“My father says those who want power and get it live in terror of losing it. That’s why we have to give power to those who don’t want it.”
Divergent, the first book in a YA trilogy by Veronica Roth, spent twelve weeks on the bestseller list and was voted “Favorite Book of 2011″ in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Though Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times, and Kirkus reviews gave it mixed reviews, Summit Entertainment has optioned the movie rights. The recent sequel, Insurgent, has been called “the next big thing” by Rolling Stone.
THE BASIC PREMISE
The story is set in a dystopian future where a decision has been made to separate people into five key factions, each representing a key virtue needed to make society work. In this world, faction is everything. “Without a faction,” we read more than once, “we have no purpose and reason to live.”
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality – of mankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray….
Those who blamed aggression formed Amity (peace). Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite (knowledge). Those who blamed duplicity created Candor (truth). Those who blamed selfishness became Abnegation (selflessness). Those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless (fearless).”
In some ways, the story reads like a commentary on the polarization of political, economic and religious factions within America. As far as introducing a YA audience to the dangers of this disconnection, Divergent does a great job. There’s even a study guide at the back with questions to help readers (and book groups) wrestle with some of the deeper issues raised.
The story opens with the heroine, Beatrice Prior, preparing to go through a ceremony in which she has to choose her future based on what simulation testing has revealed to be her strength. She grew up in Abnegation, a faction that appears to be highly (though not entirely) religious: many of them pray before meals; Beatrice was baptized as a child; their written code contains language suggesting their goal is to be so selfless that all the remains in them is God; the Erudite refer to them in derogatory terms as “God-fearing.”
The virtual reality tests reveal in what areas people are gifted. On her choosing day, Beatrice is supposed to choose the area of expertise that has already been chosen for her. She is unique in that she has been categorized as Divergent, meaning she is apparently equipped to do well in more than one category. Once Beatrice chooses, she will live the rest of her life maximizing her potential in that area. Unlike most of her friends, she is genuinely gifted enough to have multiple choices, and how she chooses may make all the difference in the world. Literally. Read the tagline above the title of the book.
Part of the tension inherent in the decision is that the factions don’t all get along. One may be raised in Candor, but be wired for Amity. Unfortunately, Candor doesn’t like Amity: “Those who seek peace above all else…. will always deceive to keep the waters calm.” In the same way, Abnegation doesn’t like Erudite: “Human reason can excuse any evil; that is why it’s so important we don’t rely on it.”
You get the idea. What was meant to be a wise way of promoting particular strengths has become a divisive way of thinking your faction’s strength is the answer to every problem. This is part of what makes the Choosing Day a momentous event. Choosing a faction other than the one in which you were raised means separation from and perhaps even learned hostility toward one’s family for the rest of your life. After all, “Faction before blood.”
Divergent does not portray this as a good thing. In the afterward, Ms. Roth notes: “A word of advice to the faction that causes so much trouble – and to every flawed human being – ‘But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.’” (Galatians 5:15)
One of the main characters, Four, gets the big speech to summarize how this splintering of society has not led to a utopia at all: “We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own…I want to be brave, and selfless, and kind, and smart, and honest.”
Apparently, Truth needs knowledge, fearlessness, selflessness, and kindness. Peace needs knowledge, truth, boldness, and self-sacrifice. In the real world, they all should intertwine for a society (and an individual) to be truly healthy. Since this is only Book One, the trajectories begun in this book are not completed. I suspect (and hope) this is where Ms. Roth is heading in her discussion of the factions.
THE BIG IDEAS
Free Will and Determinism
For a YA audience, Divergent contains some great food for thought about the tension between Free Will and Determinism.
The choosing in Divergent is more of a strong identification of what kind of person you are – the ultimate personality inventory. If you fail in your chosen faction, you are doomed to a factionless future, one in which you spend your life as an outcast on the street, destitute and impoverished. So you can choose differently than your identified strength…but you really can’t, not if you want a life.
Once Beatrice chooses Dauntless, even then she has to be chosen in turn by them: “You chose us,” says on character, “Now we have to choose you.”
When Beatrice and Four realize they both grew up in Abnegation but transferred to Dauntless, Beatrice thinks: “If we had both chosen differently, we might have ended up doing the same thing [falling in love], in a safer place, in gray clothes instead of black ones.” On the one hand, it’s almost as if they were fated; on the other hand, Beatrice and Four both could have chosen differently, and they would have never met. Or not.
So, has Beatrice really, truly chosen her destiny? More importantly, does she have any choice in what kind of person she will become? At one point she says, “I will find new habits, new thoughts, new rules. I will become something else.” And she does, sort of. Maybe. Later, Four notes why she is so good at being Dauntless: “You’re from Abnegation, and it’s when you’re acting selflessly that you’re at your bravest.” So really, she’s still Abnegation, even thought she is trying so purposefully to put her selflessness behind her? Hmmmm..
Beatrice’s training highlights the battle between our sinful and better natures. At one point, after a particularly brutal and humiliating attack, Beatrice thinks: “Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. I swear she exists, and she hurts for the repentant boy in front of me. But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her.” As Switchfoot sings and the Apostle Paul notes, “I am the war inside.”
As much as liked the honest writing in the Hunger Games, it is set in a world in which hope is always fleeting and flawed, and God is noticeable by His complete absence. Divergent has slightly more breadth and depth on the issues of morality and real-world realities.
Divergent is not set in a hopeless, godless world (as noted earlier). There appear to be both good and bad people seeking to do their best in a political systems that is unintentionally destructive – good intentions have paved some pretty bad roads.
The teens in the story wrestle with how to balance the influence of their family of origin with all the enticing worldviews around them. Ms. Roth handles the struggle realistically: sometimes the characteristics from which they want to free themselves are the very characteristics that draw them back (for example, the selflessness of Abnegation). Sometimes, their reasons for wanting to break free are legitimate (there is one example of terrible abuse).
Authority figures are treated with appropriate realism. Many are worthy of trust and respect; some are not. They are all trapped in a system doomed for failure, and for that reason are forced to make hard decisions that at times appear to compromise their integrity. This does not build cynicism in the characters (as it did in the Hunger Games) as much as build desire to see justice and truth prevail.
However, there was a lack of a consistent adult presence. Youth figure a lot of things out by themselves during the most difficult times, as if Lord of the Flies had not warned us sufficiently about where that plot’s heading.
I wonder if this doesn’t reflect a society in which teens are increasingly left alone, either literally in an empty home or figuratively in their virtual worlds. As adults increasingly tell kids it’s important they “find their own way,” is it any wonder that the literature that appeals to them focuses on this sense of disconnect?
Even though “faction over blood” is the mantra of choice, the story makes very clear that people matter more than projects or agendas. The villains willingly sacrifice a few for the sake of the many, and are willing to break individuals to make a broader point to a group. The heroes see the value of each life in every situation. As Divergent winds down with epic violence rocking the world, Beatrice is saved by those willing to give their lives so that she may live. In turn, she risks her life to save the life of one she loves.
Ms. Roth quotes Galatians in the book, and Flyleaf shows up in her list of songs that influenced the writing. Perhaps Christian imagery is to be expected.
Abnegation seems to be the “Christian” group, or at least religious one. The book notes that almost all the Divergent are raised in Abnegation. As the story unfolds, the idea seems to be that all the other factions are nothing if they are not selfless; in fact, perhaps all the other factions at their core require the influence of Abnegation. The Dauntless are supposed to be fearless – for the sake of others. Amity brings peace –for the sake of others. The Erudite must learn – for the sake of others. Candor speaks truth – for the sake of others.
As a Divergent, Beatrice has three of the factions “fully” in her; I wonder if at some point we will meet a Divergent with all five – a type of Christ if you will, the Incarnation, fully everything. That would be very cool.
A BLOG ENTRY FROM MS. ROTH:
“You can summarize Christian teachings in two parts: crucifixion and resurrection. Brokenness and mending. My concern with many Christians is their refusal to acknowledge brokenness. It’s all fine and good to walk around thinking “I’ve been saved! Woohoo!”, but seriously: saved from what? Sometimes I wonder if they even know, or if it’s too uncomfortable to think about.
I believe the resurrection has little significance unless you understand the crucifixion– and vice versa. We Christians need to understand both to the best of our abilities. And our belief is that the crucifixion happened because of sin– everyone’s. I try to think primarily of my own sin, because it reminds me not to get self-righteous. My sin. Mine. Just as much as anyone else’s. Remember.
The world is broken. No matter how much time you spend covering your eyes, and covering your children’s eyes, the world will still be broken when you uncover them. And when I say the world is broken, I mean that bad crap is happening to people everywhere and people are doing terrible things everywhere. Do you want your kids to understand just how beautiful the grace of God is? Then they have to understand how crappy the world is. It’s not just “a good idea.” It’s necessary.
People can make their own decisions about what their kids read. But as a Christian, I urge fellow Christians in particular to think hard about those decisions, not just to jump to the simplest conclusion. Remember that you cannot, and you should not, shield your children from the truth. Now, I’m not saying we should expose our young children to disturbing material before they’re ready. I am definitely not saying that. But there’s a difference between “you’re too young for this” and “I don’t want you to witness this ‘immorality’. Ever.”(http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/2010/09/christian-take-on-banning-speak.html)
(This article was originally posted at http://empiresandmangers.blogspot.com/2012/05/divergent.html)
The Christian community is a diverse one. Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the official position of the group at large.