Stuck in traffic in South Carolina, Quentin and Radar invent a game in which they take turns imagining the lives of people in neighboring cars. Observing a Hispanic woman in a beat-up car, Quentin guesses she is an undocumented immigrant who left her family to move to the United States, and whose husband is gone for most of the year as a migrant worker. Radar tells Quentin he’s being melodramatic. He guesses, based on the woman’s nice clothes, that she is a secretary in a law firm, studying for a law degree of her own.
The story Quentin constructs about the woman in the next car, in addition to being cliché and melodramatic, is based on stereotypes of Hispanic people prevalent in the United States. This moment shows how whole cultures can promote the mis-imagination of certain people within them, and highlights possible social consequences of that phenomenon — like racial stereotyping — that are even more dangerous than the interpersonal consequences. It’s worth noting that it is Radar, who is African American, who points out Quentin’s stereotyping here.
Radar’s alternative version of the woman’s life story makes Quentin think of all the ways human beings fail to imagine one another accurately. Radar remarks that this game reveals more about the person playing than about the subject in the neighboring car. Quentin thinks of Whitman’s radical empathy, and silently questions whether it is possible for one person ever to move past imagination and fully become another.
Quentin has received a valuable education in empathy from reading Whitman, but his ability to question Whitman is the greatest evidence of his growth. He is more aware of the limitations of his empathy and imagination, and so more prepared to acknowledge how people might deviate from his expectations.