Divergent – Critical Thinking Skills as Super Power

After a long hiatus (during which I was doing an unfortunate amount of grad school things), I am back to my inquiries in speculative fiction and rhetoric with Veronica Roth’s 2011 young adult novel Divergent. Divergent was a favorite among Goodreads users in 2011, and the film adaptation comes out later this month.

The World: Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, Divergent presents readers with a society divided based on what qualities or ideologies individuals hold most dear. The five factions — Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Amity — comprise people who have opted to live their lives committed to their faction’s guiding principle. Amity, commited to kindness and harmony, lives outside of town and tends the agricultural and water purification needs of the city, while Erudite, striving after knowledge, focus on scientific developments to keep food and water coming. Dauntless, whose guiding principle is bravery, take care of protecting the borders (though against what, no one knows). Abnegation, committed to selflessness, manages all goverment affairs (based on the assumption that power should be given to those who do not want it), while Candor, who value honesty, work to prevent corruption. Factions are supposed to be prized more highly than family ties, as an individual’s faction tells her who she truly is, and others can expect her to act in a predictable way based on her faction.

The Plot: We meet our protagonist, Tris, at the age of sixteen, right before she will choose her faction. Raised in Abnegation, Tris attends school with children from all factions where, at the end of their education, they are put through simulations to determine which faction they are most suited for. When Tris undergoes her simulation, she discovers that she is “divergent,” or suitable for multiple factions. Additionally, she is aware during simulations in ways that other are not. However, this ability might get her killed as divergent members of the population often disappear or die under mysterious circumstances once their divergence is discovered. While she is suitable for either Abnegation, Erudite, or Dauntless, Tris opts to join the Dauntless faction and spends the next few weeks training with other recruits. Though small and relatively weak when she begins, Tris rises through the ranks to graduate top of her initiation class. In the meantime, she also learns some family secrets and falls in love with one of her teachers, Four (so-called because he only has four fears, an highly valued characteristic in a faction that values bravery). However, the night after her graduation, all of Dauntless falls under a simulation (with the exception of a few key leaders) and begin invading the Abnegation part of the city, killing leaders and resistors along the way. As Four and Tris are both divergent and thus aware, it falls to them to do what they can to stop the massacre.

I have strong feelings in both directions about this novel. I’ll start with the bad because it’s easy and quick: I find the love story between Tris and Four annoying and uninteresting. I think this might be because it’s a stereotypical love story between teenagers with lots of “Does he like me or not?” It got old fast.

On the other hand, I really love that the super power of this world is, simply put, critical thinking skills. Tris, Four, and the other divergent are special because they can see the world around them from multiple viewpoints and take on multiple, sometimes conflicting, ideologies. And the fact that something as simple as taking on multiple perspectives can be a super power is a sharp warning about one possible future for us. In the subsequent novels (I’m currently listening to second of the trilogy, Insurgent, on audiobook), Roth explains that the faction system keeps people manageable by making them predictable; that is, keeping people committed to a single ideological framework is good for those in power (or those who are trying to come into power). And that reader can see each faction as having positive goals sharpens this critique, demonstrating that even values that we can agree are good are dangerous when they become a single focus. Of course, this kind of statement has been made frequently before. We’re familiar with the stories of those who pursue knowledge at the cost of human life, and we know why absolute honesty is not always the best policy. What Roth’s novel adds to this conversation is an illustration of how proponents of these values may interact. And while Tris’s rhetorical skills are not necessarily at the forefront of this first novel, I think they will become more important in the rest of the trilogy as she negotiates among various groups to stop a wannabe dictator from taking power.