I think I went too far when I said in my Hunger Games review that the movie might be better than the book. I certainly liked it better, because, as I said, seeing the events in scenes was more engaging than reading the author’s info dump exposition. However, I’m beginning to realize something about myself: I think I have trouble engaging with stories written in the first person perspective.
I’m not sure why this is the case. Perhaps because the storytelling style is emotion and thought-based, and as a visual thinker, I’m better able to connect with stories in third person, where locations and actions define the plot.
I bring all this up as prelude to another scandalous assertion. Having recognized this shortcoming and doing what I can to see past it, I still must conclude that Veronica Roth’s ongoing Divergent Trilogy is, in many respects, better than the Hunger Games.
An indeterminate distance into the future, civilization has basically had to start over, creating a large enclave in the middle of a no man’s land, and the population is split into factions. The text lays this out at the very beginning of the first book, Divergent:
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality…They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray. Those who blamed aggression formed Amity. … Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite. … Those who blamed duplicity created Candor. … Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation. … And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”
Divergent follows Beatrice Prior, a member of the austere Abnegation. She’s sixteen, and it is time for her to undergo aptitude tests and decide whether to remain with her family, leave and dedicate herself to a different faction.
Beatrice has always felt too expressive, too self-invested for Abnegation, so when the day comes, she chooses Dauntless, essentially the society’s militia.
Beatrice begins a complex journey of self-discovery as she and the other initiates become the bone of contention in a cultural conflict within the Dauntless and tries to figure out where she belongs in it. She at once relishes it, getting tatooed and adopting the less ‘soft’ name of ‘Tris’ but also harboring deep doubt about the faction’s ways.
For Beatrice, the conflict is made deeper by her own secret: faction aptitude is determined by simulations – artificial dreams – that give you a set of options to see what you choose. But Tris finds herself able to defy the limits of the simulations or even shrug off their false reality altogether. She is Divergent, not fixed in any faction. A dangerous secret which becomes critical as a power play by between factions turns bloody, using the simulations as weapons to seize control, leaving only the lucky and the Divergent, like Tris, at liberty to fight back.
The second book, Insurgent, finds Tris and her comrades on the run, taking refuge in other factions and moving on as the conflict expands. As they move, they begin to piece together a ragtag group of freedom fighters including the factionless, the underclass of dropouts from one faction or another. Layers of conspiracy and rebellion bubble up as friends and enemies have to band together to fight in a common cause, and to uncover the dark secrets that triggered it. At the same time, Tris goes through a harrowing psychological breakdown as she copes with the losses she’s suffered in friends, family and innocence in the process.
Teenaged girl, forced like a square peg into a round hole, forced to fight and suffer trauma in a deeply flawed post-apocalyptic society? One suspects we’re in for another situation like the one I outlined between the Mortal Instruments and Harry Potter, that the plot is just the Hunger Games in the mirror. But in the case of Divergent, it actually achieves many of the things that Hunger Games had the potential to be, but wasn’t.
My fundamental problem with Hunger Games is that the story had suspense and an engaging main character and not much else. Divergent’s story is intricate, with multiple overlapping conspiracies still being uncovered right up, so far, until the cliffhanger ending of book two. The characters show a great emotional range, especially Tris herself. What gets me the most is the emotional arc; the Hunger Games Trilogy basically starts bleak and goes steadily downhill from there, so that by book three the angst and pain is so oppressive it becomes white noise.
For Tris, there is trauma, fear and bitterness, but there’s also catharsis, hope, tenderness and even a dry and genuinely funny comic relief element. This helps give the plot a pace and liveliness that is difficult to imagine in such a grim situation, but that actually works really well! And on another note, I am delighted to announce that there is no love triangle in Divergent! Tris’ relationship with her fellow Dauntless and teacher, known to most as ‘Four,’ is loving, passionate, yet turbulent and full of quarrels, and achieves that without resorting to trashy lothario figures or stereotypical female indecisiveness. That said, in the pursuit of emotional complexity, I think Roth neglected to give characters distinctive voices or physical descriptions, so it can be hard to keep track. Still, that’s likely based in my own issues with this style.
World-building is ongoing but I like what I see so far. I am a little confused by the geographical layout of the community, and for some reason the whole society/nation/whatever doesn’t appear to have a name. Perhaps that’s the point; the whole society is living in a bubble of sorts. One area the Hunger Games did better was that it was at least somewhat clear how society got to the point it was in with Panem, whereas here no such explanation is forthcoming. Not yet, anyway. While each faction sets itself apart, they all serve a purpose: Erudite are the doctors, scientists and technicians; Abnegation are the civil servants; Amity are the agricultural sector; Candor are the merchants; come to think of it, Dauntless is the only one whose function is left ill-defined. A brief mention is made of them protecting the others, but the question of ‘from what’ has yet to be answered and the initiates are never taught any mission statement or code. They just seem to spend all their time beating each other up.
That plot hole does lead into a key nuance of the story. Every faction has both virtues and vices: Erudite are intelligent and curious but smug and amoral; Amity is gentle but spineless; Candor is honest but gormless; Abnegation is generous but cold and hypocritically stuck up about their own humility; Dauntless, meanwhile, are brave and free-spirited, but violent and macho. None of them are shown as being monolithically good or evil.
Thematically, the books have a lot going on, and I can detect a lot of levels in play. Key to the whole thing is the assertion that you can’t be a complete human being just by being one way or another, and Tris shows an ongoing journey to discover where the lines are best drawn. The simple fact that she can’t be categorized makes her a classic everywoman. She doesn’t leap off the page the way Katniss does, but she works in a lot more ways.
The other thing that really strikes me about Roth’s story is that it is a tract against oversimplifying. Each faction pigeonholed themselves against what they saw as the one true flaw in society, but in the end none of them solved the real problems of division, bigotry and dogmatism, and ignored the constant balancing act human beings have to do to get along with each other and still be true to themselves. This is best shown with Dauntless, who seem like they started out as honorable warriors but have devolved into bullies and shallow thrill seekers.
At the same time, the risks of major change is shaping up to be an important theme later. This gives even the villains an understandable angle and psychology, and villains exist right across all the factions. Not to rag on the Hunger Games to excess, but compare the clear ideological drivers of Divergent to Panem’s Capitol, whose political philosophy adds up to ‘let’s grind everybody into the dirt and steal their kids for a larf!’
My problems with first-person stories – that I have trouble visualizing and occasionally lose track of characters and events – remain, but Divergent and Insurgent are the deepest and most profound read I’ve had for a while, and everything that young adult literature really should be. It seems to be flying under the radar as yet, but once the third book, Allegiant, arrives and the Hunger Games and Mortal Instruments manias have burned out, I think it’ll be in a good place.
“I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.”
– Spock, Star Trek episode the “Squire of Gothos”