The first time I read The Giver by Lois Lowry, I was in elementary school. Its ambiguous ending shocked and moved me; even though I was already an avid reader, I had never confronted an ending quite like this:
“Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo” (179).
Where was the resolution? Jonas’s triumphant return to his city? And—ultimately—why couldn’t I pinpoint exactly how I was supposed to feel at the end of this novel?
After completing undergraduate and then graduate school, I read through the story again, and I realized that I cherished it for its ambiguity. It gave the story a realistic punch that is sometimes hard to find in fiction written for young audiences.
All this focus on personal greatness has its drawbacks.Then, the novel was ruined for me. I read through the rest of the series [spoiler alert] and Jonas’s story continues and is resolved, which, in my mind, diminished the realistic aspects present in the first novel. My personal sulking aside, this was my introduction to dystopian fiction, a genre that wouldn’t gain momentum with young adult audiences until Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games.
The continued popularity of the dystopian young adult novel invites the question, “Why this genre? Why now?” Many of the more popular books, such as The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Giver, and The Hunger Games series, have been made into films, and other series should be, like The Uglies and Matched series. All of these stories feature an authoritative government, compliant masses, a small faction of rebels, and—what defines the young adult dystopian—a hero or heroine who is unable to conform to the society’s way of life. It’s not that the protagonist wants to rebel, it’s that he (or she) must rebel; it’s an innate part of who he (or she) is.
It’s this refusal to conform to an already largely conforming society that seems to appeal to the young adult reader and all those who admire dystopian rebels. These fictional characters and groups of people are necessary, set apart from mediocrity and the masses; without them, there wouldn’t be an interesting story to tell.
In an interview with WheretoWatch, author James Dashner attempts to describe the popularity of the dystopian genre and his novel The Maze Runner:
We came out right after Hunger Games. I think people were ready for a new wave of something. They loved the Harry Potter years and then Twilight became this gigantic thing. This is just something a little different, where we’re actually envisioning our own future, and that adds this element of coolness to it, that, “Man, this could actually happen to us and now how would we react?” Of course, it has all the sense of adventure and you can have all kinds of cool characters, which is what they love.
Dashner points out that perhaps as young adults read these novels, they wonder, “How would I react?” and in a sense get to live through each protagonist that overcomes an authoritarian government. These fictional characters do not necessarily represent reality, although they do have their human faults and struggles. Instead, they seem to provide a role model or an aspirational self that readers wish to be. While dystopian young adult protagonists certainly have some relatable attributes, most readers probably wish they were like them as opposed to believing that they are like them.
Thomas, the protagonist in Dashner’s novel The Maze Runner, is another dystopian character who responds to chaos exactly as anyone might hope they would. Thomas and several boys have been introduced, one at a time, to the Glade, a plot of land enclosed by large stone walls that separate the boys from a maze. No one really knows how they arrived or who sent them, and their memories have been affected. Soon after Thomas is introduced to the Glade, he and two other boys are caught in the maze during an attack by mysterious monsters.
One of the boys is hurt, and Thomas has the option to save himself and leave the hurt boy or attempt to save both his friend and himself. The third boy has already deserted the group, but Thomas digs into who he is inherently: “At that moment, in the space of only a few seconds, he learned a lot about himself. About the Thomas he was before. He couldn’t leave a friend to die” (120). Here, it is clear that while Thomas is making a choice to save his friend, he is also playing out a part of his identity. Inherently, Thomas is someone who would not leave his friend to die. It’s just a part of who he is.
As the heroine of The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins), Katniss represents a character most readers would like to be. In an article for The Guardian, Suzanne Moore described why Katniss appeals to many:
Sure, Katniss is an idealised fantasy anti-authoriatarian heroine. She is also confused, stubborn and vulnerable. What she isn’t is either “girly” or interested in riches. She makes her bow and arrows to bring down the system. Nothing is said about gender. She is taller than one of her partners and it’s her physical and mental prowess that we root for.
In other words, Katniss is a character that breathes fresh air into the young adult genre filled with tragically laughable “heroines,” and she embodies strengths that anyone would be happy to have. She is young, but she is also a leader who generally makes decisions that move the Panem revolution forward. As much as every reader might want to be Katniss, it’s because of what she isn’t. She isn’t perfect, making it much easier to identify with her faults than her strengths.
In Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Tris is the protagonist who is set apart even from the faction in her society known for bravery. In the preface to her short story collection Four, Roth describes the importance of writing the Divergent series from Tris’s perspective, explaining that “the series follows Tris from the moment she seized control of her own life and identity” (XIV). While this might be a familiar expression applying to many, not everyone can take control of his or her own identity and become Tris. Despite her upbringing in the Abnegation faction (that seeks to serve others at the expense of oneself), she literally (and figuratively) makes the jump to join Dauntless, which Roth describes in Four:
As she tumbles over the side, I grab her arms, to steady her. She’s small, and thin—fragile looking, like the impact of the net should have shattered her. Her eyes are wide and bright blue.
“Thank you,” she says. She may look fragile, but her voice is steady.
“Can’t believe it,” Lauren says, with more Dauntless swagger than usual. “A Stiff, the first to jump? Unheard of.”
She’s right. It is unheard of. It’s unheard of for a Stiff to join Dauntless even…. I announce, “First jumper—Tris!”
This way, they’ll remember her, not for the gray she wears but for her act of bravery. Or insanity. Sometimes they’re the same thing. (269–270)
In this moment, Tris is not clothing herself with a new identity, separate from who she has been thus far in her fictional life. Instead, she steps forward into her identity. Tris is brave, daring, different. In this scene, she proves that she is capable of great things and careless of stereotypes. Everyone who has read of (or seen, via the film) Tris jumping first wants to be her, although few actually would take the first jump. Here, she sets herself apart from those she grew up with in Abnegation and even from the other Dauntless recruits. She is separate from the masses.
The result of these young adult protagonists playing to their strengths and rebelling against their governments is, generally, success. While it may not end exactly how readers would like (many might remember the outrage over the ending of the Divergent series), the endings are still relatively marked by progress. This is not the case with all dystopian fiction.
One dystopian novel that stands in contrast to most in the genre is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It imagines life for a young woman living in a culture under (supposedly) theocratic control. Her life is not one that readers would want for themselves, as she is used as a sort of concubine and has no personal freedom, and her end remains uncertain. Her story closes as she enters a van that could lead to either freedom or probable death. Although Atwood reveals at the end of her novel that progress was made and the government overthrown, it is never revealed what part the woman played in this.
Perhaps even more distressing is the end to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” Harrison is a character that anyone might admire: he is stronger, smarter, and better looking than most around him. Living under a controlling government that desires everyone to be exactly the same, everyone wears “handicaps” preventing them from performing above average, whether that is dancing, talking, playing an instrument, or singing. In the culminating scene, Harrison tears off his handicaps and stages a coup, which is seen by everyone watching television. Minutes later, he is shot dead, the revolution ends, and no one remembers Harrison because their handicaps affect their memories.
The differences between young adult and adult dystopian protagonists are striking. In the Young Adult (YA) genre, it’s as if an imaginary camera is focused on one or two heroes of a revolution. These characters are larger than life, and it would seem almost disrespectful to say that they represent the common man. The common man might want to be Katniss Everdeen, but it is unlikely that he will ever actually be Katniss Everdeen.
In the YA dystopian world, making progress against evil begins with controlling one’s purpose and identity. These main characters find strength through inherent identities and find salvation from opposing forces through their own works, primarily because they become self aware, processing their tragedies and playing to their strengths. Without these young adults, there would be no story, no promise for change, no successful revolution. The YA dystopian protagonists are necessary for change and the champions of their own stories.
When I read these stories, I want to be the one who initiates and fights for revolution. I want to be necessary, and I want to be so individually exceptional that I can’t help but effect change—in a way that only I can—for a stale society in need of new life. As Dashner mentioned in his interview, I want to know what I would do in these situations; would the focus of the story be on me and would I be the hero? Or would I be lost in some crowd, remaining nameless and faceless throughout the novel, despite my work for the good or bad of society?
All this focus on personal greatness has its drawbacks. It’s not that desiring to change the world is a bad thing. It’s that in real life, desiring to be the answer—the most effective avenue for change—will leave one tired and disappointed.
Thankfully, the gospel stands in contrast to the message construed from YA dystopian protagonists. We do not have to be the heroes of our own stories, and really, we cannot be. We cannot make progress by discovering ourselves and then using what we find to our advantage. That salvation is “by grace, through faith” means that in spite of the personality, works, and past of the Christian, God has chosen to set them apart. The message of the gospel isn’t, “God chose you because you are special,” but instead, “God chose you despite who you were.”
The pursuit of greatness cannot be fulfilled through the glory of ourselves, but only as we glory in Christ. We don’t have to look to or in ourselves for greatness or revolution, and we don’t have to be the center of our own stories to find purpose.
Our strength and salvation is not in our inherent identities, but the identity given to us by Christ, who is consequently the hero of our stories. While this might seem less sentimental and less empowering for the individual, it actually provides a way toward joy for all those unable to live up to the heroism of YA Dystopian Protagonists.
YA fictional heroes, your formidable expectations aren’t needed here. And with that, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief, even as we thoroughly enjoy the storylines these books pull us into.
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