Themes in Young Adult Literature: Good and Evil

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2985

Titles Discussed

Divergent series by Veronica Roth

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Thematic Overview

Western civilization has myriad stories of good versus evil, a basic duality stemming from the deepest foundations of human culture. Whether rooted in religion, social norms and taboos, or...

(The entire section contains 2985 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Divergent series by Veronica Roth

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Thematic Overview

Western civilization has myriad stories of good versus evil, a basic duality stemming from the deepest foundations of human culture. Whether rooted in religion, social norms and taboos, or psychology, this struggle provides perhaps the most simple, yet also richly nuanced, conflict throughout literature. Themes of good and evil permeate works from fairytales to the most serious novels, and young-adult (YA) literature is no different. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series(2011–13), Ursula Le Guin’s Gifts (2004), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), all deal with protagonists who struggle with defining what is good and what is evil as they begin to develop their own opinions, rather than be told what is right and wrong by authority figures.

Yet these and other works recognize that reality is rarely easily divisible into clear camps of good and evil. Significantly, the teenage protagonists must make difficult moral judgments that contradict the established views of the wider society. This reflects Western history as a narrative of order versus chaos and authority versus the individual, which is also the teenager’s daily battle. YA literature’s complication of the good-versus-evil dichotomy speaks to readers’ desire to identify with “good” characters that, like the reader, are at odds with society and have imperfections themselves.

The appropriate use of power is often linked to good versus evil, establishing characters’ moral qualities while allowing shades of gray. In the Divergent series, the heroes’ violence is justified as reactive and necessary. At the same time, the depiction of special powers allow the reader to sympathize with the hero as “different,” a status that often engenders persecution. The evil becomes either the conformist society itself or those who use their distinct power for negative means, while the good are those who embrace their difference and fight back, often using what sets them apart to their advantage.

Le Guin further complicates issues of good, evil, and power in Gifts by following characters that refuse to use their supernatural abilities. While the characters have ethical doubts of their abstinence, as they could use their powers to help their friends and families, their morality does not allow for them to kill for food or self-defense. This puts the ultimate responsibility not on how the individual relates to society, but how they relate to themselves, even with the self-doubt inherent in the duality of pragmatism and moral obligation.

Although Le Guin’s protagonists struggle with their own identity and other forces, they at least have authority figures (parents) who are sympathetic to their choices. In The Chocolate War, Cormier complicates authority by questioning its source. One figure, the priest and substitute headmaster Brother Leon, claims authority through bureaucracy and God, neither of which he earned himself. Archie, leader of the secret society/bully club the Vigils, maintains order through violence and the threat of violence. Though both are antagonists, they view themselves as good because they do what they believe is for the greater good (a pragmatic view). Yet the reader sees how the complex power structures of church, school, and social groups have corrupted them. This reduction of church and state patriarchy speaks to the young adult’s struggle to find an identity away from established hierarchies and leadership figures. Individuality, even when dangerous or doomed to fail, is heroic.

Some works do focus on a core struggle between pure good and evil. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Gandalf is good and Sauron is evil. But many realistic characters exist outside of this dichotomy, and power is often the defining trait—the ultimate power of the One Ring affects everyone. Much YA fiction is concerned with what perspective does to characters with and without power. It seeks to rationalize asserting the self for individual fulfillment rather than for domination of others. It is about being yourself, even when people in authority will punish you for it.

Works

Veronica Roth’s popular YA series, which includes Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant, takes place in a postapocalyptic Chicago where society has strict rules on what is good and what is evil. Divergent is similar to other dystopian YA novels such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008) and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009). A common theme among many dystopian novels is the struggle between good and evil. In Divergent, most of the population believes they are a perfect society. People live in groups called “factions” that are sorted by personality traits determined by various psychological tests. Everyone has their place, and the few who do not are pushed out and made outcasts called the “factionless.”

Divergent’s protagonist, Tris, is unique in that she cannot be sorted into any one faction because she has the mental capabilities belonging to many groups. This places her in the evil category by authorities. Tris has learned strict standards of what it is to be good in her childhood faction, Abnegation. It is good not to draw attention to oneself, not to be vain, and always to put others first. Tris questions this lifestyle and wonders if it is not also good to laugh, run, and experience emotional and physical freedom. This is what draws her to the Dauntless faction, even though what they believe is “good” differs greatly from how she was raised. The Dauntless are often vain, violent, and enjoy showing off. Each faction values one trait as the epitome of good, and anything that goes against those values is bad.

While those examples show how different people have different ideas of what is good, the main example is how Tris deals with her own existence when people in authority tell society that all Divergents are evil and need to be imprisoned. Tris goes through periods of doubting herself as she feels guilt over harming others in self-defense but remains aware that she is not evil and that what is evil is killing people because they differ from the majority.

Many evil deeds are committed throughout the Divergent series, including the assassination of innocent leaders of the faction Abnegation as well as the murder of countless Divergents. The mass murder is similar to various genocides that have occurred in real life. Jeanine, the Erudite leader in charge of this violence, is smart and enigmatic, much like Adolf Hitler. While many fictional villains can be sympathized with, Jeanine is cold-hearted and easy to hate. The series becomes even more similar to the Holocaust as people are placed into two groups in Allegiant, the genetically pure and the genetically damaged. The main theme of the Divergent series is that absolute authority is evil, as are prejudice and the eradication of all those who differ from mainstream society.

By the end of the series, the protagonists discover that in reality Divergents are superior in that they can fit in with all the factions rather than only one. They are what is good, the future of society, and those unwilling to adapt and change are what is bad. Society formed the factions in attempt to get rid of evil, but there will always be those who seek power. As Tris’s mother claims, “Human beings as a whole cannot be good for long before the bad creeps back in and poisons us again.”

The Divergent series, then, is mainly concerned with how good and evil are socialized through ethics. The differences between the different factions is less about what is “good” and “bad” than about what preserves the status quo. As with most political and philosophical arguments, the question is not whether violence is moral, but whom authority can hurt to maintain that authority. To that end, the factions demonize each other, before finding common enemies in the Divergent, deciding who is human by their citizenship in tribes. The factional governments justify their use of violence by declaring those who are not in their group less than human.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Gifts (2004) tells the story of a young boy named Orrec who battles with the fact that he is supposed to develop a strong, destructive power called the “undoing” that can be used with the glance of an eye. Despite knowing that his father uses this gift to defend their lands from greedy neighbors, Orrec is cripplingly afraid he will accidentally harm those he loves: “My fear was not only in my thoughts but in my dreams, in which I was always just about to do a great, dreadful act of destruction.” In order to keep his loved ones safe, Orrec blindfolds himself for most of his teens with his father’s support.

While Orrec is not afraid of becoming evil, he does not want to accidentally do evil things like unmake living creatures. Rather than attempt to gain control of his power, Orrec prefers to not take any risks, and to him, remaining blind is the right thing, even though he will not be the strong warrior figure of his father.

Gifts and the Divergent seriesshare the theme that too much power can lead to evil and destruction rather than to good. While Orrec does not actively do good for his land or people, he does make the decision to not take power for fear of using it for evil. Orrec also battles between good and evil when he is tempted to kill the man he suspects caused the death of his mother. Despite his feelings of grief and hatred, Orrec does not act on his feelings as he decides that it would do more harm than good.

Le Guin tends to focus on the rights of the individual in many of her novels. What right do humans have to inflict their will over each other, if any? This issue is most demonstrated in Orrec’s childhood friend Gry. Gry and her mother have the power to call nearby animals. This gift is valued for hunting, and Gry’s mother calls many animals to the slaughter for hunters. Gry refuses to follow in her mother’s footsteps, believing that it is an abuse of power to call animals to their deaths by giving humans an unfair advantage.

Le Guin draws a parallel here between the men Orrec’s father kills and the animals Gry’s mother summons to the hunters. Both are killed for the good of the tribe, though the children do not want to use these powers. The difference is that Gry’s mother insists that predators not be allowed to defend themselves after summoning. She understands these animals as fighters, as opposed to, say, docile deer, and that should be respected through the constraint of power.

Compare this to Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which a man whose dreams change reality is manipulated by his psychiatrist to improve humanity and its lot. The tension in both novels has to do with individuals and their ethical concerns and a desire not to use their abilities. Those concerns conflict with authority figures’ desires, which may be noble but do not lead to good results. In Le Guin’s work, no amount of moral or bureaucratic authority entitles the manipulation of people who would rather not use their abilities. Moreover, the choice not to use power is an individual right.

In Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), good and evil is much more directly relatable to the young-adult reader, as this novel takes place in an American Catholic school. The Chocolate War reframes the question of good and evil as order and chaos and brings up the issue of competing values. The Vigils, a secret society in the school, bring order to the student body through corrupt means. Goober, the friend of the protagonist Jerry, senses that this warped power structure is evil: “‘There’s something rotten in that school. More than rotten.’ He groped for the word and found it but didn’t want to use it. The word didn’t fit the surroundings, the sun and the bright October afternoon. It was a midnight word, a howling wind word. . . . ‘Evil.’”

Jerry causes chaos and disruption to the school’s chocolate sale, but Cormier frames this as a heroic act of resistance. For his heroism, the Vigils punish Jerry for not being bullied into submission. It is his truth to himself that justifies Jerry’s actions, as opposed to those of the Vigils’ leader Archie, who follows orders in pursuit of power and resorts to using mind games and violence to get his way.

The novel’s setting at a Catholic school is telling about how Cormier sees authority and its derivation. The Chocolate War concerns itself with not just the student body, but the bodies of students. Everything from summer colds to masturbation is addressed, and the question of good and evil is whether something is moral (Jerry doing what he feels is right) or executed by force. The Vigils and the priests teach the students to police themselves, to do the authorities’ work for them, mostly through shame. That leads to order, which allows governance to run more smoothly. It is the freedom to make one’s own mistakes that Jerry fights for and why he does not need to appeal to cronies or a god for personal power.

All three of these stories speak to questions of values and ethics as critical complications of the theme of good and evil. The conflicts all stem from whether or not the protagonist will fall in line and do as they are told. These works reassure teenage readers that being different is not evil, and in fact it is heroic to stand up to mindless or enforced conformity. Morality further enters the picture when the question of violence arises. Good people defend others, or at least only hurt others in defense. Bad people use violence to gain and maintain power.

Conclusions

Most critics and readers will agree that good and evil are essential themes in YA novels. Reading allows students to gain a better understanding of morality through the lens of fictional characters to whom they can relate. One goal of these books is to support critical thinking and push students to question the world around them so that they can make decisions for themselves and improve society later in their lives. While YA novels are not always taken seriously, some critics have begun to realize that the genre is incredibly important to contemporary culture. As author Damien Walter suggests, YA novels “externalize evil as an enemy that can be seen and understood.”

Evil is externalized in The Chocolate War as the Vigil bullies and the adult-run society that gives the bullies power. Though relatively clear and simple in its core message of the dangers of conformity, the book won praise for its realistic and highly sensitive portrayal of the subject. Yet while The Chocolate War is about standing up for what you believe in and not giving in to societal pressures, it has itself faced intense pressure from social groups offended by its content. The novel has been banned in many school districts for its depictions of violence and sexuality and its negative view of authority. Some also claim the book criticizes the Catholic Church in its portrayal of characters who use manipulation to gain control and power.

Le Guin deals with more internal forms of good and evil in her fantasy novels. Her characters must learn that they cannot always eradicate the things they do not like about themselves and instead must cope with who they are despite what society says. Critics have often noticed psychological themes in her writing that resonate with the personal struggle between forms of good and evil. Her fiction is an example of how fantasy works for younger readers should not be dismissed as childish and can incorporate serious themes and varied perspectives into a genre often seen as escapist and simplistic. Le Guin seeks not to preach but to leave the reader free to interpret her works as they will, just as her characters value the ability to make their own moral choices.

Walter notices a new trend in YA fiction that can be applied to the Divergent series, which is that evil is seen more in terms of worlds than individual characters. For example, while Jeanine is an evil character, it is the larger society that is truly the problem. In this way YA fiction deals with good and evil as an allegory for understanding the challenges of real-world society, in which morals are frequently blurred. Teenage readers are shown that although others, particularly adults, hold power, those with authority do not always do the right thing. In fact, it is always good to question the social system and follow one’s inner sense of morality despite the potential consequences. The theme of good and evil will continue to develop in future YA works depending on new experiences and fears that develop within our own society.

Further Reading

  • Le Guin, Ursula K., and Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Putnam, 1979. Print.
  • Lindow, Sandra J. “Wild Gifts: Anger Management and Moral Development in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Maurice Sendak.” Extrapolation 47.3 (2006): 445–56. Print.

Bibliography

  • Baldassarro, R. Wolf. “Banned Books Awareness: The Chocolate War.” Banned Books Awareness. World.edu, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <http://bannedbooks.world.edu/2012/03/12/banned-books-awareness-chocolate-war>.
  • Jaggi, Maya. “The Magician.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Dec. 2005. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/dec/17/booksforchildrenandteenagers.shopping>.
  • Walter, Damien. “Young Adult Fiction Is Loved Because It Speaks to Us All—Unlike Adult Stories.” Guardian. Guardian New and Media, 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/sep/19/young-adult-fiction-speaks-to-all>.
  • “Young Adult Books That Changed Our Lives.” CNN. Cable News Network, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/07/living/best-young-adult-books>.
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