The central symbol in the world of Before I Fall is the long-stem roses with little notes attached, or “Valograms,” that are exchanged between students at Thomas Jefferson High school on Cupid Day and are used as a marker of a student’s status and popularity. The roses are passed out by “Cupids”—according to Sam Kingston, “usually freshman or sophomore girls trying to get in good with the upperclassmen.” This quotation from the novel’s first chapter demonstrates how powerful the roses are—just being a messenger who delivers them has the potential to elevate one’s social status. On Cupid Day, February 12th, the roses are handed out all day long, and those students who amass the most are seen as popular and high-status (Sam’s cool and sexy best friend Lindsay Edgecombe once got twenty-two roses, and this year is “going for twenty-five”) while those who get less than ten—or, heavens forbid, less than five—are left feeling humiliated, knowing that their low number of roses “basically means that [they’re] either ugly or unknown.” Sam Kingston notes that “sometimes people scavenge for dropped roses to add to their bouquets,” so desperate are Thomas Jefferson students to gather up as many Valograms as they can and publicly, physically assert their social status and thus their social capital.
The roses represent more than just what they symbolize in the world of Thomas Jefferson High, however. Overall the roses symbolize the petty anxieties and desperate attempts to change one’s image, status, or place in the world, which Sam Kingston and her fellow classmates engage in not just on the frenzied Cupid Day celebration, but every day of their lives. At the start of the novel, Sam herself is concerned about how many roses she’ll get, and from whom—she forces her boyfriend Rob Cokran to send her one, and when it arrives, she is grateful for it even despite the lukewarm note attached. By the novel’s end, however, Sam has lived Cupid Day over and over again, and she comes to see how pointless the roses are. On the fifth Cupid Day she re-experiences, she even rebels against the social order and protests, in her own way, the obsession surrounding the roses by dumping her plump bouquet of Valograms in the trash in front of all her classmates. As Sam learns the lessons of goodwill and empathy toward others and deliverance through repentance and changes in her once cruel, petty behavior, she sees through the sham of the Cupid Day tradition, and her lessening interest in the roses she acquires—who they’re from and how many of them there are—comes to symbolize her growth as a person.
Roses Quotes in Before I Fall
“Last year I got twenty-two roses.” Lindsay flicks her cigarette butt out of the window and leans over for a slurp of coffee. “I’m going for twenty-five this year.”
Each year before Cupid Day the student council sets up a booth outside the gym. For two dollars each, you can buy your friends Valograms—roses with little notes attached to them—which then get delivered by Cupids (usually freshman or sophomore girls trying to get in good with the upperclassman) throughout the day.
“I’d be happy with fifteen,” I say. It’s a big deal how many roses you get. You can tell who’s popular and who isn’t by the number of roses they’re holding. It’s bad if you get under ten and humiliating if you don’t get more than five—it basically means that you’re either ugly or unknown. Probably both. Sometimes people scavenge for dropped roses to add to their bouquets, but you can always tell.
“I thought Cupid Day was one of your favorites.”
“It is. Or, I mean, it was.” I sit up on my elbows. “I don’t know, it’s kind of stupid, if you think about it.”
[My mom] raises her eyebrows.
I start rattling on, not really thinking about what I want to say before I say it. “The whole point is just to show other people how many friends you have. But everybody knows how many friends everybody else has. And it’s not like you actually get more friends this way or, I don’t know, get closer to the friends you do have.”
My mom smiles a tiny bit. “Well, you’re lucky to have very good friends, and to know it. I’m sure the roses are very meaningful to some people.”
“I’m just saying, the whole thing is kind of sleazy.”
“This doesn’t sound like the Samantha Kingston I know.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’m changing.” I don’t mean those words either, until I hear them. Then I think that they might be true, and I feel a flicker of hope. Maybe there’s still a chance for me, after all. Maybe I have to change.
The wind shrieks, and I suddenly realize that Juliet's only a half inch from the road, teetering on the thin line where the pavement begins, like she's balancing on a tightrope.
“Maybe you should come away from the road,” I say, but all the time in the back of my head, there’s an idea growing and swelling, a horrible, sickening realization, massing up and taking shape like clouds on the horizon. Someone calls my name again. And then, still in the distance, I hear the throaty wail of “Splinter” by Fallacy pumping from someone's car.
“Sam! Sam!” I recognize it as Kent's voice now.
Juliet turns to face me then. She’s smiling, but it's the saddest smile I’ve ever seen.
“Maybe next time,” she says. “But probably not.”