“I tip my chin up. I will not flinch. If I flinch, I prove to Eric that this is not as easy as I said it was; I prove that I’m a coward” (Divergent, page 163).
“I was so afraid that we would just keep colliding over and over again if we stayed together, and that eventually the impact would break me. But now I know I am like the blade and he is like the whetstone –” (Allegiant, page 416).
It was just before I moved across the country to begin my MA in Children’s Literature that a very dear friend of mine gave me the first two books of Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy, Divergent and Insurgent (published by HarperCollins in 2011 and 2012 respectively.) Roughly five hundred pages each, the length of the books foolishly put me off for weeks, and when I finally sat down to read the first one I quickly regretted not picking it up sooner. This story is packed with emotion and action; with a fast pace you’ll find yourself turning all five hundred of those pages in no time.
If you know which Hogwarts House you’re a member of (I’m in Ravenclaw), if you know which district of The Hunger Games you’d prefer to live (probably either District 3 or 8), then you’ll love the five factions of the dystopian world of this trilogy. Set after a terrible war, everyone lives by one of five principles: the selfless Abnegation, the brave Dauntless, the intelligent Erudite, the peaceful Amity, the honest Candor. At sixteen a person takes a test to see which principle they best emulate, and then they must choose to either stay in the faction they were born, or choose to leave their family to emulate a different principle and live with a different faction.
It’s not much of a spoiler to mention that Beatrice/ Tris Prior, the first person narrator and protagonist of this series has inconclusive test results, labeling her as “Divergent,” which she must keep secret or else she will be executed as a threat to the system. She chooses to join Dauntless, the brave, leaving her parents in Abnegation. The first book chronicles her initiation and testing to prove that she is indeed brave enough to be a member of this group. Those that fail initiation become functionless, something Tris believes is the worst fate a person could have. However, Tris is not Dauntless, she is Divergent, and spends the entire book constantly fighting her own identity in order to prove her worth.
The novel feels very similar to queer fiction. The protagonist’s true identity is a threatening secret that she must resist, and ultimately she finds true love with someone that shares this secret. However, the other Divergent character, and Tris’ love interest, is not another woman, but rather a man named Four. Is that a criticism? No, but the general lack of queer characters and the tokenistic representation of the two there are in the whole trilogy is.
Tris and Four’s relationship becomes a central focus at the end of Divergent and throughout Insurgent and Allegiant (HarperCollins 2013). I would argue that Insurgent is the worst of all three books simply because it features far too much of Tris and Four bickering and arguing, with quite a lot of sexual tension in between. However, in Allegiant they overcome their relationship issues to establish a bond of mutual trust and respect. It is incredibly important to note that Four is known for being incredibly powerful, skilled and brave, and yet his attraction to Tris is her own strength. This is not a relationship grounded in traditional gender norms, nor does Tris give up her own identity for his sake so he may be more dominant. This is a really important lesson for both young women and men, that women do not need to be weak and subservient to be desirable, and that a relationship is built out of equality.
As dystopian novels, only the first book feels especially threatening to Tris’ life, however this expands exceptionally by the end of Divergent. The setting is familiar, and yet clearly destroyed by war and changed by fascism, where people have lost the right to construct their own identities. In Allegiant, truths are revealed, and locations become even more familiar, helping the messages of the text hit home.
While the first two of the trilogy present strong themes of anti-intellectualism, (something I, as an Erudite, didn’t really appreciate), by the third book it is clear that the real message is that people should be free to be who they are. With this in mind, love also becomes a central theme, true selfless, sacrificial love. While many readers were angry with the conclusion to the final book, keeping these themes in mind, the book concludes exactly as it should, and is ultimately beautiful, true and poetic.