Themes in Young Adult Literature: Fate versus Free Will

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2456

Titles Discussed

Holes by Louis Sachar

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Thematic Overview

Throughout history, people have debated the theme of fate versus free will. Is one's life predetermined, or do the choices one makes determine one's future? Is free will just a...

(The entire section contains 2456 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Holes by Louis Sachar

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Thematic Overview

Throughout history, people have debated the theme of fate versus free will. Is one's life predetermined, or do the choices one makes determine one's future? Is free will just a pretense to make people feel like they have the power to control their future? Many people want the freedom to choose their own paths, especially in Western culture. On the other hand, there are also people who like the idea of a future that is already determined.

Fate versus free will has long been a common theme among young adult (YA) fiction. Some popular titles that employ this theme include Christopher Paolini's Eragon (2002), Louis Lowry's The Giver (1993), J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997–2007), and Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series (2008–10). Each protagonist in these novels must decide to take matters into his or her own hands. The protagonists in these novels choose to fight for what they believe in, which is, in many cases, freedom.

The rise in popularity of dystopian YA novels has complicated the fate-versus-free-will debate. In many cases, novels in this genre—including The Hunger Games (2008), The Giver, and even Veronica Roth's Divergent (2011)—portray a corrupt and cruel government posing as the epitome of peace and order. These governments want their citizens to believe fate exists and that the government is the arbiter of fate. For example in Divergent, people are born into certain factions and they are taught that the way their faction lives is the way things were meant to be. The protagonists in these books realize things are not what they seem; governments are made of people and therefore do not implement the laws of God or other sources of authority. Upon realizing this, the protagonists' lives get much more complicated, as they often lead rebellions against the state.

The theme of fate versus free will is important to YA literature because it teaches adolescents to question authority, to make their own decisions, and to prevent past mistakes such as genocide, slavery, or internment. YA novels personalize this abstraction of history by demonstrating that the situation into which one is born does not necessarily dictate the choices and actions characters may take to change their lives.

Works

This essay discusses the importance of fate versus free will in Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card, Holes by Louis Sachar (1997), and Beatle Meets Destiny (2010) by Gabrielle Williams. Stanley Yelnats, the protagonist of Holes, is literally cursed with bad luck. His family was cursed generations ago by a Gypsy, although “Stanley and his parents didn't believe in curses, of course, but whenever anything went wrong, it felt good to be able to blame someone.” The novel begins as he heads to a juvenile detention center called Camp Green Lake for a crime he did not commit. Stanley's first act of free will is deciding to go to Camp Green Lake (actually a desert) instead of jail. He assumes camp will be better than jail, but soon realizes that his time at camp will be spent digging holes.

Stanley was arrested for stealing sneakers that had actually fallen on him from a highway overpass. Was it fate or just bad luck that he walked under the overpass at that exact time? Stanley states that the shoes fell on his head as if they were a sign from God. Rather than blame the family curse, Stanley chalks up the event to bad luck. The narrator states that a lot of people do not believe in curses just as some may not believe in other myths: “A lot of people don't believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn't make a difference whether you believe in it or not.”

A counselor at the camp lectures Stanley about how he is responsible for his own life and that he alone can set it straight. The counselor is clearly in favor of free will over destiny, which is ironic because some of the boys are at the camp as a result of circumstances rather than any wrongdoing. For example, Stanley's friend Zero is there because he had the misfortune of being homeless.

Stanley experiences other instances of bad luck, such as when a bag of stolen sunflower seeds falls into his hole. Even though Stanley is innocent, he receives punishment from the unstable and violent Warden. This incident also solidifies Stanley's relationship with Zero as they make a trade: reading lessons from Stanley for Zero's help digging.

Readers soon discover Stanley's ancestor is linked with the Warden's hunt for treasure. Stanley's great-grandfather was robbed by Kissin' Kate (who was rumored to have buried her treasure.) One wonders if it is fate or coincidence that Stanley and the Warden, whose ancestors were linked, should end up at camp together.

Readers also discover that Zero's ancestor was the Gypsy who cursed Stanley's family. Stanley unknowingly breaks the curse by saving Zero's life. Readers also learn that it was Zero who unintentionally stole the sneakers. He had taken them, realized he had stolen them, and then threw them off the overpass.

Now Stanley believes it was his destiny to be hit with the sneakers, “When the shoes first fell from the sky, he remembered thinking that destiny had struck him. Now, he thought so again. It was more than a coincidence. It had to be destiny.” Stanley views the event as destiny because of the events that followed, allowing him to gain pride and confidence in himself.

Holes is not necessarily centered on the theme of fate versus free will; a more overarching theme is fate versus coincidence. The text is riddled with coincidences, including the fact that Stanley and Zero were forced to eat onions for days to prevent starvation, which then inadvertently saved them from the yellow-spotted lizards, which are repelled by onions. Another significant coincidence occurs when Stanley finds the treasure in luggage that has his name on it. (The luggage had belonged to his great-grandfather.)

In Holes, Sachar also asks whether or not an individual's perspective on destiny can change their approach to their future. Stanley's mother insists that the family is not cursed and reminds them to think of all the good luck they have. For instance, Stanley's great-grandfather could have been killed instead of just robbed. In fact, the events that follow the incident with the stolen shoes lead him and his family to great fortune. But then again, this outcome would not have happened if Stanley had chosen to go to jail rather than to Camp Green Lake. Stanley may have forces controlling his path, but he chooses to follow it.

In Ender's Game, it is almost impossible to believe that anyone or anything has control over Ender's future but himself. Ender is a manipulative tactician, always making and analyzing his own decisions. Everything he does has a purpose. Even though he is but a child, Ender appears to have great agency. After all, he is a born soldier.

The crux of being a soldier is trusting that commanders have superior knowledge. In any game, player agency can only be understood in relation to one's knowledge, so imperfect knowledge leads to imperfect agency.

Ender is told that the battles in which he fights are simulations, but they are actual sorties. Ender's basis for any decision he would make (which is the basic principle of free will) is denied him. Card offers the reader snippets of Ender's superiors to let the audience know that, in Ender's case, there can be no true free will because Ender has imperfect knowledge of situations in which he is involved.

Therefore, without free will, Ender seems bound by fate and destiny, especially given that he has been bred and nurtured to be the most brilliant military commander in history. Thus, Ender cannot make choices. If a game has an optimal strategy, then the player has no choice but to play that way. Ender was created to implement the best strategy, from a militaristic perspective, for any scenario. As the novel plays out, however, Ender rejects his destiny, revealing that he had at least some form of free will all along.

After Ender unwittingly commits genocide against the Buggers, he finds an egg with which he can repopulate the species. He takes the moniker “Speaker for the Dead,” hoping to make humans realize both how awful and destructive they were toward the Buggers and how terrible the military was in forcing Ender to kill them. This is the pivotal moment in Ender's coming-of-age story, as he recognizes that the way he was designed is antithetical to his sense of self. He becomes a person able to make decisions, which endows him with free will. When Ender becomes self-aware, he kills his “destiny.”

Almost everything in Beatle Meets Destiny revolves around fate and superstition. The book's main character is named John Lennon, and is nicknamed Beatle, while Destiny's last name is McCartney. Many would call their meeting fate. Beatle decides to go home early on a Friday the thirteenth, and Destiny also heads home because she cannot score a ticket to a show to which her friends went. The two characters meet by chance and hit it off (even though Beatle already had a girlfriend).

Beatle blames bad luck on things like black cats and walking under ladders. Despite these superstitions he is not interested in the horoscopes that obsess his mother. Coincidentally, Destiny also does not believe in astrology even though she writes a column on horoscopes. Furthermore, Destiny does not believe in fate, contrary to her name, “As far as Destiny was concerned, there were no such things as signs. Fate wasn't watching out for you every step of the way, dropping little clues like bread crumbs for you to pick up and examine. … Life was what you made of it.”

The second time Beatle and Destiny meet by chance is on Valentine's Day. She walks into a random café, where Beatle happens to work. Lucky for Beatle, his girlfriend is busy that day, and he has the time for a spontaneous outing with Destiny after his shift.

Despite his superstitions, Beatle is aware he is responsible for his own actions. He could have met Destiny and chosen to stay loyal to his girlfriend, or he could have broken up with her to date Destiny. He worries that he is predisposed to cheating because his father cheated: “The question was, exactly what part of your parents is bred in you, and what isn't?” (74). Beatle's musings on genetic predisposition align him with Ender, who ponders the fact that he was created to master military tactics.

There are ridiculous and unrealistic coincidences throughout Beatle Meets Destiny, mostly showing how funny fate can be. For instance, at the end of the novel, Beatle is literally hit on the head with a Cupid sign. He and Destiny take this as a figurative sign that they should get back together. The novel does discuss responsibility for one's own actions and promotes overcoming superstitions.

By the end of the novel Beatle decides to overcome his fears of black cats and Friday the thirteenth. For this, he is rewarded with one more encounter with Destiny on the year's last Friday the thirteenth. This time he is single, and she is ready to forgive his past transgressions. The novel ends with, “And if you were even the slightly superstitious type, you might think to yourself that those two were made for each other” (336).

Conclusions

The question of fate/destiny and free will is prevalent in YA literature, as so many novels in the genre are coming-of-age stories. Another reason the theme is prevalent in YA novels is because many of them follow a rather formulaic structure, namely the hero's journey. In Ender's Game, Holes, and Beatle, protagonists are forced to come of age away from parents and other authority figures and therefore must shake off destiny and prophecy to become themselves.

Sachar's use of the theme of incarceration in Holes can provide readers with insight when determining what the text has to say about fate versus free will. The act of being incarcerated precludes one from free will. However, in the case of Holes, fate, or more appropriately coincidence, eventually allows Stanley to fulfill a sort of destiny.

Ender chooses not to fulfill the destiny assigned to him. Therefore, he exhibits free will by deciding not to follow orders anymore. Social demands have created a fate for Ender, but when he begins to understand the life laid out for him, he makes a conscious decision to become his own person. Ender, then, becomes a relatable hero to modern people.

Beatle Meets Destiny engages free will on a personal, instead of a cultural, level, and is played out through the tensions between rationalism and mysticism. While Beatle chooses to absolve himself of personal responsibility (as opposed to authority figures usurping his agency), his selectivity reveals cultural attitudes. Beatle has to learn to make the distinction between fate and free will as he wrestles with his own past actions, as well as his father's. In the end, these three novels seem to say that fate and free will depend on whether a person can take responsibility for him- or herself, which ultimately is a matter of crossing from adolescence to adulthood, a major component of YA novels.

Further Reading

  • Doyle, Christine. “Orson Scott Card's Ender and Bean: The Exceptional Child as Hero.” Children's Literature in Education 35.4 (2004): 301–18. Literary Reference Center. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=15226160&site=lrc-live>.
  • Gross, Melissa. “Prisoners of Childhood? Child Abuse and the Development of Heroes and Monsters in Ender's Game.” Children's Literature in Education 38.2 (2007): 115–26. Literary Reference Center. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=24486922&site=lrc-live>.
  • Reynolds, Susan S. “Louis Sachar's Odyssey.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 5 Jan. 2003. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jan/05/magazine/tm-sachar1>.

Bibliography

  • “Beatle Meets Destiny.” Rev. of Beatle Meets Destiny, Gabrielle Williams. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media, 31 Aug. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/gabrielle-williams/beatle-meets-destiny/>.
  • “Ender's Game.” Rev. of Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media, 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/orson-scott-card/enders-game/>.
  • “Holes.” Rev of Holes, by Louis Sachar.” Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media, 20 May 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/louis-sachar/holes/>.
  • Modenait, Mr. “Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.” Rev. of Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 May 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/enders-game-scott-card-review>.
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