I Sacrifice, Therefore I Am Good: Young Adult Fiction Heroines and Self-Destruction

Katja Huru
Shailene Woodley in Divergent (2014).

Veronica Roth's Divergent series undermines all that we try to teach our young women about self-worth and the importance of maintaining autonomy and control over one’s body and mind.

Being a girl is a privilege only the rich can afford, and even for them girlhood tends to be a very short window in time. And nowhere do young girls grow up faster than in the realms of fantasy and dystopian literature. Usually orphaned or otherwise deprived of parental units, the heroines take on huge responsibilities, and their individual motivations and goals become secondary to the “greater good.”

Acts of bravery often equal acts of sacrifice. Perhaps this is the nature of heroism, but even as first-person narrators, women never seem to be the stars of their own show. The young adult speculative genre is teeming with female protagonists, and they are ferocious: they volunteer to fight, run headfirst into danger, take charge, and refuse to stay at home and wait for the men to return from battle. Young adult fantasy storylines allow the girls to engage in acts of courage as equals to boys, but I would question the construction of this “new woman”. As I understand it, this "new woman" archetype validates sacrifice and self-harming behavior through the camouflage of male-associated behaviors.

"In a way, Roth’s universe is the perfect allegory for peer pressure: everyone is living in a clique, where any sign of divergence can be fateful, and result in being cast out.

The YA readership barely had time to catch its breath after Katniss Everdeen’s odyssey from a girl-next-door to Girl on Fire, when Veronica Roth’s heroine Beatrice “Tris” Prior took us through yet another public choosing ceremony in Divergent. Divergent (2011) has been accused of leeching off The Hunger Games: “Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than [sic] something called ‘Divergent’ will come hurtling toward us,” scoffs The New York Times’ Michelle Dean, who calls it not just a copycat “but its parallel themes—totalitarianism reducible to the lies of adults, teenage years presented as a blessed state providing unique access to Truth, hand-to-hand combat-training as a coming-of-age ritual—make it cut awfully close.”

Book: Divergent

Author: Veronica Roth

Publisher: Katherine Tegen

US Publication Date: 2011-04

Format: Hardcover

Length: 487


The likeness, however, is what makes these novels intriguing. I propose that there are larger similarities at work with these new kinds of female protagonists featured in both series and beyond. Tris, a female protagonist in yet another dystopian rebel, is depicted in ways that reflect the need for unhealthy behavior in order to sacrifice for the greater good—a trait not isolated to her story.

Sixteen-year-old Beatrice, the heir apparent to Katniss, is growing up in post-apocalyptic Chicago surrounded by an impenetrable, locked fence. Society is divided into five different groups, factions, that all uphold one virtue above all others. Roth’s factions fall in line with Harry Potter’s magical houses and The Hunger Games’ Districts: Beatrice is born into Abnegation, the selfless faction; the Amity believe in peace; the Candor are brutally honest; the Erudite value knowledge; and the Dauntless are all about bravery. Every year, the sixteen-year-olds are required to take an aptitude test and then choose the faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.

Simply put, this is the only major choice they will ever make: up until that moment, their lives have been preordained according to the strict rules of their factions, and after the ceremony the same will hold true to the years to come. I must admit that even to a fantasy/dystopia aficionado like me, the setting of this series requires such suspension of disbelief that it gets in the way of character development. The idea of the factions is not so hard to believe, and it is initially quite fascinating, but the strict adherence to the behavioral codes without an external threat, along with no interest to what lies beyond the city walls, render the characters rather two-dimensional. The further we get into Tris’s story, the more she seems like a medium for Roth to transmit her own moral code to the reader, and this haphazard utopia is just a convenient setting to display extreme situations.

So who is our brave heroine? Like so many other protagonists, our girl does not belong. Her aptitude test results come back as Divergent, someone with the aptitude for several factions. This, of course, must be kept secret. Tori, the woman conducting the aptitude tests warns her: “Under no circumstances should you share that information with anyone ... Divergence is extremely dangerous” (Roth, Divergent, 22-23). The stage is set for our heroine to enter, bringing with her the winds of change.

When Beatrice chooses to leave her family and faction, she knows that she will most likely not see them again. After she sees her brother, Caleb, choose Erudite over Abnegation, Beatrice battles between her desire for something different and her sense of duty. “Faction before blood” is a motto for this community, and the factions are not supposed to mingle. “I am selfish. I am brave,” Beatrice thinks when she makes her choice under the watching eyes of her parents (Roth, Divergent, 47). Her choice will deprive them of a family unit.

She defines herself in a transcending moment when she, unsurprisingly to the reader but to the shock of the people watching her, joins the flashy, daring, tattooed Dauntless, and jumps onto the train that carries her off to her new home, away from her parents. Her decision was made purely for her own reasons, not to save anyone and not to serve some greater purpose, and she lets her choice redefine her: “‘What’s your name?’ ‘Um…’ ... A new place, a new name. I can be remade here. ‘Tris,’ I say firmly” (Roth, Divergent, 60). She decides to be the first one to jump off a rooftop—a part of the initiation—in an attempt to shake her Abnegation qualities and persona.

As refreshing as Tris’s selfishness and choosing for herself feels, there is an undertone of self-harm to her recklessness. In Abnegation, physical exercise is seen as selfish, and she longingly looks for the Dauntless jumping on and off trains before Choosing Day. To her, the Dauntless are everything Abnegation—and Tris—is not. Once she is an initiate, she throws herself in, volunteering to go first, and takes initiative in dangerous behaviors. Her new identity comes through an over-corrective movement from the meekness of Abnegation to the adrenaline-junkie⎯and media-sexy⎯behavior of Dauntless, and she is constantly trying to prove herself to be worthy of her chosen faction.

In a way, Roth’s universe is the perfect allegory for peer pressure: everyone is living in a clique, where any sign of divergence can be fateful, and result in being cast out, becoming factionless: “Places that stink so powerfully of sewage and trash that I have to plug my nose. This is where the factionless live. Because they failed to complete initiation into whatever faction they chose, they live in poverty,” Tris’s narrator voice explains, illustrating why the choosing is just the beginning (Roth, Divergent, 25). If the teenagers cannot prove themselves worthy of their chosen faction, they will be ostracized from society altogether.

By choosing Dauntless, Tris has knowingly put herself in a very precarious position, and the Dauntless initiation is the worst of the five, and even entering the Dauntless compound requires jumping off a rooftop: “We do dangerous things and people die... Several stories from us is the members’ entrance to our compound. If you can’t muster the will to jump off, you don’t belong here” (Roth, Divergent, 56-57). In her new faction, bravery equals facing one’s fears, not only when necessity calls for it, but deliberately seeking danger.

No YA novel would be complete without a heterosexual romance, and the Divergent series is no exception. From the first moment Tris meets Four, an older Dauntless boy, after jumping down through the entrance, the reader knows she has met her male lead. “He has a spare upper lip and a full lower lip. His eyes are so deep-set that his eyelashes touch the skin under his eyebrows, and they are dark blue, a dreaming, sleeping, waiting color” (Roth, Divergent, 59). Four, or Tobias, is the strong silent type, carrying the deep secret that he, too, chose Dauntless over Abnegation. He left his faction to flee from his abusive father, who turns out to be an Abnegation leader, Marcus.

What follows is a very chaste courtship, showing that they have both retained their Abnegation nature even after they were supposed to let all that go when they jumped the train. While this romance follows a familiar pattern—Tris is younger and Four is her trainer; Tris seems more interested where Four keeps his distance; they have to keep their relationship secret—it is one of the more believable aspects of this series. Tris does not have to choose between two boys, and she is not consumed by her feelings for Four. Neither is their relationship perfect: in Insurgent (2012), the second novel in the series, they run into ideological differences and break up, and despite their reconciliation before the end of the series in Allegiant (2013), they never find the happily-ever-after together.

Tris and Four both wish for there to be no factions, and believe that the combination of all virtues is the key: “‘I think we’ve made a mistake,’ he says softly. ‘We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that,’” Four says, as Tris is discovering that he has all five factions’ symbols tattooed on his back (Roth, Divergent, 405).

In the heart of this transparent commentary of the faction system’s faults—faults that were blatant to the reader from the onset of this tale—seems to be the message that Abnegation’s way might be the right way: the Dauntless manifesto is “We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.” “I will be my undoing / If I become my obsession” is the Abnegation’s core belief.

“Dishonesty is a veil that shields one person from another,” say the Candor. Erudite’s manifesto is “Intelligence is a gift, not a right. It must be wielded not as a weapon but as a tool for the betterment of others” (Roth, Divergent, “Bonus materials,” 35-47). The Amity trust in amity as a way to peace. Selflessness, putting others first, and the desire to help one another seem to be the universal ideology, and Abnegation and Dauntless are the two factions highlighted as the most important ones.

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