Veronica Roth. Divergent. New York: Harper, 2012. Print. [The 2012 paperback has some extra materials in an appendix.]
———. Insurgent. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.
A week ago I spoke briefly with popular youth author Tony Abbott. He said that right now about sixty percent of manuscript submissions to publishers are about some kind of dystopia. I guess that could mean with or without vampires or zombies. So I just finished one of the latest popular dystopian series, the Divergent trilogy. Well, the first two-thirds anyhow. Part three is not being released until next month.
Before really analyzing the novels, I have to say that the story is very entertaining. There is some kind of conflict in every chapter, so the story keeps moving. The only criticism I had is that about halfway through the second volume, Insurgent, it was becoming a little difficult to keep track of all the characters. Many editions of long Russian novels come with a list of characters at the beginning or end to help the reader. I was beginning to look for one of those.
In some kind of post-catastrophe Chicago, Divergent finds Beatrice Prior, or Tris, going through the initiation into the Dauntless faction. That initiation is a kind of boot camp. While some of the tests are different, and many of the recruits try to sabotage other recruits rather than work together (unity is a major goal in most military indoctrination), the story brought back memories of basic training to this reader.
It appears that the Chicago area has become its own little country. At least no one seems to know what is beyond the “perimeter” of their homeland. Society in this future Cook County is organized into five “factions,” each one representing a certain personality trait or inclination. In theory anyhow, the factions work together to form a harmonious society.
When citizens turn sixteen, they take an aptitude test to determine their personality type. This then points them to one of the five factions. They are under probation, and if they pass their initiation, they become citizens of that faction. While many teens remain with the faction they grew up with, about half are diverted to another faction.
There are a few problems individuals can encounter. If they do not pass the initiation, the faction disqualifies them, and they live in slums outside the cities controlled by the factions. They are known as the factionless and have menial jobs. Often they are unemployed. They are not unlike the Dalits of India.
If the aptitude test shows that a person have inclinations toward more than one faction, that individual is labeled divergent. Divergents are considered freaks and also become factionless. However, some sympathetic test administrators alter the test results to allow a divergent to enter one of the factions. Tris is a divergent, and she encounters some others who have managed to survive in one faction or another.
Theoretically, the five factions are to work together to bring harmony among all the people. The Abnegation faction enjoys helping and serving others. They are selfless and probably tend to the phlegmatic. The government is made up of them because they are not self-seeking, so they would consider the common good above any self-interest.
The Candor faction loves truth above everything. Their frankness can be harsh at times, but they discern truth from falsehood. The Erudite faction is made up of the intellectuals. They are the readers and researchers. Most of the medical and computer technologies come from them. The Amity faction is made up of the agreeable ones. They are motivated to keep everyone happy and at peace. And finally, there are the Dauntless, the athletic and physical risk-takers who provide police and military protection. And so Tris’s initiation into Dauntless is a Darwinian boot camp.
Much of Divergent tells about Tris’s boot camp experience. She grew up as a selfless Abnegation girl, but she longs for challenges and freedom, so she chooses Dauntless. Her sympathetic test proctor was also Dauntless, so Tris encounters her from time to time in both books.
Insurgent focuses on Tris and some of her Dauntless friends as the Erudite leader tries to take over the government by brainwashing Dauntless fighters to stage a coup and eliminate the people who stand in their way (Abnegation) or those who are useless to society (the factionless).
Because Tris wonders about what lies beyond the perimeter a few times in Insurgent, I would not be surprised if the third book in the series, Allegiant, deals with what is beyond their Chicago state. We shall see.
So what kind of dystopian books are these?
Well, there are some superficial resemblances to The Hunger Games. The main character is a teen girl in both books. North America’s population appears to be reduced from same major disaster and the survivors experiment with some kind of new government. Because of the fast pace and military style action in both series, the stories appeal to boys as well as girls. Neither is “chick lit,” though Tris because of her Abnegation background comes across as more vulnerable than the huntress Katniss.
While there is no Marxist dictatorship like 1984, there is one element Roth borrowed from that book or Darkness at Noon. To qualify for the Dauntless faction, the recruits have to go through a kind of live action psychological test to face their fears. This is done with futuristic technology and truth serums. Still, the test is not unlike Winston Smith’s face in a rat cage. Of course, the purpose in 1984 is to terrorize Smith so he submits to Big Brother. In the Divergent books it is part of the initiation to see how much they can handle.
The Divergent books are pretty much apolitical, at least so far, so they are not dark political satires like 1984, Darkness at Noon, or The Journal of David Q. Little. While it does not have the explicit religious themes of A Canticle for Liebowitz, the Divergent books have characters who pray. Without giving too much away, one character does give up her life to save someone she loves (see John 15:13). Members of the Candor faction do not flirt because charm is deceitful, an echo of Proverbs 31:30.
Divergent is different from Fahrenheit 451 in that the Erudite faction keeps libraries and attracts many readers. Some of the other factions do not have as much use for books, but there appears to be no censorship. Still, there is great pressure to conform within each faction. While there are no “firemen” as in the Bradbury novel, the Dauntless traitors (whoso readeth let him understand) are convinced that they must get rid of the Abnegation faction for the good of society at large. They are internal “firemen” or “brain police” in that sense.
Divergent society is more like Brave New World than any of the others. Brave New World has its society ordered by physical and intellectual capability inbred by creating “test tube babies.” It is a dictatorship, except that everyone fits in because they are genetically created to fit in. John, the novel’s tragic hero, is different because he has a natural mother. (Mother is a naughty word there.)
Interestingly, I was told by Huxley expert David Bradshaw of Oxford that when Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in the 1930’s, he was not writing it as a dystopia. Like many Europeans and Americans in the early part of the last century (think Woodrow Wilson along with the usual suspects like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Ho), Huxley was fascinated by the idea of a planned society. He was also interested in the potential of mind-altering drugs. Only after the Stalinist purges and World War II did he write his famous preface to the novel.
Rather than genetic planning as in Brave New World or Nazi Germany, and rather than economic class planning as in socialist or communist countries, the Chicagoland of Divergent is reminiscent of current educational systems. Standardized tests in most countries with higher education systems today are meant to show a student’s aptitude for various skills or interests. It easy for readers in most places today to imagine such tests becoming a means to socially and politically pigeonhole people and make them conform to a certain type. Scary. The story makes a good case for avoiding schools operated by the government.
Still, Divergent‘s potential dystopia is most like the scariest dystopia of them all. Like the Huxley of 1933, its author of this dystopia did not mean for it to be one. The Insurgent novel raises questions about elitism. Abnegation people are selected to make laws because they are supposed to be selfless. The Erudite leader wants to take over because she sees herself as being more intelligent and understanding better what people want than they do themselves. What is that but one more iteration of the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic? (Why not English-teacher-kings?) As longtime Governor of Plymouth Colony William Bradford noted about Plymouth’s own communal experiment:
The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some in later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community in a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. (On Plymouth Plantation 1623)
Though with an idealistic Abnegation background, Tris loves the freedom of the wild Dauntless faction. Though selfish and brutal, it is the closest she can be to free in her planned society. For planned societies are never free. Communism and fascism are both brutal. No “top-down” social order fully recognizes humanity’s gifts from God. Such governments force man to go against his nature and conscience—his “better angels” as Lincoln called them.
Since book three has not yet been released, no reader knows what is beyond Roth’s Chicagoland society, but pigeonholing everyone into a mere five categories is tyrannical, a caste system. There are always “divergents.” God is a creator of infinite variety. And the Kingdom of God is where we all were meant to belong.