Wonder explores adolescence as a unique period of time in which teens and tweens have the ability to experiment with their identities with wild abandon. By looking at the ways the adolescent characters attempt to define themselves, either by changing their appearance or by liking certain things, as well as examining the degree to which those characters are defined by others (as when some students are spoken of in terms of one defining characteristic, regardless of their other qualities), Wonder suggests that identity is something of a two-way street. People can certainly try to construct and project their preferred identities, but they're still beholden to the thoughts, feelings, and prejudices of others.
For August, identity is a tricky subject because he has very little power to dictate how others see him. He recognizes that other people see him first and foremost as a kid with a scary-looking face, and plenty of people have little interest in getting to know him once that single superficial piece of his identity is established. This is reinforced time and again as August notices people of all ages looking momentarily surprised when they first lay eyes on him and then working very hard to paste on "shiny" smiles to cover up their discomfort during whatever conversation follows. With this, he recognizes that people struggle greatly to get past visual signifiers of identity. Because of this, August also struggles to get past surface level interactions with people. Essentially, because people focus so much on his visual identity, it’s exceptionally hard for him to show people that he's also smart, kind, and funny.
Though August's experience of people seeing his face and only his face is an extreme example, this focus on outward and visual identity also applies to all characters, regardless of what they look like. Miranda, for example, allows the girls at summer camp to cut her hair and dye it pink. When she returns to school in the fall, this allows her to look like part of the popular in-crowd, an association denied to her when her hair was its natural color. In Miranda's case especially, it's important to note that like August, her hair color identifies her in a way entirely separate from how she'd like to be seen. Though Miranda experiences moments where she enjoys her popularity, she's also secretly unhappy and wishes that she were still friends with Via—though being close friends with Via isn't possible anymore, given that she outwardly looks like a member of the popular group and not like someone who should be friends with Via.
On the eve of the class camping trip, August explains to the reader that every kid in middle school becomes "known" for something: Ximena is known for being the best student in the class, while the two Maxes are known for their love of Dungeons and Dragons. Though August is known mostly for his appearance, he uses his observations about how others become known for certain things to try to steer attention towards anything that might set him apart. Early in the school year, August does this by cutting off his Star Wars "Padawan" braid, something that signified nerdiness and an embarrassing love of Star Wars. Then, prior to the camping trip, he asks Mom to buy him a plain duffel bag to replace his Star Wars one, reasoning that his Star Wars duffel bag is just one more thing that his classmates can tease him about. While the camping trip represents a major turning point in August's relationship with his peers (Amos, Miles, and Henry save him from seventh-grade bullies from another school and completely change their behavior towards him afterwards), it's also worth noting that Amos, Miles, and Henry's reasons for rescuing August are mostly a mystery to the reader—but they certainly don't choose to act in this way because of what August's duffel bag looks like. This reinforces the idea that identity is a combination of what a person presents to the world and what others choose to see. To this end, August is finally able to find a sense of community and acceptance in his class because Amos, Miles, and Henry choose to look deeper into who August actually is (a classmate in need of help), rather than fixating on his outward appearance and superficial qualities. This in turn suggests that the project of identity is as much a community effort as an effort made by individuals—it takes a shift in the thoughts of the community for one's true identity to shine through prejudice.
Identity Quotes in Wonder
Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to the school all of a sudden, I'd be curious, I'd probably stare a bit! And if I was walking with Jack or Summer, I'd probably whisper to them: Hey, there's the Wookiee. And if the Wookiee caught me saying that, he'd know I wasn't trying to be mean.
I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.
Before she went out, she looked left and right outside the door to make sure no one saw her leaving. I guess even though she was neutral, she didn't want to be seen with me.
it's just been so nice being in a new school where nobody knows about him, you know? nobody's whispering about it behind my back […] but if he comes to the play, then everyone will talk about it, everyone will know […].
"Auggie!" Mom yelled. "That's not true!"
"Stop lying to me, Mom!" I shrieked. "Stop treating me like a baby! I'm not retarded! I know what's going on!"
I don't even know how I got so mad. I wasn't really mad at the beginning of dinner. I wasn't even sad. But then all of a sudden it all kind of just exploded out of me. I knew Via didn't want me to go to her stupid play. And I knew why.
We knew we were being mean, but it was easier to ice her out if we pretended she had done something to us. The truth is she hadn't changed at all: we had. We'd become these other people, and she was still the person she'd always been. That annoyed me so much and I didn't know why.
"There are always going to be jerks in the world, Auggie," she said, looking at me. "But I really believe, and Daddy really believes, that there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other. Just like Jack was there for you. And Amos. And those other kids."