by Scott Westerfeld
Like almost every 15-year-old everywhere, Tally just wants a normal life—she wants to turn 16, get her driver's license/pretty surgery, and then party all night with her friends with her parents safely tucked away in their suburban subdivision. That is, after all, the normal life that she's been expecting.
The Reluctant Rebel
But after Tally gets caught up with Shay and the Smokies (best band name ever), Tally starts reconsidering what's "normal." While Tally spends the first half of the book wanting to be pretty, she spends the second half of the book trying to avoid having weird surgery done to her. (Although, as usual, we wonder how much this means. What about braces on her teeth? Is that still okay? Are colored contact lenses okay? What type of surgery would be too much for the Smokies who don't want to be pretty?)
This is why we say that Tally is a "reluctant rebel": she doesn't want to rebel against her city, but circumstances (ahem, Special Circumstances) force her to fake being a rebel; and then, when she's faked it for a while, she actually becomes a rebel. Fake it 'til you make it, as they say.
Tally's mind even changes (slightly) over small things. For instance, when Shay tricks her the first time into riding a broken roller coaster (always fun), Tally is angry at first, but soon comes to see the fun in it: "She was full of anger and relief and... joy" (8.46).
And this is also why we say that Tally is a perfect protagonist for Uglies: since she sees the world from several angles, we readers get to see the world in several different ways and see how her rebellion forms. Tally starts out as the loyal ugly at first (and we admit—the city looks pretty awesome). She then becomes a reluctant rebel, and we start to think that maybe there's something a little messed up about this society after all. When she finally learns about the brain damage and becomes a motivated rebel, we're shaking our fists right along with her.
In other words, because she's reluctant to rebel at first, we get to take the same mental trip as she does.
Trickster and Risk-taker—The Bugs Bunny of Uglies
But Tally doesn't exactly start out as a law-abiding citizen. From the first time we meet her, Tally is pulling a trick—breaking in to New Pretty Town. And we learn that this isn't her first time. She likes pranks. When Tally and Shay aren't arguing about the pretty surgery, what are they doing? Pulling tricks: pretending to fall to frighten younger uglies, riding hoverboards at night, riding outside of the city, etc.
So it's no surprise when we get to the end of the book and we read this: "Tally smiled. At least she was causing trouble to the end" (50.48). Because it sure seems like Tally's favorite thing in the world is causing trouble. Or as David puts it, the scratches on her face tell a story about her: "you take risks" (32.96). That's totally Tally: she's a risk-taking trickster.
And she has to be a trickster to survive here because she's the underdog: one person fighting a whole organization made up of superhumanly powerful people. The Specials of Special Circumstances are stronger, faster, and more dangerous than Tally. All she has is her tricks and a hoverboard—against a police force with hovercars
In that way, she's like Bugs Bunny: the other guy always has the more powerful gun, but Bugs knows how to trick the other guy into making some mistake. That's what Tally does when she makes up stories to tell Dr. Cable or when she breaks out from the Smoke with a hoverboard after the Specials invade.
So Tally is a trickster because that's the only way for her to survive and win here. It would be a shorter, sadder book to follow some ugly who wasn't so good at getting herself out of tight spots. Maybe what we learn from Tally is that, if you're going to change the system, you have to be willing to bend a few rules. (Not that we're condoning law-breaking and lying. Unless you find yourself in a fictional dystopia—in that case, knock yourself out.)
The Tally Tragedy
Tally may be a perfect protagonist here because she changes her mind; and she may be fun to watch because she's the underdog trickster. But once we get all those "I love Tally because" reasons out of the way, we're left with a really uncomfortable question.
Is she a hero?
Sure, she runs away to find Shay—but only because Dr. Cable forces her to. Sure, Tally goes off and rescues the Smokies—after they get caught because of something she does. Sure, Tally volunteers herself for brain surgery—but only after Maddy refuses to give Shay the experimental drugs. So Tally does a lot of heroic things in this book, but she might not always do them for the right reason.
Which is why we think she's kind of a tragic figure. Stay with us: it's hard for her to pick the right thing to do, especially when she is being pulled in so many direction.
Like us, Tally has several competing promises and priorities; but whereas we might be pulled in different directions by school, family, friends, work, our own desires, Tally is pulled in different directions by her desires (to be pretty), her old best friend (Peris), her new best friend (Shay), her new new best friend (David), and the secret police of her city. As Peris puts it when Tally says she can't help Special Circumstances because she made a promise to Shay, "Tally, you made me a promise too" (15.58). Zing.
So, when you have competing promises, you can't just say, "You should keep your promises"—that doesn't help you decide which promise is more important. And as we see Tally learn more about the world, we see her shifting priorities, from "I want to be pretty" to "I want to help my friends." (Although, let's be honest, it's still sad and hard to break a promise that you meant to keep.)
So Tally started out wanting to be pretty: "I don't want to be ugly all my life. I want those perfect eyes and lips, and for everyone to look at me and gasp" (11.78). But then she wants to be friends with Shay and keep that promise to her. And then she's reminded of her promise to Peris that she wouldn't do anything to get in the way of them being pretty together (15.60). And then… and then… and then. We get reminders of this conflict all through the book, as when we're told that, "Her only way home was to betray her friend" (22.93).
And then Tally's final tragedy is that she gets what she wants when she no longer wants it. When she gives herself up to be made pretty at the end, she knows that it could end up costing her everything. And why does she do it? Guilt. We're thinking that's not such a great reason.Tally's Timeline