Uglies: The Shay Alternative in YA Lit

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series, AVERT YOUR EYES! (SERIOUSLY, you HAVEN’T read them? Get GOING!)

Someone once told me that villains aren’t born, they are made. And, in the best case scenarios, they are unconsciously created by the hero. Thus, the protagonist begets that which they must destroy. This phenomenon is most obvious in super hero origin stories, Greek mythology and Pixar pics. Scott Westerfeld explores with this concept in Uglies, the first novel in his Uglies series.

Although theoretically influenced by these forms of origin stories, Westerfeld creates his protagonist and antagonist in a more contemporary way: the frenemy. Further, Westerfeld’s creates two levels of antagonism – Shay (expressing the personal or internal conflicts) and Special Circumstances (expressing the larger world conflicts). Although, Special Circumstances already exists in the world as an antagonistic body, Shay is made into one by the protagonist, Tally. From their first meeting, Tally Youngblood causes issues for Shay:

Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding by the river for an hour.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she whispered. “There’s wardens and hovercars everywhere!”

Tally cleared her throat. “I think it’s my fault.”

Shay looked dubious. “How’d you manage that?”

“Well, I was up in the middle of town, at a party.” … Tally smiled. It was actually a pretty good story, now that she had someone to tell it to. “And I was trapped up on the roof, so I grabbed a bungee jacket and jumped off. I hover-bounced halfway here.”

“No way!”

“Well, part of the way here, anyhow.” (Nook App on iPad Mini pg 25-26)

Tally causes enough drama in New Pretty Town to get herself and Shay almost caught. She also extends the truth of what happened, recasting herself as confident and in control. Stretching the truth becomes a common trait for Tally, who relishes in the attention she receives from others. Tally’s lying and desire for popularity cause her to make decisions that negatively affect Shay. Tally and Shay’s friendship, based more on loneliness than actual compatibility, is ripe with disagreement, from the everyday to the philosophical. The main conflict for the first section of Uglies, is Tally and Shay’s opposing views on becoming pretty.

“I’m serious, Tally,” Shay said once they were out in the water. “Your nose isn’t ugly. I like your eyes, too.”

“My eyes? Now you’re totally crazy. They’re way too close together.”

“Who says?”

“Biology says.”

Shay splashed a handful of water at her. “You don’t believe all that crap, do you – that there’s only one way to look, and everyone’s programmed to agree on it?”

“It’s not about believing, Shay. You just know it. You’ve seen pretties. They look…wonderful.”

“They all look the same.”

“I used to think that too. But when Peris and I would go into town, we’d see a lot of them, and we realized that pretties do look different. They look like themselves. It’s just a lot more subtle, because they’re not all freaks.”

“We’re not freaks, Tally. We’re normal. We may not be gorgeous, but at least we’re not hyped-up Barbie dolls.” (pg 61)

However, differing ideology is not enough to make a friend into a nemesis. When Shay runs away to the Smoke to live by her own choices, Tally is given an ultimatum by Special Circumstances – find the Smoke for them or be ugly forever. Tally agrees.

When Tally arrives at the Smoke, she has a change of heart and doesn’t activate the position finder for the Specials. She also happens to steal Shay’s boyfriend and learn why the pretty operation is bad. Tally’s choices – especially to put her own wishes to be pretty over the life choices of many other people – conclude with Shay being made pretty. In essence, Tally’s forces Shay to live her nightmare, her greatest fear, to become the opposite of her ideological imperative, to be turned into a bubble-headed pretty.

Westerfeld skillfully lays the groundwork for the protagonist versus antagonist relationship. He never over-simplifies the complicated relationship between teenage girls and actively forces Tally to make choices that are good for her and bad for Shay. It is my belief that the choices and actions are what create character. Since it is mostly Tally’s selfish choices that effect Shay’s life/character (usually negatively), it can be said that she actively begets her personal antagonist. Further, it is Tally’s characteristic shortcomings (selfishness, thoughtlessness, lying, and impetuousness) which turn Shay from a BFF to an enemy of mythological proportions.

4 thoughts on “Uglies: The Shay Alternative in YA Lit

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