Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Birds become an important symbol of Tris’s identity during initiation. During her aptitude test, she notices that Tori, the Dauntless test administrator, has a hawk with a red eye tattooed on her neck. Tori explains that in some cultures, the hawk was a symbol of the sun, so the tattoo reminds her that she conquered her fear of the dark. After Tris joins Dauntless, she has Tori tattoo three birds, one for each member of her family, on her collarbone, as if they’re flying toward her heart. The birds remind Tris of her home faction and help her feel as though her family is still with her. They also symbolize the rush of freedom Tris feels when she does things that resemble flight, like jumping onto trains, leaping into the Pit, and zip lining off of the Hancock building. On the other hand, Tris’s first fear simulation involves a huge, angry flock of crows pecking her to death. The crows’ blackness mirrors the black clothing worn by the Dauntless, suggesting that the birds represent Dauntless as a collective and hinting that the faction poses a threat to Tris’s life.
Other than walking, trains are the sole mode of transportation within and beyond the city. They act almost like an independent organism, running at all hours of the day and night, seemingly in every direction and without any operators to control them. Early in the book, Tris longingly watches the Dauntless jump off the train outside school, foreshadowing that she’ll soon leave Abnegation to join the more reckless faction. The trains’ loud noise and constant movement contrast sharply with Abnegation’s quiet atmosphere. They represent Tris’s desire to seek out new, exciting experiences rather than spend her life in Abnegation, where she must ignore her own desires and patiently serve others.
When Tris leaves Abnegation to join Dauntless, she begins to experiment with her appearance, reflecting the fact that she has the freedom to explore her individual style for the first time. The members of Abnegation wear gray, loose-fitting clothing and simple hairstyles so they don’t stand out from each other. Dauntless has no such restrictions, and after Peter calls Tris “Stiff” on the roof of the Pit, she removes her gray outer shirt and throws it at him. This is one of Tris’s first steps toward rejecting her old faction and developing her Dauntless identity.
At first Tris wears her Abnegation clothes to bed, but because the Dauntless dress mostly in black, Tris gradually starts wearing black clothing, too. After the first day of training, Christina picks out a slim-fitting dress for her to wear and does her makeup, showing that she can look striking, if not exactly pretty. For the first time in her life, she’s allowed to want to be attractive. She begins dressing to flatter her body and is happy when Tobias tells her she looks good. The Dauntless are also tattooed, some heavily. Soon after joining, Tris gets three birds tattooed on her collarbone, and she adds the Abnegation and Dauntless symbols during a later stage of initiation. The tattoos make her feel unique, but they also help her fit in and feel closer to her friends in Dauntless.