• “Our hands got kind of muddled together”: “The Fault in Our Stars” as a Contemporary YA “La Bohéme”

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    I wrote this literary criticism for LIBR 265, San José State University. It earned 10/10 points.


    La Bohéme and The Fault in Our Stars: two wildly beloved tearjerkers that center on young love and terminal illness. Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 lyric drama remains one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide and is often considered the ideal opera to introduce young people to the genre, while John Green’s 2012 YA novel has been a #1 bestseller on numerous lists and was adapted into a popular film version in 2013. In some ways, The Fault in Our Stars can be viewed as a literary La Bohéme for contemporary young adults. Certain parallels feel almost too clear to be accidental. But in many ways, it can also be viewed as an anti-La Bohéme. Romantic tropes associated with illness, which the 19th century work plays straight, are thoroughly deconstructed by the modern novel, as are gender-related conventions. The two works’ central love stories also play out quite differently, as do their heartbreaking endings. Comparing and contrasting Bohéme and Fault reveals quite a bit about the different natures of 19th century opera and contemporary young adult literature.


    Both La Bohéme and The Fault in Our Stars are “slice of life” love stories about ordinary young adults: impoverished young Parisian artists in Bohéme, middle-class American teenagers in Fault. Both heroines, Mimí and Hazel, are pretty yet shy young girls with a deadly lung disease: cancer in Hazel’s case, tuberculosis in Mimí’s. Both male protagonists, Rodolfo and Augustus, are charismatic young men prone to flowery speech, shameless flirting and self-aggrandizement. Both couples have a love for the written word: Rodolfo is a poet, Hazel and Augustus bond over books. Both first meetings include an accidental hand-touch, with the hero commenting on the coldness of the heroine’s hand. Both couples fall in love, but struggle with the question of whether or not to be together and let the heroine’s inevitable death break the hero’s heart. Both heroes hide important knowledge from the heroine: Rodolfo hides his intuitive realization that Mimí is dying, while Augustus hides the fact that he is dying. Both romances end sadly, with the death of one of the lovers. Both heroes also have a male friend, Marcello in Bohéme and Isaac in Fault, whose own dysfunctional love affair contrasts with the principle couple’s devotion. And both works are a striking blend of comedy and tragedy, with generally lighthearted early scenes enhancing the impact of later sad scenes.


    Both Bohéme and Fault were also inspired partly by their creators’ own lives. Bohéme is based on an 1849 French novel, Scenes de la vie de bohéme by Henri Murger, which was based on the author’s life as a penniless young writer, including his affair with a young woman who died of tuberculosis. Puccini, in turn, allegedly chose the book as an opera source because it reminded him of his own youth as a struggling music student. The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by John Green’s experiences with young cancer patients as a children’s hospital chaplain (Rosen), while the character of Hazel herself is partly based on his friend Esther Earl, who died at age sixteen. Last but not least, John Green’s quote on his website that “cancer is to the contemporary world what tuberculosis was to the 19th century” (Green, 2015) fairly begs us to compare his novel to Bohéme. But the similarities between the two works only make the differences more pronounced.


    Bohéme, as an opera, has no single viewpoint character, but Rodolfo fills the role of protagonist far more than Mimí does. We meet him a full half an act before we meet Mimí. We see his everyday life, meet his friends, and get a good sense of who he is outside of the romance. Mimí, on the other hand, is seen only in relation to Rodolfo. She seems to have no friends beyond his circle, and when they separate between Acts III and IV, she temporarily disappears from the narrative, while Rodolfo is the person we follow and watch cope with her absence.


    Furthermore, compared both to Rodolfo and to the rest of the opera’s characters, Mimí is, to quote Hazel in Fault, “irreconcilably other” (Green, 2012, p. 124). While Rodolfo and friends are all exuberant, sardonically witty, reckless, temperamental and often cheerfully amoral – in other words, typical young adults – Mimí is quiet, tender and sweet, with a gentle sense of humor, and is the most mature and compassionate of the group. Among the musical leitmotifs that Puccini associates with each character, hers stands out in its slow, aching beauty compared to the vigorous, jolly melodies associated with the rest. And she “sings and smiles” (“canta e sorride”) (Puccini, p. 286) through all her physical pain. Though she breaks down in tears when she realizes she’s dying, the fact that her breakup with Rodolfo comes directly afterwards means that her months of living with the tragic knowledge are kept offstage. We see no depression, no existential questions, no despair that the world won’t remember her, or anything else that Fault shows Hazel and Augustus grappling with. The next time we see her is her death scene itself, in which she seems resigned to her fate and is as calm, smiling and adorable as ever. The preface to the libretto itself calls her “The Ideal” (John, p. 49); she feels less like a real person than a symbol of beautiful, fleeting young love.


    Underlying all this is the fact that Mimí is the opera’s only ill character. Rodolfo is healthy; Mimí dies, he survives. The opera follows the classic format of “boy meets girl, girl gets sick, girl dies,” seen not only in Romantic opera, but in countless contemporary books and films, e.g. Love Story, A Walk to Remember and the very Bohéme-influenced Moulin Rouge! The hero is the one who stays physically strong and who shoulders the burden of losing the heroine.


    Part of John Green’s very purpose in writing The Fault in Our Stars was to deconstruct the type of romantic tropes described above. The cancer patients he met as a chaplain were “funny and bright and angry and dark and just as human as anyone else” (Rosen), and “not statistically more likely to be awesome or compassionate or perseverant or whatever” (Green, 2012, p. 173). He set out to write a novel that not only portrayed them as human, but that let a terminally ill girl tell her own story (Green, 2015). His heroine Hazel is the narrator and protagonist. We meet her parents, learn her past, read all her inner thoughts and have a full picture of her life. And apart from being physically fragile and initially shy, she has little in common with Mimí, but instead is just as sardonic, intellectual, feisty and “teenagery” (Green, 2012, p. 99) as any of Puccini’s male bohemians. Likewise, Augustus is just as witty, swaggering and full of life as Rodolfo, but also has cancer. Nor do either of them “sing and smile.” Hazel begins the book in “a paralyzing and totally clinical depression” (Green, 2012, p. 4), while Augustus becomes a pathetic, self-loathing shadow of his former self as he nears death. Nothing is romantic about his final days except the love that he and Hazel share.


    This brings us to the book’s painfully beautiful subversion of the “healthy hero, dying heroine” convention. It initially seems to play the trope straight, with Augustus simply a person who had “once been sick” (Green, 2012, p. 213) and Hazel afraid to act on her growing feelings for him because she knows she’s doomed. But expectations turn upside-down for both the characters and the reader as Augustus’s cancer comes back, as he, not Hazel, becomes physically helpless, and as he dies in the end, while effective treatments keep Hazel alive indefinitely. This is very much in keeping with Green’s stated desire to “ignore traditional gender roles whenever possible in the novel” (Green, 2015).


    Not only do Hazel and Augustus’s personalities and illnesses feel more realistic than Mimí’s, their process of falling in love also feels less theatrical. In true Romantic opera style, Rodolfo and Mimí ecstatically proclaim their love within minutes of meeting each other. Rodolfo’s grandly poetic aria “Che gelida manina” (“What a frozen little hand”) (Puccini, p. 89) is all it takes for Mimí to fall head over heels for him. For Hazel and Augustus, while they also rush into their love fairly quickly, it’s a matter of weeks, not minutes. They become friends first. Furthermore, Augustus’s grandstanding “manic pixie dream boy” persona (Green, 2015) makes Hazel feel attracted yet uncomfortable: “It all felt Romantic, but not romantic” (Green, 2012, p. 93) she tellingly says. She loves him best when she sees the real, innocent and vulnerable teenage boy beneath the affectation.


    But if Fault is more realistic than Bohéme about disease and the beginning of romance, Bohéme is perhaps more brutally realistic in the way it depicts the dysfunctions of young love and the potential failure to cope with a romantic partner’s illness. Hazel and Augustus, while not perfect, can be seen as positive role models for young adults in a way that Rodolfo is not. In Fault, Hazel is the one who briefly pulls away from Augustus at the beginning of their relationship because she wants to spare him the pain of her death. In Bohéme, it’s Rodolfo who pulls away from Mimí in the middle of the story because he can’t bear to watch her die. Worse, because Mimí doesn’t yet realize her own doom and Rodolfo is loath to tell her, he uses her friendly flirting with other men –the closest thing to a vice she has – as an excuse to leave, tormenting her with constant jealous rages and even slandering her to Marcello as “a minx who toys with everyone” (“una civetta che frascheggia con tutti”) (Puccini, p. 277). Only when pressed does he admit the truth – to Marcello. Mimí only learns it because she overhears him. Their temporary breakup enhances the moving effect of the final scene, in which Rodolfo finally gives Mimí all the affection and comfort on her deathbed that she deserved all along, and it provides the drama that opera demands.


    While we do see a breakup in Fault similar to Rodolfo and Mimí’s, it belongs to the supporting characters Isaac and Monica, and Augustus in particular is outraged by Monica’s disloyalty. At the book’s beginning, Augustus has already watched his first love, Caroline, lose her mind and eventually her life to a brain tumor, but we learn that he stayed true to her even when he most wanted to run, because “…how can you dump her? She’s dying” (Green, 2012, p. 175). He promises the same faithfulness to Hazel. She returns the favor as Augustus’s health deteriorates, giving him staunch loyalty and loving care to the end. And while Augustus indulges in some dishonesty, romancing and sleeping with Hazel without mentioning his fatal diagnosis, he eventually tells her the truth of his own volition and apologizes. The lovers’ lack of any major conflict with each other might strike some readers as less poignant than Rodolfo and Mimí’s turmoil, but arguably it works because a book needs less external conflict than an opera. Their illnesses and resulting psychological struggles are dramatic enough.


    Perhaps more than any other aspect of the two works, the two endings reveal the different conventions of 19th century opera and contemporary YA literature. La Bohéme ends with Mimí’s death; the curtain falls on Rodolfo weeping over her body. The first half of the opera celebrates the humor, passion and reckless joys of young love and la vie de bohéme, while the second half sobs with regret that those joys and passions, like human life, are temporary. Like most Romantic opera, La Bohéme ends in bleak despair. Puccini’s somber final chords make it difficult to imagine that poor Rodolfo will ever be the lively, happy young man he once was again.


    In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel and Augustus arguably begin where Rodolfo’s story ends. Augustus has already lost his first girlfriend and a leg to cancer, while Hazel is a clinically depressed, nihilistic recluse. Unlike Puccini’s bohemians, “they are not allowed the luxury of feeling that life is a thing that will just go on forever” (Green, 2015). Their story’s purpose, besides humanizing the dying, is to show that a person can “still live a hopeful, productive life” (Green, 2015) in spite of disease and loss, that love is worth heartbreak, and that even after a death, “as long as either person survives, the relationship survives” (Green, 2015).


    Augustus dies a full six chapters before the end of the book. In those six chapters we follow Hazel through the funeral, being comforted by her parents, her reencounters with Peter Van Houten, her ongoing friendship with Isaac and her search for the mysterious papers Augustus allegedly wrote for her. She now leaves her house more often than she used to, has at least one close friend, is less fearful about her parents’ futures, more open to belief in higher power and an afterlife, and eager to “notice everything” (Green, 2012, p. 307), i.e. make the most of life in whatever time she has left. Devastated though she is by Augustus’s death, she just might be a happier person than she was before they met. The last words of her narration, “I do,” in reply to Augustus’s written hope that she likes her choice to love him, both confirms her lack of regrets and evokes traditional marriage vows (Green, 2015): her lover is gone, but in her heart they’re united.


    This heartbreaking yet hopeful ending, so different from the bleak Bohéme finale, exemplifies the unwritten rule that young adult fiction must end with a “kernel of hope” (Feeney, 2013). No matter how dark or tearful these novels become, in the end they nearly always assure young readers that “The abyss opens up. But then you get through it… You find a way to survive” and that “it’s worth waking up tomorrow” (Feeney, 2013). Romantic opera has no such rule; Romantic opera is all about feeling at its most intense. An ending must either be sparklingly joyous or, more often, gut-wrenchingly sad, with no in-betweens.


    In many ways, the differences between La Bohéme and The Fault in Our Stars are what make Fault such a successful novel. Bohéme is very much a work of the 19th century operatic stage and quite a few of its tropes have become hoary clichés, which Fault pointedly subverts and deconstructs. Nor, arguably, is its central love story as worthy of emulation by modern young adults. But this certainly doesn’t make Fault an innately better work than Bohéme. Puccini’s opera is still a masterpiece of the standard repertoire, worthy of its legendary status: its more intense emotionalism, its greater ecstasy and worse conflict between the lovers, and its more anguished finale are much better suited to the operatic stage than the more internal, philosophical drama of Green’s novel would be. Besides, the essential qualities of honest feeling, sweet romance, devastating heartbreak, humor blended with sadness, and authentic youthful spirit are equally present in both works. The Fault in Our Stars is just similar enough to La Bohéme to share the immortal opera’s emotional power, yet just different enough to feel fresh, contemporary, and perfectly suited to the genre of YA literature.



    Feeney, N. (2013). “The 8 habits of highly successful young-adult fiction authors.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/the-8-habits-of-highly-successful-young-adult-fiction-authors/280722/


    Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. New York, NY: Penguin Group.


    Green, J. (2015). “Questions about The Fault in Our Stars (SPOILERS!)”. Retrieved from: http://johngreenbooks.com/questions-about-the-fault-in-our-stars-spoilers/


    Puccini, G., Giacosa, G. & Illica, L. (1920). La Bohéme: In Full Score. New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc.


    John, N. (Ed.) (1982). Opera Guide 14: La Bohéme. London, UK: John Calder Ltd


    Rosen, R.J., & Green, J. (2013). “How John Green Wrote a Cancer Book But Not a ‘Bullshit Cancer Book’”. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/02/how-john-green-wrote-a-cancer-book-but-not-a-bullshit-cancer-book/273441/

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