What Is ‘Divergent’? A Guide for Grown-Ups

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This week, the trailer for the latest attempt at Building a YA Empire, Divergent, dropped onto the web. Shailene Woodley, its star, is a particular favorite of mine, so of course I recommend you see the movie when it appears next March. But those of you who are not either teenagers or parents of teenagers may again find yourselves puzzling over a teen phenomenon that, as far as you are concerned, has come out of nowhere. I have taken one for the team again and read both Divergent and its sequel Insurgent, and I am here to report on these Hunger Games clones — because there is indeed a little too much similarity between the world Veronica Roth constructs in these books and the one Suzanne Collins offered. And Roth suffers greatly from the comparison.

The premise of the Divergent series is that, in some future iteration of Chicago, people have organized themselves into factions. Each faction has a form of work particular to itself, and each conforms to a particular personality type. The five possibilities are: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. If you are already irritated because some of these words are nouns and others adjectives, and you can’t understand why some editor did not intervene to correct this problem, well, you aren’t alone. Of course “Dauntlessness” lacks poetry, but “Erudition” would have taken no effort at all to correct. Teenagers don’t care, of course, and maybe neither should I. But irritating lapses of this kind are common in Divergent.

Anyway: Our heroine is a 16-year-old with the improbable nickname of “Tris” (short for “Beatrice,” and pronounced to rhyme with “Katniss,” as it happens.) And naturally, like the hero of every YA novel from Catcher in the Rye on down, Tris is different than everyone else. When the time comes, as it does for all residents of dystopian Chicago, to declare allegiance to one sect, she fails the psychological reality test involved. Her experience is not unlike Harry Potter’s with that first interaction with the Sorting Hat; she ends up choosing nothing at all. She is “divergent,” which is really, to the authorities, another word for rebel. But it allows Tris to basically pick the community she wants to join, and she wants to be brave, so she joins Dauntless, and promptly proves her courage by jumping straight into a deep hole in the ground. (Only in this sort of YA epic would this be a mark of bravery rather than rank stupidity.)

It will no doubt come as less than a shock to learn that as it happens, the five factions thing is little more than a scheme for totalitarian mind control, led by the Erudite, those evil snobs who think they are so much smarter than everyone else. And that the only people who can see it for what it is happen to be, you know, Divergent. And that there is a hot guy, who is also (spoiler!) Divergent, and who also (spoiler!) takes a shine to Tris, and chooses to join her in rebelling against authority. The third book hasn’t yet appeared — it will drop October 22nd, so I can’t yet say that I know how this will turn out (even though I do).

Veronica Roth, the author of these books, comes across in interviews as terribly nice, which is also to say a bit bland. Asked by ELLE how her professed interest in religion and theology play out in her books, she offers this kind of answer:

I think what bleeds into the writing is mostly an awareness that religious questions are essential to our growth and development. Even if you question yourself and you come to a decision that you don’t believe in anything, I think those questions are important. As far as the books go, it’s important to me not to send any kind of [religious] message—subtle or overt or anything. I don’t even want to do a moral preaching. I mean, obviously, your beliefs about the world inform your writing. It’s important to me to have Tris always asking questions—she is never really sure what she believes, but she inches towards revelations throughout the series, then sort of backs away from them.

Remarks as circular and meadering as these are often open to wide interpretation, but what Roth appears to want to say is that the only moral value she’s got, and that her books stand for, are that people should question what they’re told. Which is all fine and good, but Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins are all actually rather severe moralists themselves. Most have some greater thing to say about the world in which we live. I’m not saying that their political opinions are particularly deep or well thought out — Pullman is sort of the lone intellectual here — but they amount to more than, “Question what you’re told, to the point of not believing in anything in particular.” Harry still has his magic, Lyra her daemons, and Katniss her hatred of inequality.

Tris, by contrast, is in this as other things like a faint shadow of Katniss: she knows that authority is wrong, but she hasn’t the faintest idea why. Her grip on her own talents is less than stable; she needs the boy to save her sometimes. And romantic as that is, it’s hard to iamgine that Roth’s descriptions of it will outlast Katniss and Peeta — or Heathcliff and Cathy, for that matter. In the film, I’m sure Woodley will make up some of the distance between the writing and a full-fledged character. But she deserved a better YA epic franchise than this.