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we’re missing the point: eren jaeger is not a rage-driven monster

My inbox has harbored quite a few messages asking for my interpretation and opinion of our dear protagonist for quite some time now. I have been remiss in not answering them promptly, and all I can offer in my defense is that Eren Jaeger is an intimidating subject! Not only is he a character who is in a near-constant state of internal conflict and subsequent dynamism and growth, but the sheer amount of content involving him is daunting to even approach.

That being said, I do feel equal parts discouraged and motivated by much of the “fanon” surrounding him. Some of the phrases that are most often associated with Eren Jaeger, for example, are usually variations of “monstrous,” “black-and-white worldview,” “rage-fueled,” and even “sociopathic.” Many interpretations of his character attempt to reconcile these ostensible character traits by acknowledging that Eren can be a rage-fueled monster who has a black-and-white worldview before bringing attention to how much he cares for Armin and Mikasa or scouts he doesn’t even know personally who are laying down their lives for the mission. Sure, he has these “bad” things about him…but he has all these “good” traits too, right?

The reason for my discouragement is that these “defenses” or “attacks” of Eren are not so much interpretations of his character as a seemingly systematic disregard of not only who Eren Jaeger actually is and how he’s grown, but of how the narrative itself responds to him.

Like the title of this post suggests, I posit that our protagonist is not, in fact, a monster. He does not subsist on a diet of rage. He is not stupid. He is most certainly not a sociopath. Instead of segregating his character traits into the good and bad, this post will concern itself in addressing how both are sublimations of his nature, how the narrative has consistently conditioned Eren into managing and utilizing his anger instead of succumbing to rage and recklessness or doing away with it altogether, and how he is quite possibly the most dynamic and open-minded character in the series.

Watch out for a generous helping of spoilers through Chapter 50 of the manga behind the cut!

Before commencing our line of inquiry, I would like to note that my understanding of our protagonist has been deepened by conversations with transversely, who is amazingly perceptive and helped me find the right words to use in talking about this complicated kid! Similarly, conversations with vorpalplatypus—also known as the illustrious Recon Corps whisperer—kept Levi’s and the Special Operation Squad’s sections from segueing into murky and impertinent waters.

Now, without further ado…

Eren Jaeger’s Nature: Three Fundamental Components

If there is one scene discussions of Eren Jaeger invariably return to and dwell on, it is his rescue of Mikasa. Fittingly, that scene is what we’ll go about addressing first.

In any setting, the idea of a nine-year-old child murdering two men is disturbing. The act of killing those men, however, is not what makes this particular scene so unnerving.

Stripped of context and on the most basic of levels, what Eren did was rescue a nine-year-old girl from men who murdered her parents right in front of her and intended to sell her into sexual slavery. The act itself, I hope we can all agree, is not “bad.” It is a rescue and liberation on both a physical dimension and a mental one: Eren not only physically kills two of Mikasa’s captors and cuts away the bonds they placed on her wrists to free her, but he also awakens Mikasa’s survival instincts by urging her to fight.

What does make this scene so unsettling, I believe, is Eren’s lack of remorse.

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Just a few moments ago we approached the act of killing by stripping it of much of its context. To better understand Eren’s rationalization and subsequent lack of remorse, we are now going to do the opposite and contextualize it.

Shingeki no Kyojin is set in a world with nightmarish circumstances. Here, human beings are far from the apex species. They have been devoured to near extinction by nigh invincible, remorseless predators that do so gleefully and without any conceivable purpose. This world is cruel, and it is merciless, and only those who fight have a chance at survival.

This scene is meant to convey these gruesome truths about the setting. Like Mikasa, we are indoctrinated to the cruel truth. We are shown Eren stabbing two men to death and a man strangling him in vengeance, and these scenes are juxtaposed to a mantis devouring a butterfly, Mikasa’s father proudly holding up the duck he shot for his wife and daughter to see. Natural selection; survival of the fittest. If you can’t win, you are dead. If you win, you live. You can’t win without fighting.

Metatextual purposes of this scene aside, for now, it’s also important to examine Eren’s actions in this scene closely.

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Take note of his tears. He is clearly distraught, though what he is distraught about is more nuanced. It is not likely that he feels bad about committing the act in this moment, especially when we focus on his dehumanizing language. Eren does not empathize with these “animals” and “scumbags.” They deserve to be dispatched in this way; it’s what they had coming to them. The people Eren is empathizing with in these panels are the Ackermans, who were cruelly and remorselessly murdered by these animals. He is empathizing with Mikasa, who watched her father and mother be killed.

Were he being motivated solely by rage, it would be doubtful that Eren would be crying while he commits the act. The rage with which Eren kills the slavers is a sublimation of both his empathy for the brutalized Mikasa and her slain family and his underlying sense of justice. Notice how empathy and a sense of justice are not necessarily bad things. In this scene, these predispositions of Eren’s manifest as a righteous anger that compels him to kill two murderers and would-be sex traffickers of a child, rationalize his actions by dehumanizing those men and ideating their deaths as just and necessary, and consequently not feeling any remorse about killing them.

I am not contesting that this scene is unsettling, but when you look at it as a whole, it becomes clear this is not an indictment of what Eren did or how he rationalized his actions. Given the world this series is set in, the crimes the men that Eren kills committed, the dire circumstances Mikasa was in, and—yes—Eren’s age…the way he goes about killing two people and justifying his actions afterward are understandable.

This is not a nine-year-old sociopath who kills because he sees an opportunity; this is not a rage-fueled nine-year-old boy who kills out of anger and nothing else.

This is a nine-year-old boy who empathizes with victims and has a strong sense of justice that, upon realizing a little girl has been abducted by the men who murdered her family and the Military Police are notoriously late in responding to such matters, decides to take matters into his own hands and rescue this girl from the animals who have taken her.

Eren’s rescue of Mikasa evinces his capacity for empathy and immutable sense of justice. Both of these are fundamental components of Eren Jaeger’s nature that are incredibly important to take note of before delving any deeper, though there is one more component we have yet to address.

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In most discussions, Eren’s desire for vengeance is almost overwhelmingly enumerated as the root cause of his self-assigned mission to exterminate the titans. While it is true that Eren declares that he will erase the titans from this world after the fall of Shiganshina, his mother’s death was an added, personal motivation to a goal he had always intended to contribute towards achieving. 

Even before Carla Jaeger was gruesomely devoured by a titan while he watched helplessly on, Eren intended to join the Scouting Legion. He intended to kill titans. His reason was and at a very fundamental basis remains reclaiming the outside world for humanity and exploring it. 

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Exterminating the titans was and on some level remains a means to an end, and that end remains on that same fundamental level to explore the world beyond the walls. That desire stems in part from his sense of justice: notice how he invokes the people who laid down their lives fighting the titans to support his case that humanity must continue fighting the titans and explore the outside world. Looking beyond that, it’s clear from Eren’s first two dialogue bubbles in the above panels that he possesses an innate curiosity and wonder, or desire for knowledge. He explicitly states he does not want to live the rest of his life “as an ignorant.” Eren is hungry for knowledge; he needs to know about the outside world, and that is the reason why he always intended to join the Scouting Legion.

Carla’s death added a very personal motivation to his goals. While Eren was always outraged that the titans had reduced humanity to living like livestock within the walls, his mother being devoured by the titans imposed a harrowingly familiar, emotionally-laden tableau onto that outrage he feels.

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Detracting from the effect Carla’s death had on Eren would be reductive, but overemphasizing it to the point that we forget Eren has other motivations that stem from different origins is just as grievous an oversimplification. Rather, it is crucial to take all these motivations into account and balance them as well we can.

One thing I would like to stress before we move on is how those three fundamental qualities we identified—empathyan immutable sense of justice, and a desire for knowledge—all too often feed into each other. While rescuing Mikasa, for example, his empathy for what she endured fed into his sense of justice; while explaining why he wanted to explore the world beyond the walls, Eren’s sense of justice was used to further justify his curiosity and desire for knowledge, and his invoking the memory of those who died could be tied to his empathy for them. It’s also important to note that these three fundamental qualities can also feed into other behaviors, and not all of them positive, such as rage or recklessness. What is important for us to realize for now, however, is that these traits are almost always at work whenever Eren is involved.

Narrative Conditioning: Reactions to Eren’s “Rage”

My last intention for this post is to make it yet another response to the anime adaptation, but I believe this observation is worth mentioning in this context: part of what I found particularly awful about the anime’s treatment of Eren’s character arc in the last three episodes—specifically his devolution into a raging, fiery beast that abandons its humanity and “triumphs” over Annie by doing so—is that it derails a lesson that has been painstakingly conditioned into Eren throughout the series. Abandoning one’s humanity may work out unsettlingly well enough for those who do it in a deliberate, controlled fashion, like Armin or Erwin, but whenever Eren “abandons his humanity”—which means a very different thing for Eren than Armin, because Eren’s “humanity” is different from Armin’s “humanity”—he is overcome by his titan body’s impulses and falls into the same tired pattern of reckless rage and bloodlust.

This—succumbing to his titan body or a directlonless rage to the point of mindlessness—is not a positive occurrence. Nearly every time Eren does, in fact, there are harrowing consequences for both him and nearly everyone else in close enough proximity to him.

The trend is established as early as the beginning of the Defense of Trost arc, while Eren and his squad of fellow cadets make their way to the front lines. They are ambushed by an aberrant that bites Tomas out of the air and devours him while his squad looks helplessly on. Eren is so incensed by what has happened that he recklessly pursues it, despite his squad’s warnings.

Eren’s reckless pursuit of retribution not only costs him his leg…

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…but the incapacitation of their squad leader also leaves his team shell-shocked…

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…and they too act recklessly and without a mind for cooperation or tactical considerations…

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…which ends up getting each of them devoured.

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Eren’s failure as a leader was to let his emotions get the better of him and not rally his squad mates after Tomas’s death. Despite the fact that he had ranked in the top ten and was put in charge of his fellow cadets because of his achievements, he still let his emotions get the better of him. Because he succumbed to this kind of reckless desire for vengeance—or “rage,” if you will—he loses his leg and costs his squad, with the exception of himself and Armin, their lives.

Towards the end of the arc, Eren is once again put into two positions of responsibility—these even heavier than the last.

When his shifting abilities are discovered, the garrison surrounds him, Mikasa, and Armin. The soldiers are understandably suspicious and threatened by him in light of his abilities. Eren, still in something of a delirium after falling out of his titan body’s nape, remembers bits and pieces of his rampage through Trost, and the first thing he says aloud is:

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Of course, this isn’t Eren’s fault. He did not choose to deliver this line with such an unsettling expression on his face.

Nevertheless, this involuntary action of his has consequences!

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Though he was not in control of himself at that moment, Eren’s expression of gleeful bloodlust only gives the garrison troops surrounding the three of them more cause to fear and suspect him.

Now, I do realize it may be unfair to hold Eren responsible for this action, but he is not excused by his would-be aggressors within the narrative in light of his circumstances. It is all too likely that, even had Eren not spoken, the paranoid stationary guard captain would still have ordered Eren, Mikasa, and Armin be fired upon, but this encounter conveys how alarming Eren, as a newly discovered titan shifter, is to his fellow human beings. In lieu of quoting the relevant superhero one-liners about great power coming with great responsibility or human beings fearing what they do not understand—though I suppose I just did, drat—I will go ahead and say that, as an individual with the ability to transform into a fifteen-meter behemoth alike in most physical aspects to the horde of gleeful giants that devour human beings senselessly, Eren is very intimidating to other human beings! If Eren wants to be accepted as a human (at the most optimistic) and an ally (at the very least) again by those people who don’t necessarily know him well, he has to be on…well, his best behavior. Rage and how it causes him to lose control of himself is now even further stacked against him in that succumbing to it may not only forfeit his life and that of his comrades, but actually turn his comrades against him, which is reinforced by how the Special Operations Squad react to him when he abruptly transforms to pick up a spoon. 

Needless to say, managing his rage and emotional state in general is incredibly necessary hereafter, and if the importance of self-management is not sufficiently evinced by Eren’s encounter with the stationary corps, then it is most definitely driven home by the operation to plug the breach in Trost’s outer wall.

Eren’s failure to retain control over his titan form not only leaves Mikasa with the scar on her cheek, but it is also directly damaging to Eren himself, because his titan body stupidly punches off its own head when Mikasa attempts to communicate with him.

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The delay between Eren’s incapacitation at his own hands and Armin’s success in getting through to and reawakening him is costly. By the end of the mission, casualties are high, and like Rico acknowledges about her own squad:

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Much the same can be said for everyone else involved: Mina, Tomas, Franz, and countless other soldiers have died during the Battle of Trost, and some of them, like Marco, died during the operation to plug the breach.

Now, please do not make the mistake of equating Eren’s loss of control during the Battle of Trost to him being the “rage-fueled monster” I am arguing he is not. There are many extenuating circumstances, chief among them that Eren is a fifteen-year-old kid who has only just discovered his shifting abilities after two traumatic, near-death experiences. He is exhausted; he is inexperienced; he does not know what the hell he is doing but knows he has to do it regardless, because steeping himself in this frightening, newly discovered part of himself is the only way humanity can prevent the loss of the Wall Rose territories and, in fact, reclaim territory from the titans.

What the Defense of Trost arc impresses upon us, as well as the characters themselves, is that Eren must learn how to both control his titan powers and manage his emotions and impulses, lest he prove a threat to himself, his loved ones, and his allies. 

Notice how both are intimately and directly related to one another. Think back to how Eren recklessly pursued the titan that devoured Tomas and how that recklessness was informed by those three fundamental aspects: empathy, certainly, because Tomas was a comrade and friend he trained together with for three years; his immutable sense of justice, most definitely, because Tomas’s death was abrupt and senseless. Realize that Eren’s recklessness and the way he succumbs to his rage are not “negative traits;” they are, in fact, sublimated expressions of who he is, just as those traits often identified as his “positive traits” are. 

His failure to control his titan form during the Battle of Trost is not, in fact, related to his rage or anger. It is due to his ignorance about his new powers. Can we blame him for a lack of information and inexperience about these alarming new abilities he was not aware of until recently? Especially when his titan body affects him in an insidious manner that deprives him of his motivations for fighting? His home intact; his family together; his mother alive.

Why leave this familiar, comforting place when he is so exhausted?

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Why cling so vehemently to his outrage when his mother never died?

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Clearly, Eren’s complete loss of control during the operation was not due to his anger. It was, in fact, brought on by an insidious complacency—the complete and utter lack of anger and passion. His sense of justice never inflamed into action; his empathy without other people to reach out to within the dream state’s isolation; his desire for knowledge and curiosity rendered inert by his exhaustion. That’s Eren’s humanity: his emotions—including anger—and the fundamental components that make him who he is.

It should come to no surprise, then, that the way Armin finally gets through to Eren is by appealing to his dreams of exploring the outside world…and it is through that appeal that Eren’s passion is reawakened. 

With that passion, Eren succeeds in carrying the boulder to plug the breach in Trost’s outer wall. Also notice how he exhibits all of those fundamental qualities while carrying the boulder: empathy…

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…his sense of justice…

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…and his curiosity, his wonder, his desire to see the outside world and be free.

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Writing out the equation “Rage = BAD” and stopping there is far too ham-fisted a conclusion, because anger and rage are not inherently “bad.” They have their places. They are important. They can be managed and utilized to achieve “good” and “positive” things. And I would argue that, as part and parcel of the spectrum of human emotions, feeling anger distinguishes Eren from the “monstrous” titans that all too often have their expressions restricted to a single emotion—most commonly rictuses of absent, lazy glee. Very few titans seem capable of feeling emotion, whether it’s rage or compassion. The fact that Eren retains the ability to feel while shifted is certainly indicative of his shifterhood—a state of being that connotes control of the “monstrous” titan body by a very human central nervous system to accomplish feats neither human or titan could. Though he was unconscious during his first rampage through the Trost district, it is implied that it was Eren’s strong willpower that allowed him to remember his outrage against the titans and kill them instead of joining them in devouring his comrades. Clearly, even blind anger and rage are not wholly negative.

However, there is something to be said about how Eren’s titan body reacts to and feeds back on his anger…and though this sequence is too complex to derive a single, tenable conclusion, let’s go ahead and examine Eren’s first confrontation with the Female Titan in the Forest of Giant Trees.

Immediately after shifting, Eren reflects on how his lapse of judgment in deciding to follow orders contributed toward the Special Operation Squad’s deaths. The fact that he is still capable of doing so already sets this time apart from the incident at Trost, where Eren lost control the moment he transformed. As soon as he resolves to avenge them and gets into the gory details of how he’ll do that is when things get eerie.

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Eren’s language gets progressively more and more gruesome: he will rip her to shreds with his own hands…to pulp…to smithereens…. He will devour her. Just as the way his eyes roll back in his head and saliva begins to drool out of his mouth suggest a physical complement to what is happening, notice how Eren’s language and behavior have become more titan-inflected. Eren has never wanted to devour any of his adversaries before or after, even while transformed. Yet now, at his most incensed, at his most angered and grief-stricken in the aftermath of the Female Titan’s killing of the Special Operations Squad, it would seem Eren’s titan body has begun to feed back on those emotions and intentions. Also keep in mind that, seeing as how his mother was killed, Eren may very well ideate being devoured as the worst, most gruesome death possible. Whether he is purposefully opting to devour the Female Titan because he wants to make her suffer or this is intentionally dissonant is unclear.

The effect this has on Eren in the ensuing fight is to make him more vicious, more relentless. He is certainly quite reckless in repeated attacks, but his recklessness here seems to be effective against the Female Titan, who is put on the defensive and seems almost afraid during some parts of their fight.

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The fight is brought to an abrupt conclusion, however, when the Female Titan shows Eren her hand. Or, well, hands.

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By showing her student this stance—the one he spent a significant amount of time being taught; the one he would have seen his mentor fall into countless times while they sparred—the Female Titan reveals her identity to one of the individuals most intimately familiar with her techniques, and Eren’s moment of hesitation is all Annie needs to incapacitate him.

What happens to Eren in the Forest of Giant Trees is completely different animal than what happened to him at Trost. He is not unconscious; the fact that he is able to recognize Annie’s stance and hesitate at the familiar sight of it is proof enough that he is still receiving and processing sensory input and not in some sort of dream state. Rather, it is likely that he makes the choice to slay the Female Titan, and the anger, grief, and rage he feels create a sort of feedback loop with his titan body that, on the one hand, makes him much more of a threat against Annie.

There is, however, a second and final encounter between Eren and Annie, and this one takes place under incredibly different circumstances.

The reencounter at Stohess plays out with both parties aware: Eren aware that Annie is the Female Titan; Annie aware that this will be her last opportunity to capture Eren, that this may very well be the last time they fight each other at all. They fight on a battlefield of Armin’s design; a plan laid out as a contingency for the worst case scenario. Unlike their previous confrontation, Eren is not fighting alone this time: Mikasa, Armin, Hanji, and their squad are supporting him. It is also worth noting that Armin’s first plan—the one to entrap Annie without any actual evidence of her identity—does not sit well with Eren at all…

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…and when the time to act arrives—when Annie shifts right before his eyes—Eren cannot follow suit and meet her accordingly. It is only when Armin and Mikasa force his hand by putting themselves at risk that Eren is able to compartmentalize and do what he must.

Compartmentalization does not hinder Eren’s capacity for empathy. He attempts to understand Annie’s actions and motivations and relate to her while fighting.

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This is a big deal! Our protagonist, who has sworn to one day erase all titans from the face of the world, attempting to empathize with a titan—because that titan happens to be Annie Leonhardt.

Let’s put that line of thought aside for now, however, and turn our attention to how Eren behaves in his titan form during this battle, especially in comparison to how he behaved during their first.

Truly, this is an instance of Eren Jaeger compartmentalizing. Notice that there are no declarations of wanting to harm her in vengeance or otherwise, let alone tearing her apart or the truly titan predilection to devour her. There is only duty; there is only empathy. Eren’s role during this fight is nothing so grandiose as triumphing over the Female Titan as much as stalling her. He has support now, and like Hanji points out, it is important that he maintain control of himself and stall Annie long enough for her squad to catch up, so they can work on capturing her from there.

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There is no titan rage feedback loop to sharpen his viciousness this time. Fittingly, his body language is much more controlled—more reminiscent of the sparring he and Annie ritualized during their trainee days than the ruthless, vicious attacks Eren used in the forest. Perhaps that is why Annie is able to neutralize him much quicker than she did the first time—just as she used to while they were trainees, and especially when Hanji’s squad gets dangerously close and necessitates Annie’s immediate escape, lest she be overwhelmed and captured.

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What the examination and juxtaposition of these two scenes boils down to is this question: would Eren have triumphed over Annie in the Forest of Giant Trees had her “tell” not made him hesitate? Consider how he had her on the defensive during their first confrontation but was incapacitated much quicker in the second.

Whether or not the titan rage feedback loop’s benefits outweigh its dangers is another, but equally compelling, question to entertain. Take a look at Eren in his titan body’s nape during the forest fight:

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The titan flesh has covered his eyes and much of his face, and Eren is lying face down against it. The flesh’s encroachment is much more dramatically pronounced and further along in this scene than in subsequent fights, including his fight with the Armored Titan. Does this indicate that there is more than one way to be overcome by one’s titan body? Possibly. It is possible that Eren is in constant danger of being overcome by his titan form, should he provide it with the appropriate avenue. That being said, would Eren’s hypothetical “victory” in the forest have truly been a triumph? Would he have killed or devoured Annie? Would he have lost himself to his titan body more permanently had she not jarred him out of it with her tell when she did?

Unfortunately, we may never get an answer to these question…but I do believe they are worth considering.

When all is said and done, Eren and his allies do “succeed” in capturing Annie—crystalized and unreachable for the time being, but alive. He manages to retain control of his titan body throughout the confrontation, and even if his compartmentalization and marked lack of anger or rage make it so that he is much less of an effective opponent for Annie, the fact remains that Eren probably would not have been capable of cooperating with his allies as effectively had he been in the throes of the titan rage feedback loop. Annie simply needed to escape for the mission to be a failure, so if she had managed to climb the wall, the mission would have been as much a failure had she abducted him. Remember, it is Eren who gives Mikasa the boost she needs to overcome Annie as she is climbing the wall, cut off her fingers, and send her plummeting to her capture and subsequent self-internment by crystal encasement. Do you think he would have been able to pull this off had he been in the same state as he had been in the forest?

In any case, we now seem to have two models: harnessing anger and intention in the “titan rage feedback loop,” and compartmentalizing in order to cooperate with allies. They may seem mutually exclusive and irreconcilable, but this is actually not the case! Synthesis is possible, and we will find our proof of that in Eren’s approach to his confrontation with the Armored Titan.

It goes without saying, but Eren is very upset and incredibly angry while he fights the Armored Titan! Appreciate how his distress and genuine bereavement (look at those tears)…

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…transmuted into rage.

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Confronted by the individuals responsible for the attack on Wall Maria and the death of his mother, Eren ideates Reiner’s death, yes. He even dehumanizes him by calling him vermin…but oddly enough, he does not picture the act of killing him as gruesomely as he does with Annie in the Forest of Giant Trees.

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It’s the same kind of language he used as a child after killing two of Mikasa’s captors, and though Eren does act fairly recklessly at some points in the fight—just flat-out attacking Reiner head-on with punches without considering the best approach to fighting the Armored Titan—he is able to synthesize what he has learned. Eren Jaeger harnesses his anger; Eren Jaeger remains in control; Eren Jaeger cooperates with his allies while using his anger.

Before we move on, here is how Eren looks inside his titan body during this fight:

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Completely different, huh? There is no titan flesh on his face; he is not lying face down. Feel free to scroll up and compare this panel to the one depicting him during the first fight with the Female Titan.

Now, that synthesis I keep mentioning. In retrospect, it is pretty ingenious what Eren did…so let’s take it step by step:

First, he roars, giving both his allies and his opponent the impression that he is losing control and going berserk.

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Second, he follows up on that roar: he lunges at Reiner with his arm poised for another reckless, ineffective punch. Reiner prepares himself to react accordingly.

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But no. It’s a feint.

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And from there, he finishes with the takedown.

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Classic Leonhardt technique, that.

Eren intentionally played on what people expect of him. He acted angry and reckless. He went through the motions, and everyone was fooled—even Armin, even Mikasa. This is Eren Jaeger weaponizing his rage; he does not compartmentalize it away, nor is he overcome by it to the point of a vicious recklessness that may have been effective against the Female Titan, but is wholly ineffective against the hardened flesh of the Armored Titan. So he thought back to what Annie taught him and realized that, hey, her techniques would be effective against an opponent like Reiner! He learned. He grew. Think back to his trajectory—from the first time he shifted until now—and notice how quickly and effectively he’s grown. He manages his anger, gives his rage its proper place in this fight…and he wins.

Or, well, he would have, if Bertholdt hadn’t thrown himself off the wall at Reiner’s exhortation…though, may I say, the fact that Reiner felt the need to have the Colossal Titan lunge off the wall and onto Eren is a pretty telltale indication of the direction the fight was heading in.

Still, I hope these comparisons and juxtapositions make it clear. Eren’s “rage” is not an obstacle he must overcome. Being angry while in his titan body is not a one-way ticket to monster town. Rage is important, and it is effective. It is one of Eren’s strengths, and it’s in learning to manage it and where to direct it that he finally learns how to use his strength.

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Speaking of learning…let’s move on!

Conversational Learning: Eren’s Bevy of Mentors

Quite frankly, I am astounded as to how there is even a perception that Eren has a “black-and-white worldview”—much less that it’s such a common interpretation of his character—when he has revised his view of and approach to the world repeatedly, and has certainly done so much more often than most of the cast.

"Black-and-white worldview" carries the connotation of rigidness and an inability to think outside or grow past the confines of simplistic moral judgment, though if there were ever an instance I think this term would apply, it would be Eren’s rescue of Mikasa. Developmentally speaking, it is generally between the ages of 12 and 15 that our cognitive functions shift from the concrete to the abstract. Ergo, it is after this cognitive shift that we are able to better understand the consequences of our actions. While we can do this to some degree before the shift, those processes are relatively rudimentary: they’re not as future-oriented, nor do they process cause-and-effect relationships as well. This consideration does apply to Eren, who was only nine-years-old at the time, and while that does not detract from his actions or the fact that Eren himself nevertheless expresses a desire to expand his worldview and learn, it could be important to keep in mind—especially when considering how Eren rationalized his actions in the aftermath, and whether or not Eren has a "black-and-white worldview" when he enlists at twelve-years-old and once he’s a scout at fifteen. 

In any case, application of the cognitive shift or not, Eren Jaeger is not someone with a “black-and-white morality and/or worldview.” Apart from the rescue scene and shifting incidents, which we’ve already addressed, the examples most often cited to demonstrate how closed-minded he is are his rather explosive debates and arguments with Jean, which apparently not only evince that Eren and Jean do not get along very well, but that Eren apparently hates the very institution Jean hopes to join, and that his dislike of Jean is based on Jean joining the Military Police—those complacent fuckers.

This comes from what is, honestly, a misconception that Eren automatically resents everyone who intends to join the Military Police, never mind that he consoles Bertholdt for wanting to become a police officer for, according to Bertholdt himself back then, cowardly reasons…

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…has demonstrated a marked admiration and respect for Marco, who has never kept his dream of entering the king’s service a secret…

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…is mentored in hand-to-hand combat by a young woman he greatly admires and respects despite the fact that she flat-out tells him she intends to join the Military Police so she can save her own hide…

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…and even suggests that Mikasa, his adopted sister and one of his constant companions, take advantage of her graduation rank by joining the Military Police and hoping to receive special treatment for being so talented, never mind that a prodigy like Mikasa would be a great boon to the Scouting Legion.

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Clearly, Eren’s interactions with Bertholdt, Marco, Annie, and Mikasa establish Jean as the outlier.

Why exactly Jean is the outlier has many dimensions to it, perhaps first and foremost among them that, though Eren and Jean agreed to put their differences aside on their first night of training, Jean’s jealousy and resentment of Eren for being close with Mikasa cause Jean to go out of his way to bother Eren and provoke conflict…. So if we are going to criticize Eren for being juvenile in these confrontations, then let’s not forget to do the same for the biased Jean “you persuaded the girl (who is actually your adopted sister) I think is pretty to cut her long, flowing, beautiful hair and I have lost my faith in humanity because of you, you prick” Kirschtein, eh?

Not to say that Jean does not have some pertinent criticism about Eren’s behavior, goals, and worldview to offer—he sometimes does! Especially when they’re older.

When they’re trainees though? He is much more biased!

Sure, Jean antagonizing Eren is a good reason for why Eren would react with such hostility whenever he and Jean get into a tiff, but here’s the thing: the reason Eren gets so angry at Jean isn’t because they’re disagreeing; it’s because Jean isn’t offering him any new insight.

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Unlike Marco, Jean’s reasons for joining the Military Police begin and end at wanting to live a life of comfort and security in the innermost districts. What’s more, Jean is pretty shamelessly vocal about it too! And while, yes, Annie is rather vocal about her intentions to save her own hide, she takes the time to engage Eren in dialogue, widen his perspective with her comments on the inherent hypocrisies of the system, and teaching him to fight afterwards. Jean though? All he offers Eren is the same logic and more insults—usually at the expense of making the Recon Corps look comparatively stupid and suicidal a venture, so Eren must be a death-seeking fool for wanting to become a scout.

Do not mistake their butting heads for an unwillingness to hear out others’ points of view or recalcitrance on Eren’s part. Remember that Eren declared he did not want to live as an ignorant and that, as we saw, Eren is actually very understanding of others’ situations—Bertholdt’s, Marco’s, presumably Annie’s. It’s all that desire for knowledge and empathy, remember?

For Eren, learning is a conversation. He needs someone to engage him, challenge him, and foster and sustain a dialogue. As long as they take the time to do that, it doesn’t matter if he starts out disagreeing with them. He will listen to what they have to say. He will mull it over. He will internalize it and revise his worldview and approach accordingly, especially if they present him with a better way of doing or thinking.

(And if you want to see how that’s true, aside from the following sections, look up the instance when Jean engages Eren in an actual conversation in Chapter 22. There is no argument. None of those explosive, confrontational, juvenile antics that riddled their training days and resulted in Mikasa slandering poor Sasha’s name to get Eren out of trouble. Could it have been Jean’s approach, I wonder…?)

That being said, these panels are a good model for how Eren reacts when confronted with a person who does not take him seriously enough to engage him in conversation, or is dealing with someone who he cannot sustain a conversation with:

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There are, however, a number of characters who, upon encountering Eren, have this effect on him when they engage him in conversation. If Annie Leonhardt has her spectrum of special individuals who go against the tide of human nature, then Eren Jaeger has his bevy of mentors who provide him new information, expand his worldview, cause him to revise his approach to the world, and consequently earn a place of deep and abiding admiration and respect in his heart.

Armin Arlert (Dreams)

In the long line of Eren Jaeger’s mentors, Armin is indubitably the first. “Mentor” may not be the best term for what Armin is for Eren—perhaps something like “inspiration” would be more appropriate—but I believe it certainly fits: Armin has expanded Eren’s worldview immensely, and he does it through a whole lot of discussion.

Armin recognized and took Eren’s hunger for knowledge seriously, so he shared what he learned from his books about the outside world with Eren. Armin told Eren about the masses of water filled with salt, the flaming water, the expanses of ice, and the snowfields of sand. Through the knowledge he’d gleaned from his family’s heretical texts, Armin fed Eren beyond his means, awakened his wonder and ardent desire to see the world beyond the walls just as it is—something more concrete to fight for, a dream.

Think back to how the image of Carla became the tableau imposed onto Eren’s the outrage inflamed by his sense of justice. A similar phenomenon happens with Armin: Eren’s memory of discussing the outside world with Armin becomes the tableau for “his dreams.”

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You could say that, in a way, Armin—or Eren’s relationship with Armin—becomes the embodiment of Eren’s dreams for the future, tied inextricably to his desire for knowledge. To Eren, Armin is his partner in this endeavor, a kindred spirit who shares his curiosity and abiding wonder about the outside world. Together, they will explore that world.

We never quite see this mentorship take place in the narrative. These sessions of sharing and discussing knowledge about the outside world occurred in the past, and though we have not received a flashback to these conversations. It’s a shame, because we don’t know what Eren was like before he met Armin, or whether his curiosity about and desire to explore the outside world was what served as the foundation for their relationship or if Armin fostered it by sating his hunger for knowledge and actually instilling that dream in him.

Its effects and influences on both Eren and Armin are frequently alluded to by both the characters and represented through images, however. Including the tableau above, look at all these conversations they’ve had over a book:

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Along these lines, Armin has appealed to Eren’s dreams and their bond to get through to him—the most notable instance is unquestionably when Armin, realizing why his and Mikasa’s appeals to Eren’s anger against the titans have failed, stabs through the titan body’s nape to wake and talk to him about their dreams, how their bond inspired Armin to join the Scouting Legion himself…

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…and that succeeds in reaching him where previous appeals failed.

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What is clear to us is that Eren and Armin have quite the bond, and that it is based in the shared dream and desire to understand. Perhaps because of this, Eren trusts Armin a great deal, willing to defer to his judgment and guidance after he discovers his shifting abilities and the Stationary Guard have pinned the three of them. Deference and teamwork are lessons Eren imparted to him by other mentor figures, so the fact that he is willing to defer to Armin and entrust his, Mikasa’s, and Armin’s own lives to Armin’s judgment is quite significant.

Because Armin fostered an outgrowth of one of Eren’s three fundamental qualities—his desire for knowledge—he is a very important individual Eren’s life, and while he is the first, he is most certainly not the last.

Reiner Braun (Responsibility)

It may be hard to believe in retrospect, given how important hand-to-hand combat is to Eren as both an individual and a titan shifter, but there was a point in time where he did not see any purpose to learning the disarming techniques he and his fellow trainees were taught and told to practice. Reiner is his sparring partner when he voices these concerns, and while both we and Reiner are not entirely sure why Eren felt this way, it’s important to take into account where he’s coming from. Knowing this, Reiner engages Eren in a discussion, and Eren responds:

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Eren doesn’t feel this way about hand-to-hand training because he is lazy or feels it is a waste of his time, as an aspiring scout whose opponents will always be titans, to learn these techniques. He finds the prospect of a soldier having to fight another human disconcerting, but he’s fought other people before: the bullies in Shiganshina—which is why he knows how to throw a big guy like Reiner—and the men who abducted Mikasa when she was nine-years-old, which is why he feels the way he feels about hand-to-hand combat training. Or rather, this specific component of hand-to-hand combat training.

Take a moment to process that. Eren isn’t speaking from complete ignorance. Eren is speaking from experience. When he attacked Mikasa’s captors, they could not disarm him; when the third man attacked him, Eren was helpless against him. After nearly being strangled to death by an assailant and knifing two men to death himself, Eren has determined that the best course of action to take when someone comes at you with a knife is to run. He knows that you may not see the stab coming until the blade’s in your jugular, because he deceived a man by acting like an innocent, lost child to take advantage of his underestimating him; he knows, as someone who lunged at the second slaver and stabbed him to death, that it may not be possible to stop someone when they lunge at you; he knows, as someone who was almost murdered himself, that being overpowered means you’re dead nine times out of ten. Had Mikasa not been there, had Mikasa not fought, Eren would be dead. Best then to retreat, right?

Though he disagrees, Reiner acknowledges that Eren’s point of view is understandable—Reiner of all people would know from experience that sometimes you cannot avoid running away from an attacker—but offers Eren his insight calmly.

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It’s not that Eren is wrong. Reiner does not tell Eren that he is wrong. In fact, he confirms that he knows where Eren is coming from! What Reiner does is present Eren with a new perspective—one from which he had never considered the situation before.

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Would you look at that display of self-awareness and reflection? Eren learns a new lesson in the space of a single conversation with Reiner, realizes that Reiner’s perspective is valid and applies to the sort of soldier Eren aspires to be, and that same night, when he’s confronted with a situation he would have reacted “childishly” before…

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…he sees Reiner watching him from his table, remembers the lesson he’d learned, is able to recognize that propensity for behaving childishly in himself and, moreover, perceive it in Jean as well.

Reiner models what Eren believes is a good man, a good soldier.

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He is the example Eren strives to emulate, but one of the significant aspects of most of Eren Jaeger’s relationships with his mentors is how it is a dialogue: Eren talks back. When Reiner hesitates to spar with Annie after she incapacitates Eren, for example, Eren reminds Reiner of the lesson he’d imparted not a few minutes earlier:

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And, of course, when Reiner is revealed to be the Armored Titan, Eren angrily indicts him for betraying and lying to everyone, holding him up to the example he’d so genuinely embodied. Such was Eren’s esteem for Reiner that he did not suspect him of any involvement with Annie, and angrily demanded how Armin could even think to suspect him of complicity. Their bond is, of course, frayed to bits by the revelation, but the fact that Eren trusted Reiner enough to defend him from any suspicion so soon after his confrontation with Annie speaks volumes of how much Eren admired and respected Reiner as a friend and a soldier.

Reiner’s lesson on responsibility is in many ways foundational: not just in terms of the kind of soldier Eren wants to be, but as an avenue through which Eren meets one of his most influential mentors.

Annie Leonhardt (Perception)

Eren is so affected by Reiner’s talk of a soldier’s responsibility that, after being thrown and watching Reiner be thrown just as effortlessly, he expresses admiration for and interest in Annie’s techniques.

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Keep in mind that this is coming from an individual who did not see the merits to learning and practicing hand-to-hand combat just a few moments earlier.

The physical, combat-oriented dimension of Annie and Eren’s relationship is definitely a large part of the mentorship. Within the scheme of the narrative, Annie—an antagonist—arms Eren—our protagonist—with the techniques that make him effective as a titan shifter who fights other titans. From this standpoint alone, Annie’s role as Eren’s mentor establishes her as a very important character, because the fact that she teaches him how to fight so effectively is a very big deal, and one that has given him an edge over his opponents numerous times. For example, remember that feint Eren used to take down Reiner? It was Annie’s technique—one she used on Eren while sparring. Annie arms Eren with the techniques he uses to put Reiner—who is, at this point in the story, one of the biggest antagonists in the narrative—on the ropes. Clearly, this cannot be ignored, and it will not be.

However! Physical arrangement, while important, is relatively superficial. What Annie’s mentorship of Eren truly imparts—or begins to impart—is the importance of perception: his own perceptive faculties, especially in relation to how he perceives other people.

Annie first brings Eren’s attention to the systematic hypocrisy inherent in the military. She challenges him on a Socratic front while thoroughly trouncing him on the physical, forcing him to consider the questions she poses.

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Her challenge causes Eren’s view of the world he lives in to sharpen. He realizes that, yes, the system is constructed in such a way that those who would be most effective against the titans are given the privilege of inland service. So all those police officers Eren may once have very well believed were complacent sheeple are—or were, at the time of their graduation—the soldiers most qualified to fight the titans. Should Eren have harbored any negative feelings about the Military Police—which are distinct from his feelings about the fellow trainees of his who aspire to join the Military Police, like we pointed out earlier—he would have to adopt some respect for their abilities now, as well as a growing conviction that there is something very wrong with a system that privileges gifted soldiers with comfort and security—especially after the fall of Wall Maria made humanity’s situation all the more dire.

This is just the tip of the perception-altering iceberg, however! The rest is part and parcel with the physical arrangement: sparring, fighting, hand-to-hand combat. Not necessarily being taught how to fight in and of itself, but the process, and what hand-to-hand combat truly signifies.

On the most basic of dimensions, hand-to-hand combat is an extension of the sense of touch. Unlike a firearm or even the 3D maneuver gear blades, you are engaged in close, personal combat with another human being. Remember, hand-to-hand combat is only ever used by human beings to fight other human beings. Shifterhood does take this a step further. As a titan, Eren and Annie would have to fight other titans, yes, but they may also have to fight other shifters, and Eren fighting Annie and Reiner in their titan forms is proof enough of that. This is not humans fighting titans or titan shifters fighting the mindless variety of titans. You and your opponent are, by all appearances, alike. It’s a brutal kind of intimacy—one Eren told Reiner he would hate to see, yet is drawn to by Annie’s example all the same. His bastardized adaptation of her technique to diffuse the situation with Jean was too specific a use to really evince anything in the mess hall scene alone, but it is how Eren interacts with Annie later that gives him away.

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He smiles and asks if she saw his kick; he then asks if she thinks he is a good kicker. He thinks he did great, and wants her confirmation, and if this does not reveal an underlying self-satisfaction with how he handled the situation with Jean—physically, with a unique, highly effective technique he went through something of a painful process of picking up—then I do not know what does. When Annie responds by telling him he is hopeless at it and he asks what he did wrong, his expression is actually quite crestfallen.

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And he doesn’t just wave her comment about his performance off; he wants to know what he did wrong, so he can learn better and improve himself. Perhaps it’s picking up on that genuine desire to improve that convinces her that he would be a good sparring partner for her, which is why she asks if he would like her to teach him. Eren refuses, at first…

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…but notice how she gets him to agree: “Come on,” she urges him, “you don’t have to hold back one bit.” At the beginning of this chapter, Eren told Reiner he has trouble holding back; now Annie appeals to that very same part of Eren—his exuberance, how he enjoys accomplishing and learning new things. A lot of their dynamic has to do with that: learning and relearning a language they both speak. There’s the aesthetic appeal to it, how it’s almost artistic—being “a good kicker” and grinning with pride at the memory of how you took someone down; smiling down at the expression of your inventive brutality as you spin an opponent to death.

Which I would say ties into why Eren grows to admire and respect Annie so much: she takes him seriously. Not only by always meeting him accordingly, or because she pursued a relationship with him wherein she would help him learn techniques to better himself but does it for what seem like selfish reasons—i.e. she is getting something out of it too and isn’t doing it for him—but because she listens to him. Look how seriously she takes him; others may be laughing at, ignoring, or feel exasperated by him, but Annie isn’t. She’s turned toward him, watching him, listening to him. 

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What’s more is she questions him about his beliefs and ideals, and they both grow from that questioning.

It’s both one of the first things and the last thing Eren says in this chapter that will allow us to segue into the crux of what this mentorship imparts. Those things are: “That said…what’s this training about? Soldiers fighting other people? I’d hate to see that happen,” and “Those kicks in the legs hurt, you know.”

Of course, Annie knows combat hurts, because she has been a practitioner of the family’s techniques since she was a child. She also knows that the same is true for her opponent, and that she will be the one hurting them. She may enjoy combat and liven up when she gets to show off her techniques, but she is aware of these truths. She is under no such illusions, and I would argue that it’s because she possesses this knowledge that she can also derive enjoyment from it in the way that she does.

Being mentored in hand-to-hand combat by Annie Leonhardt constitutes both an acquaintance with and desensitization to these truths.

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Of course it hurts, but what place does consideration have in combat?

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Annie’s techniques are implied to be “illusions of force,” a response calibrated to meet her opponent accordingly and use their strength against them. You don’t have to hold back one bit, she convinced Eren earlier, so he doesn’t. That is why it hurts. Yes, Annie is the one subverting Eren’s force and using it to throw him, but it’s Eren’s approach—his not holding back; his intent to “win” or land a hit—that gives her the opportunity. Is that consideration?

Annie wants him to learn this lesson. That it hurts, and he will hurt others, and that harboring consideration for the human beings that are your opponents only makes it so you are not treating them like your enemy when they, in all likelihood, are treating you like theirs.

Moreover, anyone could be his enemy: his superiors and fellow soldiers, the trainees he trained alongside for five years, the very individual who’s teaching him this lesson. Enemies aren’t always giants that try to devour you. Other times they will turn a cannon against you for what you are, and others bind you to a pole and argue in favor of using your body for research and swift disposal in the name of internal stability. Even if you don’t mean them any harm; even if you thought you were all on the same side. Letting empathy and trust blind you could spell out your death. 

What Annie needs is for Eren to learn how to use his strength.

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What does she mean by this? Is it possible that she knew what Eren is even before he did? That as someone who manhandled him regularly, she would be able to detect some sign—maybe body temperatures more like a shifter’s than a human’s; perhaps injuries that heal much too fast—of what he is? If she did, could she have meant that she needed him to learn how to use his abilities?

Maybe she did, but given what we know now, it would be less of a stretch to say that she is referring to his anger, what she has taught him, and the capacity for perception she’s helped hone in him—which is exactly what Eren did when confronted with the Armored Titan: punch, throw, lock. His anger as both a feint and a catalyst, Annie’s techniques as his implement, and his ability to perceive the Armored Titan’s weaknesses what made it all possible.

Self-perception is something she’s helped hone too, so Eren knows he is capable of doing what she is…

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…and if that’s rather horrifying, in light of what Annie has done, I would say that’s the point. Her betrayal—or rather, the revelation of who and what she really is, and how her circumstances make her Eren’s enemy—is a reinforcement of those lessons, yes. The whole world may be your enemy, even me. Combat hurts, and you will hurt your opponent, and they will hurt you—even though we are more alike than different. So hone your perception; learn to use your strength.

Though I would also add that Eren’s belief that he can do anything she can, even in the aftermath of their confrontation at Stohess, evinces that incredibly essential strain of their relationship: that underlying sameness.

Levi (Deference)

If you have picked up on a peculiarity from the title of this section and how it relates to the case this post is making, then I can reassure you that I’ve been there. If Eren Jaeger learns through conversation and discussion, isn’t it counterintuitive for him to learn something like deference to authority, which involves…well, not questioning or discussing what his superiors have ordered?

Needless to say, this lesson—as well as Levi’s pedagogical method—does not mesh as well with Eren’s learning style, especially since it conflicts with what he learned from Reiner and Annie earlier. That being said, Levi’s lessons are important—if too extreme. Though the individuals issuing orders from may not be the best qualified to direct him, given the sheer and unprecedented novelty of having a titan shifter as a war asset as well as having other intelligent shifters as their enemies, learning deference is necessary. Unquestionably so. As a soldier in a military hierarchy, Eren must take orders. There’s no way around it.

Eren understands that, of course. He is not daft. However, he does not quite understand why Levi himself would feel the need to obey orders. When Petra asks what Eren thinks about Levi, his response is not that he is surprised that Levi is short, rude, or tense. Rather, he is surprised that Levi—humanity’s strongest soldier—exhibits such deference.

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At this point, Eren believes one’s strength determines their agency. Because Levi is humanity’s strongest soldier, Eren believes the rules that apply to everyone else should not apply to him. It’s almost like one of those cop movies where the downtrodden detective bucks his superiors’ orders and throws the chain-of-command and protocol out the window in order to bring criminals, law-breakers, and evildoers to justice.

Of course, Eren has not reached this conclusion in a vacuum. Past experience informs it. Remember Reiner’s perspective? This is one of the lessons Eren took away from what Reiner told him:

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Power is inextricably tied to responsibility, so it would stand to reason that the more power one has, the more responsibility they are burdened with. To Eren, Levi is the best titan-killer, and his strength confers great responsibility. Besides, that’s what the scouts do, isn’t it? The Recon Corps kills titans in the hopes of reclaiming the world they’d stolen from humanity. Right?

If fighting titans was just about killing titans, then Eren’s argument would have some merit. Levi can more than hold his own against the titans, and with his squad to support him, the very real danger of being overwhelmed by a horde is mitigated. 

Not just anyone can kill a titan, but it’s safe to say that most, if not all, of the Scouting Legion can—and if they can’t…well, those people don’t last long. Of course, no soldier can kill titans as efficiently as Levi can, and this unique skill set does net him influence and authority within the Legion’s hierarchy—as well as the commander’s confidence and trust—but those responsibilities do not carry the privilege of disregarding Erwin’s orders or Hanji’s instructions.

In the Scouting Legion, the hierarchy is arranged in such a way that exploits each individual scout’s talents as much as possible. As a passionate and genius researcher, Hanji is given their own squad and the resources to carry out their experimentations. As a skilled soldier with a keen sense of smell, Mike is also given his own squad and placed at the Female Titan’s capture site during the expedition both so he can assist Levi in extracting her and alert Erwin to any approaching titans. Erwin, who is always a few steps ahead of everyone else, is put in charge so that he can implement his plans and tactics. Levi, as humanity’s strongest soldier, is given his own squad of skilled scouts and given important or dangerous missions that not just any scout could pull off.

Or rather, there is an understanding among the scouts that the people giving orders are the most qualified to do so. Their goals are achieved not by relying on only a single scout who is strong and good at killing titans, like Levi, but through the cooperation of these odd and uniquely skilled individuals.

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This is why deference is important. Not just because insubordination would disrupt operations and result in a series of failures, but because the Recon Corps is set up in such a way that the people in positions of power are supposed to be the ones most suited for those positions.

Levi recognizes this, which is why he “submits” himself to Erwin’s orders and values Hanji’s input, however grudgingly. He knows they have good reason for the orders and instructions he gives them, so he follows and works alongside them.

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A similar dynamic has played out between Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. When the Stationary Corps had a cannon pointed at them, Eren was willing to defer to Armin, because as a close friend of his, Eren knows what Armin’s strengths are and how they compare to his own. So it’s not that Eren is completely against taking orders or cooperating with others. He has done it before! It is also not because he believes there is only one kind of “power” either. His acknowledgment of Armin’s rhetorical and strategic prowess is proof that he is able to recognize more than just martial strength. The issue is that he believes that Levi is the most powerful scout in a division ostensibly responsible for eradicating the titans, and that everyone within that division should defer to him because of it. You could also say that, because he is a new recruit, Eren is unfamiliar with the Scouting Legion and does not know those in charge well enough to know about their strengths and put his trust in them, like he is and does with Armin and Mikasa.

The thing about the military hierarchy, however, is that it is rigid. It does not matter that Eren does not know his superiors well enough to understand why he should obey their orders, or why Levi feels the need to defer to Erwin’s judgments. As a scout, Eren is expected and required to obey the orders of his superiors. In Levi’s view, he should do this unquestioningly. What’s more, because he is a titan shifter with a history of losing control of his titan body, surrendering himself completely to the authority of his superiors is even more necessary in Levi’s view, because they are not just his superiors—they are his keepers, his captors, and they would also be his executioners if he gave them enough cause. The balance of power is skewed overwhelmingly in his superiors’ favor, and Eren must recognize it.

So whenever Eren speaks up or questions his orders, Levi very abruptly shuts him down and reinforces that, really, he has no voice here.

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The problem is not strictly pedagogical. While it would have been more effective for Levi or anyone in the Special Operations Squad, really, to have engaged Eren in conversation and explained why it is important for him to follow orders, there is something to be said about maintaining one’s authority by never deigning to explain. That may have factored into why Eren was never taught in the way he learns best by Levi’s squad, but it would be unfair to characterize them all as unsympathetic authoritarians. The squad was selected because they would distrust Eren, and seeing as how Eren is capable of transforming into a fifteen-meter giant he does not have the best track record of controlling yet, it is understandable that the scouts would be wary of him and take precautions, because unlike Mikasa and Armin—or, heck, the 104th trainee squad he spent three years of his life with—the squad does not know who Eren is. They do not know that his intentions are like theirs: to fight and kill titans, to reclaim the world.

Eren understands that. He also knows that, relative to how other people have treated him after learning what he is…

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…that Levi and the Special Operations Squad are treating him well, and that the Scouting Legion vouched for and rescued him from experimentation and execution. He understands how he must affect people, and gives his new superiors and handlers the benefit of the doubt in hopes that, someday, they will treat him like a comrade in full.

The underlying problem is that, in treating Eren like a dangerous biological weapon to be observed or bait to be protected from harm at all costs when the prey they’re luring arrives on the scene, the Scouting Legion is making an error—especially when their enemy becomes other titan shifters.

Not only does Eren demonstrate care and concern for what is happening to the scouts engaging the Female Titan in the Forest of Giant—which are things Levi has expressed for scouts who have died in the line of duty before, so he may be sympathetic to Eren’s outrage here—but he is uniquely qualified to know what they’re up against. As a titan shifter himself, he knows what it’s like to be in a titan body. He isn’t like other titans, and the Female Titan isn’t either, evidently: she uses the 3DMG against the scouts who attack her and remains relentlessly focused on catching up to the squad. Business as usual would not work on the Female Titan, and what’s more, it does not work

Eren knows this; he understands, intuitively, that fighting a titan shifter is beyond what any one scout, or even an entire squad, is capable of. The only chance they stand of defeating her is together—the Special Operations Squad, Levi, and Eren.

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You can see how and why these orders are causing Eren to rebel so vehemently. His empathy and sense of justice, certainly, but what he’s been taught by individuals he respects as well. Sometimes, soldiers just can’t back out. No matter the situation. When something one is responsible for is threatened, a soldier must stand ready to fight to protect it, because they have been trained, and are strong—that is their responsibility. Learn to use your strength; hone and rely on your perception. Eren is trying. He has a power no one else does, and all of his perceptive faculties are screaming at him to fight.

In retrospect, we know that Eren is right. He should have fought right then and there. With Levi and the Special Operations Squad supporting him, there is a very, very good chance that they would have overcome even Annie’s considerable skill and tactical prowess.

The thing is that Levi may have been aware of this possibility on some level, and though he had chosen to and would have preferred Eren follow Erwin’s plan, he tells Eren he could rely on his instincts and make his own decision.

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The Scouting Legion hierarchy is arranged in such a way that each scout’s unique talents are utilized to their fullest. Eren, who is more a dangerous unknown and lure for the enemy titan shifters at this point in time, is not being utilized to his fullest. Levi realizes this, and does not crack down like he has before. He makes his preferences known, in a way that is certainly manipulative, but he also gives Eren the freedom to choose, which is something he has not done before. Of course, there is value in asking ourselves what good giving Eren this choice after approximately a month of rendering him voiceless was, or if Eren was prepared to make a decision like this when he was only instructed to follow orders and act as materiel in a way that bordered on and sometimes crossed clear into the abusive.

It’s also worth noting here that, as someone who cares a great deal for the lives of his men, Levi may very well have wanted abandon the plan and fight right then and there—for whatever that’s worth. His faith in Erwin and the Scouting Legion as a whole, however, are keeping him on the course plotted out for him. In getting Eren to defer, he instills that same superseding faith in his superiors and the Scouting Legion as a whole…which is why he cannot blame Eren for what happens.

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The error is not solely Eren’s. It is Levi’s, and the entire Scouting Legion’s as well. Though you have to ask yourself if this error really lies mostly on Eren’s shoulders when he has been repeatedly reminded of his voicelessness and treated like less of a comrade and scout by Levi and his squad.

Deference has its place, and it is a vital lesson all soldiers must learn if they are to have a future in the military. It was just as vital for Eren to learn it himself, but obsequiousness within a division that values the proven individual’s unique talents but ignores the input, strengths, and perception of the individual with the most unique talent of all can only lead to disaster—and it did precisely because Levi and the Scouting Legion have browbeaten and instilled those behaviors into Eren.

Petra Ral (Teamwork)

Similar to how Reiner’s and Annie’s lessons built off each other for Eren due in part to close proximity, Petra’s role as Eren’s mentor and what she imparts to Eren are very closely related to Levi’s.

First, some context. Eren is entrusted to the Special Operations Squad after his tribunal, and that occurs in the aftermath of the Battle of Trost. The operation to plug the breach in Trost’s outer gate was successful and only possible in the first place because of Eren’s titan power. Though there were some pretty significant hiccups in the plan because Eren did not know how to control his titan body at that point, it was Eren’s presence, strength, and willpower that made it possible for Trost to be recaptured—the first achievement of its kind for humanity—and prevent Wall Rose in its entirely from being overrun by the titans in plugging the breach before the Armored Titan could appear and destroy Trost’s inner gate.

With this in mind, Eren’s newfound outlook is understandable:

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Like always, Eren has not reached this conclusion unaided. His experiences during the Battle of Trost play into this belief, and with good reason! This is what General Pixis decided to do, and look how it worked out for humanity. A victory against the titans, and the first of its kind. If it worked once, why wouldn’t it work again?

If this strain of logic seems similar to the strain Eren based his argument that Levi should not concern himself with considerations rank or the orders of his superiors, that’s because they are almost alike! Eren is uniquely powerful, just like Levi is, and this power confers a great deal of responsibility on him too. These are responsibilities Eren is not only willing to accept, but is eager to bear. If the military would only invest everything they have in him, he would lead them to Shiganshina to plug the breach there, reclaim that territory, and gain access to the secrets his father kept in their basement.

Within a division like the Scouting Legion, this kind of outlook is problematic. Fighting the titans alone is impossible for the scouts. There’s a reason why most scouts have higher group kills than solo kills, and why they are arranged into squads. Even someone like Auruo, whose solo kill count is absurdly high, kills titans while in a squad, so those solo kills were carried out while his squad was likely fighting other titans in close proximity. Investing everything they have in one individual goes against everything the Recon Corps is based on. Not to mention that the Legion is based on those concepts because, up to this point, that is what has allowed them to fight the titans as effectively as they are.

More than that, however, it’s simply unwise. Investing everything in a single person not only makes everything rest on their shoulders, but detracts from the importance of including and relying on other effective people with unique talents to offer up to the mission.

After the incident where Eren’s unexpected transformation incites the Special Operations Squad to draw their blades against him, Petra tries explaining this concept to him:

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This lesson is actually an incredibly important one, and Eren’s internalizing it is part of what allows him to go forward with plans he does not feel comfortable with, such as Armin’s plan to entrap Annie and Hanji’s instructions to deceive Bertholdt and Reiner into believing they have not captured Annie or suspect them of being her accomplices. Needless to say, it’s an overall beneficial one for Eren to learn. Petra is right in saying that one person on their own cannot accomplish as much as an organization working in concerted effort toward a common goal.

The disconnect here, however, that the trust she’s exhorting from Eren is one-sided; the lesson she is teaching him is one that she and her comrades do not think is applicable to them in terms of Eren.

Once again, Petra and the Special Operations Squad cannot be blamed totally for this, though how they browbeat Eren into going on ahead and leaving them behind to fight the Female Titan is blatant.

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They were handpicked for Levi precisely because they would be wary with Eren.

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In an earlier post about this dynamic, I wrote:

The Special Operations Squad’s mission was to escort Eren and keep him both alive and out of the Female Titan’s hands so that Erwin’s plan—that they too were unaware of—would be successful. It’s basically like an escort mission in an RPG. When you’re escorting an NPC, do you trust them to go off on their own or fight alongside you? I sure don’t, because NPCs tend to be weaker, and even if they’re not—even if they’re just as strong as my party—them dying means game over, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. Clearly, it isn’t one Levi’s squad is willing to take either. They require Eren trust them, but they don’t trust him because he’s, well, take your pick: a fifteen-year-old kid; an untested rookie; someone they’ve been tasked with protecting; a dangerous biological weapon with a history of not being able to control himself in his titan form. Heck, Levi chose them specifically because they do not trust him. He even said so himself.

Full trust is one-sided in these dynamics, and when you think about how Eren has literally put himself in a dangerous position where he feels afraid that his squad will turn against and may very well kill him but still bites himself repeatedly in order to follow orders or do right by them…

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…it’s pretty disheartening to watch, regardless of the circumstances and how justified Levi, Petra, and the rest of the squad were in keeping Eren at arm’s length, especially when we take the reason Eren, a fifteen-year-old boy who’s been removed and separated from the ranks where his friends are and placed among people who regard him as a potential threat, wanted to trust and believe in them so badly into account.

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All that being said, Petra was a genuinely kind person to Eren. She was one of the few people to engage and level with him, or explain things to him in the way he needs to learn best.

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If the Special Operations Squad had managed to make it back behind Wall Rose, would Petra have begun to trust Eren in the same way he trusted her? I couldn’t say for sure, but if anyone in the squad would, it’s likely to have been Petra first.

Unfortunately, they didn’t get the opportunity to become full comrades. Like with Levi’s lesson, it is Petra and the Special Operation Squad’s undermining of their own lesson by failing to hold up their end that leads to disaster, and it is that disaster that teaches Eren a kind of balance. Are deference and teamwork important? Of course. Is this to say, however, that they would supersede his responsibility as a soldier or unique strength and perceptions as a titan shifter? No, of course not.

It’s in balancing these lessons that Eren becomes the individual he is during the confrontations with Annie and Bertholdt and Reiner, and possibly big contributing factors to how he behaves and fares during them.

Hanji Zoe (Self-Management)

Whether or not this is a mentorship that has already imparted its corresponding lesson wholly is a matter I’m hoping is answered with a resounding no, because Hanji’s relationship with Eren is one of my favorites in the series—both as a mentorship and in general terms. In terms of the first, Hanji’s mentoring of Eren carries the potential to teach him a great deal, and—like Annie’s lessons on perception—more oriented toward Eren as an individual instead of an external concept he is introduced to and is exhorted to learn, internalize, and live up to.

Hanji and Eren, though it may not seem like it at first, are actually strikingly similar. Think back to those fundamental qualities of Eren’s: empathy, a sense of justice, and a hunger for knowledge. Now take a look at these pages:

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Because of Pastor Nick’s obstinacy, Hanji becomes angry to the point of dangling him off the edge of the wall and threatening his life. This may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but why are they angry? Well…. The mission they led was conducted to capture and neutralize a dangerous titan shifter who killed several scouts and had infiltrated the Military Police. They succeeded, albeit in an unexpected manner wherein the enemy operative she and her squad capture encases herself in crystal and cannot be interrogated, but Annie Leonhardt has still been removed from a position where she was free to do more damage. But with the revelation of those colossal-class titans inside the walls, that mission some of their men died for may have been for nothing—because the titans are already inside. They have always been inside, and when Hanji tries to make sense of this, the man who knows—who has known—how to answer them refuses. Of course they would be angry.

There’s more, however. Remember when Eren told his family why he wanted to join the Scouting Legion, and how he called on the memory of the scouts who’d laid down their lives in hopes of recapturing the world beyond the walls? Compare his rhetoric in that instance to Hanji’s here. Hanji mentions the countless scouts who have died fighting the titans in hopes of freeing humanity from their fear of them, and calls Pastor Nick and the royal government’s deception a sin against humanity—an injustice.

What Hanji’s reaction to Pastor Nick callously withholding information about the colossal-class titans in the walls evinces, I believe, is a great deal of empathy and a sense of justice. The reason they become angry to the point of threatening to kill him is that the deception and blatant disregard for them and their squad, after the crisis has been averted, inflames the memory of their comrades who have died fighting the titans while the nobles and royal government do nothing to support the Scouting Legion. They snub them even now, when the alarming truth of the walls has quite literally come to light.

That’s empathy and sense of justice, but I don’t think I need to make much of a case for them possessing a great hunger for knowledge as well, do I?

It’s these fundamental qualities to Hanji and Eren’s nature that allow them to relate to him in the way she does. During his time with the Special Operations Squad at the old Recon Corps castle HQ, it’s Hanji who relates to and engages him in the way his first few mentors did. Though Eren was not very receptive to their outlook and research on the titans at first…

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…Hanji calmly but passionately explains their motivations and intentions to him…

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…which is actually very similar to an argument Eren made on the night of the 104th trainee squad’s disbanding about what’s changed in the five years following the fall of Wall Maria:

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Hanji is evincing a possibility that there may be a better and more effective way of fighting the titans that they may discover through research, and Eren—though initially put-off by Hanji—expresses interest in hearing about their work. He wants to learn about both the titans and himself, now that he knows he is a titan shifter. He does not turn away from their insight and approach; he wants to do better.

Moreover, here is an individual who has some of the same ideas Eren has. What separates them is that Hanji has put themself in harm’s way several times to learn all they can about the titans. They are considered odd for their enthusiasm about researching the titans, which some of us in the fandom play up for laughs but would in all likelihood be unsettling, disturbing, and even flat-out offensive to a lot of the people in-universe (think of someone with a similar attitude and outlook to Hanji’s investigating a gruesome murder or showing up at a location ravaged by a natural disaster), but I would also imagine that many people would think the concept of “titan researcher” inane. You can’t capture a titan, at least not for long, because you can’t stay outside the walls for an extended period of time and cannot lift a specimen over the wall into human territory. Not only would that be very dangerous, but pretty much impossible too given technological constraints. Titans sublimate into the air when killed, so it’s not like Hanji could gather titan corpses and take those with them back behind the walls. Sawney and Bean were probably the first subjects Hanji had prolonged access to because they were captured inside the walls, which was made possible by how the Colossal Titan breached Trost’s outer wall and Eren plugged it some time later, thereby trapping titans inside human territory.

Yet despite people’s perception of her, Hanji remains committed to their research…

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.. because if they learn something—anything—it could make a difference in how the Scouting Legion approaches the titans, which could save lives by improving how they fight.

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That all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Ever since he was a child, Mikasa and his mother did everything they could to discourage him from joining the Scouting Legion because they believed he was only asking to get himself killed; as a trainee, Jean and the others often spoke of him derisively for his goals, calling him names like “death-seeker.” Like Hanji may very well have been told that their methods would be fruitless, Eren was constantly questioned about why he wanted to fight the titans anyway, since winning against them is “impossible.” Yet they both persevered. Both relied on their willpower in times of hardship, and that is how they’ve gotten to where they are now. Dedication to their goals and a belief that they will be able to succeed in helping humanity to take a step forward, no matter how small.

The thing about Hanji, however, is that they are not motivated solely by a desire for knowledge, sense of justice, or empathy. Those qualities feed not only into each other as well as other feelings and motivations, but a great deal of anger as well. And when you think about it…of course Hanji is angry. Hanji has seen many of her comrades get devoured by the titans, all with the hope that their sacrifice would amount to something for humanity, yet the Scouting Legion is still derided by many, not given the support it needs, and is disrespected and disregarded. When Eren asks Hanji how they can be so enthusiastic about their research if they must have been exposed to so many of their comrades dying, they respond by acknowledging that they too had once relied on their hatred of the titans to survive.

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That was the kind of person Hanji was. They were angry, and they hated the titans enough to derive great enjoyment from cutting their heads clean off and kicking them after they were already dead…but they decided not to be that person anymore. Instead of clutching at their hatred of the titans to survive, they sublimated their anger into something constructive: their hunger for knowledge, their enthusiasm about research and relentless pursuit of answers.

Hanji’s anger is not gone. It is still present, and their growing desperation, threats they made against Pastor Nick, and eventual fear and revulsion when they realized that the person they’d been and had vowed never to be again reemerged for a moment are evidence of that.

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But it would be a gross oversimplification for us to say that it’s the resurgence of Hanji’s anger itself that affects them so much. It is the resurgence of this particular expression of their anger that is so scary for them. Rather, anger itself is not bad. Anger can be a good thing, and it has its place. Hanji has found such a use for it: a conversion process that allows them to channel those feelings into a productive pursuit of knowledge that could contribute to humanity’s fight against the titans. Without that anger, Hanji may never have joined the scouts in the first place, let alone have been as passionate and motivated a researcher as they are.

What we get with Hanji Zoe is not the lesson, “Anger is bad, Eren, you must suppress it.” What Hanji Zoe’s example shows both us and Eren is that anger can be a good thing. You do not have to tolerate your own anger or try to rid yourself of it, especially not when you have as good a cause for it as Hanji and Eren do. The trick is in managing it. In channeling it elsewhere in a way that works for you. For Hanji that is research, and for Eren that could ultimately be something similar, though thus far we have seen him manage his anger and weaponize it in combat to great effect. And that’s fine, because it works for him just like research works for Hanji.

So instead of telling Eren to suppress his instincts and questions, Hanji encourages him to seek out answers and learn, that risking his life to learn something can be worth it. Rather, it’s not that Hanji has something that Eren can never have. What separates them is knowledge and experience, and Hanji encourages Eren to pursue those.

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And Hanji is such a positive mentor for Eren, because they model how he can use his strength in productive ways, or exercise his self-perception in order to become what he wants to become. Eren and Hanji are very much two of a kind, and I sincerely hope that they get more interaction together so Eren can learn more from an individual who has been where he is and matches his dedication and willpower.

An honorable mention for another one of Eren’s mentor figures is Mikasa Ackerman, of course, and had I given her a section like the preceding six characters’, its parenthetical text would have been A Mirror, Darklyor something lame like that, because Mikasa is very much someone who has been “mentored” by Eren as well. He taught her how to live, how she must fight to survive, that there is beauty in the cruel world to keep her warm. Like most of Eren’s mentorships, however, this is not a one-sided conversation: Mikasa repeats these maxims back to Eren, now inflected with the significations she has vested in those words, and has of course gone to great lengths fighting to ensure her family’s survival. This is a dialogue. Eren listens as what he imparted to her is repeated to him:

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And her dialogue affects him too.

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From the starting point of his rescue of her and her rescue of him, Mikasa and Eren have walked down diverging paths. Eren, still very much guided by that fundamental empathetic capacity of his, cannot be as decisive or ruthless as Mikasa in this context, but Mikasa has vowed never to hesitate again—not when her family is on the line. She has no heart or time for spare for anyone other than the people decided on seven years prior—her family. Their trajectories are in many ways opposites: Eren learns, internalizes, attempts to fill himself up with as much knowledge as he can while forming strong bonds with the people who teach him in the process; Mikasa empties herself of the things she does not need, stifles her empathy, and does it all to preclude mercy and hesitation (like the kind that prevented her from killing Bertholdt and Reiner when she had the chance) so she can defend and protect the people, concepts, and traditions she holds to her chest.

None of this is to argue that Eren Jaeger is not a little brute. He can be. That is a great part of why I’m so fond of him! But to say that Eren is a rage-fueled monster who also has some redeeming characteristics despite those awful traits is incredibly reductive, and it’s precisely because both those “good” and “bad” traits are sublimations of his nature, which he has been working hard to manage and learn to use as a strength. Not to mention that he is a fifteen-year-old kid dealing with the horrific world he was born into as best he can. He is angry and curious and loyal capable of great empathy and compassion and listening attentively and learning and attacking recklessly and planning things carefully and punching an enemy angrily and ineffectively because he needs to stabilize himself by reaching mental equilibrium and deceiving people to get their guard down. He is all these things and more, he is capable of all these things and more, and he is in no way confined to any one. They all feed into each other and originate from the same place, after all.

Before we bring this post to a close, think of Chapter 50 and Eren’s newfound ability to control other titans. It was born from a desire to protect Mikasa, Armin, and his allies from being dying, but anger was also present—at Reiner and Bertholdt, at the titan who devoured his mother and had just killed Hannes right before his very eyes. His love and care for his family and comrades has a role, but so does his anger. Both are important, and neither can be ignored. Balancing them is difficult, but very rewarding, I think, because Eren Jaeger is one heck of a character, and I hope what I’ve written does him some justice.

Thank you for reading!

Show Notes
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