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America Singer is a sixteen-year-old girl. She and her family live in Illéa, which is set up by a numerical caste system. The Singer family are Fives, which means they are required to work as artists and musicians. America receives an invitation in the mail for the Selection, a competition where thirty-five young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty, of any caste, go to the palace to compete for the Prince’s hand in marriage. America’s mother is desperate for America to compete and raise their family out of poverty. With winter approaching, there will be fewer jobs for the family. Over dinner, America’s mother pressures America to accept the invitation, but America stubbornly resists. She resents being the oldest in the family and having so much responsibility. America leaves the table and takes her plate out back to her tiny, candlelit tree house. There, someone is waiting for her.
America’s boyfriend, Aspen, lights a tiny candle and greets her. Aspen is a Six; his caste is made up of servants and people who do indoor work. America and Aspen have been dating for two years. They keep their relationship a secret since inter-caste marriages are typically frowned upon. America tells Aspen about the invitation to the Selection, but he already knows as his twin sixteen-year-old sisters received invitations too. Aspen surprises America by encouraging her to compete. He says he doesn’t want to her to regret losing a chance to marry a Prince over him. Annoyed, America brushes off his statement, saying she only wants to marry him. America hands him her plate of food. America knows Aspen works several jobs to support his family and often goes without food to allow his younger siblings and mother to eat. He pays America a penny to sing for him. Later, she puts the penny in a jar of pennies she keeps for him.
America’s mother comes to her room early the next morning. She offers America a deal: If America applies to participate in the Selection, she’ll allow America to keep half of her earnings from her violin performances. America feels thrilled, thinking she now has a chance to save money for her and Aspen to marry while still pleasing her family. America fills out her application, which is long and full of personal questions. She and her mother go to the Services Office to drop off her application. There, America notices that many of the girls in line to drop off their applications are prettied up. America didn’t realize that she would have her photo taken, and she didn’t put much effort into her appearance. While waiting in line, they meet Mrs. Leger, Aspen’s mother, and his two sisters, Celia and Kamber. While chatting, Mrs. Leger reveals that she suspects Aspen has a secret girlfriend he’s saving up to propose to. Elated, America sits down for her photo, thinking that Aspen is secretly planning to marry her.
The Singer family gathers to watch the Illéa Capital Report, a weekly broadcast on Friday nights. The palace reports that Illéa is still at war in New Asia, as rebel forces continue to attack, and that there will be a draft for more soldiers. King Clarkson, the Queen, and Prince Maxon appear on screen. America admits to herself that Maxon is attractive, but she thinks he appears uptight. She imagines that life with him would be boring. The family chats about how the present Queen was chosen by the Selection process and that she was a Four. Gavril Fadaye, a celebrity spokesperson for the palace, gives an update on the Selection process. He reports that thousands of girls have applied and that they will be announcing the lucky thirty-five soon. Later that night, Aspen sneaks into America’s bedroom. They kiss passionately but are careful to stop short of having sex. They know the penalty could be jail.
The opening chapters of The Selection establish America as both the first-person narrator and a strong-willed protagonist who knows what she wants even though her desires differ greatly from others in her society. America’s views on the Selection and the caste system, as well as her relationships with Aspen and her family, reveal her to be smart, perceptive, and knowledgeable, all characteristics that make her a credible narrator. Her name, America, suggests an individuality and independence at odds with the conformist world in which the story is set, foreshadowing the role she’ll play in the novel. Unlike most girls her age, America has no interest in participating in the Selection or marrying a prince, revealing her refusal to adopt her government’s ideas of who and what she should be and want. The deal America makes with her mother reveals her to be both practical and resourceful in the pursuit of her goals. Even in this early part of the novel, America demonstrates that she is an independent, determined, self-confident young woman who does what she must to create a life on her own terms.
The early chapters also introduce the novel’s setting and describe the ways that Illéa’s government oppresses its citizens, laying out the obstacles that America must overcome to live on her own terms. The story takes place 300 years in the future in Illéa, a young, weak country with strict rules designed to control its citizens. America, the country, was conquered in World War III, and its citizens have been stripped of the freedoms they once enjoyed. Because jobs are determined by the caste that people are born into, there is very little opportunity to change one’s situation. The harshness of the authoritarian government is highlighted by public punishment for starving children, a strict nightly curfew, a single weekly news update that filters current events through official channels, and open prejudice against inter-caste relationships. America and Aspen break curfew to spend time together, but they also keep their love a secret and stop short of sleeping together and risking jail. The couple’s behavior suggests that although they disagree with Illéa’s regulations, they are forced to consider the government in even their most personal decisions.
America’s loyalty to family serves as her primary motivation throughout the novel. Because the Singer family is in a low caste, every member must contribute to the family’s survival. Although America is only sixteen, she works as a musician and also has duties at home. Though she initially opposes participating in the Selection, America changes her mind out of loyalty to her family, and because the Selection offers her the chance to keep some of her earnings and start her own family with Aspen. Though America believes her chances of being chosen to participate, let alone marry the prince, are slim, her agreement to take part in the Selection in order to enhance her family’s financial security demonstrates how much she cares for her parents and younger siblings. America’s willingness to apply, work, and save shows that she believes in supporting her family, whether it’s the family who raised her or her own future family. As independent as America has shown herself to be, her choices reveal her loyalty and commitment to serving others.
In early chapters, characters demonstrate their love for others through sacrifice, loyalty, and practicality, and their actions often cause conflict. America is willing to endure the struggles of slipping into a lower caste to be with Aspen because she has faith that their relationship is strong enough to endure external obstacles. America’s commitment to Aspen reveals that she shows love through loyalty. Aspen encourages America to apply for the Selection despite his desire to be with her because the competition offers opportunities that could improve her quality of life. Aspen’s attitude toward the Selection, as well as his work to support his family, reveal that he demonstrates love through sacrifice. America’s parents represent a more practical view of love based on their experiences. America’s father understands her romantic notions, but his warning that daily financial struggles can weaken love show his more realistic view. When her mother bribes America into the Selection process, she shows love by pushing her child to strive for the best future possible. Many of the conflicts introduced in the earliest chapters are born out of the characters’ love for one another.