You’ve got to find yourself first. Everything else’ll follow. ~ Charles de Lint
A common theme in Young Adult literature, ‘finding yourself’ is all about that age old question: Who am I and what is my purpose in life?
Common in YA, because that’s usually around the time people start trying to figure these big questions out, but also a popular theme in books that feature a character going through a massive change in their life – such as divorce, death of a loved one, losing a job etc.
It’s a great theme to use because it necessitates character growth. If a character is searching for who they really are, they are going to make discoveries and change before the end of the novel, as there’s no way a character searching for their identity can remain stagnant for long.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Divergent capitalised on the dystopian kick young readers were on after the Hunger Games, but it’s a novel much more about identity than it is about dystopian themes. Tris is suffocated by the rules of the Abnegation community that she lives in, and seeks to forge a new identity for herself by joining the Dauntless community. Divergent explores how this impacts on her life, her family, and how even with a group defining who you are, there’s still a lot of work to do to find yourself. The way Tris has to face her fears is a very literal interpretation of finding yourself – she has to become familiar and comfortable with her fears and hangups in order to pass the final test of her Dauntless training. Fears so much define who we are, and through facing her fears, Tris learns an awful lot about who she is.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
One of the reasons this worked for me as a romance is because the two lead characters are also on a quest to find themselves. Love just happens as a sort of side effect. The way that they share with each other pieces of their identity allows the other person to grow – Park introduces Eleanor to comic books and music for example – creates a relationship where the characters are better together and moving towards finding out who they are and what they want to be. One of my favourite things in this is how Park starts wearing eyeliner. What starts as Park’s mother trying to help Eleanor find herself allows Park to find a way that he’s comfortable expressing himself. Through each other they grow as individuals, rather than morphing into one inseparable ‘couple.’
Finding Yourself vs Stereotypes
I think one of the reasons this remains such a timeless theme, is that there are so many (often negative) stereotypes that are used to define who we are. I wear glasses therefore in school I was a nerd. (I was a nerd, to be fair, I perpetuated the stereotype, but it wasn’t my glasses that made me that way.) Being a teenager is this massive battle between fitting in and forging your own path, and with so many parameters in place to define you, it can be really hard to be yourself or to even know what ‘yourself’ is.
Its the same with later-in-life finding yourself – you spend long enough being defined as X’s wife, then when that label is taken away from you, what else is left?
A book I read fairly recently about the fight to find yourself when everyone else is defining you as something else is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Augustus’ facial disfiguration means that a lot of his classmates barely give him a chance before labelling him as a ‘freak’ and ‘monster’, but Augustus is determined to go to school for the first time in his life because that’s what kids do, and his ensuing battle to navigate the complex waters of school life is all about finding oneself in the face of extreme adversity.