaks up with TOC because she realizes that she does not actually want to be dating him. By the end of the novel it is clear that all three will benefit from having goals and plans, but the plans are their own, not anybody else’s, and they are equipped to deal with the fallout should their plans fall through.
Plans, Change, and Growth ThemeTracker
Plans, Change, and Growth Quotes in An Abundance of Katherines
Shit, Colin made a funny. This place is like magic for you. Shame about how we’re gonna die here, though. I mean, seriously. An Arab and a half-Jew enter a store in Tennessee. It’s the beginning of a joke, and the punchline is “sodomy.”
He thought of Chicago, where you can go days without ever once stepping on a single patch of actual earth. That well-paved world appealed to him, and he missed it as his feet fell on uneven clumps of hardened dirt that threatened to twist his ankles.
What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something important?
He could just never see anything coming, and as he lay on the solid, uneven ground with Hassan pressing too hard on his forehead, Colin Singleton’s distance from his glasses made him realize the problem: myopia. He was nearsighted. The future lay before him, inevitable but invisible.
She tried to get out as quickly and painlessly as possible, but after she begged curfew, he began to cry. She held his head against her collarbone. And even though he felt pitiful and ridiculous, he didn’t want it to end, because he knew the absence of her would hurt more than any breakup ever could.
[Y]ou can see into the future if you have a basic understanding of how people are likely to act.
[I]t is important to know things because it makes you special and you can read books that normal people cannot read, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which is in Latin.
Like it or not, Colin thought, road trips have destinations.
The missing piece in his stomach hurt so much – and eventually he stopped thinking about the Theorem and wondered only how something that isn’t there can hurt you.
“It’s funny, what people will do to be remembered.”
“Well, or to be forgotten, because someday no one will know who’s really buried there. Already a lot of kids at school and stuff think the Archduke is really buried here, and I like that. I like knowing one story and having everyone else know another. That’s why those tapes we made are going to be so great one day, because they’ll tell stories that time has swallowed up or distorted or whatever.”
And the moral of the story is that you don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened. And the second moral of the story, if a story can have multiple morals, is that Dumpers are not inherently worse than Dumpees—breaking up isn’t something that gets done to you; it’s something that happens with you.
As the staggered lines rushed past him, he thought about the space between what we remember and what happened, the space between what we predict and what will happen. And in that space, Colin thought, there was room enough to reinvent himself – room enough to make himself into something other than a prodigy, to remake his story better and different – room enough to be reborn again and again….There was room enough to be anyone – anyone except whom he’d already been, for if Colin had learned one thing from Gutshot, it’s that you can’t stop the future from coming. And for the first time in his life, he smiled thinking about the always-coming infinite future stretching out before him.
Colin’s skin was alive with the feeling of connection to everyone in that car and everyone not in it. And he was feeling not-unique in the very best possible way.