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Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

February 19, AD 2015 1 Comment

As a young mother of a young baby, the opportunity to do something purely for my own entertainment comes around very rarely. On one of those rare opportunities, my husband and I rented a few movies from RedBox and snuggled down on the couch with cups of cocoa and some blessed quiet time.

One of the movies we rented was the 2014 film Divergent, an action-packed dystopian adventure based on Veronica Roth’s 2011 novel of the same name. Like most book-turned-movie-meant-for-young-people-especially-girls, Divergent the movie featured a beautiful teenage woman (Tris, played by Shailene Woodley) who is a little special and different from her family and community members. A handsome young man (Four, played by Theo James) serves as the mystery man/love interest, and together they take on their society in pursuit of Love and Truth and Justice or whatever the teenage equivalent of those things is.

Something in the film, though, struck me as more than the standard dystopian book-turned-movie that has graced the silver screen lately. The society Tris and Four find constrictive really is not that bad. The story is set in a post-war Chicago where the entire city has been broken into five “factions”—groups where every individual lives and works his or her entire life. At sixteen years old each citizen has the opportunity to choose one of the factions, but once the choice is made, you have to stick with it for life or else become a member of the “factionless”—the impoverished, violent, sickly, alcoholic people who, because they have no faction, also have no friends, no family, and no home.

The five factions are based on virtues. According to the mythos of the society, after a war that destroyed almost all humanity, survivors gathered in Chicago where they swore to never make the same mistakes as their ancestors. The survivors considered each of the possible human evils that might lead to war: selfishness, anger, lies, cowardice, and stupidity, and formed factions of those who would join together in virtuous practice to eliminate the evil they thought worst. The factions are known as Abnegation (whose members exemplify the virtue of selflessness), Amity (the virtue of peacefulness), Candor (the virtue of honesty), Dauntless (the virtue of bravery) and Erudite (the virtue of intelligence).

All members of the society, no matter what faction, are equal: distinctions of class or sex do not exist, no one individual is deprived or privileged compared with his fellow faction members, no faction is deprived or privileged compared to the others. Peace seems to reign because those who value brutal honesty all live together (in Candor) while those who value selflessness (Abnegation) serve in the government, where their dedication to others is protected from corruption by their natural giftedness for serving others, etc.

The idea of the factions in this strange post-apocalyptic world where people live together according to virtue fascinated me.* After talking over the movie with my husband until he was bored to tears, I decided I just had to read the novel.

I devoured the novel. Indeed, I devoured the entire trilogy within a week. Where the movie was somewhat interesting in a tried-and-true genre, the novel was truly intriguing.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the Tris of the book is not beautiful. Roth describes her as knobby-knuckled, short, over-skinny, flat-chested, and long-nosed. In Tris’ own words, “I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen” (Roth 7). As the story progresses, we learn from other characters that Tris is not afflicted with false humility: she really does look like a little girl, she really is not beautiful.

Tris’ physical appearance indicates that she is a different kind of heroine than Katniss, Hermione, Isabela or Clarke. She is as imperfect on the outside as she is on the inside, and wow is she imperfect on the inside. Reading Hunger Games I sometimes thought I might want my little girl in potentia to grow up to be like Katniss Everdeen. Nobody wants their little girl to be like Tris. Tris is prideful, impulsive, and arrogant; she takes dangerous risks and has a thin streak of self-loathing; at times she is selfish, self-centered, and cruel, but Tris can also be enormously forgiving and generous.

Tris, in other words, is a believable teenage girl. But more than a teenager, Tris is a believable human being. In a society organized by virtue, Tris struggles with every single virtue. She also wants to be a good person, and she recognizes that overemphasizing any one virtue leads to the detriment of the others. Tris, in other words, is a one-woman argument for the unity of the virtues. She recognizes that the friendliness of the Amity can arise from falsehoods and delusion, that the bravery of the Dauntless can lead to cruelty, the truthfulness of the Candor leads to that awful verbal harshness sometimes expressed by children, and the selflessness of the Abnegation can lead to the obliteration of self. Tris wants to be, and is, greater than all these things. Tris wants to be smart and brave and truthful without giving up her individuality and the love of those she cares for. She wants to prefer some people to others but to recognize that all people have value.

So why am I posting a book review about a book whose heroine is unlikable but believable on a Catholic blog?

Because Tris is the Everyman.**

Or, in her case, the EveryTeen.

The saga told by Divergent is a morality tale for our time, one which highlights the importance of virtue and love, not in a flat or simplistic way, but in a rich and rounded character. No one is perfect, in fact, most of us are spectacularly imperfect, but none of us is excused from the pursuit of perfection. Tris wants to become a good human being, she recognizes the good exemplified by each of the factions, and she also recognizes that one virtue—as promoted by the faction system—is not enough: good human beings have all the virtues.

Of course, a good novel (or trilogy!) does not chronicle the easy acquisition of virtues. Tris is torn down—by friends, family, enemies, society, herself…God—so that the scales can be lifted from her eyes and she can grow into a new and better person.*** As the trilogy progresses, Roth tackles one of our contemporary Everyman’s problems that the original Everyman did not have to face: nature vs nurture, science vs soul, the human animal vs the human person.

Tris, like us, has a long, hard road to becoming more human, more virtuous, than her society wants her to be. For Tris to truly flourish in the unity of the virtues, she needs to shed herself while taking possession of herself, a truly remarkable feat.

In short, I recommend Divergent. I recommend the whole series. It is violent, passionate, and intriguing. It is human. It is, I dare say, Catholic.

*SPOILER: In case you have not noticed yet, intelligence is not a virtue like selflessness, peacefulness, honesty, and bravery are. As the watcher/reader, then, we are tipped off from the beginning that Erudite is home of the bad apples: it is an entire faction organized around a measure of pride rather than virtue.

**For those of you who are not familiar with Everyman, it is an English morality play from the 15th century. A “morality play” is a stage-production which, you guessed it, teaches morals to the audience. All the characters have very obvious representative names (for instance, “Everyman” is the main character, and he represents every man). Everyman encounters a number of temptations presented by society in the form of other characters, characters with names like “Fellowship” or “Material Goods.” These things/characters are not bad in of themselves, but should not be regarded as the most important or significant aspects of Everyman’s life; God, and only God, deserves that distinction.

***My editor asked me, “Do we as Catholics believe in a God who tears us down?” The answer is yes, yes, absolutely yes. One of the most important moments in every person’s spiritual journey is the moment when God brings her to recognize her finitude and her unworthiness. Think, for instance, of the scene in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_of_the_Dawn_Treader#Film.2C_TV_or_theatrical_adaptations ) when Aslan tears away Eustace’s wicked dragon skin. God’s humbling of Tris is a more subtle affair, but you will notice it especially in the second book (Insurgent http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/insurgent-veronica-roth/1105707005?ean=9780062024046) if you pay attention.

About the Author:

After growing up near Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capitol of the World, Siobhan knew she would always live in a bustling capitol city. She earned a B.A. in Theology, History, and Classics at Mount St. Mary's University and an M.A. in Theology (specializing in Systematics) at Villanova University. Now she lives in Washington, D.C. with her wonderful husband where she is still getting used to living with a boy, right down to playing video games and watching football. When she's not hanging out with him or reading novels, she uses her spare time to earn a PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.