Wednesday, May 2, 2012


In an effort to keep up with an increasingly influential entertainment culture, I recently walked into Horizon Bookstore in Traverse City and asked the manager, “What’s the next Hunger Games?” Though the HG trilogy was not ideal, there was a lot to like, especially in comparison to other recent series (I'm talking to you, Twilight).
The answer? Divergent.

This is the beginning of what I hope will be a long list of reviews of trending YA books.  It is my attempt to enter into and better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth.  I hope you find the reviews helpful.
Oh, and one other thing: There will be spoilers.

 Divergent is the first book in a trilogy (the second book, Insurgent, has been released) for which the movie rights have already been optioned. 


The story is set in a dystopian future where a decision has been made to separate people into five key factions, each representing a key virtue needed to make society work. 
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world.  Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality – of mankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is.  They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray….     
Those who blamed aggression formed Amity (peace). Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite (knowledge). Those who blamed duplicity created Candor (truth). Those who blamed selfishness became Abnegation (selflessness). Those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless (fearless)."
In this world, faction is everything. “Without a faction,” we read more than once, “we have no purpose and reason to live.”  In some ways, the story reads like a commentary on the polarization of political, economic and religious factions within America. As far as introducing a YA audience to the dangers of this disconnection, Divergent does a great job.  There’s even a study guide at the back with questions to help readers (and book groups) wrestle with some of the deeper issues raised.

The story opens with the heroine, Beatrice Prior, preparing to go through a ceremony in which she has to choose her future based on what simulation testing has revealed to be her strength.  She grew up in Abnegation, a faction that appears to be highly (though not entirely) religious: many of them pray before meals; Beatrice was baptized as a child; their written code contains language suggesting their goal is to be so selfless that all the remains in them is God; the Erudite refer to them in derogatory terms as “God-fearing.”

The virtual reality tests reveal in what areas people are gifted. On her choosing day, Beatrice is supposed to choose the area of expertise that has already been chosen for her.  She is unique in that she has been categorized as Divergent, meaning she is apparently equipped to do well in more than one category. Once Beatrice chooses, she will live the rest of her life maximizing her potential in that area.  Unlike most of her friends, she is genuinely gifted enough to have multiple choices, and how she chooses may make all the difference in the world.  Literally. Read the tagline above the title of the book.

Part of the tension inherent in the decision is that the factions don’t all get along.  One may be raised in Candor, but be wired for Amity.  Unfortunately, Candor doesn’t like Amity: “Those who seek peace above all else…. will always deceive to keep the waters calm.” In the same way, Abnegation doesn’t like Erudite: “Human reason can excuse any evil; that is why it’s so important we don’t rely on it.”

You get the idea.  What was meant to be a wise way of promoting particular strengths has become a divisive way of thinking your faction’s strength is the answer to every problem.  This is part of what makes the Choosing Day a momentous event. Choosing a faction other than the one in which you were raised means separation from and perhaps even learned hostility toward one’s family for the rest of your life.  After all, “Faction before blood.”

Divergent does not portray this as a good thing. In the afterward, Ms. Roth notes: “A word of advice to the faction that causes so much trouble – and to every flawed human being – ‘But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.’” (Galatians 5:15)

One of the main characters, Four, gets the big speech to summarize how this splintering of society has not led to a utopia at all: “We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own…I want to be brave, and selfless, and kind, and smart, and honest.”

Apparently, Truth needs knowledge, fearlessness, selflessness, and kindness.  Peace needs knowledge, truth, boldness, and self-sacrifice. In the real world, they all should intertwine for a society (and an individual) to be truly healthy. Since this is only Book One, the trajectories begun in this book are not completed. I suspect (and hope) this is where Ms. Roth is heading in her discussion of the factions.


Free Will and Determinism
For a YA audience, Divergent contains some great food for thought about the tension between Free Will and Determinism.

The choosing in Divergent is more of a strong identification of what kind of person you are – the ultimate personality inventory.  If you fail in your chosen faction, you are doomed to a factionless future, one in which you spend your life as an outcast on the street, destitute and impoverished.  So you can choose differently than your identified strength…but you really can’t, not if you want a life.   

When Beatrice and Four realize they both grew up in Abnegation but transferred to Dauntless, Beatrice thinks: “If we had both chosen differently, we might have ended up doing the same thing [falling in love], in a safer place, in gray clothes instead of black ones.”  On the one hand, it’s almost as if they were fated; on the other hand, Beatrice and Four both could have chosen differently, and they would have never met.  Or not. 

So, has Beatrice really, truly chosen her destiny?  More importantly, does she have any choice in what kind of person she will become? At one point she says, “I will find new habits, new thoughts, new rules. I will become something else.”  And she does, sort of. Maybe.  Later, Four notes why she is so good at being Dauntless: “You’re from Abnegation, and it’s when you’re acting selflessly that you’re at your bravest.”   So really, she’s still Abnegation, even thought she is trying so purposefully to put her selflessness behind her?  Hmmmm..

Human Nature
Beatrice’s training highlights the battle between our sinful and better natures.  At one point, after a particularly brutal and humiliating attack, Beatrice thinks: “Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined.  I swear she exists, and she hurts for the repentant boy in front of me. But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her.”  As Switchfoot sings and the Apostle Paul notes, “I am the war inside.” 


As much as I like the honest writing in the Hunger Games, it is set in a world in which hope is always fleeting and flawed, and God is noticeable by His complete absence.  Divergent has slightly more breadth and depth on the issues of morality and real-world realities.
  • Divergent contains both good and bad people seeking to do their best in a political system that is unintentionally destructive – good intentions have paved some pretty bad roads. 
  • The teens wrestle with how to balance the influence of their family of origin with all the enticing worldviews around them.  Ms. Roth handles the struggle realistically: sometimes the characteristics from which they want to free themselves are the very characteristics that draw them back (for example, the selflessness of Abnegation).  Sometimes, their reasons for wanting to break free are legitimate (there is one example of terrible abuse).
  • Authority figures are treated with appropriate realism. Many are worthy of trust and respect; some are not.  They are all trapped in a system doomed for failure, and for that reason are forced to make hard decisions that at times appear to compromise their integrity.  This does not build cynicism in the characters as much as build desire to see justice and truth prevail.
  •  Even though “Faction over blood,” is the mantra of choice, the story makes very clear that people matter more than projects or agendas.  The villains willingly sacrifice a few for the sake of the many, and are willing to break individuals to make a broader point to a group. The heroes see the value of each life in every situation.  As Book One winds down with epic violence rocking the world, Beatrice is saved by those willing to give their lives so that she may live.  In turn, she risks her life to save the life of one she loves. 

Abnegation seems to be the “Christian” group, or at least religious one.  The book notes that almost all the Divergent are raised in Abnegation.  As the story unfolds, the idea seems to be that all the other factions are nothing if they are not selfless; in fact, perhaps all the other factions at their core require the influence of Abnegation.  The Dauntless are supposed to be fearless – for the sake of others.  Amity brings peace –for the sake of others.  The Erudite must learn – for the sake of others.  Candor speaks truth – for the sake of others. 
As a Divergent, Beatrice has three of the factions “fully” in her; I wonder if at some point we will meet a Divergent with all five – a type of Christ if you will, the Incarnation, fully everything. That would be very cool.


The world is broken. No matter how much time you spend covering your eyes, and covering your children's eyes, the world will still be broken when you uncover them. And when I say the world is broken, I mean that bad crap is happening to people everywhere and people are doing terrible things everywhere. Do you want your kids to understand just how beautiful the grace of God is? Then they have to understand how crappy the world is. It's not just "a good idea." It's necessary.

People can make their own decisions about what their kids read. But as a Christian, I urge fellow Christians in particular to think hard about those decisions, not just to jump to the simplest conclusion. Remember that you cannot, and you should not, shield your children from the truth. Now, I'm not saying we should expose our young children to disturbing material before they're ready. I am definitely not saying that. But there's a difference between "you're too young for this" and "I don't want you to witness this 'immorality'. Ever."


1) Lack of a consistent presence of adult figures.  Much like Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games, adults are important but often absent.  Youth are left to figure a lot of things out by themselves during the most difficult times, as if Lord of the Flies had not warned us sufficiently about where that plot’s heading. 
However….. I wonder if this doesn’t reflect a society in which teens are increasingly left alone, either literally in an empty home or figuratively in their virtual worlds.  As adults increasingly tell kids it’s important they “find their own way,” is it any wonder that the literature that appeals to them focuses on this sense of disconnect? 

2) I’m not sure where the story is going by way of the sexual tension between the two main characters.  Beatrice has to conquer her fear of having sex with Four.  On the one hand, it’s understandable. Sex matters, and the implications of engaging in it should not be treated lightly.  On the other hand, how will this fear be resolved?  The Duantless face their fears either by attacking and conquering their fear, or finding a peace within in the midst of the fear.  In this case, it could mean Beatrice has sex to prove she’s not afraid, or by finding a way to conquer the fear that involves an interior resolution.  Her response during the simulation tests suggests the latter, but the story’s not over.
When I asked my son what he thought the real fear was, he said, “Vulnerability.”  That’s not a bad analysis either. If that’s the case, at least the book treats sex as the significant act it is – not just another thing to do for fun, but an act that carries with it a surrender and a transparency that should not be treated lightly. 
 It will be interesting to see why the book suggests she is afraid of sex.  Was she repressed by her religious upbringing? Does she genuinely see the unique, monumental, and mysterious nature of that to which she is drawn?  Is she aware of what is at stake – the baring of not only her body but also her soul? 
 I wish the trilogy were farther along so I could see where this is going (update: see my review of Insurgent here).  Without knowing the end, it's worth something that Ms. Roth portrays sexual activity as meaningful, important, and of such great impact that it ought to sober even the most dauntless among us.  That's a message that needs to be heard. 

  •  “It must require bravery to be honest all the time.”
  •  “My father says those who want power and get it live in terror of losing it.  That’s why we have to give power to those who don’t want it.”
  •  “A brave man acknowledges the strength of others.”
  •  “I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”
  • In Divergent, factions are a bad idea, as opposed to the Sorting Hat factions of Harry Potter.
  • Age matters in relationships, unlike in Twilight. A big deal is made about the fact that Four is two years older than Beatrice.
  • God is very present, unlike  in the worlds of Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games. Spray-painted on one of the wall of the Dauntless compound are the words, “Fear God Alone.”
  • At one point, a Dauntless funeral celebrates a suicide as the ultimate bravery.  The character of the leaders at that time, the amount of alcohol needed to turn that funeral into a celebration, and the comments from Beatrice that follow expose the lie of this position.

No comments:

Post a Comment