Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Along with the five factions, the book contains many examples of people being ranked and categorized according to their performance in various testing scenarios. The Dauntless faction is particularly hierarchical. This is a strong contrast to Abnegation, where everyone is supposed to be equal and no one strives to be more successful or admired than anyone else. The initiation tests use numbers to create an impression of objectivity, even though the actual process of ranking is invisible to the initiates.
For Tris, who’s unaccustomed to competing against others, this is an exciting new world, especially since she finds herself performing better than she expected. Having grown up in the humble world of Abnegation, she struggles with her desire to defeat others, especially Peter, who constantly tries to sabotage her. She’s eager to make friends with the Dauntless-born initiates, who have an advantage since they’ve grown up in the Dauntless world. Among her transfer friends, anxiety is higher. The atmosphere is an intensified version of high school competitiveness. The initiates get test anxiety, are curious about each other’s relative standings, and become insecure and resentful when they don’t measure up to their friends. The sense of competition is particularly strong in the dining hall, where the initiates divide into cliques and gossip about each other.
In Dauntless, learning to face one’s fears is a vital skill and a major part of initiation. The Dauntless seek to be brave, both as a group and as individuals, and Dauntless leaders have evidently determined that the best way to teach courage is through a form of exposure therapy. In the second and third training stages, the trainees repeatedly encounter simulated versions of their phobias, a method meant to help them lessen their fears and control their reactions to real-life danger.
The initiates’ fears reveal their individual personalities. One of Peter’s fears is public embarrassment, a phobia that emphasizes his superficiality and insecurity. Tobias has only four fears, one of which is his father, who abused him badly enough to make him leave his home faction. Tris’s fears involve loss of control, hurting the people she loves, and intimacy with Tobias, to whom she’s strongly attracted. For both her and Tobias, sharing their fears becomes a way of displaying vulnerability and connecting to one another.
On the surface, the fear simulations are intended to help the initiates become stronger. However, Tris observes her friends breaking down as a result of constant terror. After readers learn that an Erudite plot involving the Dauntless is underway, the tests become even more sinister. The constant exposure to fear-inducing situations is inescapable, since if the initiates refuse to participate, they run the risk of losing their place in Dauntless and becoming factionless. Initially, Tris’s fear of becoming a social outcast outweighs her discomfort with Dauntless methods. When she first learns about the ranking process, she feels “colder” and “harder,” and she hesitates to help Christina hang onto the chasm railing for fear of looking weak. Eventually, however, facing her fears helps her learn what motivates her as an individual rather than making her a brainwashed member of the Dauntless army. She learns that acting selflessly can be brave, like when she offers to take Al’s place at the knife target. Her ability to act on that knowledge even in the face of death ultimately saves her home faction from total annihilation.
Throughout the book, names given to groups and individuals play an important role in publicly defining them. They are an expression of one of the book’s main themes: the complexity of identity. Each faction is named for a common human trait, but the names are more elegant and less familiar-sounding than the qualities they encourage: Candor (honesty), Amity (friendship), Erudite (intelligence), Abnegation (humility), and Dauntless (bravery). These labels make each faction sound important and elevated, encouraging their members to aspire to be the best versions of themselves as allowed within faction guidelines.