Samantha Kingston’s friendships, romances, and familial relationships—the relationships that lie at the heart of Before I Fall—are all defined by her competing instincts toward cruelty and loyalty. Haunted by a childhood of being bullied by the very girl who has, in high school, become her best friend—the sexy, cool, and mega-popular Lindsay Edgecombe—Sam understands that cruelty is often random, and that loyalty offers an escape from that randomness. Her loyalty to Lindsay has spared her from Lindsay’s cruelty, but in turn, Sam herself has become a cruel person in many ways, desperate to keep herself from once again becoming a victim. Sam is cruel to those who most deserve her love and loyalty: her mother, her sister, her childhood friend Kent McFuller, and the bullied and put-upon Juliet Sykes. Meanwhile, she remains loyal to those who are most cruel to her: her boyfriend Rob Cokran, Lindsay, and her well-meaning but desperate-to-fit-in friends Ally and Elody. As Oliver charts Sam’s mysterious journey through seven repetitions of her final day of life, however, this trend reverses, and Sam makes a shift toward righting her relationships and learning to act out of care, not fear or shame, toward others. Through Sam’s reckoning with the forces of cruelty and loyalty, Oliver shows that true friends and lovers do not use cruelty to extort loyalty—and that those who do are almost always doing so out of their own fear and insecurity.
Lindsay is Sam’s best friend, and the de facto “leader” of their little clique. Lindsay is “mean and funny and ferocious and loyal,” and though Sam knows that Lindsay uses cruelty to leverage her friends’ loyalties toward her, Sam feels that Lindsay herself is a loyal and steadfast friend. Lindsay is a more complicated character than she seems to be at first glance, and as the novel progresses, Oliver turns a sharp eye to both Lindsay’s cruelties and loyalties in order to investigate the nature of the two competing—but often twinned—impulses. At first glance, Lindsay seems to be a shallow, sex-crazed, sarcastic teen. She’s obsessed with her status as a trendsetter and social butterfly, and comes off as cruel and callous toward anyone who isn’t her “bestie.” Lindsay ruthlessly makes fun of Juliet Sykes, a quiet loner and outcast at the school. Together with Sam, Ally, and Elody, Lindsay sends Juliet a rose every year on Cupid Day with a note that reads “Maybe next year, but probably not.” Lindsay’s assault on Juliet—having given her the nickname “Psycho” and essentially bullied her into total silence—is unspeakably cruel, but Lindsay inspires such loyalty in her friends that at the start of the novel even Sam herself claims that “Juliet deserves her nickname. She’s a freak.” Lindsay “hates” Juliet, but no one knows why—the only thing that’s clear is that Lindsay is using her cruelty towards Juliet to band her friends together around a common enemy, whom they use as a punching bag.
As the novel progresses, it comes to light that Juliet and Lindsay were fast friends in elementary school. Juliet was there for Lindsay during the dark days of Lindsay’s parents’ divorce, and when things got so bad that the stressed and upset young Lindsay started wetting the bed, she lashed out in shame and began spreading rumors that Juliet was the crazy one, the bed-wetter, the freak. Lindsay’s cruelty, therefore, is revealed to be aimed at inspiring two kinds of loyalty—a desire to be cool, condescending, and invincible on the part of her friends Sam, Elody, and Ally, and a desire to coerce Juliet into remaining loyal to a lie of Lindsay’s own making. If Lindsay—whose popularity allows her to get away with “everything,” as Sam states early on in the text—can make Juliet into enough of an outcast, no one would believe the truth even if she were bold enough to speak it out loud. Thus, cruelty is shown to be a very effective weapon for Lindsay—as a method of securing loyalty and her own sense of self-worth.
Sam Kingston’s hot, popular boyfriend Rob Cokran is another cruel figure who somehow inspires loyalty in those close to him. Sam believes she is in love with him at the start of the novel, though as she prepares to lose her virginity to him on the night of Cupid Day, she second-guesses whether she really loves Rob as much as she thinks she does. Rob is, to put it plainly, a bad guy—he is chauvinistic, shallow, and cruel, and his loyalties, like Lindsay, lie with the advancement of his own social status. In other words, Rob is only ever looking out for himself. Nevertheless, Sam is torn by her feelings of loyalty towards Rob—but soon, she comes to realize that this loyalty is more toward an idea of Rob than Rob himself. As a social outcast, bullied and unwanted, the younger Sam dreamed of one day being able to snag a guy like Rob, so now that she has found herself in a relationship with him, she feels compelled to stay with him despite his cruel nature. Eventually Sam finds herself pulled away from Rob and toward a more unlikely, but certainly much more loyal partner: Kent McFuller. Kent has been in love with Sam since grade school, and despite the mistakes she has made and the cruelties she has perpetrated, Kent is able to see the true Sam shining through. When Sam realizes that Kent has always wanted to be there for her, despite her abandonment of him, she understands more intimately the true meaning of loyalty: it should come from a place of desire, not obligation, and it should never be forced or leveraged in the face of cruelty.
At the close of the novel’s first chapter, Sam asks her readers, “Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does? Is it really so much worse than what you do?” She poses this question in the context of wondering whether she “deserved” to die in a car accident after she, Lindsay, Elody, and Ally humiliated Juliet at Kent’s party. Sam’s questioning of whether her own brand of cruelty is really all that bad, and her desperate attempt to justify her cruel actions, betrays her knowledge that her cruel behavior is not just wrong, but inexcusable. As the novel progresses, Sam interrogates the factors that motivated her and those around her to act cruelly, and comes to understand that although cruelty and loyalty are opposites, they are also often inextricably linked. The lesson Sam learns—and that Oliver, in turn, seems to want her readers to absorb—is that true friends don’t treat others with cruelty, nor attempt to extort loyalty from others through cruelty and deception.
Cruelty and Loyalty in Friendship and Love ThemeTracker
Cruelty and Loyalty in Friendship and Love Quotes in Before I Fall
The point is, we can do [embarrassing] things. You know why? Because we’re popular. And we’re popular because we can get away with everything. So it’s circular. I guess what I’m saying is there’s no point in analyzing it. If you draw a circle, there will always be an inside and an outside, and unless you’re a total nut job, it’s pretty easy to see which is which. I’m not going to lie, though. It’s nice that everything’s easy for us. It’s a good feeling knowing you can basically do whatever you want. […] And believe me: I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I was there for the first half of my life. The bottom of the bottom, lowest of the low. I know what it’s like to have to squabble and pick and fight over the leftovers. So now I have first pick of everything. So what. That’s the way it is. Nobody ever said life was fair.
I know some of you are thinking maybe I deserved it. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that rose to Juliet or dumped my drink on her at the party. Maybe I shouldn’t have copped off Lauren Lornet’s quiz. Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things to Kent. There are probably some of you who think I deserved it because I was going to let Rob go all the way—because I wasn’t going to save myself. But before you start pointing fingers, let me ask you: is what I did really so bad? So bad I deserved to die? So bad I deserved to die like that? Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does? Is it really so much worse than what you do?
Lindsay, Ally, Elody and I are as close as you can be, but there are still some things we never talk about. For example, even though Lindsay says Patrick is her first and only, this isn’t technically true. Technically, her first was a guy she met at a party when she was visiting her stepbrother at NYU. They smoked pot, split a six-pack, and had sex, and he never knew she hadn’t done it before. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that we can never hang out at Elody’s house after five o’clock because her mother will be home, and drunk. We don’t talk about the fact that Ally never eats more than a quarter of what’s on her plate, even though she’s obsessed with cooking and watches the Food Network for hours on end. We don’t talk about the joke that for years trailed me down hallways, into classrooms, and on the bus, that wove its way into my dreams: “What’s red and white and weird all over? Sam Kingston!” And we definitely don’t talk about the fact that Lindsay was the one who made it up. A good friend keeps secrets for you. A best friend helps you keep your own secrets.
Anna’s face gets serious, and she takes a long pull of the joint, then stares at me through the cloud of blue smoke.
“So,” she says, “why do you guys hate me?”
Of all the things I expect her to say, it’s not this. Even more unexpected, she holds the spliff out in my direction, offering me some. I hesitate for only a second. Hey, just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I’m a saint.
“We don’t hate you.” It doesn’t come out convincingly. The truth is I’m not sure. I don’t hate Anna, really; Lindsay’s always said she does, but it’s hard to know what Lindsay’s reasons are for anything. […]
“Then what’s the reason?” She doesn’t say, For all the shitty things you’ve done. For the bathroom graffiti. For the fake email blast sophomore year: Anna Cartullo has chlamydia. She doesn’t have to. She passes the joint back to me. I take another hit. […] “I don’t know.” Because it’s easy. “I guess you need to take things out on somebody. The words are out of my mouth before I realize they’re true.
“It’s not my fault I can’t be like you, okay? I don’t get up in the morning thinking the world is one big shiny, happy place, okay? That’s just not how I work. I don’t think I can be fixed.” I meant to say, I don’t think “it” can be fixed, but it comes out wrong, and suddenly I’m on the verge of crying. […] There’s a moment of silence that seems to last forever. Then Kent rests his hand on my elbow just for a second, [and] just that one little touch gives me the chills.
“I was going to tell you that you look beautiful with your hair down. That’s all I was going to say.” Kent’s voice is steady and low. He moves around me to the head of the stairs, pausing just at the top. When he turns back to me he looks sad, even though he’s smiling the tiniest bit. “You don’t need to be fixed, Sam.” He says the words, but it’s like I don’t even hear them; it’s like they go through my whole body at the same time, like I’m absorbing them from the air. […] I’m a nonperson, a shadow, a ghost. Even before the accident I’m not sure that I was a whole person—that’s what I’m realizing now. And I’m not sure where the damage begins.
Ally takes a sip of the vodka she’s holding, then winces. “Lindsay was freaking out. I told you, she was really upset.”
“It's true though, isn't it? What I said.”
“It doesn't matter if it’s true.” Ally shakes her head. “She's Lindsay. She's ours. We're each other's, you know?”
I’ve never thought of Ally as smart, but this is probably the smartest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
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.”
[Lindsay] doesn't hate [Juliet.] She's afraid of her. Juliet Sykes, the keeper of Lindsay’s oldest, maybe her worst, secret. And it all seems absurd now, the chance and randomness of it. One person shoots up and the other spirals downward—random and meaningless. As simple as being in the right place, or the wrong place, or however you want to look at it. As simple as getting a craving for Diet Pepsi one day at a pool party, and getting swept away; as simple as not saying no.
“Why didn't you say anything?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. My voice comes out hoarse from the effort of swallowing back tears.
Juliet shrugs. “She was my best friend, you know? She was always so sad back then.” Juliet makes a noise that could be a laugh or a whimper. “Besides,” she says more quietly, “I thought it would pass.”
She wants me to tell her it’s okay. She needs me to tell her that. I can’t, though. Instead I say, quietly, “People would like you anyway, Lindz.” I don’t say, if you stopped pretending so much, but I know she understands. “We’d still love you no matter what.”