Divergent is set in dystopian Chicago in which children choose to go live in one of five factions when they are 16. The five factions represent a characteristic that the faction believes enables the end of war. There is Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (kindness), Dauntless (courage), and Erudite (intelligence). Beatrice, or Tris, the main character, grew up in Abnegation, but never felt she truly belonged there. When she takes the aptitude test, the day prior to the choosing ceremony, the test results are inconclusive: she is divergent and does not neatly fit into one of the designated factions. She is advised to keep this information to herself, because admitting to it is dangerous. During the choosing ceremony, she has to decide between her family or trying to make a home in a different faction.. Her subsequent choice [Dauntless] means she has to survive the initiation period in order to become a member of the faction, instead of ending up factionless. While we follow Beatrice during her initiation period, we also see the factions starting to distrust each other.
Thea of The Book Smugglers called this a Young Adult book of a “potato-chip nature” and I understand exactly what she means. There’s a quality to the book that makes you think “oh, this if fun, but utterly forgettable” while reading it. Moreover, there are faults to be found in the book. There were times when I had to suspend disbelief, actually, there were lots of times I had to do so. The premise of the dystopian society feels a little contrived and invites little reflection on today’s society like some other dystopian books do (though I think I found some, see below). The training Beatrice undergoes during initiation for her chosen faction seems a little absurd too, and you just know that it serves a different purpose. Also, there are the times that “bad” characters are described as a little ugly or fat, which wasn’t a constant, but did make me wonder from time to time.. And then there are the cringe-worthy sentences to be found in the book from time to time. What is it with Young Adult books and the “distinctly male” smell of the inevitable love interest? On a more personal note, I felt some dislike towards some of the ongoing violence in the middle part of the book. At one point I felt like I get the message, move on already.
Despite these complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Divergent. It is a rather addictive book and I definitely felt the rush of wanting to continue reading despite it being 2AM. On finishing the book, I was still firmly of the “enjoyable but forgettable” opinion. A 3.5 out of 5 rating, if I would still do ratings. However, for days after I had moved on to other books, I found myself returning to the story, to its themes, to thinking that I’d like to continue reading about Beatrice. I am still a little confused about my lingering attention for a book I had never expected to give much thought, but there it is. I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, but it is much more enjoyable than some of the books on the long list of dystopian novels that have appeared in the last couple of years.
One of the things I found refreshing was Beatrice’s tough and unrelenting character. Tris is not the kind of stumbling and ultimately sweet and good-natured girl you so often find in YA. She’s tough, she fights for herself, she’s unforgiving, and at times selfish. She isn’t kind or sweet in all situations, and she makes choices and undertakes actions that aren’t arguably “good” all the time. But despite this “tough girl” character, you also learn about the inner conflict she feels most of the time. Perhaps this is linked to her being divergent, her choices do not always fit her chosen faction, but there are glimpses of the other characters struggling with their former faction alliances too. Inevitably, Beatrice is the main focus of this conflict, and I liked how the book explored her inner turmoil over the spur of the moment choices she makes, but also how she deliberates about what she should be doing, how she should act, and how she feels about it in other situations. There’s even a mild gender critique in there, with Tris being often pictured as a small girl, child even, by the others, and how she fights to rise above that image, but how, at the same time, she is sometimes told to play up the meek aspect of her persona to survive, even though she hates doing it. There is a sexual harassment scene in the book (which may be a spoiler, but I feel I should warn about, or at least mention, these things), that plays up the question of gendered expectations and society’s approach to sexual assault. At first, I was ready to believe that the scene might play into the social and skewed norm on this subject, when Tris is told to play meek the day afterwards, to show her vulnerability to her attackers, so that they might leave her alone in the future. However, despite the fact that Tris follows the advice in this particular circumstance, the narrative does not portray it as a correct approach. For one, Tris is indignant at the suggestion. Second, the book portrays her fury and hurt throughout the whole scene. During the rest of the book, we get peeks into what the assault did to her, how it plays up her fears of sexual intimacy, her fear of kidnapping, of being out of control.. I am not saying the situation is handled perfectly, but as I read it, it at least places the discussion of the aftermath and society’s perception of sexual assault centre-stage for a while.
Tris is not the kind of character I could instantly relate to. Her choices are often very different from what my own would be. Her choice of factions is probably the complete opposite, her will to fight for herself, her never-give-up attitude, her choices in friendship, forgiveness, etcetera. She’s basically a 100% not me. But it is impossible not to feel for her, despite the problems I might have with some of her choices, despite her relentlessness at times. It is the inner conflict narrative that I think really strengthens the reader’s feelings for Beatrice. Perhaps the very fact that her choices are at times problematic gives her a more real feel?
Divergent reminded me of The Hunger Games a little in that it does not invite reflection on grand themes like the Chaos Walking Trilogy does. As happened with The Hunger Games for me, it only invited questions after reading, and possibly only because I wanted to find them. This brings me to the idea of identity as tied up with the factions. Admittedly, the notion of a society divided along the lines of five factions, in which every faction acts on one dominant character trait, is absurd. Everyone reading about it will (hopefully) think so: the idea that your individual identity can be reduced to one prime characteristic is hard to agree with. And Divergent acts on this gut feeling, with the very notion of divergence, with portraying the inner struggles to conform in all the initiates. Reading it while keeping my teenage self in mind, it reminded me of the sectarianism of high school, in which my teenage self was looking to fit in, but also looking to explore my “own identity” separate from existing formats. I think, to that extent, this is definitely a subject that most teenagers could relate to. Even more so, because the book brings up the question of choosing your own identity over family alliance at the same time. Perhaps wrapped in a story that sounds a little absurd at first glance, I like that the book at least raises the question of uniform or multiple identities.
On a more random note, while writing the synopsis for this post, the idea of the factions reminded me a little of the Hindu caste system based on the story of the cosmic man who is divided according to tasks and abilities of different parts of his body. When Divergent brought in the concept of the Abnegation, or the selfless, as the ruling party, the Dauntless as the protectors/soldiers, the Erudite as the intelligent and learned, and especially with the idea of the factionless, that fall outside of the five main factions and are often poor and conceived of as “dirty”, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Veronica Roth had been inspired by some form of this story, even though I do not want to make a direct comparison between the two, or discuss whether this conception of Hinduism is correct or not.
Obviously, this is more than enough from me on the subject of Divergent. It is rather interesting to me to notice how much I wished to say (and more, but I’m trying to avoid major spoilers) about a book I dismissed as fairly forgettable while reading it.
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