Written by Veronica Roth
(Katherine Tegen Books, 2011)
Reviewed by Amy MacInnis
Veronica Roth’s young adult novel, Divergent, is the first in her bestselling dystopian trilogy. Published a couple years after The Hunger Games, and with the first movie instalment set for release in March, it may seem like Divergent is simply riding the coattails of a successful series in the same genre. We certainly see this pattern a lot in young adult fiction: when a series sells well, publishers tend to print many similar books, even if they’re not that great. While this may be true, Divergent does not owe its popularity to Suzanne Collins; it’s a good read in its own right. All the qualities of the can’t-put-it-down page-turner are there—compelling characters, an exciting plot, and an intriguing thought-world set in future Chicago.
In Divergent, we meet sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior. She has been raised in a society divided into five factions whose members praise and practice a particular virtue: for Abnegation, it’s selflessness, for Amity, kindness, for Candor, honesty, for Dauntless, courage, and for Erudite, knowledge. Early on, we learn that the factions were founded to eradicate underlying human qualities thought to be responsible for war, namely selfishness, aggression, duplicity, cowardice and ignorance. We also find out about the factionless, outcasts who live in poverty because they failed initiation into a faction—the greatest fear of those dependent on community to define their identity and give their life purpose.
Beatrice was born into Abnegation, but like all others her age, must undergo an aptitude test before choosing whether to remain in her faction or join another. The aptitude test is an induced hallucination which presents scenarios that, based on a person’s responses, reveal the faction to which he or she is most inclined. Beatrice gets some unusual test results: with an equal aptitude for more than one faction and an ability to manipulate the simulation, she is identified as divergent. The test conductor warns Beatrice to keep her results a secret because “divergence is extremely dangerous” (p. 23).
The majority of Divergent follows Beatrice through initiation into her chosen faction, where she meets and falls in love with a faction member and learns more about herself, both strengths and weaknesses. As she investigates divergence, Beatrice also discovers more about the corruption within each faction and the conflict among them hinted at earlier in the book. She realizes that out of a thirst for power, reason can be used to justify evil, selflessness can be for show, bravery can be warped into cruelty, and, in a place where people are assumed to be truthful, liars can prosper. Indeed, Roth deftly expresses the fact that depravity exists in individuals and cannot be eliminated by perfecting the political system. In other words, the underlying philosophy of Divergent is in line with the doctrine of original sin. Moreover, I found one of the most fascinating aspects of the book—the tension between individualism and collectivism in Beatrice’s thought—to reflect the beautiful balance in Catholic social teaching. She admires selflessness for the sake of the greater good but rejects the suppression of her unique personality; her family remains a defining factor of her identity even while her independence grows; and she finds that there can be unity without sameness in a faction.
Spoiler alert: to discuss Divergent any further, I have to tell you which faction Beatrice chooses (although it’s pretty obvious from the get-go). She rejects Abnegation in favour of Dauntless. In Dauntless, tattoos, piercings and reckless behaviour, e.g. jumping out of moving trains, are commonplace. Dauntless initiation promotes violence and brutality, thanks to the corruption of those in charge. Other things that may be of concern to parents of young readers include another initiate’s suicide and Beatrice’s struggle with hate, unforgiveness and desire for revenge, especially after she is assaulted. There is also talk of sex, although no one engages in the act. Most disturbing to me was when Beatrice’s love interest claimed that his first instinct was not to protect her but to see how far he could push her until she broke. I guess this was supposed to be a testament to Beatrice’s strength, or maybe a character flaw in the leading man, but it sounds sadistic and potentially romanticizes abusive relationships. My only comfort was that the characters’ relationship is not actually abusive and he always protects her.
But let me end on a positive note, since, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Divergent. Beatrice’s character development is well done. She has glaring faults but she learns that true bravery is neither power over one’s enemy, nor the elimination of fear, but standing up for what is right in spite of one’s fear. She discovers that it takes courage to be selfless. In Catholic parlance, all the virtues build each other up. In a similar vein, another quality of Divergent that I liked is its acknowledgement of God. Books of this futuristic, dystopian genre usually have a presumed atheism or no overt reference to God, but Roth mentions Him without making the story sanctimonious.
My final judgement of Divergent ultimately depends on where Roth takes the story. How the plot unfolds and the characters develop over the next two instalments, Insurgent and Allegiant, will provide the whole context in which to better interpret the first part. But so far, I have a positive take on the author’s basic message. I look forward to reading and reviewing the next book in the series.
* To read Amy’s reviews of the next two books in the Divergent Series, subscribe to the Catholic Review of Books journal today!