Analyzing the Divergent Trilogy: It’s More Relevant Than We Think

03/10/2014

My son was looking for another series for us to read so, based on the hype surrounding the upcoming Divergent movie, I decided to look into the series. I was pleasantly surprised by how exciting and relevant the trilogy truly is. The Divergent trilogy takes place in a dystopian world – the city of Chicago – in which most people belong to one of five “factions” based on their philosophy about what causes war. It is an interesting set-up but what has been most fascinating to me is how most people appear to be missing the heart of the series.

In most summaries of the plot (including in the previews and promotional materials for the upcoming movie), they shrink the Tris and members of her faction
factions into simplistic terms. Dauntless is composed of brave people, Erudite has the smart folks, Abnegation contains the selfless, Candor holds the honest people and Amity has the peaceful. As some reviewers have hilariously pointed out, the factions seem similar to the houses at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter world. While this may seem true at first (and I admit it’s fun to think about where you and your friends would fit), this misses the point the author, Veronica Roth, was trying to make.

In the world of Divergent, the factions are much more complex than sophisticated adjectives. They have a purpose: “They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.” In other words, people have divided themselves into world-views. This is indeed an interesting point and one which has modern-day relevance. If you take some of our groups into consideration – Religion, Race, Gender, Conservatives, Liberals – they start sounding pretty faction-like.

In general, human beings tend to divide into groups. Just ask any adolescent to tell you the different cliques at their school and most adults can list the group divisions at their work, religious organization or large social interactions. Humans just seem to group ourselves together automatically. Even people who feel separate from larger cultural groups appear to find or develop their own. That’s one of the reasons for inner city gangs. Yet one of the big critiques of Divergent is that people do not fit neatly into one box. Umm….yes, that’s the point!

That exact fact is not only in the book’s title (divergent meaning tending to develop in different directions) but it is also apparent in the idea that each 16 year old gets to choose their own faction. For some (like our heroine Tris), this means they are raised in one faction but choose another. It also is shown in how some of the older citizens display other faction characteristics because, as older adults will tell you, developing in different directions frequently happens with age.

The idea of divergence is implied more subtly in the rigid rules of the factions. In this society, one can automatically tell who belongs to which faction because of the obvious differences in behavior, appearance and employment. Shouldn’t that tell us all we need to know? In groups in which differences are discouraged (usually out of fear that people will decide otherwise), group norms are strictly enforced. One of the reasons the factions got so out of hand was that people were trying too hard to fit in where they thought they should. Instead of celebrating divergence, they doubled down on their own group characteristics.

Thus, while their philosophies started out benign, they quickly became toxic. And isn’t that where we are now in our society? Some of our groups (like gender and race) have put us into boxes for a long time but now the political designations are fast becoming rigid boxes of their own. They used to be just the way you look at the world but political groups have started influencing everything from friendships and identity to dating and education. Our groups impact where we shop, live, interact with others and even where we go on vacation. As such, decrease our numbers and place us all in Chicago and you pretty much have the world of Divergent.

So how do we avoid the grim fate of dystopian worlds like that of Divergent? How do we learn to live together despite our tendency to form groups? Psychology to the rescue! Many psychological experiments on prejudice (like the famous Robber’s Cave experiment) discovered that what is helpful is giving groups common goals that must be achieved together. Thus, the faction solution is not so crazy. In Divergent, each faction has a different type of jobs and all are essential to a successful society. So they had in place part of the answer.

Where the Divergent society went wrong was in ignoring the other piece of advice: integrating members. Instead of allowing people from other factions to participate in all job opportunities and holding larger societal gatherings which include everyone milling together, they segregated themselves. Faction members do interact but only in a limited fashion and mere contact is not enough to limit prejudice.

In order to avoid the ugliness and conflict that strict division engender, people from differing groups must know each other. We must have friendships with outside group members. Our leaders must not only work together but be seen positively interacting as well. Our society must have and enforce norms encouraging positive cooperation and discouraging hostility between groups. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like our society does a good job of this, so if we are to turn this around, the segregation of groups and beliefs must change.

All of these themes combined into one entertaining and exciting trilogy is one reason why I enjoy this series. There are other reasons I like it, including Tris, a strong female protagonist with intelligence, bravery and character. I appreciate that she has strong family ties and female friends in addition to the requisite boyfriend. I’m grateful that one of the reasons she likes her boyfriend so much is because he views her as strong and that they are equals. This kind of rich background doesn’t often happen to girls within popular culture.

I especially love the fact that the Divergent trilogy is just one in what has been a recent abundance of strong, female characters in literature who change a problematic world for the better (e.g., The Hunger Games, Matched, Delirium, Wither, Blood Red Road). It’s almost as if people are realizing that women possess many of the skills and traits needed to transform our world into something we can live in with hope and happiness. If this trend continues, if women as a group (and gender as a category) can achieve more cultural divergence, then perhaps we’re on the right track after all.

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