Becoming fearless isn't the point. That's impossible. It's learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it. -Divergent, Veronica Roth
The only reason I used an Audible credit on Divergent was because my friend Sarah told me to, and then it sat on my shelf for months before I got around to listening to it. The same thing happened with The Hunger Games and I'm not sure why. I must have some sort of aversion to YA dystopia, despite loving dystopia in general. Nevertheless, I tore through Divergent in no time.
Divergent takes place in a city in the future, among the wreckage of what we have wrought (literally - unused Ferris wheels and empty buildings take up a lot of space), under a new form of government meant to keep peace. People are divided into five factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor, each of which values its trait above all others. Everybody is required to choose a faction at that age, after taking an aptitude test, though the decision is up to them. Most people choose the faction they were born into, and most people get that as the best fit on their aptitude tests. Beatrice Prior, who was born into Abnegation, a faction that prizes selflessness and is despised by Erudite, doesn't quite feel selfless. Her aptitude test comes up with no result - she is Divergent, though she doesn't know what that means and she is warned not to tell anybody. Beatrice chooses Dauntless, where she is Tris and is cruelly forced to face her fears, both in theory and reality.
One of the first things that struck me about this novel was how relevant it is to the adolescent stage of development according to Erik Erikson, who established tasks that must be accomplished at each stage of life. The adolescent stage is identity versus role diffusion and this is exactly what this book is about. Throughout the novel, even after making her choice, Tris struggles to figure out who she is, where she belongs, and how she relates to her parents' values. She feels guilty for not choosing her parents' way, as well as resentment for being expected to. Even once she is among the Dauntless, she is not certain that she belongs. Despite how different her world is from ours, Tris is going through a very familiar process of figuring out who she is. I thought this was a really unique way of depicting this struggle. Of course, the factions remind me more of soroities and fraternities than larger social groupings, making it a little less impressive. Tris and her fellow initiates are pretty much hazed and always under the threat of being rejected and left factionless, AKA unpopular.
Divergent never really stops being a YA novel, especially with its predictable romance and Tris's oh-so-annoying insistence on being blind to it until she's practically making out with the guy (don't worry, I won't spoil who it is, though you'd have to be blind to miss it). Katniss has this same obnoxious trait in The Hunger Games and I don't know what it's about, except maybe some sexist idea that girls should be innocent of such ideas? Maybe it's sexier? At first I thought the relationship was going to be some really awful Twilight-type thing where the guy is all strong and the girl is all lame, especially after some quote about him seeming unstable (I don't remember it exactly) and I was all, why are we still romanticizing violent men? even though I didn't actually agree with that assessment.
Happily, this was not the case. From a feminist-y perspective, I was really impressed by the portrayal of their relationship. Both are strong at times and weak at others and need to protect and save each other. Rather than the cold, insensitive guy Tris initially describes him as, we see a man who is willing to be vulnerable - literally shows Tris his deepest fears - which also serves to equalize their power difference, as he has already had access to hers. He's just as inexperienced and unsure of himself as she is, which I appreciated. Despite how messed up the situation around them is - Tris and her fellow initiates are being taught to become killing machines, who practice by beating each other bloody - their relationship made a nice oasis from all the violence.
Another bit I really liked was the exploration of what Tris needs to do to be liked. She is torn between two groups of friends - the transfers, like herself, and the Dauntless-born initiates - and the difference in what they value in her is striking. Her transfer friends want her to be small and weak and needing protection. Of course, “People tend to overestimate my character," I say quietly. "They think that because I'm small, or a girl, or a Stiff, I can't possibly be cruel. But they're wrong.” When she isn't a little weakling, they reject her and even turn on her. Her Dauntless friends, though put down by the transfers, accept her when she is strong and, though we see less of them, show themselves to be worthier. Roth really shows here the differences in what is valued and how sometimes we choose friends who keep us down.
There's also the whole discussion of whether these traits can really exist in a vacuum, and the conclusion that bravery is really selflessness. It seems ridiculous for people to believe they only need to be one thing, when these qualities can work together to make a more complete, balanced person. All five may be unlikely in one person but to whittle yourself down to just honesty or just intelligence is unfair to oneself. Tris displays at least three of these qualities in equal part, which is what makes her Divergent, and a more complete and relatable person. There's also the whole question of why Abnegation children tend to be Divergent - my theory is that it's really not possible to fully devote oneself to selflessness. Sure, you could be all about academia or honesty or friendliness all day, but pure selflessness isn't possible. At the end of the day, you come back to yourself.
Though Divergent had some really great parts that made my inner feminist smile, my overall feelings are mixed. Addictive it was, and thought-provoking as well, but the writing isn't exactly amazing and it comes with a helping of cheese and big dose of teen drama (oh the hyperbole). The plot itself wasn't fantastic and the description of the Dauntless initiation process made me a little queasy. But there was so much good character development (of Tris and her boyfriend at least) and examination of relationships that I couldn't help but love it. I will definitely be starting the sequel, Insurgent (I love that it has a similar name), ASAP.