Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

According to Wikipedia, "dystopia...is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening." I only put that because I wonder whether Veronica Roth's Divergent belongs in the category of dystopia. Most of the people seem happy with the world they live in, and only a select few, the "divergent," have any reason to fear it - and even that doesn't become clear until late in the book. In 1984, on the other hand, all of the people live in fear that the Thought Police will arrest them just for appearing to be disloyal. In The Hunger Games, the people are in constant fear that every year they may be selected to duke it out in a kill-or-be-killed free-for-all survival game. Divergent may be a dystopia in that a majority of the people don't realize how limited their world is. It's much more similar to The Giver than The Hunger Games. While it lacks the maturity of the former, it is more thoughtful and probes more carefully into the psyche of its characters than the latter. That makes Divergent intriguing, even as it delves into character conflicts only its teenage audience base would find interesting.

The world of Divergent is broken up into five factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor. These factions were created based on the the values people believe will create a peaceful, long-lasting society in their post-apocalyptic world. Abnegation represents selflessness, because only the selfish will go to war. Dauntless represents courage, because only the courageous will stand up to villainy. Erudite represents knowledge, because ignorance leads to war. Amity represents kindness, because a nice person has no desire to kill. And Candor represents honesty, because it is deceit that allows war to happen. Just like in The Giver, once people reach a certain age they are selected to choose which faction to join. The only difference is that the teenagers have a choice where to go. Everyone undergoes a simulation that helps determine which faction they are the best fit for, but this is more of a guide than anything. Most people will stay with the faction they are born into. But not everyone matches the personality and the likes or dislikes of their family, so they may choose differently.

This is where Beatrice Prior, a member of Abnegation, comes in. She dislikes the customs of the Abnegation, who are so selfless they aren't allowed to look at themselves in a mirror. The path of selflessness seems extreme, and Beatrice is often reminded of how selfish she is, though her thoughts and desires seem normal for a teenage girl. She's torn because she knows choosing another faction will be like an act of betrayal to the family she loves, but she doesn't think she will be happy as a member of Abnegation her entire life. Perhaps the simulation will help her decide. Except, it doesn't, and this is where the label of Divergent comes in. Her simulation test recommends her for three factions, when it is programmed to only recommend one. The woman who tests her tells her not to tell anybody else because it is dangerous to be Divergent. Why? Nobody will say or nobody knows, and the reasons become clearer only later on.

While I mention in the first paragraph that the novel probes into the psyche of its characters, it doesn't probe very deeply. Divergent falls into the unfortunate trap of young adult literature that is more focused on the physical than the mental. This is why Beatrice obviously chooses to join Dauntless, where she becomes Tris. Here, withstanding physical pain or facing death by jumping onto or off of moving trains equals courage. This is an unfortunately limited view of courage. Tris becomes that shy girl you knew in high school who became a wild child when she went off to college. She gets tattooed, seeks thrills such as jumping from tall buildings, and has the desire to beat the living daylights out of anyone she doesn't like. With its punch-first mentality, the novel hardly seems to set a good example for teens and it makes the story that much less interesting for adults.

Other notable characters include Caleb, Tris's brother; Four, one of the leaders of the Dauntless, and the love interest for Tris; Eric, the merciless leader of the Dauntless; and then some of Tris's friends from other factions who also choose to join Dauntless: Will, Christina, and Al. There are also her rivals, who include Peter and Lynn, as well as some others whose names I forget. Most of the characters have blank personalities, known simply for liking another character or just being a jerk. Only Tris and Four have more complexity. The romance between the two begins just like any other teenage romance, where the characters only tease one another with glimpses of their feelings. Tris doesn't understand why Four is so interested in her, though it's obvious to us readers. Her upbringing has made her unable to see any of her own qualities that might attract somebody to her. And Four is not the only one. Al shows interest in her, but Tris is not interested. At least she has the decency not to lead him on, however, unlike a certain Twilight heroine.

Al represents some of the story's misplaced values. Al is a faction transfer from Candor. He's a massive physical presence, but also very kind and sensitive. This sensitivity automatically removes him from any possibility of being seen as a romantic figure. He's just not dangerous enough. Tris can't like him because she sees him as a coward, yet there are several instances where Al does something extremely courageous. In one moment he defies the Dauntless leader when he helps a friend. Tris, however, judges him as a coward due to his approach to the fighting that is required for Dauntless initiates. After knocking out his friend, Will, Al decides he does not want to fight simply for the sake of hurting another person. So he bows out of each fight early. I see this as an act of courage rather than one of cowardice. It takes a lot of courage to defy the values of the society you are a part of when you have a moral stance against them. The novel seems to be sending the wrong signals to teenage readers.

Another place the novel misplaces its values is in its denunciation of the Erudite faction. The Abnegation and the Erudite are at odds because the Abnegation, as the selfless faction, have taken the position of leadership. Only they can be trusted to act in the best interests of the others. The Erudite believe leadership should be shared, which does make sense. Roth leaves no doubts, however, that the Erudite are villainous. Of those who are Tris's biggest rivals, most or all of them are from Erudite. Even Eric, the cruel Dauntless leader and Four's biggest rival, comes from Erudite originally. Not only is knowledge power, Roth seems to be suggesting, it is evil. Hopefully the young adults who read this have sharp enough critical thinking skills not to buy into this mentality, because ignorance truly does cause people to value the wrong things.

These things make it hard for me to recommend Divergent, though I know plenty of teenagers do enjoy it. It's a simplistic book; its characters make childish decisions, even the adults. And yet, I found it intriguing enough by the end that I still wanted to keep reading, and will probably read to the end. It's much better than The Hunger Games, though I know many people will disagree. The Hunger Games had very little interest in the politics of its world, and it removes the psychological element from its violence, making it much easier to stomach the fact that teenagers are being killed by each other for the sake of entertainment. Tris is a much more introspective and curious character than Katniss, whose dullness and stupidity in Catching Fire made me quit the series altogether. Divergent also isn't afraid of having an affectionate romance, one where characters actually profess their love, caress one another, and even discuss sex (but not engage in it). Divergent is much more visceral and engages in a more complex game of politics than The Hunger Games (not that I mean to say the game is all that complex, just more complex).

So do I recommend Divergent? Part of me says no, at least not if you expect complex, adult themes. It seems to embrace violence and make it exciting, but people do get hurt, badly, and even killed. Yet Tris is psychologically affected by the violence. And although a strong part of me debated whether to continue the series while I was about three-quarters of the way through, events at the end changed my mind and made me want to continue on. That part of me would recommend it. Expect to be surprised, but don't expect to be amazed.

No comments:

Post a Comment