Our caste was just three away from the bottom. We were artists. And artists and classical musicians were only three steps up from dirt. Literally. (1.17)
The country of Illéa has an eight-tiered caste system: each caste corresponds to a set of professions. America's family members are Fives, for example, which are the highest of the low classes. This status affords them a decent lifestyle, though they too have trouble putting food on the table at times.
When I thought of it that way, the Selection seemed like a rope, something sure I could grab onto [...] and [...] pull my family along with me. (1.24)
If America wins the Selection, her family will be vaulted out of poverty. And this won't just be financial: they'll also gain a whole lot more respect from society at large. Knowing this, it's no wonder that America's mom pushes her so hard to take part in the competition.
Besides, I'd been in the homes of enough Twos and Threes to be sure I never wanted to live among them, let alone be a One. (1.43)
America is unique in that she doesn't buy into the constraints of the caste system. She knows that there are material benefits to being higher up on the ladder, true, but she's equally aware of the more negative aspects of such decadence.
As if it wasn't enough that they could have pretty much whatever they wanted, they turned our necessities into luxuries. (3.28)
Here, America is commenting on how the upper castes of Illéa take the clothing styles of the lower castes (which exist due to necessity) and turn them into upscale fashion pieces, jacking the prices up to high heavens in the process. Can you think of any examples of this happening in the real world?
It seemed unreasonable to limit everyone's life choices based on your ancestors' ability to help the government, but that was how it all worked out. (3.65)
You know, America, you're right—that does seem unreasonable. We might even say that it's completely and categorically insane, but maybe that's just us. Either way, it's clear that Illéa's caste system has some serious problems, and we've read enough history books to know that problems like this always lead to conflict.
The upper castes looked at me like I'd stolen something that was theirs. The Fours on down were cheering for me—an average girl who'd been elevated. (7.5)
It's pretty shocking that America was chosen to take part in the Selection at all—that honor is usually given only to the upper classes (surprise, surprise). For example, the current Queen Amberly was a Four when she was Selected, and that was considered unthinkable at the time. America, on the other hand, is a Five. That might seem insignificant to us, but it's a huge deal for a Five.
I would be the best of us, the Highest of the Lows. It gave me a sense of purpose. America Singer: the champion of the lower castes. (7.6)
Instead of internalizing the upper castes' nastiness toward her, America decides to take their bourgie lemons and turn them into some good old working-class lemonade. Atta girl. We doubt many other people would be so fearless if they were in the same position.
I looked around the room to see how the other Fives were enjoying their meals. That was when I noticed that I was the only Five left. (12.8)
That's telling, isn't it? Maxon is a pretty swell guy, but it seems that even he has a bit of subconscious bias against the lower castes. Knowing this, we can't help but wonder if America might have met a similar fate if she hadn't made such a striking first impression. What do you think?
"He kept it all for himself. Trying to buy his way up?"
I nodded. "He's got his heart set on being a Two. If he was happy being a Three or Four, he could have bought that title and helped us, but he's obsessed." (15.86-87)
America's older brother Kota hit it big after making a wildly popular sculpture, which led him to abandon his family in a quest to climb the caste ladder. It's a real bummer of a story. The really interesting part, though, is what this teaches us about the Illéan caste system—you can, quite literally, buy your way to a higher status. Uh huh. We see how it is.
"You are the last Five left in the competition, yes? Do you think that hurts your chances of becoming the princess?"
The word sprang from my lips without thought. "No!" (18.134-135)
True to her nature, America doesn't hold back her working-class pride even when she's being grilled by Illéa's resident Ryan Seacrest on live television. That's our girl. It would be a lot easier for her to just sit there, look pretty, and say nothing of substance, but America takes a much more difficult path. We wouldn't expect anything less.