Sunday, November 17, 2013

Breaking down the ending to Allegiant

Allegiant, the third and final book in Veronica Roth's Divergent series, was a huge fail in storytelling -- disappointing and unrealistic revelations, huge plot holes, aimless storylines and a poorly-executed narrative device -- but the ending is the biggest transgression and the reason most people have issue with this book. I will now break down all the reasons why these folks have every right to hate it.

The Execution

From a thematic perspective, this ending is really a beautiful and bittersweet conclusion to the story of young Tris Prior. This series has seen Tris struggle to reconcile her Abnegation upbringing with her newly realized Dauntless nature and understand how her Divergence fits into it all. We see this come together in the finale when she decides to give her life to save the people she loves -- it takes an unprecedented level of selflessness and bravery to sacrifice your own life. It is haunting and tragic and wonderful. I do commend Veronica Roth on bringing the story’s overarching themes in Tris’s journey together in such a powerful way; the heart behind the story does make sense. The problem, though, and the main reason this point largely failed to reach her readers, is in its execution. Because rather than have the story's main theme of sacrifice emerge seamlessly through a natural plotline, the plot in this book seems to exist for no reason other than to finally force this theme to clumsy and ultimately pointless fruition.

The ending falls flat on several points of failure in the writing. First, the entire plot leading to the climax was too contrived to make the situation read as truly necessary or authentic or even believable, so Tris's death comes off as forced and inorganic. Additionally, the aftermath was poorly written in showing how her death added to the plot in any way or served any real purpose to the narrative, so her death looks like it was done only for “shock value” even though it wasn’t meant to be. It was relevant only to Tris’s character arc, and barely so, but that is only half the story. The narrative is still incomplete. Another problem is that the ending is lacking an emotional payoff to reconcile the loss with the promise of something richer, and so the death remains hollow. If Veronica had successfully handled these elements and produced a more cohesive narrative, I believe the book would not have been received this poorly. 

While it is entirely believable for Tris to decide that sacrificing herself was necessary in the situation she ultimately found herself in, the problem is that the situation itself wasn't really necessary. The plan to break into the Weapons Lab to release memory serum onto the people at the Bureau was an entirely arbitrary decision. The characters make no effort to come up with another, more logical or even an ethical plan to stop the Bureau from resetting the Chicago experiment, and there were far less dangerous and drastic options available for them to try. Why not work toward coming up with a plan to sabotage the vessels deploying the memory serum over the city? Why not try to evacuate everyone out of the city? Why not beg for a temporary stay of execution while Tobias talks his parents down from their war plans (since apparently all he needed to do the whole time was ask)? Why not threaten David with very creative bodily harm unless he calls the reset off? At the very least, one of these plans would buy them time. If none of these plans could actually come to fruition is one thing, but what's most frustrating -- and unbelievable -- is that no one even bothers to suggest anything.

Somewhat surprisingly, Tris is the one who proposes this foolhardy plan. Tris has shown throughout the series that she can be tough and unforgiving and it makes sense that she would want to seek retaliation against the people responsible for the attack that killed her parents, but still I question how in character it is for her to suggest a preemptive strike that involves using the same despicable weapon upon her enemies that said enemy was going to use on her friends, despite the fact that a good many people at the Bureau are innocent, simply because this is the lesser of two evils. The book even goes so far as to have the characters acknowledge what a questionable plan this is but that they just don't know what else to do. This might as well be the author saying this to the reader. I guess in war, even the good guys have to be the bad guys sometimes in order to do what needs to be done, but it still rings false and unnecessary. This wasn't a kneejerk decision made in the heat of the moment with no time to think; they had two days to plan this. Why ignore more obvious solutions and instead automatically go for the most extreme and most damaging thing they could possibly do -- to both sides? The answer: How else is Tris going to conveniently find herself in yet another situation where she can volunteer to be a sacrifice?

The fact that breaking into the Weapons Lab had to be a suicide mission was also an arbitrary decision. They know there exists a way to enter the room legally but no effort is made to try to get it or otherwise find another way to disable the trigger or avoid setting off the death serum. The fact that the Weapons Lab is even booby-trapped with death serum in the first place just screams "random plot device," because really, why would they need to kill anyone who enters without permission? I understand the need to make the room as off-limits as possible, but why would they rig it with something that automatically kills people when this can just as easily kill their own people if they were to set it off by accident? This killer failsafe is not at all a believable plot device. The death serum trap was entirely contrived for no reason other than to make sure this plan would be a fatal endeavor, because it makes no sense for it to even be here otherwise.

Why would death serum ever be invented in the first place? For that matter, why are we even calling it "death serum"? Why can't Veronica just call it "poison" like a normal person? The name "death serum" sounds like something a 6-year-old would make up. And memory serum? What's the point of anything in this world if you can just use memory serum to force a do-over?  Why are serums the solution for everything? It's incredibly lazy storytelling to rely on plot devices to move the narrative forward. The plot points involving serums in the previous books were woven more organically into the storylines. For example, the simulation serum had a central plot purpose before Jeanine used it to turn people into sleeper soldiers, which in turn became a story arc of its own that moved the narrative forward over the course of both books. Another example is the truth serum, which already exists in the story as a part of the Candor initiation process, being used in Tris and Tobias's trials and leading to important character revelations -- these revelations, not the serum itself, are the instigators of the character and story development in Insurgent. The serums were subtle tools to move the plot forward through the characters' reactions and the situations they create, but the concept becomes hokey and overused in the third book. It is a little too convenient that there is somehow a serum for any problem and exists for no real purpose beyond that. This forces the story to revolve around cheap contrivances instead of organic plot points, as the characters are at the whim of the serums as the driving force of the plot rather than driving the plot themselves. This fact is never more apparent than in the actions that lead to the suicide mission. The Bureau's plan to reset the city with memory serum and the preceding plan by Evelyn to destroy the Allegiant with death serum are themselves illogical bordering on nonsensical ideas, but worse yet they rely solely on these handy plot devices as a quick and easy fix for the conflict building up over the course of the entire story. This is supposed to be the impetus for the characters' decisions in the final act, but it's difficult to take their dilemma seriously when it's based on artificial conflict.

It's interesting that all of the conflict resolution relies on serums, yet the characters ignore the myriad ways they could have used them. Rather than break into the Weapons Lab to access the Bureau's memory serum, why doesn't the gang just get the memory serum from the Amity who are armed with it to keep people in the city? Just grab a stash and use that on the people in charge of the reset. They don't have to release it on the entire compound; that was not necessary at all. Can't get the passcode? Drive back to the city -- since apparently it's very easy to drive in and out all of a sudden -- and get some truth serum from the Candor, and use it to coax the passcode out of David. Or better yet, take the memory serum that Tobias planned to use on one of his parents and just use it directly on David to wipe his memory of the reset plan. He's the head honcho in charge here -- if they trick him into saying the reset is off, his underlings will fall in line. And while we're at it, since we're all about making up crazy serums for illogical plot purposes, it would make much more sense for the Weapons Lab to be rigged with some type of paralyzing serum instead of the completely unnecessary death serum. It could render a person unconscious so they could be easily detained, and the Bureau wouldn't have that pesky risk of accidentally killing their own employees. So many ways the story could have gone that wouldn't defy all semblance of logic.

The absence of logic continues once the plotline reaches its crescendo -- when Tris enters the Weapons Lab to enact this harebrained scheme. It is far too convenient that levelheaded, logical-minded Tris would happen to leave her gun outside and then be countered by an attacker armed with his own gun. It also makes no sense that her attacker, David, would even want to kill her, regardless of what he was trying to protect. His sole agenda, his life's work, is in the study and perpetuation of so-called "pure" genes, and yet he kills an individual whose purity extends to even withstanding the death serum that was believed to be fatal to everyone? On a personal level, David was enamored with Tris's mother and so he took Tris under his wing due to his connection to Natalie. It is not very realistic that he would so easily kill the daughter of the woman he cared about. Having David be Tris's ultimate killer was not believable at all.

The sacrifice moment is built on a series of contrived plot points blatantly manufactured for the sake of creating the sacrifice moment -- a byproduct of having the story designed specifically for the character to arrive at this particular end but which nonetheless could have been executed in a more organic fashion by a more competent writer. Tris tells David, in that last confrontation, that true sacrifice comes from necessity and not without exhausting other options. But what other options did they exhaust? It’s as though Veronica didn’t even pay attention to what she was writing. I was not the least bit convinced that any part of this plan was necessary or even important. There were just too many plot holes to justify a sacrifice by anyone, least of all the main character, and adding a killer to the scene at the last minute was manipulative. The end result is that the situation is not written to be authentic, and so Tris’s death comes off as forced and unnecessary. Even ignoring the author's over-reliance on serums to deus ex machina her way through the plot, the actions leading to and even during the climactic moment were not logical or believable. It was simply not realistic that these supposedly intelligent and reasonable individuals would make these choices and accept these options so easily and without considering any alternatives. The characters went out of their way to create a death scene for literally no reason other than to coax, cajole and brass-knuckle the story into the author's prearranged conclusion.

Even if we accept the hackneyed plot devices that brought Tris to this final situation, was it actually necessary for her to die? She survived the death serum by sheer force of will, proving that she didn't really want to die and was truly acting out of selflessness for her brother, only to be shot by David shortly afterward. A substantial number of readers have questioned this particular sequence of events: What was the point of having Tris survive the death serum just to shoot her anyway? To be fair, they have a good point, as forcing her death this way doesn't seem like something that "had" to happen. If David had not been there at all, and if Tris had no immunity to the death serum and instead died from the exposure as was expected to happen, her death really would have been necessary to the plot. Succumbing to death in the very process of carrying out the plan would be proven as truly the only way Tris could go on this mission in Caleb's stead. It would really be a sacrifice. But Veronica did not go this route. She showed that Tris's resistance to serums extended to the death serum and had Tris survive it -- at least for the time being. With this detail, though, it no longer became necessary for Tris to die in order for her to carry out her intention of replacing Caleb in the mission. It was now possible for her to complete her task and return alive. The plot no longer required her to die. Putting David into the scene, it would appear, was to ensure that the mission really would be fatal for Tris -- to make the sacrifice not just an intention but something tangible and real.

But having Tris survive the death serum only to be shot by David is pointless because that had nothing to do with her sacrifice. Tris decided to sacrifice herself for her brother; she chose the possibility of dying from the death serum in his stead. But she didn’t die that way. She overcame the death serum and was then put into a new situation where she encountered a would-be assassin.  Up until then, Tris still technically had the option to turn tail and run out of the room, out of the cloud of death serum, and out of danger. She had the option to choose not to die, but it was her decision to soldier on and complete her task.  But as soon as she met David inside the Weapons Lab, the situation went out of her control. David mistook her reasons for being in the room, pegged her as a rebel and a thief, and he most likely would have shot her whether she continued to go for the memory serum release, as she did end up doing -- how convenient that this facility has airborne memory serum able to be dispersed through the entire complex at the push of a button -- or if she turned around and tried to run away. She also could not defend herself against him, since, as mentioned, she left her own gun outside. Tris had no choice in what happened to her at that point. It's not a sacrifice if you don’t have the option to choose.

Veronica says she had Tris meet her death even after she survived the death serum because this was the end she had chosen. But Tris did not choose this end. Tris took Caleb's place because she believed the obstacle awaiting them was death serum. A madman with a gun was not factored into her choice. Tris was murdered, and manipulating her death to occur this way negates the entire point of the theme. This was killing her for the sake of killing her, making sure she has that "hero's death" that Veronica seems to think is necessary for a character to have a "powerful" ending. (Research her stance on how she feels the "Harry Potter" series should have ended.) Death is a powerful construct, no doubt, but contriving a character’s death “just because” instead of having it occur naturally through the logical progression of the plot does not create a powerful or believable story. If Tris had to die this way -- and I will admit that I am not opposed in principle to the tragic irony of Tris "I Am Immune To All Simulations and Serums" Prior being taken out by something as mundane as a couple of bullets -- it still needed to serve a purpose to the narrative beyond just being the "powerful" ending the character deserved, beyond making a point about sacrifice for the theme's sake. Where are the repercussions of Tris's death to the plot?

No one really wants a main character to die, but we accept it if it is truly essential to the plot, if it is necessary for the direction of the story. We must be able to tell ourselves, "I see why this had to happen, because if so-and-so had not died, these other things in the story would not have been possible."  If we can apply this statement to the death, then it was justified and essential to the story. Spoiler alert: In "Mockingjay," Primrose's death is sudden and tragic, and it's almost ironic since the need for her little sister to survive was the catalyst for Katniss's journey in the first place, but if it had not happened Katniss would not have discovered the truth about President Coin's duplicitous nature. Her decisions at the end would have been completely different. In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore's death was truly devastating, but it was necessary to set the course of the heroes' mission -- and important revelations about another key character -- and for the discoveries into Dumbledore's past that would not have been unveiled if he were still alive and were themselves instrumental to the remainder of the plot. If he had not died, the entirety of the seventh book would have had to be rewritten. These are necessary deaths.

"If Tris hadn't died, these other things in the story would not have been possible." -- Is this statement at all true? Let's examine the events that took place after her death.

Tris’s actions succeeded in saving the city from being reset, yes; the mission prevented the memory reset on Chicago and allowed the members of the Chicago branch of the Bureau to have their memories reset and their agendas changed for more altruistic purposes. All of this is revealed in a betrayal of the “show, don’t tell” rule when it comes to writing. We learn these details in a few perfunctory sentences in Tobias’s narrative in the chapters after Tris's death, buried in the midst of his numbness and grief, mentioned in an offhand way almost as if they were just afterthoughts -- almost as if Tris didn’t give her life to bring about these changes. We do not get to witness any of this change in the narrative, do not see the people at the Bureau set about to enact their new attitude or the transition of Chicago from being another experiment to just another metropolitan area. We do not get to experience what Tris’s sacrifice brought about, and so we do not experience the true worth of her actions. 

And what we are told has come of it seems pretty inconsequential.  I discussed above how the mission had too many plot holes to be acceptable as the "only" option. The flaw in the mission's so-called necessity continues in what their efforts actually accomplish. What good does it do to reset this branch of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare when we know they are just one of many satellite offices that operate under a national effort and carry on the same program elsewhere? It would have been nice if it were at least implied that the change at the Bureau served as some kind of tipping point for more widespread change throughout the United States, but it only changed the one experiment, the one branch of the Bureau. The story indicates that the country remains largely unaffected by the goings-on in Chicago; the climate of genetic inequality didn't change in the whole of society and the other remaining city experiments continued to operate as they were. And as far as Chicago is concerned, the emancipation of the city from the experiments doesn't really carry resonance, mainly because the characters never knew they were in an experiment to begin with so it largely doesn't make any difference to their lives to be out of it now. The only change is their ability to come and go as they please, but they never realized they were "trapped" before, either, and we don't see that very many people care to leave anyway. The faction system is over, but it had fallen apart already at the end of the previous book and was resolved (rather incredulously) amongst the characters leading the war themselves. Even if the Bureau hadn't been reset, it is highly unlikely the system would have started up again.

Considering Tris was the main character of the story, the gap between her loss and the gain, both immediate and long-term, is too wide to make it really seem worth it.  The mission just did not serve a large enough purpose for it to be worth taking the protagonist's life at the end of a three-book series. Just for one building full of bigots, a bunch of people we never even heard of until this book? I found no satisfaction in their useless comeuppance because we were given no reason to care about what happened to these people one way or the other, and their aftermath was not at all believable anyway. Are we really supposed to believe they could get away with erasing and reprogramming people's memories and nobody would notice or care? That all they had to do was "negotiate" with the government to let the experiment end and allow Chicago to become some sort of free utopia for GDs and GPs alike? The whole country has been operating under the same misguided notions for 200 years. That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. No matter how much the government wanted the Chicago experiment to end anyway, it is not believable that they would just allow these employees to switch sides and start pushing for GD equality. The government would just remove these unstable workers from their posts and assign new people who followed the national agenda of genetic purity and weren't practically brain-damaged from a memory serum "accident." 
Another problem is that this mission -- stopping the Chicago reset by resetting the Bureau instead -- was just as much about hurting people as it was about saving them. Tris decided that the people she knew and cared about, some guilty and some innocent, were more deserving of keeping their identities and memories than the many people, some guilty and some innocent, at the Bureau who ended up getting their memories erased. She decided that her evil act was more justified than the Bureau's evil act because it was her home. She decided that this was the least of the evil things the Bureau deserved after what they did to them, that they "were lucky [she] didn't kill them."

Can this in any way even be considered a selfless act, dismissing one group as expendable to save another group in the name of personal interest?  

It's interesting that one of the series' main themes is about the power of choice, and the hero dies in order to preserve this liberty ... by forcibly taking it away from someone else. As mentioned earlier, sometimes the good guys have to be the bad guys in a war, and not every action can be completely noble, and this is true. This type of moral relativism may be acceptable in another context for another purpose, but if the entire point of this death was to demonstrate Tris's selflessness then why does she die committing an ultimately selfish act? Is this a hero's death? It was only selfless of her to take Caleb's place in carrying out the mission; the mission itself was self-serving and vengeful and, all told, certainly not worth dying over. Tris deserved a better legacy than that.
At any rate, the changes that took place in the aftermath are only the result of Tris succeeding in setting off the memory serum; the impact, slight as it is, had nothing to do with her dying.

But what about the other characters? Her death had no effect on the plot, but did it create changes with the other characters in the story? The impact of Tris’s death in terms of the other characters is barely addressed and is not explored at all beyond Tobias and his grief. What do the others take away from her loss? What discoveries are made? What lessons are learned? Tris died as an embodiment of what it means to be selfless and brave and so many other things – do the rest of them learn that they too are so many other things and so should live their new lives as who they are instead of what they were, that they are more than just Abnegation or Erudite or Amity or Candor or Dauntless, more than genetically pure or genetically damaged, but merely Human? Does her death motivate them into any actions that affected their own lives? Does it propel them to actions that affected the rest of the plot? Does it change who they are?  Did her death change Tobias? He loved her more than anyone, and mourned her as much as anyone possibly could. Did it affect Christina, who has now lost every one of her friends? Tris died to spare her brother -- if there's anyone who had something to take away from her death it's Caleb. Did we see how this gift of sacrifice affected him, what he learned from it, how it changed him in any way? As far as the narrative shows: no. We do not see how Tris's death affected or changed anyone in any way.
"If Tris hadn't died, these other things would not have been possible." We can now determine that this statement does not apply at all to the events in Allegiant. The outcome of the plot would have been the same even if Tris had lived. All of the changes presented in the aftermath would have happened anyway, and her death did not cause any real change in the other characters' stories. Her death therefore is not proven to be justified or essential to the story -- it was, in fact, solely to make a thematic point about sacrifice. This is the reason the second-most popular word among this book's reviewers, after "disappointing," is "unnecessary." If the main character is going to be killed off, we must have results and repercussions in the story that were only possible from that character's death. Otherwise it is just random collateral damage.  And collateral damage rarely gets the emotional treatment it deserves.
Tobias is the only character who is really affected, emotionally, by Tris's death, going so far as to consider erasing his memory to free himself from his pain, but as stated above it still does not change who he is. We are not shown how experiencing this grief and loss allowed Tobias to come out changed in any particular way, better or worse, on the other side of it – a resolution of feelings that is absolutely required in order for readers to experience the full course of grief and recovery themselves. Like the aftermath of the Bureau mission, the aftermath of Tobias's grief is woefully glossed over. His plan to take memory serum is the only thing we really see and even that is handled, and resolved, far too quickly to be really resonating -- or believable -- and with nothing more than a brief platitude about bravery the story jumps two and a half years without exploring this any further. The zipline memorial was a charming send-off for our beloved character but the epilogue as a whole was nonetheless inadequate in showing how the story recovers from her death or how her death had any real impact on anyone or anything else beyond breaking Tobias’s heart.

Over two years have gone by and it is implied that a (partial) recovery has taken place in the interim, but we are not shown any of it, not allowed to live through it, and so the story does not give the reader a chance to reconcile with her loss and achieve their own acceptance. The epilogue centers around additional and equally trite platitudes amounting, basically, to "It'll get better," but we don't see how things are getting "better" or how Tobias's emotional outlook -- on life, on Tris, on love, on himself -- has improved. It appears that everyone, particularly Tobias, is just living day to day and getting by. There is no promise of hope and purpose at the end of it all -- a betrayal in itself of the genre of young adult literature, which exists on the very principle of providing hope among the ruins. There is nothing to be gained by this loss.  It simply ... is. With no emotional payoff in any larger sense, the resolution lacks the depth that such a major character death requires and so it remains hollow and unfulfilling.  The story ends on a flat and depressing note. A book that has a devastating ending can leave the reader emotionally spent but satisfied. This ending just leaves the reader feeling empty and slightly traumatized.

The Logic

Let’s revisit the necessity of Tris’s death as a defining moment in her character development.  Killing off the main character in a story is something that is rarely done in literature, particularly literature aimed at a young audience. It typically only works if it adds to the plot and is the necessary final step in the character’s development. This is not an either/or negotiation -- it has to apply to both.  We’ve already well covered how the former doesn’t work, but while the relevance of Tris’s death to her character is apparent from a thematic standpoint, showing her selflessness, if we’re being completely honest it actually doesn’t add to it. At all. Because we already knew she was selfless.

At the start of the series, Tris is established as a character conflicted as to who she is. She was raised to be selfless, but she believes she is really selfish -- she does selfish things, she has selfish wants. And this is true.  She picks Dauntless at the Choosing Ceremony, even though she would be leaving her parents all alone with Caleb having already defected to Erudite, because she wants to make herself happy. She is too scared to stand up for Christina when Eric forces her to hang over the chasm because she worries about what would happen to herself. She beats Molly senseless because she wants revenge, to make herself feel better. Tris shows bouts of her selfishness -- which was not so much a vice as simply a part of her humanity -- throughout the first book, struggles with the conviction that she is a selfish person, but this conflict is reconciled by the end of that story. As her journey unfolds, we see there is true selflessness in Tris even when she doesn't realize it. She stands up for her friends. She puts the safety of others ahead of herself. She is willing to sacrifice. Tris goes from being a person who can't help but think of herself and her own needs and wants to someone who instinctively puts herself out for others.  Eventually, she learns there is selflessness in bravery and bravery in selflessnes, and that she is both and has been all along. And we learn this right along with her. 

Tris's death in an act of selfless sacrifice in Allegiant does not teach us anything about her that we didn't already know two books ago.

We have always known that Tris is selfless and brave and willing to give her life for the so-called greater good. Between Divergent and Insurgent she has done this repeatedly. Sacrificing her life -- successfully this time -- just reiterates what was already established to the point of redundancy, not to mention conveys a somewhat reckless disregard for her own life. In fact, this last act seems more an example of character regression, as Tris was shown to have previously learned the value in not needlessly risking one's life for the sake of fulfilling some Abnegation archetype and still she goes and does the same thing again as if she didn’t learn her lesson at all. Where is the growth here? What was the point?

Veronica has taken to her blog to offer an explanation for Tris’s death and how her sacrifice was set up in the previous books, and how her parents’ deaths were the catalyst for Tris’s decisions from that point on. After Andrew and Natalie died in an act of sacrifice for her, Tris’s motivation, Veronica explains, has been about trying to honor her parents for this sacrifice while maintaining her identity. We do see Tris struggle with this and even try to emulate their sacrifice. There are specific incidents in each of the first two books where we see this. In the climax of Divergent, shortly after she has lost her parents, Tris first attempts to sacrifice herself for the sake of Tobias, offering him her gun so he can shoot her because she refuses to kill him herself. This attempt at sacrifice is not right, Veronica says, because while it was noble of Tris to refuse to kill the boy she loved, allowing him to kill her instead served no logical purpose because it did nothing to solve the outward problem at hand. In Insurgent, Tris attempts to sacrifice herself again when she surrenders to Jeanine, answering the Erudite leader’s ultimatum in order to keep more people from being simulation-controlled to their deaths. This attempt is also wrong because while it was logical -- a means to an end, a way to stop the danger -- it was not noble because Tris is motivated here by guilt and an almost suicidal mindset rather than out of love for the people she was trying to protect. The final sacrifice she makes in Allegiant, however, is a “true” sacrifice.

Tris's final choices are meant to show her finally coming to terms with her beliefs about selflessness, finally understanding the true nature of sacrifice that her parents tried to teach her in Abnegation. She reconciles the requirements of love in her refusal to allow her brother to die out of guilt with the necessity of the situation as the only option that will protect the ones she loves (the illogical nature of the plot obviously makes this highly debatable). She has no desire to die, in fact bases her decision partly on her conviction that there is a good chance that she will not die, but she is fully aware and accepts that she may die nonetheless. She is willing to risk the possibility of her death in order to spare her brother a guaranteed death. Some people say that Tris should have let Caleb go because he needed redemption, but this would have been disingenuous to her character. She could never let her brother die just to prove himself to her, and she realized how wrong his sacrifice was. Caleb was weak and afraid; Tris was strong, and brave, and she needed to be strong for him.  It is particularly poignant that Tris makes this sacrifice in spite of what Caleb did to her, especially because of what he did to her, as that is the mark of real selflessness. Because we do not give of ourselves only to those who are deserving of our sacrifices. We sacrifice for people who need it, because we love them, because it has to be done. Tris is truly Abnegation at the end.

Can she be forgiven for all she has done to get here? In Divergent, she just doesn't know. In Allegiant, she believes she can. She has come full circle in her journey. 

Tris’s sacrifice isn't really supposed to be about her simply yet again throwing herself into a dangerous situation in an effort to yet again save everyone, as the storyline seems to imply. The conclusion is actually meant to show how Tris finally understands what "true" sacrifice is as opposed to the "empty" sacrifices of before. I do see how Veronica plays this out in hindsight -- I understand how Tris didn’t get it quite right the first two times she offered herself for the greater good, didn’t have all the necessary elements of a true sacrifice but rather having only one or the other, but that this time she had it correct. This time, it was a true sacrifice. The overall story is not actually about Tris proving herself to be selfless but rather understanding what selflessness means to her, what it means to be a sacrifice, and how and why a person should do it. 

Question: Why exactly is Veronica telling a story about a 16-year-old girl trying to figure out the right way to sacrifice her life? And why did the long setup nonetheless just look like she’s doing the same old thing “yet again”?

Veronica says that Tris’s death as an act of sacrifice was partly in honor of her parents and their own sacrifice -- this is a problematic idea. Natalie and Andrew gave their lives in the necessity of the moment so the daughter they loved could escape. This makes sense -- a parent’s love knows no boundaries, and they prove that they are truly selfless, truly Abnegation, in their final actions. Tris’s motivations from that point on involve honoring her parents’ sacrifice; it is understandable to want to honor your parents and all that they have given you, but her methods are irrational. Tris’s mother and father gave their lives so their daughter could have hers. The way to honor a sacrifice such as this is to live your life to its fullest potential and to honor and respect the virtues they taught you. With Tris’s actions, Veronica is suggesting that the best way to honor those virtues is to replicate their actions – to honor her parents’ embodiment of selflessness by doing the same, and doing so for Caleb brings this full circle as she sacrifices for him even though he betrayed her just as her parents sacrificed for her after she betrayed them by leaving Abnegation for Dauntless.

I want to be very clear that I have no problem with the idea of Tris sacrificing herself for her brother, given the specific (and contrived) circumstances. It is the only authentic or believable moment in this entire storyline. But it must be said that it's not quite as powerful a gesture on the reader as Veronica probably intends -- mainly because it is Caleb. The reader doesn't care about Caleb. And it isn't because he is a bad person or that we want to see him die; rather, he was just never fleshed out enough as a character for the reader to have any feelings about him one way or the other. He was barely in the overall story until this book, when the plotline required him to take a center role, and we still don't know anything about him. We never did get an explanation as to why he sold Tris out to Jeanine, and we don't learn anything else about him, either. Perhaps if Caleb had been a more featured player in the first two books, had been a more dimensional character; perhaps if the dynamic between Caleb and Tris, their relationship, had been played up more across the series instead of just this one book, we could have appreciated more on a personal level Tris's desire to spare her brother. But as it is, this really highlights the problem with telling rather than showing -- Caleb is important because of the fact that he is Tris's brother and the fact that she therefore loves him. We know these things because they are facts told in the story. But we were never shown the love between them so we could have an emotional investment in this bond, nor were we shown anything about Caleb as a person to make him matter to us so we could have a personal stake in whether he lived or died. We certainly do understand that he means a great deal to Tris, that he is her brother and she loves him, and we accept that, and we believe in her desire to spare him for those reasons. But it honestly doesn't mean much to us, the reader. We were never given a reason to care about Caleb at all, and so for Tris to carry out this mission and make the ultimate sacrifice for him in particular does lose some impact on the reader because we didn't really care what happened to Caleb either way.

Nonetheless, he is, as I've said, Tris's brother and she does love him and could never let him die for no reason. She is willing to sacrifice for him. I agree with these ideas. However, I am extraordinarily disturbed by Veronica's logic in comparing this act to their parents' sacrifice.

For one, Tris’s “betrayal” doesn’t come close to Caleb’s crime. Tris switched factions; Caleb almost got her killed. Secondly, the sacrifice is just not the same. A parent’s love for a child is unparallel to anything else on earth. It is a parent’s nature to instinctively do anything and everything to protect their children even if it costs them their own lives. A sibling’s love, though a very precious bond, does not compare. And I simply cannot abide by the notion that the scenarios are equal, that it was admirable for Tris to sacrifice her life for the brother who sold her out to her enemy and was complicit in her near-execution the same way it was “admirable” for a mother and father to sacrifice their lives for the daughter who left their home and transferred to another faction. While this action may be considered a "betrayal" by the standards of the society they live in, it is still nowhere near the same kind of betrayal of a brother sending a sister to slaughter, and I'm actually quite offended that Veronica seems to suggest they are. Tris went above and beyond her position to make a sacrifice; Andrew and Natalie did what any parent would do. And while it is certainly reasonable for Tris to want to live up to her parents’ beliefs about selflessness and to want to honor that, giving up her life just because they did the same is not necessary to accomplish that. No parent would feel honored by that. 

The ending still fails because, aside from the atrocious execution, the entire point behind it is illogical: it makes no sense to honor your parents' beliefs about selflessness by emulating their sacrifice and dying as they did. Tris's journey therefore becomes about finding her sense of identity through martyrdom, with death as the ultimate achievement. Her life's journey need not continue once she fulfills her purpose in life, this identity quest; she is "done" once she figures out at last who she is and what she's meant to do. With this arc, Tris is no longer the relatable or believable character that made millions of young readers identify with her. She’s no longer a person. She becomes an allegory, a Christ-like figure instead of a regular girl. It's unclear what role, if any, Veronica's own religious beliefs played into these story themes, but the parallels are far from subtle. Intentional or not, the Christ imagery is actually quite obnoxious. Tris has special powers that exceed those of her contemporaries; she dies in the name of an equally God-like parent who welcomes her into the hereafter to sit by her side after a job well done. Tris is the "Chosen One" whose sole purpose is to save everyone with her death. Veronica lays it on far too thick and I'm not buying one bit of it. Now, Tris's actions and decisions throughout the story are based not on character but on metaphor. In Divergent, Tris is willing to sacrifice for no good reason; in Insurgent, she wants to sacrifice just for the sake of being a sacrifice, but partly because she just wants to be done with it all. By Allegiant, she no longer wants to die but she offers to sacrifice herself anyway because there is simply no other way (by the flimsy logic of the plot, anyway). And that is, after all, the ultimate sacrifice -- when you have everything to live for but bravely accept that the only option is to give your life. But her actions through all this, particularly in the heavyhanded finale, are governed by her preordained role as the sacrificial lamb. It's not realistic or organic.

This arc is supposed to show how Tris has changed, but she is nonetheless assuming a role, and it's the exact same role she has willingly played from the beginning -- the savior. Being the savior for the right reasons now instead of being the savior for the wrong reasons before doesn't change the fact that she is yet again being the savior. The fact that she was fully prepared to die in her first two sacrifices but had faith in her own survival in the last sacrifice doesn't change the fact that she was yet again willingly risking her life to save everyone. The fact that she was volunteering to be a sacrifice for sacrifice's sake before but only volunteering to be a sacrifice now to do the right thing doesn't change the fact that she is still volunteering to be a sacrifice every time. For Tris to do what she does in the end does not, as Veronica suggests, show that she finally has become a grown-up. The differences are supposed to demonstrate growth in principle, but put to action it just doesn't read well and instead comes off as redundant.

I am genuinely glad that Tris’s death was not intended to be done for “shock value,” as some people believe at first glance, and that it was meant to be part of a story arc from the very beginning, but this story arc just doesn't work. The motivations are not sensible, and the setup is poorly executed so as to be nonexistent in the overall narrative and so the resolution still appears to occur out of left field. Because regardless of the authorial intent, it still just comes off as Tris yet again throwing herself into a dangerous situation in order to yet again save everyone -- a repetitive storyline that differs only in the fact that she finally succeeds in getting herself killed this time and still tells us nothing about her character that we didn't already know. 

Tris's understanding of sacrifice, her personal growth, is already satisfied with her realization of why she must take Caleb's place. Her actual death was forced into the situation and added nothing to this character development.

So basically what we are left with at the end of all this is a story where our central character sacrifices herself in the climax of a contrived, ill-conceived and unnecessary plan that accomplishes nothing other than fulfilling that character's understanding of what it means to be selfless for the sake of honoring her parents who died in order for her to live. Not the best message and certainly not the greatest story. It would have been different if her sacrifice had occurred in the course of a more uniform plot, as part of some unavoidable situation wherein Tris specifically had to save everyone from destruction at the cost of her own life. It would have been different if Tris's efforts to stop a terrible thing from happening to everyone didn't involve forcing that same terrible thing onto someone else. It would have been different if Tris hadn’t made those previous attempts at being a sacrifice so this last one wouldn’t look like a retread of old ideas and lessons not learned and her possibly having an unhealthy martyr complex. It would have been different if Tris had maintained her conviction in her own selfishness, and her tendency to act as such, all along instead of having already proven herself to be anything but selfish long ago. It would have been different if the final circumstances were not so deliberate and Tris did not achieve her realization of what sacrifice meant until after she was shot, so the moment of her death would serve as a required precursor to her character growth instead of a random afterthought. It would have been different if the entire story leading up to it had been different. But as it happened her death was not necessary, not worth it, and serves no purpose to the story other than to say "This is what a sacrifice looks like." She dies for symbolism's sake ... and nothing more than that.  And that is a pointless ending.
And it's not meant to be pointless. I understand the point Veronica was trying to make. I disagree on her logic in making this point, but I understand it. The selflessness theme in the story is obvious from the beginning of the series and moves to the forefront in this book, which would be okay if it had stayed as an underlying message. However, it is shoved down the reader's throat on every other page as the reader is repeatedly told, not shown, about the value of sacrifice. It's rather hard to miss and so the ending is actually quite predictable. But the overall arc, the point behind each of Tris's sacrifice attempts, is near-impossible to discern, and so the real point of her death is lost. This, I think, is partly because Veronica's ideas about sacrifice are not relatable or believable and so readers would never begin to guess that this is really the story she is telling, but also because the story across the series is so disorganized and so the point mostly gets buried in the muddied plot.  Veronica's ideas are not clear in her writing. If they were, she would not have had to take to her own blog to offer a long explanation as to what the entire point of her story was. With good writing, a story should be able to explain itself. Perhaps with more cohesive plotting, fewer distracting tangents and better character motivations, the sacrifice theme would have presented itself better as a story arc across the series. Perhaps then the ending would not have seemed so random and the final course of events wouldn't have had to be so contrived -- and Tris's death wouldn't have seemed so out of sync with the story we thought we were following.

The Audience

We all like a happy ending for our characters every once in a while, but we understand that sometimes a story cannot logically end that way -- and so we are content with a sad or tragic or even an unresolved ending, so long as it is written in a way that fits naturally into the story and satisfies the narrative. Allegiant, unfortunately, failed miserably on that account. I don’t have a problem with the main character dying at the end of a story, and though I disagree somewhat with Veronica’s logic in designing this death, it’s still her prerogative to tell whatever story she wants to tell. She has no responsibility to her readers to tell the story the way they want it or just to satisfy their wishes. However, she does have a responsibility to tell a good story, a logical story, and a satisfying story. She failed to tell either a good story or a logical story and she certainly didn’t tell a satisfying story. Killing off the main character in the end is a fine idea in theory, but the story she created was just not strong enough to support it. This one was a tragic misfire.

The real failure is in the overall writing, but it is well-known that a great many readers were put off by this ending purely on principle. Considering the specific audience that this series was geared toward, this is not surprising -- in fact, the reaction was entirely predictable, which makes me wonder why Veronica, her editors, or the publisher ever thought this would be a good idea.

Certain types of books follow certain formulas, and many readers went into this series believing that this book series was following the young-adult fantasy formula. They expected excitement, they expected danger, and they certainly did expect death, but at the end they expected some sort of triumph or at least the hope of it. Because of these standards and expectations, which still provide wide latitude for story direction, it is very questionable to design a story that kills the main character at the end. Much of the anger from certain members of the reading audience may be due to their feeling as if they have been swindled somehow; they thought they were reading a certain type of story only to be fed another one -- it feels like a bait and switch. This is likely the real reason many readers feel like they have been "cheated" by this ending and that they have now "wasted their time" reading this series. Perhaps due to genre conventions, or perhaps due to some unspoken understanding between author and reader, they expected to reach the end and find some type of gratifying or at least fulfilling resolution for the hero, and instead found the hero dead at the end of the road. There is no real triumph to be had unless you view death as a reward -- which, given the text of Tris's very last moments, seems to be exactly what the ending was going for.

Bestselling young adult author John Green came to Veronica's defense and politely admonished readers for their reactions to this book, tweeting that some people are just "wrong" about what books are "for." I greatly respect and admire Mr. Green and his work, but this statement is somewhat narrow-minded and dismissive of the reading audience. I do not believe there is any one right answer about what books are for, because reading is a subjective experience. Some read for enrichment and enlightenment. Some people read purely to be entertained. Some just want an escape from reality, however temporary. People read for all different reasons, and want and expect different things from the stories they seek out, and no reason is any more right or wrong than the other. This is especially true if story and genre conventions lead a reader to expect certain things from certain types of books. This does not at all mean that authors should never stray from convention -- storytelling should never be predictable -- but if they veer too far off the path they should understand their audience may not appreciate having their expectations so vastly betrayed. Because for many of this book's readers, this ending feels like a betrayal.

Veronica says she focused on what the story needed and tried not to consider what the readers wanted because people want so many different things and it would be impossible to please everyone. For one thing, it's not a very savvy move for a published author who is selling her work to consumers to not take her readers' expectations into consideration. But also, this point of view doesn't make much sense. I don't think readers, as a whole, want very different things. I think people simply want a satisfying resolution to the journey they invested in and the characters they root for (and even the characters they root against). This does not necessarily have to be a happy ending, just an ending that does justice -- to the story, the characters, and the audience who put their faith in the author to tell them a good story that would make their investment worthwhile. They want satisfaction. I don't see how this ending, as it was written, could be satisfying to anyone. However difficult it is to ascertain exactly what everyone wants, it's not hard to surmise that this particular plot twist is the one thing that exactly nobody wants. To the reader who would be fine just having the above mentioned basic expectations met, the story then amounts to: the hero is dead, her lover is sad and alone and the bad guys all get away. This is not in any way satisfying to even basic reader expectations, and certainly not after following the characters over the course of three books. It's a waste of time. You can't please everyone, certainly, but there's not much point in writing a story that pleases no one -- and I think the one thing all readers can agree that they didn't want was for the protagonist to die. So that excuse doesn't work.

It is absolutely Veronica's right to tell her story the way she believes it needs to be told, and to remain true to her vision and her creation, but it's not particularly smart from a business perspective to outright disregard your audience's most basic expectations. One might say that an author only has a responsibility to their art and they should not worry about the "business" of it, but that's only true to an extent; it ceases to be just about art for art's sake the day the author signs a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Veronica stayed true to her art and committed to her vision, and from a writer's perspective that's a quality and achievement that shouldn't be taken away from her. But it showed a very poor understanding of audience.

Writers should not be expected to tailor their stories a certain way purely for the sake of appeasing their audience's wishes -- that would be pandering, which I personally abhor. But a published author does in fact have a certain level of responsibility to their readers, and they should take care to take their readers' expectations into consideration -- particularly if you decide to go against the grain, against genre conventions, in your work. I believe that when you write a story, you are creating your own piece of art, your masterpiece designed to your own liking and for your vision. However, when you choose to publish a book, it's no longer just your art: You are now selling a product for public consumption.  And simply put, it is just bad business sense to sell a product that people don't want, and I think that's where a lot of the outrage-on-principle with this book stems from -- this is just not what these types of readers, in this type of genre, are looking for. Veronica overshot her audience, and the genre, and delivered a story that most people just didn't want. But personally, I think they might have still accepted it if they had any reason to believe in the story that was written. But it was not convincing.

Perhaps this ending was doomed to failure from the beginning by the simple fact of the writing style. It may have been a misstep to write the series in the first-person with this ending in mind. When a story is told through a first-person narrative, the main character therefore also serves as the reader's window into the fictional world, the person through whom the reader experiences the world -- the reader lives vicariously through the narrator, basically becomes the narrator, even. And so when you kill off the narrator, you are also essentially "killing" the reader. I suspect this is another reason why many readers had such a guttural reaction to this ending -- they invested heavily into this world, into this journey, only to be unceremoniously kicked out of it, their window slammed shut, their voice silenced. The loss feels direct, and personal. It's rarely a good idea to kill off the narrator in a story, particularly at the end of a series, unless you make clear from the very, very beginning that this is precisely where the story is going. It is very risky to bring the reader into your narrative world so intimately and then suddenly sever their connection in such a brutal way, regardless of the story purpose. 

Risky plot choices are not always successful. A lot of them screw up. A plot choice such as this is something you simply can’t afford to screw up. Killing off the main character -- the narrator, no less -- is a monumental choice to make. It's a game changer.  And if you add a game changer to your story, particularly if it is the story’s conclusion, you had better be able to pull it off; otherwise it takes the reader out of the story or, worse, ruins the entire book.  It takes a certain level of skill and style to be able to kill off your main character without making the story suffer for it. It's a very delicate dance -- that's why so few writers dare attempt it. I'm not quite sure what made Veronica think she was so above ordinary writers that she could pull off the unthinkable, but suffice it to say she was mistaken. She did not pull this off well at all. There wouldn’t be nearly as many one-star reviews if she had.

I have always been a firm believer in the idea that a book is only as good as its ending. The ending defines the story. And this ending let everyone down, as evidenced by the poor reviews and low ratings. Maybe rating a book solely on the ending isn’t entirely fair, but if it ruined the entire book as most of the one-star reviewers say it did -- not that they merely didn’t like it or hoped for a happier ending, but that it ruined the entire book -- I guess that is as valid a reason as any. It is also my opinion that, if this book and the ending had been executed better, even the small percentage of readers who complained about not getting the “happy ending” they wanted would have been able to appreciate the bittersweet ending the way Veronica probably intended. A reader shouldn’t finish the last book in a trilogy and wish they’d never started the series at all.  Which is a shame because with better writing and a clear purpose, this same ending could have been truly amazing. The wasted potential is what is most frustrating of all.

Please be aware that the purpose of this essay is to explain why the ending did not work and why the reaction to the book was so poor; it is not to prove that the ending, in concept, was "wrong" for the story or that the book was bad.

But, for the record, here is how I would grade the Divergent series:

Divergent: B+
Insurgent: B
Allegiant (without the ending in mind): C-
Allegiant (with the ending): F