Chapters 18–21 

Summary: Chapter 18

At dinner, Maxon announces that the Twos and Threes will no longer receive compensation and that the Fours and Fives will have their compensation halved. Some of the girls become extremely upset. Maxon explains that the reason for this change will be revealed on the Report tomorrow. The next night, Anne and Lucy prepare America for the evening. Normally, America wears blue dresses. However, America’s maids had a red dress made for her, knowing that the other girls are now wearing blue dresses so that they look like America, who is clearly a favorite of Maxon’s. Celeste pulls America aside and demands America take her dress. When America refuses, Celeste rips the sleeve off America’s red dress. Marlee quickly patches America’s dress.

Maxon gives a speech, remarking on how his experiences with the girls have opened his eyes. The reason he has changed their stipends is so their money can fund a food assistance program for the lower castes. The Queen appears thrilled, but the King looks emotionless. The girls then give live interviews. To everyone’s shock, America accidentally refers to the Prince by his first name. Later, Maxon arrives at her room. They talk about Aspen for a moment, and then Maxon leans in to kiss her. It’s Maxon’s first kiss, and he stumbles a bit. America, much to her own surprise, feels happy and kisses him back.

Summary: Chapter 19

America decides to keep her kiss with Maxon a secret. Three days later, a girl named Olivia announces that she has kissed Maxon, which upsets America. The girls speculate on who else has kissed Maxon, but America remains quiet. Silvia interrupts them, announcing that the King and Queen of Swendway are about to visit. Giant tented pavilions are set up in the gardens, and Swendish soldiers start to arrive at the palace. Meanwhile, America meets the Queen’s sister, Adele. Adele has been drinking and is very brash with the girls. Some of the girls make rude comments about Adele’s manner, which makes America wonder how her family would be received if she became queen. Maxon comes by and snaps a picture of America, but she’s still annoyed over him kissing other girls. Adele takes a liking to America and confides that Maxon’s mother suffered three miscarriages. Suddenly America realizes that royalty have painful experiences just like her family. She sees Maxon again, and now softened toward him, she returns his signal to meet later.

Summary: Chapter 20

A month passes, and twenty-two girls remain in the competition. Marlee confides in America that she doesn’t have feelings for Maxon. She feels they have nothing in common. When America tells Marlee to be honest and leave the palace, she notices that for some reason, Marlee resists the idea. America sees Maxon and remembers that she had told him not to kiss her until she knows how she feels about him. Maxon and America go to the movie theatre. As they walk arm in arm by a row of guards, America is shocked to see Aspen among them. Aspen was drafted and now works as a palace guard. America, prompted by Maxon, explains that she and Aspen know each other from back home. Maxon assigns him to guard her door, thinking she and Aspen are just friends. During her date with Maxon at the movie theatre, America seems quiet and distracted.

Summary: Chapter 21

America hides in the Women’s Room for a few days. She’s forced to come out when Maxon throws a birthday party for Kriss, another contestant. America decides she’ll play the violin as a birthday present. The girls chat before Kriss arrives. America notices that Celeste and another girl, Bariel, are avoiding each other. Kriss arrives wearing a white gown similar to a wedding dress. The rest of the girls are wearing day dresses. America feels jealous that none of them will have a similar moment to shine as a bride as Kriss. Celeste tries to upstage the event by bragging about how she was able to fly Tessa Tamble, a famous musician, to her birthday party the year before. Celeste then insults America, saying it was better than hiring a Five for the event. America asks Celeste what she does for work. Celeste replies that she works as a model and acts surprised that America doesn’t recognize her. America begins playing violin. As she’s playing, Maxon arrives. America catches him looking at her adoringly. During the celebration, Celeste spills her red drink on Kriss’s white dress.

Analysis: Chapters 18–21

In this section, Celeste’s jealously and sense of entitlement serve as foils to America’s humility and honesty. While Celeste demonstrates toxic behavior toward the other girls, America shows her determination to support them. America’s maids create a stunning red dress to help her stand out on the Report because they truly want her to look good. When America refuses Celeste’s demands to remove the dress, Celeste tears the sleeve, showing just how far she’ll go to keep America from outshining her. Instead of stooping to Celeste’s level, America allows Marlee and Emmica to tuck the sleeve, and she performs well, showing that friendship brings its own kind of power. Though Celeste has the advantages of wealth, caste standing, and beauty, her jealousy of anyone who may outshine her motivates her to act selfishly and cruelly, proving that power often corrupts those who have it.    

Though they still enjoy an easy, joking camaraderie, Maxon’s focus on America’s beauty following the broadcast reveals that he is beginning to see her as more than a friend. He kisses America because he wants his first kiss to be with her, proving that she is special to him. Though America first believed Maxon to be shallow and one-dimensional, their friendship has revealed his kindness, understanding, and capacity for forgiveness. He has also shown his willingness to learn from her by creating a system of public assistance to feed the hungry. As America questions her ability to leave her old life behind and begin a new one, she recognizes her and Maxon’s potential as a pair for the first time. While America may not be ready to declare her love yet, she has come a long way from kneeing Maxon at the thought of him initiating a kiss. 

As she spends time with the royal family, America identifies similarities between her family and Maxon’s, and these connections help her imagine the possibility of life in a higher caste. Her conversation with the queen’s sister, Adele, allows her to see the queen as human. Learning about Queen Amberly’s past and her struggle to have children encourages America to regard her as a caring mother rather than an apathetic royal. When Adele tells America that Amberly doesn’t want to get too attached to the girls only to have to say goodbye when they are quickly sent home, it reinforces that Amberly is not just a monarch but a real person with genuine feelings. Just as her opinion about Maxon changed as she got to know him, America’s opinion of the queen softens. As America considers the queen’s duties, including hosting visitors, managing events, advocating for causes, and supporting her husband, her son, and her country, she envisions her own potential to fill the role. America’s growing comfort in the palace, and her imagining her sister’s children playing on the lawn, foreshadow that the future might bring a new life for her and her family.