When teen Samantha Kingston and her friends Lindsay, Ally, and Elody are involved in a car accident on a Friday night at the beginning of Before I Fall, it seems like just that: an accident. Sam wakes up the next morning and believes that the accident was a nightmare—until the prior day’s events begin repeating, and she realizes that the accident may have been more than just chance. Each day for seven days, Sam relives the last day of her life, hoping that she will be able to beat fate by altering the course of the events in her day, and taking some pretty radical chances along the way. As Sam struggles against what increasingly seems to be an unavoidable fate, she gradually recognizes that she is powerless to change the final outcome of her own death‚ but she can change how she acts in the face of that unavoidable fate, and redeem herself by saving Juliet’s life. While the higher power behind the logic of Sam’s fate is left unexplained (i.e., why she’s allowed a sort of purgatory to replay the last day of her life), the overarching message of the novel is that fate—particularly the ultimate fate of death—cannot be avoided, but one should try to act as kindly and lovingly as possible within the confines of that fate.
As Sam Kingston realizes that the last day of her life is repeating itself over and over, she sees herself as doomed. The repetitious days follow the same basic outline of events: Sam wakes up, her best friend Lindsay arrives to drive her to school for Cupid Day, and Sam nervously anticipates losing her virginity to her boyfriend Rob Cokran. Later, Sam goes to a party where an outcast named Juliet Sykes shows up to publicly berate Sam and her friends for ruthlessly bullying her for years, after which Sam and her friends leave the party, with the slightly intoxicated Lindsay driving, and crash. As each day passes, Sam attempts to change small variables here and there in order to attempt to change her fate. One day, she speaks however she wants to her friends, excoriating them for their selfishness and laying bare their many deceptions of themselves and of one another. One day, she attempts to avoid the party by convincing them to all have a sleepover at Ally’s instead—Sam avoids her own disaster that day, but as she and her friends head off to sleep, they are informed by Ally’s mother that Juliet Sykes shot herself in her bedroom after she arrived at the party to find that Sam and her friends weren’t present and thus failed to confront them. One day, Sam stays home from school altogether and spends the day with her younger sister, Izzy, planning on avoiding the party once again until, when she and her family go out for dinner, Sam encounters Juliet Sykes’s younger sister Marian and feels moved to attempt to intervene once again. Sam eventually realizes that it was Juliet that she and her friends crashed into when leaving the party; Juliet had jumped in front of the car, seeking to kill herself.
Sam fails to save Juliet from this fate again and again until, on the final day, Sam realizes what must be done: she has to sacrifice herself in order to save Juliet. Death was her own fate all along, and no amount of attempting to assert agency over the course of events within the time loop would ever have altered that. Sam’s eventual acceptance of her fate, after seven days of attempting to deny it, signals the change her character undergoes over the course of the novel. She has gone from being someone obsessed with manipulating every facet of her activities, her friendships, and the way she appears to others to being someone who surrenders to the powers of fate and accepts that some situations require one to simply act as morally as possible within the confines of one’s agency, and then let destiny shape the rest of the path forward.
Sam’s Groundhog Day-style repetitions of February 12th are seen at first as a fate she is doomed to—and later, as a chance to make things right and save a life, even if that life is not her own. By exploring the complicated, changeable nature of free will and the seemingly hardwired, solid trajectory of fate, Oliver creates a parable to which young readers can look as a guide for how to move through the complicated, fraught world of their teenage years.
Fate vs. Agency ThemeTracker
Fate vs. Agency 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.
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?
I read once that you get déjà vu when the two halves of your brain process things at different speeds: the right half a few seconds before the left, or vice versa. Science is probably my worst subject, so I didn’t understand the whole post, but that would explain the weird double feeling that it leaves you with, like the world is splitting in half—or you are. That’s the way I feel, at least: like there’s a real me and a reflection of me, and I have no way of telling which is which.
Here’s one of the things I learned that morning: if you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. It’s like that old riddle about a tree falling in the forest, and whether it makes a sound if there’s no one around to hear it. You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That’s how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to bust out of orbit, to spin out to a place where no one can touch you. To lose yourself—to get lost.
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.
“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.
It amazes me how easy it is for things to change, how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new. Just one false step, one pause, one detour, and you end up with new friends or a bad reputation or a boyfriend or a breakup. It’s never occurred to me before; I’ve never been able to see it. And it makes me feel, weirdly, like maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different. Maybe Lindsay and I are best friends and he hate each other, both. Maybe I’m only one math class away from being a slut like Anna Cartullo. Maybe I am like her, deep down. Maybe we all are: just one lunch period away from eating alone in the bathroom. I wonder if it’s ever really possible to know the truth about someone else, or if the best we can do is just stumble into each other, heads down, hoping to avoid collision.
Maybe the whole point is I have to prove that I'm a good person. Maybe I have to prove that I deserve to move on. Maybe Juliet Sykes is the only thing between me and an eternity of chocolate fountains and perfect love and guys who always call when they say they will and banana sundaes that
actually help you burn calories. Maybe she's my ticket out.
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.”
“Do you want any breakfast, Sam?” my mom asks. I never eat breakfast at home, but my mom still asks me every day—when she catches me before I duck out, anyway—and in that moment I realize how much I love the little everyday routines of my life: the fact that she always asks, the fact that I always say no because there’s a sesame bagel waiting for me in Lindsay’s car, the fact that we always listen to “No More Drama” as we pull into the parking lot. The fact that my mom always cooks spaghetti and meatballs on Sunday, and the fact that once a month my dad takes over the kitchen and makes his “special stew” which is just hot dog pieces and baked beans and lots of extra ketchup and molasses, and I would never admit to liking it, but it’s actually one of my favorite meals. The details that are my life’s special pattern, like how in handwoven rugs what really makes them unique are the tiny flaws in the stitching, little gaps and jumps and stutters that can never be reproduced. So many things become beautiful when you really look.
[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.”
At the same time the more I think about it […] the angrier I get. This is my life: the whole big, sprawling mess of my life in all its possibilities—first kisses and last kisses and college and apartments and marriage and fights and apologies and happiness—brought to a point, a second, an edge of a second, razored off in that final moment by Juliet’s last act: her revenge against us, against me. The farther I get from the party, the more I think, No. It can't happen this way. No matter what we did, it can't happen this way.
The last time I have the dream it goes like this: I am falling, tumbling through the air, but this time the darkness is alive around me, full of beating things, and I realize that I'm not surrounded by dark but have only had my eyes closed all this time. I open them, feeling silly, and at the same time a hundred thousand butterflies take off around me, so many of them in so many brilliant colors they are like a solid rainbow, temporarily obscuring the sun. But as they wing higher and higher they reveal a landscape below us, all green and gold and sun-drenched fields and pink-tinged clouds drifting underneath me, and the air around me is clear and blue and sweet smelling, and I'm laughing, laughing, laughing as I spin through the air because, of course, I haven't been falling all this time.
I've been flying.
And when I wake up it's wonderful, like I've been carried quietly onto a calm, peaceful shore, and the dream, and its meaning, has broken over me like a wave and is ebbing away now, leaving me with a single, solid certainty. I know now.
In my head I've been saying good-bye to everything, all these places I’ve seen so often I start to ignore them: the deli on the hill with perfect chicken cutlets and the trinket store where I used to buy thread to make friendship bracelets and the Realtor’s and the dentist's and the little garden where Steve King put his tongue in my mouth in seventh grade, and I was so surprised I bit down. I can't stop thinking about how strange life is, about Kent and Juliet and even Alex and Anna and Bridget and Mr. Shaw and Ms. Winters—about how complex and connected everything is, all threaded together like some vast, invisible netting—and how sometimes you can think you're doing the right thing, but it's actually terrible and vice versa.
Floating images, moving in and out: bright green eyes and a field of sun-warmed grass, a mouth saying, Sam, Sam, Sam, making it sound like a song. Three faces blooming together like flowers on a single stem, names ebbing away from me, a single word: love. Red and white flashes, tree branches lit up like the vaulted ceiling of a church. And a face above mine, white and beautiful, eyes as large as the moon. You saved me. A hand on my cheek, cool and dry. Why did you save me? Words welling up on a tide: No. The opposite. Eyes the color of a dawn sky, a crown of blond hair, so bright and white and blinding I could swear it was a halo.