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All the Bright Places | Themes

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Death

The theme of coping with death drives much of the novel. The crux of the story revolves around the suicidal feelings of two teens, one who has lost a sister and the other who wants to die and will die. While the novel has strong romantic elements, these are formed around death-related topics. The novel toys with ideas of blame, guilt, and attempts to save others from sorrow, but individual attitudes, resilience, and levels of parental support ultimately determine outcomes.

When the reader first encounters Theodore Finch, he is wondering, "Is today a good day to die?" This question is at the center of the novel. Although Finch carries this question within himself, he encourages Violet to back away from danger. His involvement in her life over the next few months helps lift the depression she's been experiencing since the death of her sister, Eleanor. Finch is overt in his intention to pull Violet up out of her sorrow. He says, "Everyone around you is going to give you a gentle push now and then, but never hard enough because they don't want to upset Poor Violet. You need shoving, not pushing." It works. Violet not only steps away from the ledge on the bell tower, but in short order she rides in a car with Finch (despite not having been in a car since Eleanor died). As the novel progresses, she eventually drives on her own.

The situational irony—in that the truly suicidal character saves the temporarily suicidal character—negates the idea that a person can ever truly save someone else. Author Niven is careful to have Violet recover, or at least feel hope, after Finch's death at the end of the novel. Thus she makes two points at once: the suicide is a victim and the suicide survivor is a victim. The message to teens is clear: Violet could not have saved Finch no matter what she did or said. If anyone, Finch's abusers are to blame, or Finch's faulty wiring, but not the person who tries to love the sufferer of depression and not the person who is depressed.

Niven develops her character carefully to evoke a particular response in readers. Finch is a vibrant, larger-than-life character who touches those around him poignantly. He is so lovable, the reader roots for Finch to survive—and grieves when he doesn't make it.

Exploration

The theme of exploration is as prevalent in the book as the theme of death. Violet and Finch's relationship is based on their U.S. Geography "Wander Indiana" project. The guidelines Finch concocts include being "strictly old-school" to navigate (no phones; use real maps), each alternating choosing places to go, and leaving a memento behind at each site. Violet's restriction is that they do not go out in bad weather or drive. The driving exception is one Finch helps Violet overcome relatively quickly. Violet, who has not gotten into a car since her sister's death in an auto accident, agrees to ride with Finch in his car, and by the end of the novel she is driving on her own to further her "wanderings."

These explorations are tied to being present in the world. Finch points out early on, "When we're in the act of wandering, we need to be present, not watching it through a lens." He says this to Violet on their first wandering, and it sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Wandering, exploring, is a way for Finch to be tethered in the world, to experience it, and to know that it is real. For Violet, it's the method through which she starts to overcome depression. It is also, for both of them, the reason and excuse to spend their time together.

Their wanderings lead the pair to oddities such as the Bookmobile Park, backyard rollercoasters, and the highest point in Indiana, the first of their wanderings. Finch's perspective on this exploration is, "Actually, standing next to you makes it feel as high as Everest." Another exploration leads them to a giant chalkboard where people write what they want to do before they die. Violet and Finch read, "Before I die I want to have kids. Live in London. Own a pet giraffe. Skydive. Divide by zero. Play the piano. Speak French. Write a book." The list continues, but this and other wanderings tie together exploration and living.

For Finch the drive to explore doesn't end. In fact toward the end of the novel, he invites Violet to visit the "nest houses" with him. When she reacts with practicality—saying they should go on Saturday and it will be dark soon—he cannot accept it. He says, "You know what? Why don't we just forget it? Why don't I go by myself? I think I'd rather go alone anyway." Violet's failure to be in the moment and go exploring with Finch leaves him feeling even more isolated than he already does and contributes to his death by suicide.

This is not to say the theme is neatly summed up in the idea that to explore is to live and to not explore is to die. But for a character like Finch, who is in a real life-or-death struggle—one based on emotions—yes or no can mean live or die. With this theme, and in general throughout the novel, Niven seeks to raise awareness of and urge sensitivity for the unseen inner struggles people could be going through.

Secrets

The theme that keeping secrets is harmful shows up in several ways in All the Bright Places. The abuse Finch suffers from his father is kept secret. So too is Mr. Finch's mental illness. Although Finch's father seems like a peripheral character, his abuse is at the heart of his son's suffering—bipolar disorder or not. The tragedy in the novel arises from the tension between the younger character's desire to live and his secrets. Finch wants his secrets to be exposed, wishes someone in his family would come into his bedroom, and desperately needs the people who love him to ask him the right questions. But instead he hides his suicidal ideation from everyone around him. He keeps his real thoughts secret from his school counselor, Mr. Embry, from his mother, from Violet, from everyone but himself. In fact, to tell someone a snippet of truth, for Finch, is like a gift or a kindness bestowed upon that person. This is most evident in his interactions with Violet and with his school counselor.

The truth of Finch's destructive feelings manifests in violent eruptions. Twice Finch nearly kills the kid who has been bullying him, Roamer, and he also fantasizes about killing his father. The novel suggests a connection between violent outbursts and hidden thoughts and emotions—secrets will find their own way out. However, no one who can or should make the connection and expose the underlying secret in Finch's violence, his father's abuse, does so. They just see a "freak" or a bad or troubled kid. Even Violet's parents, who are portrayed as ideals, send Finch away and don't help him. They don't see the sensitive, abused kid he (secretly) is.

Other secrets laced into the novel support the idea that secrets make matters worse. The fact that Josh Raymond may be Theodore Finch's half brother or stepbrother is a good example. It marks the disconnect in the family and explains perhaps why Mrs. Finch is having trouble coping—why the whole family is struggling. A matter of such import as the paternity of a son being kept secret shows a high level of pain and dysfunction with far-reaching ramifications for all the children. Another example occurs when Finch sees Amanda Monk all the way in Ohio at a teen suicide support group. That Finch's popular, mean-spirited bully has gone to even greater lengths than he to end her life negates stereotypes about powerful, popular kids. It suggests that secrets could always be lurking under someone else's display of confidence.

The novel seems to urge, almost plead with, teens to talk to their parents, as readers see in the contrast between Violet's relationship with her parents and Finch's. When Finch finally falls apart and lets Violet into his walk-in closet, letting her see the true nature of his inner turmoil, he asks her to keep his secrets. However, Violet does the opposite and tells her parents. She also discusses everything she knows with Kate and Mrs. Finch. Violet and her parents are exemplars for healthy communication and meaningful relationship. That is why they move forward together after both Eleanor's and Finch's deaths—to show that being open and honest is lifesaving, while keeping secrets and not communicating can have dire consequences.

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