Paper Towns, the new film based on John Green's book of the same name, is filled with metaphors. Some of these are obvious, while some are more nebulous, both to viewers and the characters. One item which puzzles protagonist Quentin is his discovery of the book Leaves of Grass, which his missing friend Margo left behind with certain lines highlighted. This Walt Whitman book has a major Paper Towns role, as Quentin thinks that Margot intentionally left it as a clue on how to find her. She highlighted sections of the work's most famous poem, "Song of Myself," and Quentin is convinced that this holds significance in explaining her disappearance. The only problem? Any message that Margo was trying to communicate via the poem is very ambiguous.
Quentin spends days poring over the poem, trying to somehow connect it to Margo. It frustrates him intensely because while he can understand each word of the poem, he can't understand the piece in its entirety, nonetheless what it might imply about Margo's whereabouts. He finally decides that he must take off to find Margo, taking a literal interpretation of the poem's instructions to "unscrew the locks from the doors!" And so Quentin embarks on a journey to discover what happened to the girl he secretly loved.
Unfortunately, it turns out that Margo didn't really want to be found. The poem was not intended as a trail of breadcrumbs for Quentin to find her; she had just highlighted the parts that she felt were an allegory for her life. Just as "Song of Myself" is an inward-focused piece, Margo's connection to the poem was about her personal relationship to the world around her – it had nothing to do with Quentin. Margo related to Whitman's writing because she herself felt like a "leaf of grass," unrooted to the ground and unconnected to the people around her despite physical proximity.
Quentin is deeply hurt by this discovery, but the end of his journey has him deciding that he will always have a connection to Margo whether or not she is currently in his life. He muses that even if he never sees his "leaf of grass" again, he will remain connected to her by the root. This shows great personal growth, and so Leaves of Grass plays a crucial role in Quentin's journey even though his initial interpretation of it was misguided.
Fascinated by the idea of this book which holds such significance in Paper Towns? Well, good news: although John Green's story is a work of fiction, Leaves of Grass is very much real — and is, in fact, an important piece of American literature. You can learn more about the book and its author at the Walt Whitman Archive, and you can see Paper Towns in theaters now. In doing so, you also just might learn more about yourself.
Images: 20th Century Fox (2); Giphy