I read Divergent a long time ago, when I was just getting into using our ereaders, and starting to read book blogs, in December 2013. I reread it once after that, I can’t remember when, but I have since changed a lot. Since I had a paperback, I thought it would be perfect for this feature. The previous owner had marked it up and left notes in the margins, which was pretty cool, and I decided to do the same. My previous rating on goodreads was 5 stars, but I was trying to read critically, and I have to say that my opinion has changed significantly. Divergent is a fairly effective allegory/social commentary, but it doesn’t hold up as a world, and I found some issues with the plot. Obviously, you want to know all about them.
(ps. This is ‘tis the Season of Rereading, an annual feature where Shar and I reread books and reflect on how our opinions have changed. To read previous posts, just search, or follow the tag.
So what is Divergent about? If you somehow haven’t heard of it (there’s a movie and millions of copies and so on) There is a city which is Chicago (like, the Bean and something called the Hancock building are mentioned, it’s not disguised) and it has for some unknown reason, decided to divide itself by values, so there is a group of people who are honest, a group who are peaceful, a group who are brave, a group who are selfless and a group who are intelligent. A girl discovers that (shocker) she doesn’t fit into the any of the groups, joins a group anyway, makes friends, discovers herself, falls in love, and has to make hard choices to save other people’s lives. You know, pretty standard YA.
This story is clearly a critique of the social divisions in society (race, religion, sexuality, education level, profession, ethnic background etc.) and the way that young people are almost forced to choose between different groups which will define them forever. It also plays with ideas of violence, compassion, family, and loyalty. That’s great, and it’s good that authors layer that sort of thing into their stories, because of course YA readers are smart enough to deal with that and so on (I’m sorry, but somebody I talked to last week said ‘most YA is escapist trash’ and I CAN’T EVEN) I read somewhere that Roth developed this story after taking a psychology course, and I can totally see that. With the simulations and the family aspect, there is a lot about personality, attribution theory, social psychology (e.g. groupthink) and of course nature vs. nurture here. The allegory is not that subtle. I feel like Veronica Roth had a message to tell and constructed a story to tell it, instead of letting the ideas and message develop naturally.
This rereading made me notice a lot of things that I missed earlier. One of the things, sadly, was how weak the worldbuilding of this story with. We get allusions to history classes, a school, cars, trains, computers, oceans, hamburgers, lots of different crops, fresh food, electricity and so on without any indication of where these things come from, and why the people don’t wonder about them. In fact, at one point Tris wonders what is beyond her city—but how does she know that there’s a beyond. It doesn’t feel like a new world, it feels like a thin veneer over our own world that is ultimately quite meaningless. There are a lot of holes in the worldbuilding too. For example, currently Chicago has about 3 million people. In Divergent, there are 21 (if you count one who was left behind and one who was killed) Dauntless initiates. Assuming that each faction has about the same number, there are 100 kids who turned 16 this year. If the population is fairly constant, then there are 8000 people in the city (up to age 80). This means that a lot of people have gone missing, and nobody wonders about it. Of course, some of this is made clear in Insurgent and Allegiant, but a good story (and this one was written originally as a standalone) should be logical within itself. The whole culture just doesn’t make sense, and on this reread that really bothered me.
Also, I don’t want to spoil, but the plot is also very weak. The story is focused on Tris’s initiation into the faction of Dauntless, the brave. That seems to be the main buildup into the story. But the final conflict is not what you expect. Part of this is that the antagonistic force in the story is diluted between three very different villains—Peter, another teenage initiate; Eric, a Dauntless leader; and Janine, an Erudite leader. The foreshadowing is crude and poorly developed, which makes the eventual conflict (which is violent and horrible) feel manufactured, rather than a natural conclusion of Tris’s self-discovery story. Again, some of this is addressed in Insurgent, but it doesn’t stand on it’s own.
I have a lot more to say about Divergent, but this reread made me realise that it is badly disguised social commentary with a world and plot which do not withstand scrutiny. I’ve read a lot more YA since my first experience of Divergent, and become, I think, a much more critical reader. That context makes this rereading different, and perhaps more academic. There is a lot to say about this story, and it’s not all bad (Divergent does, after all, have a healthy appreciation for baked goods). But the narritave ultimately fell short for me this time.
Have you read Divergent? How has reading YA changed how you see YA ‘classics’ like this one? What do you want to reread? Let me know in the comments!