The Dystopian World of Divergent

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June 24, 2013 by Jason Seligson

By Jason Seligson

Imagine a world where one quality defines you. This attribute dictates your entire life—from the day you’re born until the day you turn sixteen. Only then can you decide—who am I really? Who do I want to be?

This is the world depicted in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. In a dystopian future set in Chicago, an attempt at a perfect civilization has been made: society has been split into five different factions, each of which favors a single virtue. There are the Dauntless (who favor bravery), Amity (peace), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), and Erudite (intelligence). One attribute defines you—that’s it. You get to live the life you want, with the value system you want, surrounded by people with identical views—and everyone leaves each other alone, right? Realistically, it comes as no surprise that this manufactured society is far from perfect—despite its harmonious appearance, its cracks lie beneath the surface, the same as any social structure. As a series, Divergent is about the decision sixteen-year old Beatrice Prior is forced to make—and how her choice affects not only her own destiny, but her families’ and the greater twisted world around her.

At the start of the series, Beatrice Prior lives an unselfish life with her family in the Abnegation faction. But this existence is a struggle for Beatrice—she just doesn’t share the same selfless instincts as her brother or parents. This doesn’t make her a bad person, either—it’s important to keep in mind that Abnegation is one of five constructed factions—in other words, its rules of what is selfless have been decided by the government for all to follow. Growing up in Abnegation meant that she wasn’t even to start a conversation at the dinner table. She also has one mirror in her house—lest anyone in her family become too vain.

The day before the choosing ceremony, Beatrice is forced to take a sort of personality test which will tell her which faction she is best suited for. The twist comes when Beatrice’s tests do not come back normal. Her instructor tells her that she does not just fit into one category—she has a strong aptitude for several: this makes her an anomaly—people like her are called “Divergent.” There are others like her, but we’re told that they are as dangerous as they are rare. Being Divergent—whatever it truly means—goes against everything the society has established. Her being different makes her vulnerable—thus, Beatrice is told to keep her Divergence a secret. The next day at the ceremony, Beatrice makes the bold and unexpected choice to leave Abnegation and join Dauntless.

After choosing Dauntless, Beatrice undergoes some major transformations—both physically and symbolically. Deciding to go by the name Tris, she cuts her hair and begins to adjust to the intense physicality of the Dauntless initiation training—activities include jumping off moving trains, hand-to-hand combat, and zip lining off the Hancock building. She can no longer turn to her family; initiates who transfer factions are deemed outcasts to their society (the phrase “faction before blood” comes up frequently). Sure, there’s one visiting day during initiation (it’s just like camp, only more awkward!) but few parents show up to see their children who have abandoned them.  The initiates that don’t make the cut will be banished—forced to live on the streets, known only as the faction-less. During the initiation process, Tris gains friends, enemies, and a love interest all while trying to stay alive—and to keep her Divergence a secret. Divergent is the first book in a trilogy that will deal with among other things—the conflict between the five factions and the teenagers that are at the center of it.

At times, it feels like the Divergent world is lacking a bit of the fantastical, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s pretty light on the sci-fi; nearly everything is grounded in actual science, and all of the characters have normal sounding names. The well-paced action scenes make the training fly by—even if the secondary characters feel a little cursory. My main hesitancy in picking up Divergent was that it was going to be nothing more than a Hunger Games carbon copy. Sure, there are some similarities between the dystopian tales, but I think Divergent is ultimately a nice companion piece to Hunger Games. Roth has written a flawed, nuanced heroine in Tris. She isn’t the first—and certainly won’t be the last female protagonist at the center of her own dystopian saga. But that’s perfectly acceptable—Divergent is the kind of book that is very popular right now, but distinguishes itself enough in story to give it a unique edge.

Roth certainly subscribes to a few of the more tired YA tropes (perhaps the least interesting part of the books is the forced love story), but she deserves credit for creating five fully realized factions—a world that, while divided, closely resembles our own. It is here in this complex caste system that Roth raises so many compelling questions about identity and belonging. How many of us can say that at 16 we would choose to leave the safety of our homes and families? To use the nature vs. nurture argument, what if that one quality your faction so ardently embodies isn’t who you are? And furthermore—and perhaps the biggest question that the trilogy deals with head-on: how can we ever live peacefully if we don’t live together?

Tris’ internal debate about her choice of faction is so gripping because it forces the reader to question what he/she would do—what quality defines you. Her struggle for her own identity is completely relatable. Tris chooses Dauntless because she is brave by nature—but what she comes to learn is that qualities in a person overlap—nothing is black and white. No one is entirely one thing and one thing only. And bravery and selflessness are often the same qualities. Even after joining Dauntless and supposedly leaving her old life behind, Tris continues to defend her old faction. Once again, Roth is suggesting something very interesting about nurture vs. nature—about our parents and our upbringings. With her factions, Roth has put a clever Sorting Hat-type device to create a split society that would be far better off working together.

Despite where she was born, no matter what faction Tris chooses, she continues to make choices from her gut, following her own moral code. It’s the quality that makes her different: like so many heroes before her, she is thrown into a conflict that is both bigger than her and at least in part, because of her. Tris’ inability to conform, her innate stubbornness, and her Divergence—something she doesn’t fully understand about herself—makes her a sympathetic and memorable lead character.

Divergent has all the makings of a good YA dystopian story with some new twists on the genre. Roth’s trilogy continues in Insurgent and will conclude this fall with the release of Allegiant. A film version of Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Kate Winslet scheduled to be released in March 2014.

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