Creepily Twisted YA Tropes in Julianna Baggott’s Pure (Madyson White and Selena Huband)

Julianna Baggott’s Pure is a Young Adult novel that, from a first appearance, seems like a typical YA dystopian that follows the tropes of the genre. Pure contains a great deal of these tropes but it also distorts them to set the tone of a darker dystopian novel. Some of the twisted tropes of YA dystopias in Pure include:  coming of age events that are crucial to the story, teenage rebellion against secretive parents, and the ‘us versus other’ dynamic.

Real life coming of age events have always held great importance in many cultures, and these events get drastic parallels in many YA Dystopian novels; Pure takes this a step further and makes these events even darker than most. In this story the coming of age event is the Wretches having to enlist in the OSR, where they turn teenagers into soldiers, once they turn 16. To make matters worse, these teenagers have to put their lives at stake because enlisting in the OSR also means having to rebel to bring down the Dome. This coming of age ceremony differs greatly from other YA novels because it outright tells the readers that this is a dark cause that they are joining. Furthermore, they are enlisted unwillingly because “when they take people, they tie their hands behind their backs and tape their mouths” (89). In comparison, Delirium by Lauren Oliver has a coming of age event where those of age get an idealized surgery to make their lives better. While there are obviously darker tones behind this surgery, the event is not as blatant as that of Pure. This darker, more blatant coming-of-age ceremony sets the tone for one of the most disturbing Young Adult dystopian settings today.

The tone continues with the novel’s YA tropes involving the characters’ relations with their parents. Either they are an orphan, such as Pressia, or they are defying a parental figure that is withholding information from them. Patridge represents the latter with his father. Patridge first notices his father’s strange behaviour when they are talking about his mother and Partridge thinks “This isn’t the way you think about the dead… This is strange too. He never talks about emotion” (22-23). Patridge’s investigation into his father’s strange behaviour and his conclusions are where the YA trope gets distorted. In order to obtain information on his mother, that his father will not divulge, Patridge goes to the Personal Loss Archive. This place is a storage facility that houses the personal belongings of every dead person dear to the residents of the dome. They resemble safety deposit boxes for dead people, except they are not as safe due to the fact that they are open to the public. Many YA protagonists obtain their information from some kind of records, but Patridges resource is much darker because it is a shrine to the dead. The twisted YA trope is further emphasized when Patridge’s immediate reaction to his discoveries is to run away. He is not running away to a better place, such as Cinder deciding to travel to Europe in Cinder or Katniss contemplating escaping to the woods in Hunger Games, he is running to a destroyed environment full of danger and certain death. In this regard, it is more similar to Lauren escaping her gated community in Parable of the Sower, the difference between the two being that Lauren is forced into the escape and, conversely, Patridge’s flight is well planned out. Patridge is spurred on, by his distrust of his father, to obtain information on his mother in a death shrine. This leads him to leave the safety of his own home and risk the dangers that lie outside the dome: such as a lack of resources, hostile environments, and people called Wretches.

Another typical YA Dystopian trope that Pure twists is the ‘us versus other’ dynamic. The ‘others’ in this case are not just outcasts or people from other lands, but they are physically ‘othered.’ When the detonations exploded anyone who was not safely within the Dome became fused with whatever they were holding. Pressia, for example, has a doll head in place of her hand because she was holding a doll when the explosions hit. This is a much creepier way of physically othering people than in other YA novels such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer, which also features people as physically othered, mainly because there are so many different and grotesque ways in which their fusions can manifest. Some groups are common enough to even be given names such as the Dusts, Groupies, and Beasts. While all of these groups are partly human in a way, they fall on a spectrum of human versus inhuman. The Dusts lean more to the inhuman end of the spectrum because they are fused with land and rocks, and they only drag themselves out of the ground to devour those close by. Groupies, on the other hand, lean more to the human side of the spectrum but are still a disturbing sight because “what used to be maybe seven or eight people [form] one massive body” (105). This novel is also much darker in their physical othering of people because this ‘othering’ is not something that was inherited or chosen by these people, but a reaction to a terrible disaster that happened in their lifetimes. Unlike most YA novels, where the events that created the dystopian world happened in the distant past, this novel focuses on the repercussions of a more recent tragedy. The tone is made even darker when you think that these beings, such as the Dusts, were once people. They were people who were struck with tragedy and did not choose to be turned into these monstrous beings.

In Pure, YA tropes are prominent. There is an event to mark a teenagers coming of age, teens are suspicious of their parents, they rebel, they run away, and there are groups of people who are set apart and defy what is seen as normal. These tropes are twisted into something darker in Pure because of the reality that these characters live in. These characters have witnessed the world destroying event that created their dystopia, and their actions and thoughts are tainted by that trauma. All of these twisted tropes work together to set a creepy tone as well as put a very dark spin on the classical YA Dystopian novel.

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15 thoughts on “Creepily Twisted YA Tropes in Julianna Baggott’s Pure (Madyson White and Selena Huband)

  1. Madyson and Selena–

    Your insights regarding the distortion of typical Young Adult dystopian tropes are interesting and I would say, in many cases, hold true. I agree with you that Juliana Baggott’s “Pure” is creepier than the other novels we have read so far and I think this is due to the proximity of the disaster and the effects that it had on the characters we are reading about. The Detonations took place only ten years before the story opens, recent enough for Pressia, the main character, to have been alive during the nuclear disaster. This is different from many of the other novels we’ve read, such as “Hunger Games”, where the Games had been taking place for 74 years prior and the Capitol versus the Districts rose to disaster before then. Similarly, the cure in “Delirium” has been a normal part of Lena’s society and seems to have been in place for decades. Thus, the societies that we read about in “Hunger Games” and “Delirium”, and to the end, even “Cinder”, all pre-dated the novel’s protagonists. We were brought into their world with an explanation of both the disastrous events and their long-term effects on society and its citizens. We are given explanations regarding what happened to instigate the Hunger Games or the Cure, and are able to understand both the event and its ramifications. However, with “Pure”, the disastrous event that creates this post-apocalyptic society is very recent, the protagonist was directly involved, and we are introduced to the novel in the middle of the society’s historical narrative, in media res, with no introduction or explanation. For me personally, this was the main reason for why “Pure” is so eery. It’s the very lack of explanation and the lack of knowledge that creates an uncomfortable feeling when I’m reading it. Although obviously, societies in “Hunger Games” and “Delirium” are uncomfortable and creepy in their own way, I think that Baggott really emphasizes the uncomfortable feelings by providing a society hit by a recent nuclear disaster with very little explanation about the event or the ramifications. She really leaves it up to us, the readers, to determine what the effects on the society were. This unknown about the society we are reading about makes the fusion of objects, animals, and other humans to characters so much more disturbing.

    I would like to push back against one of the examples you provided, offering perhaps an alternative perspective. One of the tropes that you mentioned involved characters and their parents and you mention that when Partridge runs away after his discoveries, he is “not running away to a better place”. I would argue this by saying that, while obviously the society outside the dome is dangerous, I think it’s possible that for Partridge, he might feel as though any place that’s not the dome is better. What’s important to consider when Partridge runs away then is maybe not as much what he’s running to, but more importantly, what he’s running from. I think there are obvious problems with the society within the Dome that, while it might be safer than outside, create a different kind of negative and dangerous environment. While one could argue also that Partridge might not know the extent of what lies outside the dome, I would argue more importantly that for him, anything that’s not the dome is better. With this then, while we as readers might be able to think that yes, outside the dome is deathly, for Partridge I don’t think we can argue with certainty that he is obviously running away to a worse place. I think we need to consider the Dome and Outside the Dome as two separate societies, which would allow us to consider not what Partridge is running to, but what he’s escaping from, which is important.

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    1. I disagree that just because we are given a backstory to the reason behind the Games and the Cure that they are not as twisted and dark as Pure. Delirium does have as dark a tone behind coming of age as Pure does, whether one is closer to the time of the detonations or not: There was a girl that threw herself off a building, committing suicide because she did not want the surgery; Also, there’s Lena’s sister who was taken against her will in the middle of the night because she fell in love; Lena’s mother had surgery while she was awake because it did not work the first two times she had surgery; Sympathizers are put in that horrible ward or killed. The description of the raids and the idea of a society with no love for anything was extremely painful to read, especially the scene about the dog who was barking and shot, left to die on the street. I think each dystopian society has its own dark and twisted tones, they just affect people at different levels depending on the person. I think what makes these other Dystopias just as creepy as Pure is the fact that the protagonists have never been placed in the position they are now. This scenario is just as new to them as Pressia who doesn’t remember much of the detonation that she was involved in.
      I think the escape from Partridge’s “safe society” to the outdoors, is not as different from other dystopian tropes, as was argued… Similar to your ideas, I think most protagonists are escaping to a world they hope and think is better than where they are, which is not usually true. Lena escapes but she has no idea what it takes to survive in the wilds; Lauren leaves her community and is met with scenarios that are worse than the community she left; and Cinder wants to escape to Europe but she doesn’t know how that society is either, she just assumes it’s better than where she’s coming from. Overall, I do agree with what you are saying, that it is more important to consider what he is running from, rather than where he is escaping to.
      I also agree with the argument about the “us versus other” being highlighted with darker tones. This is a creepier way of physically othering people than we are used to in other books, and is possibly the only factor that would make this book slightly creepier than others – however hard to believe it is.

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  2. Madyson and Selena –

    I also agree that Baggott’s deconstruction of the tropes of the genre resonates with an undeniable eeriness. Like the comment above, I think the reason for this eeriness lies in the proximity to disaster. Not only is Baggott’s protagonist alive and present for the Detonations, there are reminders of its effects fused to everyday life. Additionally, Pressia’s casual encounters with the grotesqueness of her society emanates its inescapable presence. As mentioned above, Baggott excludes any real explanation of the disaster, making Pressia’s casual acknowledgements of a boy with birds in his back or a mound of eight bodies fused as one that much more disturbing.

    However, the “us versus other” argument would have, in my opinion, been much more poignant in an analysis of the Pures versus the Wretches. In this case, mutilations are juxtaposed with perfection. The contrast is much starker here which results in an uncanniness of the Pures. Baggott normalizes fusions in the society outside of the Dome. It becomes even creepier as the reader because we are left feeling uncomfortable for NOT having a doll head fused to our hand.

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    1. I really like how you used the word “uncanniness” here when comparing the Pures versus the Wretches, because I also agree that much of the darkness and “creepiness” of this novel comes from the juxtaposition between the sterilized quasi-utopia under the dome, and the horrific, grimy reality beyond it. Building on this idea of “uncanniness”, I’d like to draw attention to Freud’s theory of the Uncanny. The Uncanny is the phenomenon when ideas and objects that are familiar to us are slightly modified to a point of strange repulsion. The Uncanny can be seen in stories of humanlike robots or dolls which leave the reader feeling unsettled because of how lifelike they seem. When trying to understand the varying levels of darkness “creepiness” in this text, the Uncanny can be used to explain why something like the scene with Pressia, Ingership, and his wife at the dinner party is just as unsettling as, say, a Dust, or Groupies. In fact, I think the presence of the Uncanny in Baggott’s representations of femininity is particularly subversive because of the reaction it invokes within the reader. It really leads the reader to question the repulsion we feel toward these sterilized depictions of femininity, especially when “repulsive” is such a contrast from idealized emotions women are meant to evoke from those around them.

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      1. I really like the your comment about “uncanniness” and I find that in many of the novels we’ve read in class the particular social outcomes seem exhadurated and strange but in Pure Baggot takes this to a new level with the fusions being normalized to those living outside of the Dome. I agree that the presence of the uncanny in the author’s representations of femininity is subversive with respect to readers’ reactions and critical thinking in response. I think that is highlights that the social constructs of femininity in the novel are problematic as characters are in some cases severely oppressed by them. This is the case for Ingership’s wife who is forced to conform to being a domesticated, feminine women. Outside the context if femininity, the wretches are forced to live as they do, in their respective environments and with particular deformities because of a tragic disaster. Both are uniquely struggling and subjected, Ingership’s wife’s lifestyle and subtle plea to Pressia to help her escape is as troubling as are the deformities and struggles that the wretches have to live with.

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  3. Madyson and Selena,

    I find your point about the distortion of the Coming-of-Age Ritual quite interesting. The parallel you draw to Delirium is also interesting, especially considering the different attitude Lena and Pressia originally hold regarding their coming of age. Originally, Lena can’t wait to come of age and have her surgery, however Pressia lives in dread of turning 16 and being taken by the OSR. Pure therefore seems to twist the trope of the coming of age narrative because Pressia is one of the few examples of a protagonist who partially does not wish to grow up. This fits well with Pressia’s idealization of the past as she wishes to return to a more innocent time in world history and correspondingly the innocence of her childhood in the Before.

    However, while I agree that Patridge’s desire to go outside the Dome to find his mother may not exactly fit the typical tropes of YA literautre, I would argue this narrative belongs to the realm of the mystery genre. Due to the intricacy of the plot of Pure and the variety of mysteries the characters must solve, I feel that Baggot employs many tropes of the mystery genre, making Patridge’s desire to put himself in danger in order to discover the truth less strange.

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  4. Your title was really attention grabbing and drew me right in to your article. I was very interested to see how you would set up the twisted nature of Pure. I agree that we see twisted and creepy narratives in all the books we have read, based on either technological advancement or violence. I am left wondering after reading your post, why do we find Pure so creepy? We did not spend as much time covering the detailed violence of Parable of the Sower, or even the effects of the Tracker Jackers in The Hunger Games. Maybe it is because this violence is so personal and lasting. Additionally, these fusions may be seen as extra creepy because they are not as deadly–many survived being fused with their surroundings. I would also like to get some thoughts on what (who) we think is creepier: those seemingly inhuman fusions like the Dusts or the more human Groupies.
    I also think it’s important to note how creepy the doll head is as it relates to the horror genre in other novels and films. In so many scary settings, children are a part of the narrative, and even said to be closer to the spirit world than adults. Is this why we hate Pressia’s doll hand so much?
    Can we truly ever pinpoint our disgust for these fusions?

    Overall, I really liked your topic and would be interested to read more on the subject.

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    1. You make an interesting point that the violence is more lasting in Pure, which is perhaps why we find it so disturbing. There have been some truly horrific moments in some of the books we’ve read as a class, particularly The Hunger Games and Parable of the Sower, but generally the characters who are subjected to these events don’t end up surviving them. Cato getting mauled by dogs, for example, was an incredibly violent scene, but ultimately he is killed. On the other hand, in Pure, we see throes of people who have survived being fused to various objects or beings. I found myself more affected by the images because we are reminded of them constantly. When the characters in other novels succumb to their horrific injuries, we are disturbed, but move on with the narrative; in Pure, Julianna Baggott never lets us forget what these characters endure every day as a result of their injuries.

      To answer the question you posed about Pressia’s doll hand, I think we find it so disturbing because dolls are a symbol of childish innocence. Here, however, that symbol has been twisted into a reminder of death and destruction. To see a childhood object mutilated in such a way is also distressing because it indicates how young Pressia was when she was subjected to a horrible series of nuclear explosions. Maybe that’s why children are so prevalent in the horror genre – it makes the events all the more horrifying when innocent people are exposed to them, and what could be more innocent than a child?

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      1. Sorry, quick correction – “throes” was not the right word. There is a word that sounds a bit like that which means “large groups” but I cannot put my finger on it right now.

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      2. Do you think, then, that we’re meant to read Pressia as innocent? I don’t mean in the stereotypical sense of innocent, as clearly Pressia has experienced a great deal and is “street smart.” She knows so little about her own history; can she be read as innocent in that sense?

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    2. It is interesting to consider the ways in which Pure’s creepiness affects the way the tropes are created and played out throughout the novel. I would like to respond to the question of why we find Pure so creepy. The creepiness is clearly centred around the physicality of the novel’s characters. Whether the character is fused to an object, an animal, another human (or many humans), or is completely covered by a white stocking, readers cringe while reading about how these characters look. They wonder if this is a situation that could happen to them, and because they are repulsed by the idea of becoming fused themselves, they are repulsed by the idea in general. Another aspect to remember is that this dystopia was created by an act of war – a bombing – something very realistic that could happen to any country at any time. It is a dystopia that is much closer to us than any of the others have been, and the book is made more realistic and threatening that way. Thus, readers are placing themselves within the narrative, hoping that they would be one of the people who could be considered lucky, like Pressia, who only has an object instead of a hand. The potential that any of us could become one of these Groupies, Beasts, or Dusts, in the event of a similar attack, is terrifying.

      To respond to the question of why we hate Pressia’s doll hand, I would say it partly has to do with our connection to the female protagonist and her opinions. It is easy enough to agree when Pressia expresses her distaste for her doll’s head fist because of our disgust regarding the fusions in general, as I discussed above. Something that could also come into play is the image of the doll in our mind’s eye. We are only given the barest description of the doll, and so we assume that it is ugly, and not well taken care of. Pressia appears to be more concerned with caring for her grandfather, for Freedle, and making her butterflies, than caring for her doll’s head fist. The image we create in our minds is of a decrepit, broken old doll that we see in horror movies. The evil doll is an image everyone is already familiar with, that readers can easily project onto Pressia’s doll head fist.

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  5. This is a very interesting take on the YA tropes in Pure. Due to the nature of the novel, the readers are thrown into the middle of a post-apocalyptic society which the aftermath cannot be ignored. The idea of fusions and extent of them is terrifying to its readers. The idea that the effects of detonations could change the physicality of your body to fuse with animate or inanimate objects is extremely unsettling. It can be argued that the point of these deformities can be used as a way to represent how disability is seen within our society. Baggott critiques the idea of how disability is addressed and the efforts to “fix” them. Do we find the fusions uncomfortable because there is no real cure? The readers find this out during the example where Pressia attempts to cut off her doll head arm and finds out that blood is released – confirming the doll head is permanently fused to her body. Society structures disability as different and in order for them to “adapt” they need to be fixed. When reading the novel, most of us resonate with the Pures in the sense of be able bodied and “untouched”. Our current society is founded on the bases that if there is a problem, something will be done to fix said problem. Knowledgeably so, this concept remains problematic. It sets a structured society that enables binaries of what is accepted versus what is not. This feeds more into the idea of the “Us versus Them” trope present within Pure. Perhaps the point of the novel, was to critique the way able bodied people address physical disability. Disability is often times avoided as a topic of discussion. Especially considering the nature of the book, being targeted at young adults, the “Us versus Them” trope within Pure does come across as creepy and twisted.

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  6. I like your argument that Julianna Baggott’s novel takes stereotypical Young Adult dystopian fiction tropes and twists them into something more sinister than in other YA novels. Another trope that she uses and changes from other novels is the concept of a love triangle. While the only other common novel in this genre is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins that features this concept, Baggott teases the idea of a triangle between Pressia, Bradwell, and Partridge, but then removes it when she reveals that Pressia and Partridge are half-siblings. I agree that the coming-of-age trope in Pure is more sinister than other YA novels, forcing any Fused to become a soldier with OSR, and any male in the Dome who succeeds in being becomes a member of the Special Forces.

    In regards to the us vs. them mentality trope, I agree with user charemeljanow that it would have been better juxtaposed to analyze the relationship between the people of the Dome and the people of the outside. You are right to say that the people from the outside are not marginalized and othered based on race like other YA dystopian novels, but, instead, are physically othered from the Detonations. This would have made a compelling argument to compare the idealized and romanticized-to-the-point-of-obsession perfection that is sought for the people, particularly the males, inside the Dome.

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  7. Overall, I found this post to be particularly insightful in viewing Baggott’s Pure in accordance to typical tropes of Dystopian fiction. Although I agree strongly with the use of the aforementioned ‘us versus other’ dynamic within your post, I believe your argument would better have been aided by comparing the Pures in the Dome to the Wretches outside the dome. As the deformities and fusions outside the dome are normalized by Pressia’s narrative, they are immediately juxtaposed and contrasted with the perfection of the Pures , and so appear to be grotesque and inferior to those in the dome. Rather than comparing Dusts, Groupies, and Beasts to each other, although an intriguing argument, the notion of ‘othering’ is best represented within this novel through the contrasting aesthetics of the Pures and the Wretches, because only one group is living in a (supposed) utopia, whilst the other is fighting for survival in the poverty and aftermath of the Detonations. Furthermore, the take on the ‘Coming of Age’ trope is both insightful and interesting when comparing it to the other works within this module. Living in fear of turning 16, because of the OSR, the idea of growing up is particularly stressful and undesirable to Pressia, which can be likened to the method used for the Reaping in the Hunger Games. Although a few years younger, this idea of eligibility due to age (e.g. 12 for the reaping), and the idea of growing up for the female characters within these dystopian novels, such as Pressia, and Prim, becomes a concept met with extreme uncertainty and pressure. This could, therefore, highlight a wider critique of transitioning from girlhood to womanhood in both dystopian fiction novels, and in our own contemporary society.

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