Kathleen Bosse: Divergent & the Female Hero

Tris Prior, Selfless Female Hero: How The Protagonist of The Divergent Trilogy Satisfies Society’s Hunger for Positive Female Role Models

Kathleen Bosse

The Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth has become another phenomenon in the genre of young adult dystopian fiction.[1] Comprised of three books–Divergent (2011), Insurgent (2012), and Allegiant (2013)–the trilogy takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago and follows sixteen-year-old Tris (Beatrice) Prior as she explores her identity within a society that defines its citizens by their “aptitude” for a particular faction virtue: honesty (Candor), kindness (Amity), intelligence (Erudite), selflessness (Abnegation), and bravery (Dauntless) (The World of Veronica Roth’s Divergent Series). Tris’s Aptitude Test is inconclusive, indicating that she has an equal aptitude for Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite, and therefore labeling her a “divergent.” This is dangerous because it means her mindset and way of thinking deviates from the norm; it cannot be predicted and therefore she cannot be controlled. For her own safety, she must hide this, and after an inner struggle, chooses to join Dauntless. The trilogy follows her journey from the day she takes the Aptitude Test to her final days at the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, and it is the significance of being a divergent that propels the trilogy’s plot and Tris’s role in it.

The trilogy has evoked polarized responses from its readers. They express either their love or disdain for the plot, the writing style, the characters, or the ending. Even focusing on Tris, specifically, there are a variety of reactions to her thoughts, behavior, and choices. Many readers love her. They refer to her as a brave,[2] strong, unwavering, beautifully flawed,[3] feisty,[4] generous, and refreshingly smart and self-possessed heroine.[5] They applaud Tris for fighting for the rights of the genetically damaged who had been discriminated against and for sticking true to her cause and refusing to back down.[6] They also feel that she shows genuine love and selflessness when she takes Caleb’s place in their final mission, and therefore is a great role model.[7]

Divergent (2011) by Veronica Roth (from Wikipedia)
Divergent (2011) by Veronica Roth (from Wikipedia)

Other readers, however, are not fans of Tris. Her detractors point out that she just shrugs her shoulders and says, “Guys are weird” when she finds other character’s motivations perplexing – and they feel that it is always the male population that elicits this response from her.[8] In addition, “terrible events happen to people Tris loves, yet she and the other characters absorb the events with disquieting ease” (Dominus). Responses to each of the books individually contained some reactions that were rendered invalid upon the publication of the next installment in the trilogy, but when isolated, are understandable. For example, some of these responses express distaste for Tris’s continual attempts to get herself killed in Insurgent[9] or Tris’s inability to think clearly and make smart decisions due to her concern for her brother in Allegiant.[10]

Both the popularity of The Divergent Trilogy and the polarized responses led me to wonder why there were such strong and polarized reactions to the trilogy, and what that implies about our society. Is this trilogy a focal point for a conflict? Does it respond to a need in our society? If the answer to either of these two questions is “yes,” what, then, is that conflict or need? In an effort to begin to answer these questions, I first looked for anything that had been written about The Divergent Trilogy. However, there is still very little scholarly work on it. Therefore, I began with broad exploration into other conversations in order to explore how the trilogy interacts with other ideas already out there. Research into dystopian fiction led me to investigate young adult dystopian fiction as well as the ways in which women are portrayed in dystopian fiction more generally. From there, I began to explore women warriors and women as heroes. I ultimately use Lori Campbell’s concept of the female hero to analyze Tris and to explore how this character type might respond to my inquiry concerning the popularity of and polarized reactions to the trilogy.[11]

Dystopian Fiction

Scholarly research on dystopian fiction generally explores what it reflects about our times, since dystopian fiction is a way writers can critique our current conditions as well as explore alternatives for the future. This subgenre of fantastic fiction “interrupts and revises power structures that support damaging ideologies of our time, ranging from patriarchal belief systems to environmentally destructive economic policies” (Lacey 5). Therefore, scholars commonly explore the way in which a particular text functions as a social critique and may further examine its connections with the ideas of modern social or cultural critics. In addition, M. Keith Booker is among a group of scholars who dig even deeper and trace the historical shape of dystopian fiction and how it parallels the shape of world history (21-22). Some scholars focus on a particular time period or region, as do those who published in Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, and Erase, a journal using diverse critical methodologies to study how North America is conveyed or portrayed within dystopian literature written by North American authors between 1994 and 2001. The body of scholarly research on dystopian fiction is vast, so two subcategories that prove particularly useful are young adult dystopian fiction and women in dystopian fiction.

Young Adult Dystopian Fiction

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction written for the young adult (YA) audience has exploded in the last decade. Whereas earlier novels in this genre “tend to be single-minded tales of survival, whether against oppression, aliens, or the environment, . . . the post-9/11 novels in this genre are somehow different, focused more on personal and social change” (Pharr and Clark 8). Therefore, the scholarly analysis must change, too. While there is plenty of scholarly work on the classic dystopian novels (whether they are written for a YA audience or not), the quantity of that kind of work on contemporary YA dystopian literature is understandably still developing. So far, some examples include explorations concerning how a particular novel fits into the tradition of dystopian fiction. Of Bread, Blood, and The Hunger Games, a collection of essays edited by Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark, is one example of this. Scholars are also examining how dystopian novels fit into discourses of adolescence. Joseph Campbell proposes that the dystopian work for adolescents explores the way subjectivity is formed in the face of a system of social pressure and uses his work to explain how the parallels between what happens to the protagonist and the adolescent reader’s own “stirrings” provide an opportunity to “explore how their own culture constructs their adolescent object, powerful-and-simultaneously-powerless subjectivity” (165-66, 177). There is also a movement to analyze how YA protagonists–particularly females–are used to explore young adults’ (or, more specifically, young women’s) “utopian capacity for leadership and for re-visioning traditional power relations and social structures”; this scholarship also analyzes how the stories offer opportunities to “explore gender role stereotypes and their reformulation by young people during situations which require both the conventional ‘masculine’ qualities such as leadership, bravery and endurance and also ‘feminine’ attributes such as nurturing, collaborative teamwork and compassion” (Kennon 40). This movement, therefore, opens the door for a scholarly exploration of the role of female characters within the dystopian literary tradition.

Women in Dystopian Fiction

The conversation concerning female characters in dystopian literature appears to be concerned mainly with the representation of women’s condition within literature and how it reflects power relations and patriarchal influences. The particular inquiries and conclusions take many forms. For example, scholars such as Lyman Tower Sargent and Deanna Madden examine how an author’s views of women’s roles in society are depicted in dystopian texts; Madden looks specifically at the way Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984), and Anthony Burgess’s (A Clockwork Orange) own prejudices, combined with the gender inequalities of their times, result in a number of disturbing misogynistic elements in their novels (Sargent 302-3; Madden 289). Joyce McCarl Nielsen is part of a crowd of scholars who seek to address the failures of utopian writers to portray sexual equality; and to do so, she breaks from the social psychological analysis popular at that time to use a structural perspective instead (145-6). Other scholars look at authors of dystopian literature who break from traditional portrayals of women. Raffaella Baccolini, for instance, illustrates how Margaret Atwood breaks the boundaries that define traditional male dystopias – where women are silent and passive and often embody the negative values of the future society – and transcends the binary opposition in the concept of genre (137). Of course, there are also the scholars who examine the way feminist writers seek to challenge, address, and expose the negative aspects of patriarchal societies in which women are often perceived as “the other,” as Anna Gilarek does (221-22).

Notably, much of the discussion of women in dystopian fiction refers to the “classics” and the treatment of current science fiction or dystopian literature is not as prevalent. That which does exist about current literature, though, looks at the relationship between gender and power and the transition into maturity. Feminine Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction is one of the most recent works about contemporary YA dystopian fiction. It “focuses on the ways the dystopian mode provides girls with means to challenge the status quo” (4). The editors argue that the contemporary YA dystopian female protagonists “use their [liminal situations and] in-between positions as a means for resistance and rebellion against social orders that seek to control them,” while at the same time “their rebellion plays a role in facilitating individual growth” (3-4). Additionally, with the growing popularity of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and other modern fantasies (a classification under which YA dystopian fiction belongs), scholars are beginning to pay more attention to female protagonists and discuss them as heroes.

Women As Heroes

Unfortunately, there is still very little research or work done on the female hero.[12] As Lori Campbell[13] explains, it is only recently that the quest story has moved beyond the traditional male hero and the stereotypically “silent or invisible” female who could not possibly set off on a quest “unprotected by a man to do battle” (4). Thus, the lack of strong female protagonists worth considering has postponed any in-depth panoramic studies of the female hero in her own right (Campbell 4). Granted, with the development of modern fantasy came an evolution in thinking about it that coincided with and was inspired by the second wave women’s movement in the early 1960s. But, the evolution doesn’t begin to impact the development of the female hero until a decade or so later, at which point more women were writing fantasy and recasting “the typical male hero of the quest story with female heroes” (Campbell 5). This resulted in a character type who could live up to the mantle of a male hero; she was brave, assertive, even foolish or arrogant–traits that are not just masculine, but human and shared by all (Campbell 5).

In light of this point, Campbell purposefully uses “female hero” rather than “heroine” because, as she explains, the female hero is only recently coming into her own, and, while the male version has been the standard and ideal for centuries, her representation of heroism must be considered in its own terms (6). For one, obstacles she must overcome for her journey to be recognized as heroic are different, and that difference must be taken into account. Moreover, she is different than the “super heroine,” the highly-sexualized heroine such as Wonder Woman.[14]

Realizing that there is a great opportunity for a discussion about the female hero in literature, Campbell compiled her book of essays, A Quest of Her Own: Essays of the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy, in order to tease out the ways in which literary fantasy writers following Tolkien uniquely define the female hero so that she “need not mimic the male hero’s journey” (5). With no clear sense of attributes upon which to build, Campbell uses her study as a way to discern some defining traits of the female hero (6). Beginning simply with a foundational definition of the hero or heroine in her introduction,[15] she ultimately draws conclusions about what the female hero is by discussing what she is not: at first glance, she is not likely to succeed; she is not overly burdened by gendered or other social expectations; she is not a “superhero”; and she is not going away (Campbell 283-5).

Tris as a Female Hero

Campbell’s book and her discussion of the modern fantasy “female hero” inspired me to consider whether Tris fits this character type. In order to explore this possibility, I held up each of the four elements of the female hero Campbell defines to Tris’s thoughts and actions. As I did this, it became clear that Tris is indeed a female hero whose position as a “site of influence” for female readers as well as for society as a whole offers one way by which we can understand the cultural phenomenon surrounding the trilogy (2).[16] She is both a reflection of cultural trends regarding the conversation about and portrayal of women in society while also participating in the broader phenomenon–specifically the female hero–that simultaneously appears to be influencing these trends.

At first glance, she is not likely to succeed.

During many moments of The Divergent Trilogy, you wonder if and how Tris can overcome the obstacle before her. For instance, from the start, Tris knows she is a divergent, and increasingly learns the danger of the wrong people finding out. Since she is still learning what her divergence means and how critical it is to keep her guard up and not deviate from the norm, she is always at risk for making a fatal mistake. Tris must also face the assumption that she is just a small, weak girl who does not belong in Dauntless. In a parallel way, her physical size is a disadvantage during phase 1 of the Dauntless initiation, when she must learn fighting skills and be ranked according to her performance; and only the top ten will move on to phase 2 of initiation (Divergent 71). Then, during phase 2, her divergence enables her to remain aware during the simulations whereas the others are not, so her performance is by far the best of all the initiates. This attracts some attention, and often it is not positive. Even though she manages to divert suspicions from Dauntless and Erudite leaders about her divergence for the time being, rival initiates grow jealous and physically harm her (Divergent 277-81). Thus, her personal situation leaves her at a disadvantage before she even faces the actual tests of her quest, which begin with the simulation-controlled attack on Abnegation (Campbell 283).

However, Tris learns to transform these potential liabilities into assets.[17] We see how she learns to fight using her size and therefore her speed, elbows, and knees to her advantage (Divergent 84). In addition, her awareness during the simulations and her ability to fight them enables her to resist all of the experiments Jeanine (the Erudite leader) does on her, and Jeanine loses her temper over her inability to find a serum to control Tris. On top of that, her run-ins with jealous rival initiates teach her how to value and rely on her friendships, and how to let go of her pride for her own safety (Divergent 290-92). The obstacles also challenge her to prove that she is capable, that she is brave and strong and therefore belongs in Dauntless. By going into action even when the odds are against her, Tris rises above her circumstances to claim power–as a role model, not a political leader–and to commit acts of courage and self-sacrifice that resonate beyond herself, which I explain further when I discuss Tris’s role as a site of influence for readers below (Campbell 283).

She is not overly burdened by gendered or other social expectations.

Tris may be a sixteen-year old female, but she never lets that hold her back or define her. Although her focus is never on how to shake up or redefine femininity, she naturally grows to embrace the contradictions and consequentially rescues stereotypically feminine traits, such as gentleness, from the negative connotations that might have previously compromised the perceptions of her heroism (Campbell 284). For example, as noted above, she is small in size and stature, but she learns to use that to her advantage. She learns when to be prideful and tough, but also when it is perfectly acceptable to be vulnerable. After Peter, Drew, and Al attack her, she wants to hide the pain and hurt they caused her yet acknowledges and accepts the wisdom in Four’s counsel to pretend vulnerability and thus receive Christina and Will’s pity and protection. Plus, even though she is capable of being strong and assertive, she remains equally capable of gentleness, which she displays when she explains to George that his sister gave her life defending them against the factionless attack (Allegiant 163). In other words, as a female hero she embodies human qualities, not just the stereotypically female ones, and embraces the contradictions within us all instead of fighting to completely identify with one or the other.

She is not a “superhero.”

Tris does not need to be a figure of idealized perfection or masculine power in order to be considered a hero (Campbell 284). As opposed to a “super-heroine,” the female hero can and often does possess attractiveness and femininity. However, these qualities do not in themselves define her. She does not concern herself much with how she looks because she has more important things to worry about (Campbell 8). It is true that Tris was raised according to Abnegation values, and that one element of the lifestyle that helps members resist vanity is to dress plainly and modestly and only look in the mirror every three months on Hair Cutting Day (Divergent 1). This influences her lack of interest in her own appearance, to a degree. She is not entirely against seeing herself in a mirror, but as she tells Christina, “I’ve just never been allowed to stare at my reflection this long” (Divergent 88). Despite being unconcerned with her appearance in terms of examining herself in a mirror, she still experiences normal teenage insecurity about her body.[18] The important thing, though, is that this does not consume her thoughts or inhibit her overall self-confidence and bravery.

Aside from the obvious differences in appearance between her and a “super-heroine,” Tris has flaws just like her male counterpart—and so she should, since she is a human and all humans have imperfections. Like all of us, she has fears to face and makes mistakes (Campbell 284). Tris is capable of being jealous, as she is when Tobias sneaks off to meet up with Nita to discuss genetic damage (Allegiant 194-98, 258-60). She is capable of holding grudges, as she does when her brother, Caleb, betrays her by working for Jeanine (Insurgent). She is also capable of harming others, whether intentionally or without thinking, as she does when she shoots Peter in the arm in order to get the information she needs to stop the simulation-controlled attack on the Abnegation (Divergent 463-64). She is capable of killing a friend out of self-defense while willingly offering herself as a sacrifice at another friend’s hands, as was the case with Will; and she will be haunted by her choice long afterward (Divergent 446). But, even in spite of her flaws, she is extraordinary and heroic in the way she is able to enable positive change and show superior bravery, assertiveness, and intelligence in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles (Campbell 284).

She’s not going away.

As Campbell states, the female hero has achieved the status of a modern fantasy archetype; there are enough of them to fill fourteen chapters in her book, and that is not even all of them (285). Tris deservedly joins the ranks of these female heroes, which includes Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), Éowyn (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien), Tenar (Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin), and Brienne of Tarth (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin). And, the category keeps expanding.

Tris as a Site of Influence

These four qualities contribute to Tris’s role as a “site of influence” for not only female readers, but society as a whole (Campbell 2). As a site of influence, Tris serves as a role model of true virtue and femininity, a believer in human dignity and equality, a teacher of the truth of selflessness, and a beacon of hope.

Tris is a role model in the way she embodies the true and pure values of the factions and illustrates the necessity of balancing these values as opposed to living them out in their extreme. Since she is a divergent, she is able to consider and then act according to more than one of these virtues; she is able to be brave and dauntless, but she is also able to be selfless, kind, smart, and honest. This ability is made more valuable by the lessons she learns about the harmful results of emphasizing one virtue as opposed to the healthy and preferable result of letting them check and balance each other. Even in her early days as an initiate, she realizes that getting rid of one bad thing leaves room for another bad thing to replace it. Therefore, it is a continuous process to become a better person. In her case, she notes that she traded cowardice for cruelty and weakness for ferocity. Thus, she comes to understand and agree with Four that they cannot ignore the virtues of the other factions in order to bolster the virtue of their own (Divergent 405).

Furthermore, Tris is feminine, but does not let her femininity limit her. She is strong and empowered, and embraces her humanity and the ability to embody the contradictions within. Not only is she not limited or overly-burdened by gendered expectations, but she chooses to let the qualities that make her human define her rather than the stereotypes or labels society gives her. On top of that, she chooses to carry herself as a whole person with many elements to her identity instead of accepting that she is merely “a female,” “a transfer,” “a divergent,” or “genetically pure.”

This makes Tris a believer in human dignity and equality, and therefore someone who refuses to accept the Bureau’s discriminatory treatment of the genetically damaged individuals (GDs) or let genetic difference justify a change in how she sees and treats GDs.  Along the same line of thought, she refuses to let “GD” be the sole defining label for Tobias or other GDs. As she tells Tobias, “You’re the same person you were five minutes ago and four months ago and eighteen months ago! This [the knowledge that he is genetically damaged and therefore not a true divergent] doesn’t change anything about you” (Allegiant 177). She also explains to Christina, “I’m not saying your genes aren’t different, . . . I’m just saying that doesn’t mean one set is damaged and one isn’t. The genes for blue eyes and brown eyes are different too, but are blue eyes ‘damaged’? It’s like they arbitrarily decided that one kind of DNA was bad and the other was good” (Allegiant 256).

Her belief in the dignity of all people, even those who are engaged in destructive conflict, enables her to justify releasing the memory serum in the Bureau. Although they plan to stop the Bureau from releasing the memory serum in the city, she explains that the people in the Bureau “have no regard for human life. They’re about to wipe the memories of all our friends and neighbors. They’re responsible for the deaths of a large majority of our old faction” (Allegiant 384). Although Tobias points out that they are “acting out of desperation to save something that’s important to [them] – just like the Bureau is,” Tris responds that the difference between what they are doing and what the Bureau wants to do “is what’s right. The people in [their] city, as a whole, are innocent. The people in the Bureau, who supplied Jeanine with the attack simulation, are not innocent” (Allegiant 388). So, it is a matter of justice and an issue of human dignity that inspires Tris to take this course of action and make the ultimate sacrifice.

Of course, no conversation about Tris as a role model would be complete without some mention or discussion of her selflessness. Tris feels that she does not belong in Abnegation because she believes she is not capable of being selfless. On the contrary, it is actually because of her divergence that she feels out of place; it is this divergence that allows her to continue learning to be selfless even while she learns to be brave. She explains this to her father, saying that she left Abnegation in order to learn to be both brave and selfless, because often they are the same thing; and, as Four points out, it is when Tris acts selflessly that she is at her bravest (Divergent 457, 311). Therefore, selflessness becomes her most powerful weapon – once she learns to use it properly. Just as the trilogy’s plot is propelled by the significance of divergence, Tris’s journey of personal growth is propelled and defined by lessons on selflessness.[19] By the time she willingly takes Caleb’s place in what could—and would—be a suicide mission, Tris has come to understand the true meaning of acting selflessly. She also realizes how the effects of her selflessness will resonate beyond herself to touch the lives of all members of her society, even after her death.

Thus, Tris’s journey of female heroism gives readers hope. She gives us hope that women are capable of much more than society often deems possible, and that while we are unique in important ways, we are not inherently limited. Tris gives us hope that we are more than the sum of our genetics. We have the freedom to control our choices, and to exercise our human capacity to reason and make decisions as to how to prioritize our values and whether or not to act on our impulses. This, not our genetic makeup, is what is most important. Even Amar, another GP, affirms this (Allegiant 127). The significance of choice is also illustrated by a comparison of the choices and actions of genetically pure Tris, genetically pure yet cruel Marcus, and Tris’s genetically damaged yet truly heroic friends (e.g., Christina or Cara). Tris gives us hope that change is possible. Although we, too, live in a broken and corrupt world that seems to privilege certain values in their extremes while ignoring others, a change in societal philosophy and practice is within reach. Tris’s journey throughout the trilogy gives us hope that, although it is impossible to create a perfect world – we don’t know what it would look like and would not be able to reach it on our own if we did – we can stop trying to be perfect and focus instead on loving the people around us and the things we are doing. After all, Tris tries out selflessness and then bravery, but in the end it is what she does out of love that is more important than any other virtue (The World of Veronica Roth’s Divergent Series 21).

Conclusion

Analysis of Tris as a female hero is just one lens through which the popularity and polarized responses of the trilogy can be examined. My close reading of the text uncovered a wealth of additional questions to be explored that may shed light on more ways to answer this inquiry,[20] and my initial research pointed out additional conversations and critical or theoretical lenses that can be used.[21] These questions are important because, as strong female protagonists continue to be written, more attention should be given to the role of these and other women characters in both reflecting and shaping our cultural ideals. Although the academic conversation still has to catch up, the cultural conversation between readers is well underway, as readers’ spirited responses to The Divergent Trilogy suggest. Popular fiction deserves as much attention as scholarly literature since its popularity provides clues to society’s current anxieties and concerns.

The Divergent Trilogy’s popularity and Tris’s role as a female hero who serves as a site of influence for readers, while they do not provide clear answers about our culture, do point to issues and concerns that preoccupy us. One such issue is society’s hunger for examples of strong females who can serve as role models, and literature can provide readers of all ages with this fully-formed female character who is much more complex and desirable than the stereotype. Tris’s journey toward a true understanding of selflessness speaks to a virtue that our society hungers for, too. I am eager to see how other female protagonists of contemporary fantasy fiction, particularly the YA dystopian novel, compliment and support Tris as they work to satisfy this hunger.

Notes

[1] The first book, Divergent, debuted at #6 on New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Best Seller List and remained on this list for 11 weeks. It also spent 39 weeks on the Children’s Paperback List, where it reached #1, before continuing on its new Young Adult Best Seller List for and additional 47 weeks. It won “Favorite Book of 2011”, the senior category of 2014 Young Reader’s Choice Award, and #1 in the Teen’s Top Ten Vote (YALSA). Leading up to the film adaptation’s release, Divergent topped USA Today’s Best Selling Books List in January 2014. As a series, the combined three volumes sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 (“Divergent (novel): Reception”).

[2] The summary for Insurgent on Common Sense Media defines Tris as a “brave young heroine.”

[3] Heq073198, a reviewer of Insurgent on Common Sense Media, said that Tris “is strong, unwavering, and beautifully-flawed.”

[4] Karen Tay describes Tris as “a feisty heroine.”

[5] The summary for Divergent on Common Sense Media describes Tris as “a strong, generous, and beautifully flawed female protagonist.”

[6] Reviewer mary-kristina, on Common Sense Media’s page about Allegiant, said, “Even though Tris was GP and had it easy in the Bureau she fought for the rights of all of the GD who had been discriminated against. She stuck true to her cause and refused to back down. It was an inspiring story that rings true to many things today.”

[7] An anonymous reviewer on Common Sense Media’s page about Allegiant, posted on May 10, 2014, “Tris takes Caleb’s place, willing to die for somebody she loves. Tris showed real heart and selflessness to do that, that is why she is such a great role model for everyone.”

[8] “Whenever Tris finds another characters motivations perplexing she tends to shrug her shoulders and say “that guys weird” and yes, it is always a guy. I know the opposite gender is confusing to most xixteen year olds, but it still made the gender dynamics in the trilogy awkward when half of the characters get motivations for their actions and half of them get shrugs.” (Poweleit)

[9] Reviewer youmundanefools, on Common Sense Media’s page about Insurgent, said, “This was a pretty good book but I didn’t like how Tris kept trying to get herself killed for no reason.”

[10] JulieMom, a reviewer of Allegiant on Common Sense Media, said, “Tris is too concerned for her brother to think clearly, and makes decisions that I felt were weak. They may seem strong and selfless on the surface, but I think she is just confused because she doesn’t know who she is supposed to be anymore.”

[11] I will define and discuss the character type of the “female hero” below.   It is worth noting, though, that Campbell discusses the female hero in the broad genre of modern fantasy, while I am applying it to a specific subgenre of fantasy: young adult dystopian literature.

[12] Two examples of some research that does exist are Gilbert and Lester’s examination of the way in which women writers of the 1990s created female postmodern warriors who are “more violent than the stereotypical violent male” and Fredrick and McBride’s claim that “battles are ugly when women fight” because women must become ugly in order to fight and therefore it is not simply about protecting women but about preserving them from their own possible ugliness (Gilbert and Lester, 41-2; Fredrick and McBride, 40-1).

[13] From this point on, I will refer to Lori Campbell by her last name. Still, she is not to be confused with Joseph Campbell, who I mention only in my discussion of young adult dystopian fiction.

[14] Although examples of female empowerment are visible in literature across the centuries, up until the second half of the twentieth century, the female hero –if she appears at all – most often does not appear as a hero in her own right, but as a “super heroine,” i.e., a figment of masculine imagination whose major superpower is sexuality, enlarged to seem like a real power (Campbell, 7).

[15] “A hero or heroine…has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience…who has given his/her life to something bigger than oneself” (qtd. in L. Campbell, 6).

[16] Although Campbell does not specifically define “site of influence,” I have interpreted this to mean that the female hero functions as a role model for readers – a role model of any number of positive characteristics – and therefore can inspire female and male readers alike.

[17] In the section titled “Underestimated Overachievers: Unlikely and Unstoppable Female Heroes,” contributors “consider how being viewed as having less potential to succeed can be transformed into an asset rather than accepted as a liability” (Campbell, 9-10).

[18] Tris makes comments, often subtly and in passing, that serve as glimpses into this insecurity, but she most intensely feels it during intimate moments with Tobias (who also goes by Four), as on pages 414-15 of Allegiant.

[19] Her overall journey toward understanding true selflessness proceeds as follows: In Divergent, she does not play along with the attack simulation to avoid being caught for being a divergent. She also does not stand back and let someone else attempt to stop the attack, but uses her new skills and knowledge as a member of Dauntless to lead the efforts to stop the simulation. The, when fighting simulation-controlled Tobias, Tris realizes that she cannot bring herself to kill him, and surrenders just as she had in her fear landscape. This triggers something in Tobias, and he is able to break out of the simulation (475-78). In the process of defending the efforts to stop the simulation, both of her parents die. In Insurgent, Tris is trying to process the grief of losing her parents while also process how their deaths were acts of true selflessness. Thinking she understands, but at the same time swaying toward wanting to end all the pain and suffering she is experiencing, Tris hands herself over to the Erudite for experimentation. She does this upon learning of a simulation that will cause Dauntless members to step off the roof every two days unless a Divergent is handed over, because Marlene is one of the first members she cannot save from stepping off, and the guilt and grief of this event cause her to snap and ignore Tobias’s pleas that she reconsider (301, 313). Tobias has already called her out for being “a sixteen-year-old girl who does not understand that the value of a sacrifice lies in its necessity, not in throwing [her] life away” (260). And at times, the pain and grief is too much, and she feels that she is done with life and that her parents will be proud of her sacrifice, of turning away from herself and projecting herself outward like the Abnegation (364, 379). However, she eventually realizes, almost too late, that inside of her is a beast that strains toward life and that she does not want to die (341, 383). Thankfully, Peter rescues her, and she receives another chance at life and at understanding selflessness. In Allegiant, she continually processes all the events that have occurred recently, and ponders the truth of selflessness. As the result of her own observations and reflection, as well as conversations with Tobias, she realizes that volunteering to go to Erudite headquarters was not selfless but the result of her guilt and a grieving, ailing part of her desiring to lose everything. After Caleb volunteers to go on the suicide mission to release the memory serum in the Bureau, she questions whether these are the same motivations her brother has, and whether she should allow him to die so that he feels his debt to her is repaid (410-11). Tobias reminds her that the Abnegation have teachings about when to let others sacrifice themselves for you, even when it’s selfish: “They say that if the sacrifice is the ultimate wy for that person to show you that they love you, you should let them do it. That, in that situation, it’s the greatest gift you can give them. Just as it was when both of your parents died for you” (412). After reflecting on whether Caleb is acting out of guilt and whether that guilt implies that he loves her and feels sorry for betraying her, she realizes that is not what is motivating him (448). As a result, when they are stopped by security guards on their way to the Weapons Lab, she realizes that she loves her brother much more than she desires repayment for his betrayal, and takes the backpack from him to fulfill the mission out of that love (454-56). She explains to David, in the Weapons Lab, that her mother taught her about real sacrifice, “that it should be done from love, …from necessity, …for people who need your strength because they don’t have enough of their own;” and she knows now that she has completed her mission, that she has finally understood the truth about sacrifice (473-76).

[20] Some examples of questions that bubbled up as I poked around in the trilogy in order to analyze Tris as a female hero are: Are there any Christian influences or elements in the trilogy, and how do they affect the characters and events? What does Tris and Tobias’s relationship illustrate about young love, or say about the definition of “true love”? Is there a message regarding the importance of family and friendship, of loyalty, of how to define “family”? What does Tris learn about the ethics of war and peace, of killing or harming and of sparing, from her experience with the faction leaders and the Bureau as well as discussions with her father and Tobias? What is the underlying narrative about Tris’s struggle with grief and guilt, and does she suffer from PTSD? Is there a deeper significance to any of the themes mentioned in this paper’s analysis? For example, Tris as a martyr, the importance of balance and pure virtue, discrimination, nature versus nurture (i.e., genetic and biological fate versus free will and choice), the portrayal of gender, and reclaiming and redefining feminine virtues.

[21] Some examples of addition lenses and questions are: How can the conversations I passed through on my way to Lori Campbell’s ideas about the female hero – and briefly discussed above – lead toward other paths of inquiry for this text or function as resources for some questions uncovered through close reading? Is there room for an analysis of the popularity of other popular young adult dystopian fictions by analyzing their female protagonists as female heroes who are additional sites of influence? What are the similarities between female protagonists in contemporary young adult dystopian fictions, and what are the differences? Brett Gibson observes that Katniss has a cold-blooded side, because she views relationships in terms of debt, owing, and repayment. This becomes the launching point for his exploration of the way Katniss’s journey shows us that revenge is never enough and that only the virtues of love, grace, and forgiveness can end the cycle of violence – as they eventually do once Katniss returns to District 12 and Peeta arrives and teaches her to rebuild her life according to these virtues (85, 88-89). So, how does Katniss’s compare to Tris’s, and do they come to any similar conclusions about virtues such as selflessness? What additional lenses did I overlook? For example, how might women authorship influence the treatment of gender and the creation of the character of Tris?

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