Fear and Courage in YA Literature (part 1)

On the concept of courage in literature for teens.


There’s a well known book many kids in the U.S. read when they are about 13 or 14 – I did. This quote stayed with me all my life:

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."
- spoken by Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Cited in http://classiclit.about.com/od/finchatticus/a/aa_atticusquote.htm)

As those who have read the book know, the bravest person Atticus Finch ever knew was a cranky old lady dying of cancer, and determined to die without becoming addicted to morphine. Mrs. Dubose certainly was brave. But would she have made it into Dauntless?


The more I think about the world of Divergent, the more bothered I get by the way courage is presented. I’ve got other problems with the worldbuilding, but I’m going to focus just on this question for the moment. What is courage, and what is fear?

I’m not actually sure the book gives us any clear answer. Those who make it into Dauntless – the guardians and fighters – are willing to use violence, shooting guns and throwing knives.  They are constantly jumping on and off moving trains, beating each other up in training, and getting piercings and tattoos. Mrs. Dubose would doubtless find all this very silly. The Dauntless kids are risk takers, certainly. But are they actually brave?

During their initiation, as those who have read the book know, the teens go through mental simulations to test their fitness for their faction. One of the young leaders is simply called Four. It turns out that this is because he has only four deep-seated fears in his personal fear landscape. But – how does this make Four any braver than another boy with fifteen or twenty fears? If that other boy – we’ll call him Jem, just for the heck of it – faces his fears and does what is needful in spite of them, isn’t he actually braver than Four? What’s so special about not having fears?

I was always taught that courage is feeling fear, and doing the right thing in spite of it. In that case, Jem, with twenty fears, would most definitely be braver than Four. This, by the way, is something the Harry Potter books get right. The Gryffindors may be physical, hotheaded risk-takers, like the Dauntless. But Neville is rightly praised for standing up to his friends, and the bravest person in the saga is not a Gryffindor. 

So, bravery is not the same thing as not having fear. There’s more. Fear is not weakness. It is presented as such in the Divergent series. To my mind, that is a dangerous message. I’ve seen that same message elsewhere in American culture, btw, not just in Divergent; I came across a discussion board in which a Star Trek fan proclaimed that Klingons don’t feel fear. I do hope that fan was young, and will rethink what fear is. If it were true that Klingons – or Gryffindors, or human, Dauntless teenagers – didn’t feel fear, they would be severely handicapped.

There are people who cannot feel physical pain, and cannot tell when they are burning themselves, cutting themselves, and so on. It should be obvious what a huge handicap this is. (There was a recent NY Times article about a child with this condition, and I’ll try to find the citation.) Without strong social support, a child with this handicap could not survive. As pain tells the body when it’s in danger, so does fear. If Klingons, for example, really could not feel fear, they would never flee when attacked by predators, and they would soon die out. Those that didn’t get eaten by the Klingon equivalent of leopards would probably kill themselves jumping off cliffs for kicks and doing other stupidly hazardous things. Fortunately, most humans do feel pain, and do feel fear. That’s why we’ve been able to survive as long as we have.

Fear isn’t weakness. It’s a gift; a gift that teaches you. Gavin De Becker wrote a wonderful book called The Gift of Fear. In it, he explains that, when you are truly fearful for your life, you will – if you listen to your fear – learn what you need to do in order to save yourself. An example he gives is a young boy listening to a violent argument and deciding to get himself and his siblings away. He was that boy. He grew up in an abusive environment, and learned to gauge his circumstances to keep himself and his siblings safe. I hope that every young girl who reads Divergent will also read Mr. De Becker’s book.

The fear Gavin De Becker talks about is not cowardice. It’s not panic. It’s much deeper-seated than that, and I think, if we think about it, we will all recognize it. Sometimes it shows us boundaries we should challenge. Sometimes it encourages us to fight back. Sometimes it tells us to stay still and wait. It’s a type of physical wisdom, and it deserves respect. 

The thing about fear is that – as with our other emotions – we need to give it credence and respect without letting it control us. We need to let it teach us. Those kids who grow up thinking Four is braver than anyone else because he has only four core fears are being shortchanged. They’re being lied to. And lies are dangerous.

I submit that, in the world of fictional characters, Neville Longbottom is brave. Severus Snape is brave. Jane Eyre is brave. Mrs. Dubose is surpassingly brave. Four? Not so much.