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Character Analysis

Shay likes to leap before she looks, and sometimes she doesn't look at all. Shay is a lot like Tally in some ways: they're both alone, they're both around the same age, and they both like breaking the rules. But whereas Tally wants to be pretty, Shay wants to rebel against the whole pretty system—but maybe not for quite the right reasons.

Romantic Rebel

We don't get to see Shay's thoughts the same way that we see Tally's thoughts and growth. By the time we meet Shay, she's already a big skeptic about the whole pretty surgery thing—and we never get any story about why she's so against the pretty surgery. In fact, she seems like she's almost always been a skeptic. (No playing with unrealistic Barbie dolls for Shay.)

When Tally wants to see Shay's face options, Shay says she stopped making optional pretty faces when she was young. In fact, all of Shay's friends did: "But my friends and I stopped doing that kind of stuff a long time ago" (5.23).

So here's a question: does Shay not want to be pretty in part because all of her friends don't want to be pretty? Is she just going along with her friends? If most of her friends were pro-pretty, like Tally, would Shay also want to be pretty? (In other words, is it just peer pressure that makes Shay a rebel?)

And another thing: just like we don't get any explanation of why Shay is against the pretty surgery, we don't get any clue about why her other friends are also against it. So we don't know how this big group became rebels, or what they really feel about being rebels. We just have to assume they like it.


But most of the time, Shay makes clear arguments against the pretty surgery that have nothing to do with her friends: "It's about becoming what I want to become. Not what some surgical committee thinks I should" (11.83). She opposes the pretty surgery because she believes that it changes who you are. And when Shay makes this argument, she doesn't even know about the brain lesions. She does know, however, that all the new pretties do is party instead of doing really fun things, like breaking the rules. Yep, Shay is another trickster, just like Tally.

We may not always agree with Shay, but a lot of her arguments against the pretty system make sense. Shay gets a lot of really great lines in this book, the kind of lines that we put up on our bedroom walls. Like: "Making ourselves feel ugly is not fun" (5.61), and "Do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly."

Oh wait. That last one was someone else.

Why So Serious?

Why does Shay do what she does? Since she's not the protagonist, a lot of her thinking remains mysterious. Why does Shay not like the pretty surgery? Well, maybe she's seen how all the new pretties seem pretty much the same. Or because their version of fun is not her version of fun. (They go to parties—dumb—instead of riding a hoverboard around at night—awesome.)

Or, let's just put it out there, maybe she's into the idea of not being made pretty and running away to the Smoke because she's got a thing for David, because he's "really cool" (8.68). Which, let's be honest, isn't that great of a reason for rebelling against a whole society. Not that we don't understand.

But, if Shay is mostly motivated by the fact that she's into David, why doesn't't she go to the Smoke when her friends go with David the first time (11.55)? If Shay is totally against the pretty system—or if Shay is totally into David—then why does she chicken out at the last minute?

All of which is to say that Shay's character is a little mysterious and open to a lot of argument. (So, go write a paper on her.) Maybe some of these mysteries and questions are cleared up in Uglies: Shay's Story.

Your One-Stop Guilt Shop

So far we've focused on Shay's rebelliousness, but we should also talk about her friendship toward Tally. And by "friendship" we mean "guilt-tripping." It's not that Shay tries to make Tally feel guilty all the time—just some of the time—but Tally is involved in several things that make Shay unhappy. Which makes Tally feel guilty.

For instance, there's David. Shay has the hots for David, but the feeling isn't mutual—David likes Tally. So without meaning to, Tally comes between her friend Shay and the guy she likes. As Shay tells Tally it isn't really her fault (not really), but it did happen as soon as Tally came: "He doesn't talk to me that much anymore. Not since you showed up" (28.106). So just by being there, Tally has messed things up for Shay—which makes Tally feel guilty.

For another example, there's the whole little thing about Tally betraying the Smoke and calling Special Circumstances. Shay isn't subtle here, telling Tally "You did this!" when Special Circumstances comes knocking (34.47). But more importantly for the cliffhanger ending is the guilt that Tally feels when Shay is turned pretty against her will. (Want to know more about that? Go check out "What's Up with the Ending?" We'll wait.)

After Tally and David rescue the Smokies, Tally thinks a lot about how pretty surgery has taken away Shay's desire to be herself. So when Shay won't be turned back and Maddy won't give Shay the experimental brain-damage cure, Tally has this guilty thought: "They had risked everything to rescue her. But they had nothing to show for it. Shay would never be the same. And it was all Tally's fault" (48.80-1). This is sort of classic Tally thought: shorter, declarative sentences, each one building up to one big idea.

But the bigger idea here, we think, is that everything ends up being about Tally. Even poor Shay.

The Motivator

That's why, whatever Shay's motivation and internal character, her role is clear—or should we say, her roles are clear:

  1. She's a foil for Tally when they argue about the pretty system.
  2. She gets Tally in trouble with Special Circumstances (by befriending her and then running away).
  3. She introduces Tally to David, which makes Tally hesitate to call Dr. Cable.
  4. She refuses to take the brain-damage cure, which makes Tally feel so guilty that she volunteers.

So, if Shay weren't in this story, there wouldn't be a story, even if this story focuses on Tally's feelings. Shay is the reason that Tally has to travel to the Smoke; Shay is one of the main reasons that Tally hesitates to betray the Smoke (through introducing Tally to David); and Shay is the reason Tally has to give herself up in the end to see if Maddy's experimental brain-damage cure works.

Funny Talk

One of Shay's defining characteristics (after her rebellious nature) is her funny way of talking. At least, it seems funny to Tally, who remarks "Shay sometimes talked in a mysterious way, like she was quoting the lyrics of some band no one else listened to" (7.68). Of course, from our viewpoint in the 2000s, we know what Shay means when she mentions roller coasters and Barbies. (Whereas Tally's response is "a what?" [4.15].)

This isn't just fun (though it is fun). This also reminds us that Shay has some info about the previous civilization, the Rusties (that is, us—maybe). It reminds us that Shay is out-of-step with her time period. She looks at the world around her and she doesn't just accept it, as Tally does. She sees that this is a strange new way to live because she has some other time period to compare it to.

How does she know about the past? Because of David, of course. (History is easy when a cute boy is teaching it.) When Tally asks Shay how she knows about roller coasters, Shay says "Someone told me" (8.66); and she later adds that this person is a cool guy who knows lots of stuff and lives out in the wilderness. Sounds a lot like David to us.

So, how about these three reasons that Shay's such a rebel:

  1. She thinks the pretty system threatens her identity.
  2. She's into a rebel boy, David.
  3. She has a different perspective on the pretty surgery since she knows that things have been different in the past—and could be different in the future.

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