“Divergent,” which opens today, has been hailed as either the next “Hunger Games” or as a massive “Hunger Games” ripoff. It is both, but where it leaves its source material (“Harry Potter” included) is in the religious proselytizing throughout. Teenagers are born again in all YA fiction, in a sense. But in the Divergent books it is a specifically Christian moral imposition and major reason the series fails.
The dystopian Chicago in “Divergent” consists of five factions: Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, Candor, and Dauntless. Members follow the moral dictates of their leaders (except the pacifist Amity hippies who have only apples, and no leaders) and proudly rock their tribalism.
The faction of our hero, Beatrice, is Abnegation, but you can call it “Abstinence.” Members hide under drab grey robes, flirting takes place through fleeting glimpses at someone’s turned back, mirrors and vanity are banned, life’s work is charity, and parents are respected. It is the only faction that still prays to the old god. Pure and uncorrupted, Abnegation is later persecuted by Erudite — the faction of knowledge.
Throughout the series, Erudite is demonized, using its scientific knowledge to mess with everyone’s minds and control society. Lying is inherent in Erudite, which distributes misinformation and works to undermine the government in search of total power. The sins racked up under Erudite leadership, and knowledge of those sins, lead one character to choose a lobotomy.
The holocaust — which is never explained fully, even in the final unpacking of the crooked, gaping plot in Allegiant — is a biblical flood. Man couldn’t be trusted, it is explained, and the current system was set up “as a way to help society regain the moral sense it had lost.” When we find the chosen one, we can have the second coming.
So, inside the science experiment, we have Beatrice (“Tris” after the fall) and her brother Caleb: pure specimens in the giant petri dish of Chicago, located somewhere east of Eden. In their sixteenth year, the children must choose which faction they will be with for the rest of their lives: their blood faction, or the faction that calls to their particular moral makeup. You can only be smart, or peaceful, or daring, or selfless, or honest, but not more than one. Even if decisions made at 16 feel seismic, it’s fair to say that if you screw up at 16 you get more chances, and that you can differ from your parents without losing your entire identity. In the aptitude test, Beatrice finds out that she has characteristics of more than one faction, making her Divergent. This is dangerous, we are told, again and again. Beatrice must not tell anyone.
In order to become The Special One and join Dauntless, Tris must literally take a leap of faith, jumping off a building into the void as her first initiation challenge. (A second time, she flies down a zip line and feels like she is flying.) As a new member of Dauntless, Tris — the “stiff” — goes on a rumspringa; there is chocolate cake to be had, tattoos are tattooed, friends are made, the candidates use their bodies violently and physically (running is not permitted in Abnegation — too joyful!), and the hottest camp counselor/love interest of all time is met: Four. He exudes male sexual energy, and experience, and is a damaged soul to boot (lashed by his father) — the holy trinity for a cloistered evangelical kid.
Part of the initiation process for Dauntless members is a cognitive simulation in which characters battle their innermost fears. It is significant that Tris’ fears include a rape fantasy of sorts, in which Four wants to have sex with her before she is ready. Roth claims that the Twilight-length courtship between the chaste Tris and Four has nothing to do with her Christianity, but there is guilt inherent in all of their intimate sequences. Before Four can be nice to Tris and reveal his true identity (he’s a stiff and Divergent, just like her), we must worry about whether he is a physical threat. In the eventual (only) copulation, Tris worries that she will “keep colliding” with Four and never stop — so much rides on this union that we have to believe it was destined. No screwing around in this series.
Roth bandies about the idea of ultimate sacrifice again and again, but it is really about finding a way to transcend the shabby world she has created. Both Tris’ parents sacrifice their lives for her, leaving her riddled with guilt over whether she can live up to their hopes. Tris tries to come to terms with the knowledge that her parents were wrong about the world, but the book sympathizes with their creed. Writes Roth in a blog post:
“[Tris] struggled throughout Divergent to reconcile two identities: her Abnegation identity, which Four points out to her, and her Dauntless identity. It’s just before her mother gives up her life that Tris figures out how those identities fit together, combining selflessness and bravery and love for all her family and love for her faction all together under one umbrella: Divergent.
A little umbrella called cognitive dissonance! Roth is hung up on the notion of reconciling Tris’ parents’ belief system with free will, as she shows through Tris in Allegiant:
“I belong to the people I love, and they belong to me — they, and the love and loyalty I give them, form my identity far more than any word or group ever could.”
Where the series starts off looking like a typical the-adults-are-away! fantasy, it turns sharply back toward familial loyalty, chastity, and self-denial. I guess there can be no happy ending in a book built on such a philosophy until you reach finish the game and redeem your heavenly rewards.
Veronica Wrath is a pseudonym, obviously.