Analysis: Chapters 4 – 6
In these chapters, readers are given a clearer sense of daily life in Abnegation. The faction doesn’t just prioritize humility, it demands it. All of its social norms and requirements – identical houses, simple clothing and hairstyles, limitations on public affection – force people to downplay their individual needs and desires on behalf of the collective good. The faction also plays a central role in the political system. Beatrice’s fictional society assumes that the selfless members of Abnegation make the best political leaders. However, Beatrice’s father reveals that this arrangement has begun to cause tension. Specifically, the Erudite feel that their intelligence is a valuable political asset and have begun attacking the council, which is composed entirely of Abnegation members. These troubling details foreshadow worsening problems between the factions.
Marcus’s speech at the Choosing Ceremony reveals more about the historical rationale for the factions. Decades ago, social leaders decided that war was caused by evils within the human personality, not external forces. This led them to attempt to eliminate the human traits that caused violence. It’s notable that his speech focuses on the desire to eliminate bad traits rather than cultivate good ones. He goes on to say that the arrangement created pools of talent for different occupations, but he doesn’t acknowledge the system’s obvious downsides. The factions separate people into rigid categories, forcing each to cultivate a single virtue at the expense of all others. And even though the factions have lived in peace for decades, their separation invites competition and distrust. The negative reports Erudite has been releasing about Abnegation foreshadow the breakdown of the system amidst worsening faction relationships.
Because Beatrice tells the story in first person, readers experience her inner turmoil firsthand. She is clearly unsure of her proper place both within her family and in society as a whole. As she describes Abnegation, we learn that she respects her faction and finds comfort in its rituals and routines. However, she increasingly chafes at its restrictions. Her sense of alienation will lead her to join the Dauntless faction, in many ways Abnegation’s opposite.
Beatrice is especially sensitive to the personality gap between herself and her brother, Caleb. She considers him a model Abnegation citizen and resents his natural unselfishness. Even though they are in the same grade, he is slightly older, and he acts like an elder sibling. He rebukes Beatrice when she speaks out of turn at dinner, and later he gives her advice about the Choosing Ceremony. Her surprise at Caleb’s decision to switch to Erudite reveals that she isn’t an entirely reliable narrator. Her conclusions about others are often influenced by her own self-concern. For example, the stack of books on Caleb’s desk might have alerted her to Caleb’s Erudite aspirations, but she’s so anxious about her own choice that she doesn’t think about what the books might mean.
The Choosing Ceremony forces Beatrice to confront her conflicted feelings head on, and her desire to break free wins out. She feels guilty about leaving her family, especially since Caleb has also chosen a new faction, but she has convinced herself she is too selfish to stay in Abnegation. As she cuts her hand and drips blood over the coals, she observes, “I am selfish. I am brave.” The statement suggests she can’t imagine being both brave and unselfish. Indeed, the inflexible social order has made choosing a new faction a traumatic experience. Unlike in contemporary American society, in the novel, adolescence means physically leaving one’s family and beginning an entirely new life.