The Hidden Purpose of ‘Turtles All The Way Down’

I have a conspiracy theory.

You think that John Green’s new young-adult novel Turtles All The Way Down is about Aza Holmes and her struggle with mental illness. There is also a B-plot, a teen detective story, about hunting down a rich guy who has disappeared. But maybe there’s another angle.

You may think I’m crazy, and I certainly think I am, but I have been joining a few dots here, and have come up with a far-out C- or Z-plot, or ‘hidden, mega-cryptic, secret-club-no-girls-allowed’ message or purpose that John Green has buried in the way-down-deep of the novel.

Now first of all, fellow Nerdfighters, yes I am very much aware of John Green’s stated positions on authorial intent and ownership of his books once published. I know that he always says books belong to the readers, and he has let them go and we shouldn’t bother too much with what he intended. But you know what – I don’t care. Just follow me on this breadcrumb trail and see what you think when I’ve taken you to the end.

I believe that the hidden purpose of this book is to redeem Daisy from The Great Gatsby.

Why do I think this? Because midway through Turtles there is a scene in which a secret door is opened to a secret room by turning a switch hidden in a book. Which book? Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Now John Green just drops this name in here and then BAM he’s gone. Hit it and quit it. He has left it sitting there for us to either ignore or to follow.

But if you are familiar with John Green’s writing style (sorry to type-cast!), you will know that his references to other works are always deliberate. For example, the Woodie Guthrie and Walt Whitman works in Paper Towns hold the key to unlocking that mysterious character of Margot. In TFIOS there is also a book An Imperial Affliction, the text of which also holds the key to unlocking the mysterious bonds of love between Hazel Grace and Augustus.

In addition, JOHN’S NEW BOOK TURTLES WAS ANNOUNCED VIA A WORLDWIDE, 20-WEEK SCAVENGER HUNT.  He dropped massive hints. When it comes to this Turtles business, John Green is dropping hints left right and center.

And thus given that the Fitzgerald book in Turtles LITERALLY IS THE KEY TO UNLOCK THE SECRET ROOM, and chosen because his full name is “Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald” (Green’s emphasis! As in, this book holds the key to greater understanding) I think it is definitely up to us to do a little more detective work of our own here.

Now if you read even a tiny bit about Tender Is the Night, you can see why John Green chose that reference. The story is about a man trying to cure his wife of her mental illness, while going through financial difficulties. Likewise in Turtles, Davis (the rich guy’s son who might lose all his dad’s money) is trying to figure out how to be in a relationship with Aza, who suffers greatly from her mental illness. No great stretch of the imagination there, and a fine homage for John Green to include. Great.


Let’s take a different tack.

When you mention the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, the very first thing you think of is not Tender Is the Night. The first thing you think of is The Great Gatsby.

While Tender Is the Night is a fine comparison, what can we gain by comparing Turtles to Gatsby? What could they possibly have in common?


Daisy is a character in both.

Ding-ding-ding! Alarms going off yet?

In both novels, a character Daisy causes a car accident that precipitates the climax of the stories.

In both novels, a character Daisy comes into money and has to decide what to do with it (i.e. how much of a pretentious ass-hat she will let it make her).

In both novels, a character Daisy is the object of affection—-HOLD UP, why did I say that? In Gatsby, Jay Gatsby the titular character is in love with Daisy and trying to win her back. But what about the Daisy in Turtles? Well let’s look closer at the plot. Aza is the main character who gets into a relationship with the rich boy Davis, but it fizzles. Daisy also gets into a relationship with their school friend Mychal which also fizzles. The detective plot of the book is ‘solved’ but the ending is extremely unhappy. Aza’s mental illness is left as an on-going problem that has no closure. The only happy ending in the whole book is that we learn Aza and Daisy stay best friends 4-EVA!!!!! I would argue that this book is in fact about Aza and Daisy having their happily-ever-after, and thus, Daisy is the object of affection. To quote the final stanzas: “decades later, you’ll be so proud that Daisy continues to be your best friend, that growing into different lives only makes you more fiercely loyal to each other.”

John Green’s references and homages to greater works is no coincidence. Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall. Aza’s last name is Holmes for goodness’ sake — as in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ because she becomes a teen detective. Green has chosen his character names with purpose and an agenda. This all merits further investigation.

So what do we need to know about John Green and Gatsby? PLENTY! It turns out that John Green, if you’ll pardon the expression, has a massive hard-on for The Great Gatsby, and the character Daisy in particular!

WATCH THIS YOUTUBE VIDEO—- Crash Course Literature. In it he acknowledges and discusses the huge amount of hate that Daisy generates. He argues that yes, she is an objectively terrible human, but implores you to recognise it’s still a great story in spite of it, or even because of it.

No, seriously, stop here and watch that Youtube video. Then watch this one next (CC Part Two), and then this third one, and then this fourth one (especially at around 1:34) both of which seem to be early drafts of the first two. Then there is this fifth link about his possible authorial intent. When you’ve watched all of those, then come back and tell me John Green hasn’t thought long and hard about characters named Daisy in novels, and whether they may or may not, or should or should not, be liked or likable.

Writers often begin by adopting a challenge or a statement which stimulates them to proving or disproving or discussing it in their text. I think Daisy being an unlikable character is, at least partially, a challenge that John Green took up when he sat down years ago and said “what am I gunna write about?” And more specifically, “what name will I give to Aza’s best friend?”

I repeat, I think the hidden purpose of Turtles is to take Daisy and redeem her. John Green is trying to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald could not: make audiences love a Daisy. He is trying to make all right with the world. He succeeds: Daisy in Turtles is absolutely lovable. John Green’s Daisy does what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy could not do: grow the fuck up and hold on to those she loves, putting away childish things such as flawed imaginings of real people (e.g. the Ayala fan fiction). Aza and Daisy’s friendship is endearing, enduring and comforting, certainly not without its rough times, but ultimately the most satisfying thing about reading the book.

If this were a murder trial, I haven’t exactly provided the ‘smoking gun’ watertight case, prosecution rests. But what I have done is simply place both of these two Daisy suspects in the same room at the same time, and now I ask you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, whether you think John Green was conspiring. I think there is probable cause, but plenty of reasonable doubt remains. However, since I f*cking love conspiracy theories and deeply layered fiction, I choose to believe John Green left us these hints deliberately. It makes me happy; it makes me believe that the thing I often find the cause of so much anxiety, i.e. a hideously complex world, can also be complex in rewarding and nourishing way.

Nerdfighters I’d love to hear from you. DFTBA!

Best wishes,

EDIT: And of course, once I’ve finished this, I finally find this reddit thread where John Green tiptoes around this very question!

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