Saturday, January 18, 2014

Allegiant: Let's talk about Four

Something funny happened to me as I was reading "Allegiant".

I didn't go in with a completely unbiased mind. I hadn't enjoyed "Divergent" or "Insurgent", and, as an added bonus, I'd also spoiled myself thoroughly about the ending (I'm the kind of person who clicks on the spoiler tag. Curiosity is my middle name.) I had a ton of preconceived notions, and I thought that this would be a fairly straightforward, for-the-sake-of-research-and-goals type of read.

It didn't turn out to be like that. Because, halfway through the book, I had this thought, and once it took root, suddenly I saw everything (the whole series, not just this book) in a completely different light. I daresay it changed my entire opinion of it. It started off with me muttering about how Tris never struck me as a particularly interesting narrator, and how she was so annoyingly perfect, and how she didn't learn anything. And then I thought:

What if this wasn't Tris' story at all? What if it's Four's?

Content note: Discussion about abuse, sexism and gun culture under the cut. 

Also, spoilers.

Take your time, stew it over a bit.

I should not that this is not any "official" interpretation. In writing this, I'm not claiming that I have read the book "right" or that my interpretation of it is better than anyone else's. I've read a few reviews and they all sound legitimate to me, even though they don't necessarily say the same thing. I'm saying this because this review pretty much goes against some of the things I've said about the series in the past, so I'd like to get this out of the way now.

So why did I think "Allegiant" (and, to a great extent, the rest of the series as well) is Four's story rather than Tris'? 

Let's take a look at the facts:

1. Tris is not a character that grows. She seemed to have reached the pinnacle of her character development somewhere in the middle of book one, where she accepted that the faction binaries were inaccurate and stifling. She evolves some more in future books, but it feels more like a variation on the theme rather than a discovery. 

2. Tris is hardly ever wrong. Regardless of what she does, she always comes out validated because it somehow helps the greater cause. I wouldn't go as far as to say it reinforces the above: People can grow as characters without necessarily failing all the time, but there is something to be said about learning through trial and error, because it's hard to perceive your own flaws when you're not in the disadvantaged position.

Which leads me to:

3. Four (or Tobias,) is the one who frequently makes mistakes and grows as a character. He's the one who is unnecessarily brutal or cruel, and he's the one who has to apologize to Tris frequently. He's the one who grows the most as a character in "Allegiant," after spending "Divergent" and "Insurgent" trying to overcome his myriad of (justified, yet still problematic) trust issues and temper his violent urges. Out of the two main leads, Four's the one who has a more complete character arc.

When you look at it like that, "Allegiant" is.... still about rebelling against strict categorizing of human nature and censoring ourselves, but it also becomes a more personal story, about a young man trying to overcome a lifetime of abuse and be a better person in a world that tells him the only way he can get respect is through senseless violence. 

And I've got to respect that.

When I say Four is a victim of abuse, I don't just mean at the hands of his father, Marcus. Yesterday, I read a short passage that had me seeing red for a second:

"I don't like him anymore, if that's what you're really asking. But yes, at one time I did, and it was clear that he did not return that particular sentiment, so I backed off," Amar said.

- Allegiant, page 356

Amar is Four's former instructor. His male former instructor. As this is only the second character in the series who has "outed themselves," I found the implications of that particular statement beyond frustrating. So Amar had the basic human fucking decency to respect an abused minor's boundaries and not take advantage of his obvious position of power.... so what? What was the point of that scene?

Well, it says a lot more about Four than about Amar. Despite the frustrating implications, Amar at least had the presence of character not to push where he knew he shouldn't push, which is more than I can say about Four's relationship with Tris (unless teacher/student relationships are condoned by the Dauntless.) 

More to the point, because it is established Four isn't very open about his feelings, Amar must have at some point made his interest known, in order to be rebuked. Even if it was something as innocent as smiling for a beat too long, Four must have known to react. 

And how do you think that must have felt? In a Doylian/Watsonian sense anyway? 

However you cut it, Four has had every single authority figure in his life abandon, betray, or outright abuse him. He starts off the series as a classical case of an abused turning into the abuser (slowly,) but through his interactions with Tris, he slowly gains a support network, learns that people don't have to betray you, and that people can respect you without your waving a gun in their face.

That's why I loved the climax to this book - with Four reconciling with his mother and stopping violence with a peaceful negotiation - it shows that, yes, some people value relationships more than power, and that yes, you can win a battle without fighting, which, for a series full of gun culture and violence, is pretty damn impressive.

So why am I still writing, rather than urge you all to buy the series and love them as I do?


(You knew this was coming, didn't you?)

Despite the fact that I love (love) Four's character arc and ultimate realization, (which makes me like the series a lot more,) I'm a little torn on the fact that his is, essentially, a dystopian MPDG story. I like how Tris is more than just a plot device to help the tortured male character, and she's treated was a character in her own right, with her own plot arcs and realizations. I really, really like that, whenever she made a bad call, there were consequences, and she handled them in a fairly realistic manner.

And I also realize that, in some ways, what happened to her was inevitable, because the whole book had been building up to that, and there was the danger that, had she ended up with Four in the end, they would have had a rather codependent and unhealthy relationship. 

But that's the problem. The problem is that Tris' fate was so interconnected with Four's, she could not have had an ending being her own person without compromising either of their characters. Despite being the protagonist (in theory) of the series, she was not able to thrive when other people depended on her.

That's a pretty bleak resolution for her character, even if everyone else turned out well in the end. And I guess, despite all my harping on her, that deep down, I wanted better for her.

Note: Images via BookLikes and IMDb.

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