Dystopian Rites of Passage (Part 1)

Reading Divergent by fellow Elevensie Veronica Roth got me thinking about rites of passage in both young adult and middle grade dystopias.  A rite of passage, btw, is a ritual or ceremony that marks a transition in a person's life from one stage to another, such as from adolescence to adulthood. From an anthropological standpoint, rites of passage usually have three stages: 
  • Separation - participant is taken away from old life or phase.
  • Transition - he/she trains for new role.
  • Reincorporation - he/she is presented back to society as a full-fledged member.
In Divergent—which I loved—all the 16-year-olds must choose (after aptitude testing) the faction they want to join. After a ceremony, they're separated from their families and sent off to faction bootcamp. Each faction has its own training / initiation rites—which upon completion the candidate is considered a full member of the faction and society in general.  (I’m keeping it generic here so as not to spoil the book for you.)

Rites of passage are quite popular in dystopian literature (as well as other science fiction and fantasy). For instance, in both Delirium by Lauren Oliver and the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, an operation marks the passage from childhood to adult. The Maze Runner series is probably all rite of passage. Even middle grade likes a good ceremony or rite to mark the end of one phase and the beginning of the next. The Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. The job ceremonies in the Giver and the City of Ember.

So why do we find the rite of passage thing so satisfying (or at least intriguing)?

Maybe the Sociology 101 answer is that we don’t have true, hard-and-fast rites of passage in modern society anymore.  We have Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, confirmations, QuinceaƱeras, Sweet 16’s, debutante balls, graduations, etc. But our society doesn’t necessarily consider the teen an actual adult (just a young one) after these rites.  Graduation--or high school itself--is probably the closest thing we have to a rite of passage. However, whether we graduated, we're considered legal adults at 18. Yet, we still can't drink and probably live with our parents. In fiction maybe there's closure and recognition, huh?

Or maybe it's the other way around. Teen readers like these fictional rites because they (and we) equate them with high school itself. Or both.

What do you guys think? What are some of your favorite rites of passage from dystopian (or other science fiction / fantasy) stories? Or from real life?

(Next week YA vs. MG rites of passage.)


Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is a "rite of passage" or not, but for me, getting my driver's license marked something big in my life. At 16, I was able to drive and allowed to date (not until then, though!). I was able to drive to band practice by myself and have a curfew (that was a big deal). Ya know, those things that were kind of like "practice" for my independence later on.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think you're closer to the first - that it satisfies something primal in us. Historically, society has had clearer markers for us, and that probably satisfied emotional as well as social needs. Now that society has an "extended adolescence" (and no clear societal need for a distinct end), the emotional part remains elusive.

Looking forward to the YA vs. MG post! :)

G Blechman said...

Interesting thought. I don't know if it's necessarily that we crave it, or just that it makes everything easier to pin down. As readers, our lives our filled with milestones both traditional (such as a high school or college graduation) and personal (such as the first book you ever wrote from start to finish.) In a book, without a rite of passage you might have to scan the character's entire life to see the little things that changed him or her. But with these rites, you can see what those days/months/hours in training or w/ an operation did to someone or will do to someone.

<3 Gina Blechman

Matthew MacNish said...

I've always love the Vision Quest from Native American culture. I even have one in my MS.

Angie Smibert said...

wordwranglernc - The driver's license was a big thing for me and my friends too. It was a small taste of freedom.

Susan - I agree about the whole extended adolescence thing. (I often feel like I'm still one myself. Maybe that's why I write for teens.)

Gina - From the writer's perspective, you're right. A rite or test is a way to build character relatively quickly. From the reader's perspective, I think we may not crave the rite and its closure--but it resonates in us. IMHO. :)

Stephsco said...

I think the social events you mentioned - bar/bat mitzvah, sweet 16, graduation, and I would also include prom, are made such a big deal of by families because of this ingrained need to mark milestones. In my office I hear about families throwing catered parties for 8th grade graduation... some of it seems overkill, but maybe it's just another excuse to party and celebrate!

Carol Riggs said...

Wow, very interesting. Great post. I will definitely have to think about this in light of my last WIP, which had/has a rite of passage!!