Divergent is a novel written by Veronica Roth and published in 2011. Set in a futuristic Chicago, it tells the tale of Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior, who – like all other 16 years old kids – has to choose one of five factions which she’ll devote her life to: Abnegation (The Selfless), Amity (The Peaceful), Candor (The Honest), Dauntless (The Brave) and Erudite (The Intelligent). Similar in themes with The Hunger Games, it presents an interesting idea, one that – unfortunately – I feel could have been handled a lot better. From this point on, there will be spoilers!
Upon taking a test meant to reveal the faction she’s most inclined towards, Beatrice learns she’s Divergent, which means she shows equal aptitudes for several factions. Originally from Abnegation, she decides to leave that life behind and joins the Dauntless faction and takes a different name – Tris. In order to be accepted in the faction, Tris and all the other initiates must pass an initiation process, which is divided into three categories: the physical, the emotional, and the mental. While dealing with that, she also falls in love with one of her instructors (nicknamed Four), tries to make friends and learns about the plans of the people from Erudite to start a war against Abnegation. It’s a pretty basic plot, although not anything particularly memorable.
My big problem with this book is the way the whole ‘five factions’ concept was handled. When first introduced, they are presented in an obvious, stereotypical fashion: the Brave are more reckless than brave, The Peaceful are portrayed as zen hippies, while The Intelligent are snobs who look down on the people from Abnegation. Those in Candor are thought to be ‘the good guys’, because of their honesty. So, one can’t be both honest and evil? Second of all, when we get to explore two factions- Abnegation and Dauntless – in more depth, we are served the idea that not only is selflessness/bravery the main personality trait of every single person in the faction, but it’s the only one. Part of Tris’ internal conflict is whether or not she should act on selfless impulses she gets at times. Several of the initiates are shown feeling bad about acting in a manner consistent with what they’ve been thought their entire lives – one even apologizes for it. Just because you cultivate one virtue, that doesn’t mean your entire personality is reduced to one trait. A side effect of this is that it’s way too easy to figure out Four’s the other Divergent character even before any hints are given, since he’s the only one allowed to show both bravery and intelligence without feeling bad about it.
Furthermore, the extent to which this one virtue dictates people’s lives is ridiculous – down to why people take the stairs. While in Abnegation, Tris and her brother are not allowed to talk during dinners. We learn they are opposed to prosperity, self-defense and even exercise – none of which make any sense to me. In Dauntless, everyone around has the need to show their courage during every waking moment, which doesn’t strike me as normal human behavior.
I also don’t buy the way these factions function as a society. We’re told the government is entirely made up of people from Abnegation, as they’re viewed as incorruptible. They’re not; just promise them homes for those without a faction (as a side note: everyone without a faction is not allowed to have any qualities; they’re ’empty’ on the inside). If one of the factions was incorruptible, I think Candor would be it. We’re explicitly told they make great leaders, but for some reason that excludes them from politics? Also, the only artists this society has come from Amity, which doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t art a way to convey truths about life? Doesn’t it take courage to dig deep within yourself to uncover them? Don’t you need some sort of intelligence and knowledge about a craft in order to produce something decent? We’re also told if you choose another faction than the one you were born in, you can never see your parents again, without any explanation.
Finally, the way the initiation works in the Dauntless faction strikes me as unnatural. From the 20 initiates, they will only select 10 to join their ranks; the other half will be kicked out. They doesn’t exclude people who are not good, they exclude people who are not good enough. In other words, people who are perfectly capable of getting jobs are thrown to the side for no reason at all. What society marginalizes perfectly good citizens on purpose? It doesn’t make sense to not try to have as few homeless people as possible.
Apart from the world-building problems I had, I started disliking the main character more and more as the book progressed. Her actions paint her as selfish, self-centered and vengeful. When a fellow shy, obviously broken initiate tries to reveal his feelings, she leaves the room to giggle about how “it’s nice to have someone like you”. When the same person ranks last after the second stage , she has no problem forgetting about him and going out to celebrate with her other friends. She takes pleasure in revenge time and time again – whether she’s the one enforcing it or not. Despite having aptitudes for Erudite, she doesn’t appear very bright most of the time: her views on bravery are twisted at parts and it takes 3/4 of the book to realize that Four has a crush on her. That’s not to say she doesn’t have any good qualities, though. She has moments where she displays compassion towards others, she stands up for people, she has noble ideals… but those don’t make up for her faults.
Apart from Tris, no other character really stands out; I found most to be one-dimensional. The one character with an interesting back story, – Tris’ mother – only appears in a handful of scenes and is killed off at the end of the novel for the sole purpose of giving Tris a reason to angst about in the sequel. Quite frankly, I am tired of this trope of killing interesting characters just to show that ‘nobody’s safe’. The series would have benefited from Tris’ mother much more than from the angsty Tris. To top it all, the scenes in which her parents die (because her father is also killed for no reason) both feel rather clumsy and out of place.
The good parts
Despite all this, the book has some redeeming qualities. It’s engaging, well-paced and easy enough to read that I finished it in only two days. The plot is executed and carried out decently enough; at the one point where it stagnates, Tris’ mom comes to the rescue. Towards the end, the pace is fastened to make for a gripping last few chapters. The battle scenes – and there are quite a few of them – are very well done and evocative, and there were a couple of other great moments: the boy who misses the train in the beginning and therefore becomes without a faction, Al’s breakdowns, the bonding between Tris and the initiates born Dauntless.
At the end of the day, it’s perfectly possible that as long as you go along with the logic of the book you end up enjoying it. For me, though, it didn’t quite work; it was a decent read, but I’m unsure whether I’ll pick up the sequel or not.