For those of you that don’t know, Hazel Grace Lancaster is the main character of John Green’s wildly successful novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel is a teenage girl with terminal cancer, and the story chronicles her budding relationship with another cancer patient, Augustus Waters, and the trip they make to Amsterdam. The story has been made into a very successful movie, described as ‘the love story of a generation’ and inspired swathes of merchandise with the word ‘okay’ on it. As for Hazel herself, she has been praised as a breath of fresh air in YA fiction, a relatable and realistic character, and a role model for young girls everywhere.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
This is actually a pretty tricky question in Hazel’s case. It’s established in the first few pages that she has a very serious form of thyroid cancer that almost killed her a few years before the story starts. Since then, she’s been given a drug that cleared up the worst of her symptoms, but there’s no cure; she relies on support machines to breathe properly and spends most of her life under some kind of supervision (either medical or parental). Obviously, this is seriously going to limit the amount of control she can have over her own life, as she is physically unable to do some of the things that a healthy person would be able to do.
However, Hazel hardly ever makes any decisions for herself throughout most of the novel, and this is a serious problem. Her actions have absolutely no effect on the major plot points: they happen completely independent of her influence and are simply presented to her as a fait accompli. She does not choose to go to the cancer survivors’ support group where she meets Augustus; her mum makes her go because she’s worried about her. She does not set up a meeting with Peter Van Houten, the author of her favourite book; it is arranged for her, and all she has to do is show up. She does not choose to go and tell Augustus her feelings for him when it is revealed his cancer has returned; he demands that she write him a eulogy and read it to him while he’s still alive. Most tellingly of all, Hazel doesn’t even choose to go to Amsterdam; Augustus arranges it all for her, with absolutely no effort on her part. While it’s pretty clear that Augustus wants the trip to be one of those ‘big romantic gestures’ that Cosmo keeps telling us about – and thus, making the boring arrangements is something he doesn’t want Hazel to worry about – she expresses absolutely no desire to go to Amsterdam at all until the trip is presented to her ready-made. What’s more, even after Augustus has told her all this, she doesn’t so much as crack open a guidebook, or even google something she might want to go and visit while she’s there; it’s all been taken care of for her.
The upshot of all of this is that Hazel doesn’t really feel like she has an impact on her own story. For someone who is so quick to dispense her opinions, her opinions and decisions have very little impact on the plot. It can be argued that Hazel’s passivity is a result of her illness, and the depression that stems from it, but there is very little evidence for this in the text. For the most part, she spends the novel making wry observations and philosophical statements; she comments on her emotions rather than letting the reader feel them. This really detracts from the emotional weight of the book’s subject, and its strongest moments are when this façade is dropped and we get a sense of the real emotional connections between the characters. But for the most part, Hazel spends her story being, rather than doing: she is a fundamentally passive character.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Again, this is a difficult one to pin down. Hazel enjoys reading, but we only ever see her read books that are crucial to bringing her and Augustus together (such as An Imperial Affliction, and the totally-not-a-Duke-Nukem-ripoff series that Augustus recommends). She doesn’t really have any goals of her own, either. She’s finished high school early and is taking college classes (despite being pulled out of school at age thirteen and almost dying), but never says why she’s doing it, or works toward any qualifications. As far as her beliefs go she’s a little more independent: she doesn’t believe in an afterlife and spends a lot of her time philosophising, but most of her core beliefs are gleaned from An Imperial Affliction or interactions with the characters around her.
When you look at these character traits as a whole, it becomes pretty clear that Hazel’s goals, beliefs and hobbies only exist because the plot demands it – and that’s some pretty poor characterisation.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
When I was reading the book, I had real trouble pinning down Hazel’s character. She’s supposed to be very intelligent, particularly in regards to literature, but she frequently misuses literary terms – in particular, the word hamartia (which means a fatal personality flaw that leads to a character’s downfall – Hazel and Augustus use it to describe their cancer), as well as an assortment of medical terms that she claims to be familiar with. Other characters describe her as kind, yet she frequently snaps at people trying to reach out to her, ignores her friend Isaac’s breakdown after losing his sight in favour of talking to her boyfriend, and eggs Isaac’s ex-girlfriend’s car after she broke up with him because she found their relationship too difficult.
This is something I learned from the series I hate the most out of anything I’ve ever read: Twilight (and its doppelganger, Fifty Shades of Grey. They’re basically the same books). Hazel is exhibiting informed character traits. Instead of actually showing us her personality through her thoughts and actions, other characters (and sometimes, Hazel herself) simply tell the reader what she is like, and regardless of anything she says or does, people will always see her as the version of herself that is told to the other characters – and, by extension, to the reader.
However, I will give Hazel credit where it’s due. While she may be exhibiting one hell of an informed personality, her narration and internal thoughts are pretty consistent. She’s always snarky, glib, irreverent and completely focussed on herself (even going so far as to physically assault her favourite author, Peter Van Houten, when he will not answer her questions about his book). Her opinions and attitudes may be completely opposite to her informed personality, but they are at least consistently so, and that deserves a half-point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A young cancer patient seeking meaning in her life and coming to terms with her own mortality.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
The strongest parts of the book are the ones where Hazel’s love life is mentioned as little as possible, particularly the scenes with her parents. Due to Hazel’s inherent passivity, not a lot of decisions actually get made in the whole book, let alone the ones which aren’t influenced by Augustus.
This really leaves me able to talk about one decision she makes: the decision to try and distance herself from her friends and family for fear of hurting them when she eventually dies. This is handled pretty well (apart from Hazel’s deeply pretentious insistence that she’s “a grenade”) but due to the fact that this is really the only non-romantic decision she makes, I’m going to have to give it a half-point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
The strongest part of Hazel’s character development takes place in her relationship with her parents. As the story progresses, she gets over her belief that she needs to push them away in order to stop them from getting hurt, becomes more comfortable with their need to celebrate still having her alive, and allows them to comfort her in a way that she would not have done at the beginning of the novel. She doesn’t really develop much in other aspects of her character, but given the significance of this particular character trait – which she spends most of the novel struggling with – I’m going to award her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she have a weakness?
One of Hazel’s biggest weaknesses is the need to push people away to stop them from getting hurt. This has a huge effect on her relationships and is a serious obstacle for her throughout most of the story. Aside from that, she doesn’t have very many other weaknesses acknowledged by the rest of the characters: her tendency to make spiteful comments is frequently passed off as ‘quirky’ and has absolutely no effect on her actions, and her self-centredness is rarely addressed by the rest of the cast (even when she ignores other people’s distress to pursue her own ends). With that in mind, I’m giving her a half-point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
I touched on this earlier, so apologies if this all sounds a little bit familiar.
Hazel does influence the plot, but not by doing anything under her own steam. Because she is a young cancer patient, a lot of the other characters change their behaviour in order to accommodate her needs, particularly her parents. While this is perfectly understandable, it means that much like Sansa Stark, it’s very easy for the plot to simply happen around her without her doing anything – which is exactly the trap that John Green falls into.
The plot is presented to Hazel ready-made; she does nothing to put it together herself. This is particularly ironic, because at one point in the book she says of Augustus’s ex-girlfriend (and I quote):
“…she seemed to be mostly a professional sick person, like me, which made me worry that when I died they’d have nothing to say about me except that I fought heroically, as if the only thing I’d ever done was Have Cancer…”
The reality is that Hazel doesn’t actually do anything to stop this statement applying to her, too. She has no goals of her own and all the important plot developments are handled by other characters and presented for her approval: she has no impact on it. To be quite frank, you could replace Hazel with a lampshade and it would have no effect on the details of the plot.
This actually carries some really worrying implications. By getting rid of her agency so thoroughly, Green has effectively made Hazel’s illness the most important aspect of her character. This does a real disservice to living cancer patients by drastically overshadowing their agency and personality as people, rather than patients. Just look at Stephen Sutton, who raised £4 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Hazel’s lack of agency and impact not only drags her character down, it also means that her illness eclipses everything she is – something that should never be applied to people with illnesses or disabilities and something that she herself does not want to happen.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Hazel doesn’t really interact with stereotypes about gender much, which is actually quite refreshing. She’s quite a healthy mix: she enjoys getting dressed up and worries about her appearance, but she also contemplates the nature of the universe, death and the afterlife and reads beat poetry without giggling.
Hazel’s illness often restricts her physical mobility and affects her appearance, which means that I’m also going to take a quick look at some of the stereotypes surrounding women with illnesses or disabilities and see how they affect her character. For the most part, they don’t have much impact on her character – apart from her lack of agency, which I touched on earlier – and the narrative does its best to steer clear of the most common stereotypes surrounding disability and illness. What’s particularly nice about this is that her illness doesn’t stop her from finding love, or from enjoying sex, and it doesn’t compromise her femininity. This is particularly relevant as a lot of fiction about people with illnesses or disabilities doesn’t see them as people with sexual needs – the cliché that keeps these characters as tragically pure as possible is utterly stifling. While this trope is often applied to women (just look at all the prettily frail tuberculosis sufferers in 19th century literature), it isn’t applied to Hazel, and that’s a real breath of fresh air.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Hazel only has a few significant relationships with female characters: her mother and her best friend, Kaitlyn. Throughout most of the book Hazel actively tries to distance herself from Kaitlyn, treating her with a mixture of disdain and bemusement. This is actually pretty worrying, as in many ways, Kaitlyn is held up as the stereotypical teenage girl – often shallow, obsessed with boys, parties and shopping, and completely incapable of understanding deeper concepts. She’s basically set up as a character foil: if Hazel’s “not like all those other girls”, then those other girls are effectively Kaitlyn, rolled into one.
Hazel’s relationship with her mother is much more realistic. They get frustrated with each other, try to care for each other and frequently misunderstand each other, but you see them interact on a regular basis and it’s very clear that their relationship is a loving one, albeit one under a lot of strain. Based on the strengths of this relationship, I’m going to give her a half-point.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10
And so we come to the first character to fail my test. While Hazel has a consistent internal voice, isn’t dominated by gender stereotypes and has a crucial weakness that she struggles against for most of the book, her credibility as a character is seriously undercut by her lack of agency and impact. She just doesn’t do anything – and while part of this can be chalked up to her cancer, a much more significant part of this can be chalked up to John Green’s desire to make Augustus the perfect boyfriend. This is particularly relevant because of the stereotypes surrounding illness and disability, which often minimise the agency of handicapped people when this simply isn’t true.
But does this mean that The Fault in Our Stars is not worth reading? I don’t think so. While I didn’t enjoy the majority of the book, there were some parts of it that I thought worked very well, particularly the passages where Hazel interacts with her family – which is actually pretty rare for YA fiction, which usually cuts family life out as much as possible. Some parts of it are definitely worth reading – but which parts is up to you.
Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite Disney movies, Beauty and the Beast. Belle, I’m coming for you.