All the characters in Turtles All the Way Down are intensely interested in the English language. They're all very well read, and the novel is filled with allusions and references to a number of classic novels, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The characters are also interested in the mechanics of language itself. They ask questions about parts of speech and sentence structure, as well as the words the English language offers to describe different intangible things. As the characters borrow language from authors, poets, and each other, borrowing words from others to create meaning out of their own lives through language becomes, for the characters, an integral part of the process of forging identities.
Many of Aza's questions about language have to do with her inability to describe her pain and her thought spirals to her friends or her therapist, let alone to herself. Her therapist, Dr. Singh, offers the insight that although pain is undeniably real, there are few words to truly describe the depths or the particulars of someone's pain. This leads Aza to one of her scariest questions: if she doesn't have the words to describe herself, is she even real? In this way, Aza creates an equivalence between being real and being able to articulate the meaning of one's experience. In turn, Aza wonders if she's not just unreal, but fictional and literally made up of words written by someone else.
As Aza continues to question her own reality, her increasingly intense thought spirals—along with her inability to articulate her feelings—lead her to feel increasingly isolated. Daisy and Davis, on the other hand, use language as a tool for processing their emotions, by writing Star Wars fanfiction and poetry, respectively. Daisy's weekly Chewbacca installments allow her to mentally escape from reality while making sense of what reality throws at her. Her characters take on the qualities of individuals in Daisy's real life, and the anonymous online platform gives her the opportunity to write what she actually thinks about those individuals. Davis, on the other hand, uses his blog as a public diary. He follows a very specific format in which he respond to a quotation (usually from a novel or from Shakespeare) with a short musing about his life that loosely ties in with the quote. In both cases, Daisy and Davis find a sense of purpose and some relief from their daily struggles by putting their thoughts not just on paper and out of their heads, but literally into the public sphere of the internet. Notably, John Green himself has said about his own novel that he achieved a similar sense of purpose and relief by engaging with Aza, writing her story, and sharing it with others.
This idea that language can be healing echoes throughout the novel: Davis achieves a sense of closure for himself through writing on his blog, and Daisy eventually kills off Ayala, the character who resembles Aza, in order to make amends with Aza. Meanwhile, Aza continues seeing Dr. Singh for talk therapy to manage her illness and her intrusive thoughts. Dr. Singh, however, has a very specific idea of how language can be used to heal and bring closure and comfort. She often nitpicks Aza's word choice when Aza describes her mental illness and encourages her to use language that paints her as more powerful than the illness. In this way, Dr. Singh makes it abundantly clear to Aza that the specific language people use is very important. Language can give a person power or take their power away. In this sense, Dr. Singh suggests that language not only helps people understand their reality—it can also help change a person's reality. The fact that Aza chooses to write a book is perhaps the ultimate testament that she internalizes this lesson about the importance of language.
Language and Meaning ThemeTracker
Language and Meaning Quotes in Turtles All the Way Down
... and meanwhile I was thinking that if half the cells inside of you are not you, doesn't that challenge the whole notion of me as a singular pronoun, let alone the author of my fate?
I have these thoughts that Dr. Karen Singh calls "intrusives," but the first time she said it, I heard "invasives," which I like better, because, like invasive weeds, these thoughts seem to arrive at my biosphere from some faraway land, and then they spread out of control.
And he was obviously a person. Like, what even makes you a person? He had a body and a soul and feelings, and he spoke a language, and he was an adult, and if he and Rey were in hot, hairy, communicative love, then let's just thank God that two consenting, sentient adults found each other in a dark and broken galaxy.
I wanted to tell her that I was getting better, because that was supposed to be the narrative of illness: it was a hurdle you jumped over, or a battle you won. Illness is a story told in the past tense.
You're right that self isn't simple, Aza. Maybe it's not even singular. Self is a plurality, but pluralities can also be integrated, right? Think of a rainbow. It's one arc of light, but also seven differently colored arcs of light.
... now I was talking about parasite-infected bird feces, which was more or less the opposite of romance, but I couldn't stop myself, because I wanted him to understand that I felt like the fish, like my whole story was written by someone else.
He's, just... I guess at some point, you realize that whoever takes care of you is just a person, and that they have no superpowers and can't actually protect you from getting hurt. Which is one thing. But Noah is starting to understand that maybe the person he thought was a superhero turns out sort of to be the villain.
When my thoughts spiraled, I was in the spiral, and of it. And I wanted to tell him that the idea of being in a feeling gave language to something I couldn't describe before, created a form for it, but I couldn't figure out how to say any of that out loud.
Him: When you're on a Ferris wheel all anyone ever talks about is being on the Ferris wheel and the view from the Ferris wheel and whether the Ferris wheel is scary and how many more times it will go around. Dating is like that. Nobody who's doing it ever talks about anything else.
When I was little, I knew monsters weren't, like, real. But I also knew I could be hurt by things that weren't real. I knew that made-up things mattered, and could kill you.
It's just, like, this isn't going to be some story where the poor, penniless girl gets rich and then realizes that truth matters more than money and establishes her heroism by going back to being the poor, penniless girl, okay?
It was saying that my bacteria were affecting my thinking--maybe not directly, but through the information they told my gut to send to my brain. Maybe you're not even thinking this thought. Maybe your thinking's infected.
I know that girl would go on, that she would grow up, have children and love them, that despite loving them she would get too sick to care for them, be hospitalized, get better, and then get sick again. I know a shrink would say, Write it down, how you got here.
So you would, and in writing it down you realize, love is not a tragedy or a failure, but a gift.