This is the first part of the Divergent-series – parts two, Insurgent, and three, Allegiant, are already in my possession, waiting on the sidelines to be read in order.
I must admit there is already something intriguing about the titles of this series. Part of this is that I had to look them up to understand their meaning (as non-native English speaker). I’ve never come across these exact words just variations of them and I think they have been well chosen. The same is true for the covers of the books (and, yes, there goes my slight fetish with book covers again), vibrant colors, the hint at an urban setting and the promise of an adventure. And then there’s a tag-line: One Choice Can Transform You. I must pay kudos where kudos are due, and the marketing department for this project did a great job. But a great marketing strategy does not a book sell alone, there’s also always what’s inside.
Let’s have a quick look:
Beatrice Prior lives in post-war Chicago. Her society is build into factions, one for each virtue that might prevent another war, and at 16 Beatrice is about to chose her own faction. The results of the test that should help her decide are, however, inconclusive. Beatrice is divergent, and being divergent is considered a very dangerous thing in her world.
As she chooses a faction, the Dauntless, her world is transformed by the violence she experiences. But a part of her remains with her old faction, the Abnegation, and it is that faction that comes under the scrutiny of the rest of the society as propaganda is spread against them. Tris (which is the new name Beatrice chooses for herself on entering a different faction) has to find a way to fit in to survive or fight a system that does not accept her divergence – and the time to choose one or the other is running out fast.
At first glance, it is an intriguing concept for a dystopian novel (and I don’t think that we should categorize into Young Adult novel here, as J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins have clearly shown that there is no expiration date on recapturing our youths by reading those) but I would argue that it does not hold up to anything but a superfluous first glance. The novel has the same short-comings as the movie, as it does not dwell on much of a backstory. We never learn what has caused the war that destroyed American society, we’re not even to learn how far this distruction goes. Chicago is all we are to learn about this new world (at least in this part of the series and I doubt that the other parts will go beyond this [but please don’t put spoilers in the comments should I be wrong, I will get there in time]) and we are simply told to accept the society build in this city. This might not be such a big problem (as we’ve already accepted Panem in Collins’ The Hunger Games without ever getting told what happens outside of it) if the concept of this society wasn’t so obviously flawed.
Maybe it’s me, it is possible that it is me and my cultural believe that diversity is a crucial part of the human condition, but building a society that is strictly parted into factions that are entirely focused on one virtue seems ridiculous to me. Why be just intelligent when you can be intelligent and brave and kind and honest and selfless? For those are the virtues of the factions. I find this concept highly illogical which makes this dystopia rather unbelievable to me. And yet, it does not completely take away it’s relevance. Because Tris finds out that she’s different in a world that does not want her to be different, and that is, at least, something I can relate to.
And I guess here is where the life lessons of the Young Adult novel set in and young people are to learn that what makes them different is actually a good thing. But it does so under the premise of Christian values which are barely disguised in this novel as factions. More to the point, Tris is a symbol of Christian virtues as she possesses not all but more than the average person and teen in this story – as translated into our world. So the difference that is supported here is one of virtuous behavior – not of the more controversial aspects of teenage life in our society like sexuality, gender, mental health, body image, etc.. I’m not saying that the message is completely lost on our society, we should always be nicer to each other, but I think Roth could have expanded on her definition of diversity here and without much of an effort.
To be fair, she’s not the only writer of a successful Young Adult series who failed to acknowledge minorities – the problems of mnorities in acknowledging that they’re not exclusive to minorities. Whiteness, heterosexuality (in a heteronormative society), cisgendered, and able-bodied are the attributes attached to the heroes of these stories, infallibly so. This is where diversity ends and I think that’s rather sad – as representation of the Young Adult novel and popular literature in general.
With all this said, I don’t think Divergent is a bad novel (fooled you there). I wouldn’t attempt to read parts two and three if I did. But it’s lacking and it’s not remarkable as these stories go. Yes, on first glance we can draw lines from the factions to Hogwarts houses, we can compare Tris’ struggle to Katniss Everdeen’s against the injustices of her society but Divergent falls short to these other serieses. It’s entertaining and possibly educational to a certain degree but it is not the great achievement in story-telling that the Harry Potter-series is, or the very unique attempt at creating a female character of Katniss Everdeen’s caliber. It’s good, it’s readable but it won’t change your life to the extent that other Young Adult novels did or will.