Tris is both the protagonist in a coming-of-age novel, or bildungsroman, and the heroine of a dystopian narrative. Throughout the book, these two genres interweave to give readers a fuller picture of the forces against which Tris will eventually struggle. On the dystopian side, readers get an impression that the city is governed by authorities with a vested interest in total control over society. The Abnegation council governs all five factions, and Eric and Four are being guided by leaders inside Dauntless, suggesting there are several hierarchies in conflict. Tori’s refusal to talk with Tris about her test results confirms the sense that the results are connected to some larger, dangerous secret related to faction governance.

Another sign that this is a dystopia is the fact that Tris and her friends are forced to fight against one another. The teenagers in Dauntless are taught that shocking brutality is the only way to survive, a telltale sign of a society whose priorities are terribly warped. Roth graphically describes the injuries they inflict on each other in order to emphasize Dauntless’ brutal goals. Thanks to Eric’s leadership, bravery in Dauntless has come to mean ruthlessness. This creates conflict between Eric and Four, two authority figures who Tris will come to see as representatives of Dauntless’ good and bad sides. While Four values fairness and moderation, Eric prizes brute force and domination. Their conflicting attitudes will cause Tris to question her own definition of bravery and her ability to achieve it. Her annoyance with Al, a large, strong initiate who nonetheless cries from stress and hates fighting, shows that Tris places a great deal of importance on the appearance of bravery, through concealing fear. And her hesitation to help Christina out of the chasm reveals that she desperately wants to fit in to the Dauntless world, even when she questions its methods.

At sixteen, Tris is on the cusp of adulthood, and her initiation into Dauntless is a metaphor for her transition away from childhood. She has left her parents behind and is completely immersed in the world of her peers – a scenario that many young adults simultaneously crave and fear. She recalls that in Abnegation, she was never able to make her own choices. Now, outside of training, she has free time to explore her own interests. In this and other ways, she realizes her childhood experiences differ from those of her friends. She’s embarrassed by things that set her apart, including her clothing, hairstyle, and general appearance. These are things real teenagers worry about, giving Tris’ worries a sense of verisimilitude, or plausibility, for readers. The fact that the initiates will be ranked throughout their training also has parallels in the social hierarchies of high school. Those who pass a set of often arbitrary social “tests” become part of the group, and those who fail become outcasts.

Tris’s discomfort at the sight of Edward and Myra kissing is another indication that this is a coming-of-age story. Growing up in Abnegation, Tris learned to hide, downplay, and be ashamed of all her personal desires, including sexual ones. By age sixteen, most people have acknowledged their sexuality, but Tris has never had that that opportunity. Much like her Divergence, it’s something she doesn’t fully understand, and it scares her. Aside from her parents holding hands at the dinner table, she’s seen very little public affection throughout her life, so watching two young people kissing passionately in public is both troubling and exciting to her. Her conflicted feelings about intimacy will surface constantly throughout the book, especially as she gets to know Four. The fact that she becomes breathless at his touch during the kickboxing scene suggests she is developing a physical attraction to him.