Confronting Fear – My Thoughts on Divergent

Welcome back! This is the first year I’ve ever attempted to make New Year’s resolutions and since one of them was a higher commitment to posting here, I decided new year, new look. So far, I’m thinking change is good.

So for this post I wanted to take a look at Divergent by Veronica Roth because I’ve had a few ideas kicking around in my head for a while now. I realize I’m a little behind on the hype surrounding both the books and the movie, but I still wanted to take a look at it because there are some elements worth pointing out. I picked up Divergent not really out of a desire to read it, but more at the recommendation of a friend and a need to pass the time. I’d actually ruled it out years earlier, when it first came out, because even in a small excerpt on Amazon, I could see too many similarities to Hunger Games, and I didn’t want to keep reading the same things over and over.

I tend to agree with a lot of critics – I enjoyed the story but I didn’t think it stood out in any way. While it has a different setting and different rules, I found it still too similar to Hunger Games.The similarities include: writing style, the world (with its divided society), the pervasive anxiety throughout, the fear of oppression and the consequences of one choice.

I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of the book because it doesn’t bring up anything I would call new. Even its main message isn’t one that I found to be particularly groundbreaking or thought provoking: that people can’t be categorized as just one thing, and that society loses a certain depth and spontaneity when we don’t acknowledge people who think differently. It’s a worthwhile message, don’t get me wrong, but I found it to be an overly intuitive one that I’ve heard so many times growing up.

It’s even less impactful for me considering that I am a psychology student and I know how complex personality really is, and therefore how unrealistic it is to have a society that splits people up according to a single characteristic. I also know what divergent thinking – and its opposite, convergent thinking – is and how we use it. Divergent thinking is, unsurprisingly, linked to creativity and spontaneity. Problem is, that we all use divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Different tasks call for one or the other, or even both together. When you want to open up possibilities, you use divergent thinking. When you want to narrow down possibilities, you use convergent thinking. Basically, we’re all Divergent. Needless to say, I would have liked to see something that complicates our assumptions about personality, rather than simplifies them.

All that being said, I was surprised to find a little golden nugget tucked away within a story that, in every other aspect, I felt like I’d seen before. The main character, Tris, in turning sixteen and therefore coming of age, must undergo the rite of passage, the Choosing Day. During this ceremony she must pick a faction to join as an adult member of society. While the general expectation is that people choose the factions they were born into, there is nothing to stop them from choosing a different faction. Tris chooses, not her native Abnegation (characterized by selflessness), but it’s opposite, Dauntless (brave). For the most part, this faction met my expectations – it promoted daring, impulsivity, recklessness, and risk-taking. It sought to train them in weapons and hand to hand combat, and it hardened its members into hardy people who are capable of pushing their limits to the breaking point. But in the midst of all this militaristic training, came something I was not expecting. Part of the challenges the new Dauntless recruits face throughout the book is how to master their fear. They undergo simulations that somehow pinpoint each individual’s unique fears and each person must devise a way to overcome each fear to pass the final test. The most remarkable thing about this test is that its aim, along with exposing people to hard, scary situations, also teaches them to accept fear as an inevitable part of life. Surprisingly, the book teaches that the absence of fear is not the goal, but rather arriving at place where that fear will not incapacitate you.

The best illustration of this comes in the form of the character of Four, the male lead and love interest. Four’s unusual name comes from the number of fears he must confront in the simulation – the lowest number anyone has registered to date. Despite the fact that he has managed to overcome more than his peers, he admits to Tris that these four fears never truly go away, and he has to make his peace with that.

Personally I found that to be a much more compelling message than the one about embracing divergence, both in thinking and in personality. Well roundedness is something I support whole heartedly, but in a world that is becoming smaller and smaller as we become a global community rather than many localized communities, difference stares at us in the face every day. Furthermore, in this genre that targets teenagers and young adults, the issue of being different and what it means is a founding staple. Fear, on the other hand, while present in all kinds of literature, is not something I have often seen handled so insightfully and I think it is a great message to send to this target audience.

Lastly, I liked how Roth handled the conflict within Dauntless. As Tris learns more about her new home, she realizes that they are fast becoming far more militant than intended when the faction was founded. Admittedly the “fear landscapes,” as they’re called, are used to desensitize the members of Dauntless and make them more able soldiers unhindered by normal fear, but in my opinion this was counteracted by the constant contrast between the Dauntless Four and Tris envision and the one that currently exists. The two of them, in trying to make sense of the rapidly escalating events, manage to send the message that bravery is not the same thing as fearlessness, but rather resolve in the face of that fear.

That little insight, however, isn’t all that original either, and that didn’t escape me. But Roth handled it in a way that made the fear personal and unique to each character and that was enough to salvage it for me.

As far as ratings go, it’s an entertaining book. The movie is also a great adaptation. If you’re willing to ignore some of the thematic problems with it then it’s a great story to lose yourself in. The writing is strong and Tris is your typical twenty-first century heroine – tough and capable; never whiny. Sometimes that’s all you can ask from a book.

Stay tuned for next week’s post when I’ll go through what I thought about the hot new book in post-apocalyptic YA fiction, Red Rising by Pierce Brown.

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