On Divergent and self-definition and specialness

In theory, I like heroines who can kill, be morally imperfect, participate in revolts against the state, and movies that have young women hitting stuff and being heroic. A number of YA reviewers I read really like the Divergent series, and it is probably in my best interests for more women-centric action-y movies to exist.

Naturally, therefore, I’m going to whine about how bad the book and movie are. A version of this was in Saturday’s Indian Express.

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“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” says Albus Dumbledore to a young Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series often raises this question of choice versus destiny, always coming down on the side of choice; we’re told, for example, that Harry’s position as Voldemort’s nemesis is not so much the result of a prophecy, as of Voldemort’s believing it.

Of course, all of this takes place within a system in which children are divided into school houses based on their abilities. The cunning ones go to Slytherin, the clever ones to Ravenclaw, the brave ones to Gryffindor and the nice ones to Hufflepuff. That Harry himself is given a choice (the context for the quote above) is due to the special circumstances of his past; we’re given no hints that normal children, not the subjects of prophesy, have this level of control over the ways in which they’re to be categorised.

Then there’s Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a movie adaptation of which has recently been released. In Roth’s future Chicago the Hogwarts house system is the policy of an oppressive state. Society is divided into five ‘factions’, namely Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, each faction composed of those who strive towards the value after which it is named. At sixteen, children take aptitude tests to help them to determine in which faction they wish to spend their adult lives, and once they choose a faction they must stick to it or risk becoming one of the “factionless” who live outside society altogether.

The audience isn’t told how any of this is supposed to work (or, indeed, why the ancestors who named the factions were unable to tell the difference between nouns and adjectives). It’s a fundamentally silly premise, only really there to facilitate the story of its heroine.

Beatrice (eventually Tris) Prior has been raised in Abnegation, where they eat plain food, wear baggy grey clothes and are allowed to look in the mirror only once in every few months. Unable to entirely embrace Abnegation’s selflessness, she isn’t sure she belongs in this faction. Her test results, when she takes them, prove inconclusive. As Tori, the woman who administers her test explains, Tris is Divergent, a rare subset of the population who cannot easily be slotted into a category, and whose deviation from the norm is seen by those in power as dangerous.

It’s Tris’ trainer and eventual lover, Four, who articulates Divergent’s critique of its system. “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” It’s never very clear how this oppressive state would derive tangible benefit from preventing any of this. But one way of reading the teenage-protagonist-versus-oppressive-state novel is as a sort of coming of age, a defining of one’s own identity, and a setting of boundaries. Perhaps this is why Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy is angriest when she is used as a pawn; plots like these literalise a struggle for the right to self-determination, for a physical and moral integrity. It’s fitting that Tris begins her story by leaving Abnegation and giving herself a new name, and the movie makes good use of mirrors, allowing her for the first time to look at herself and claim herself. I suspect Divergent wants to be a story about this claiming of self, and of the right not to be limited by externally-imposed boundaries.

Unfortunately, there’s also the problem of the Very Special Hero. “You don’t fit into a category”, says Tris’ mother, emphasis mine. Just as the Harry Potter books are about the important ‘choices’ of the already-marked-out-before-birth hero, Divergent focuses its argument for self-definition free of categories on a character of whose specialness we are reminded of at every step. Tris can’t be easily slotted into a category, not because people are human and multifaceted (though by having its villain constantly rant about the awfulness of human nature the story nods towards this idea) but because she is part of so rare a subset of humans; later books in the series raise the ways in which she is superior to the level of the genetic. It’s an approach to storytelling that grants full humanity only to the extraordinary. Does it matter that Tris is physically smaller than most of those she has to fight if we’re constantly having it hammered into us that she is fundamentally better than them?

And yet Tris, and Divergent, are underdogs in some ways. Even in the wake of The Hunger Games it’s an uphill battle to get the mainstream movie industry to realise that action movies starring women might be successful, or that stories for teenaged girls needn’t be immediately dismissed. Without closing my eyes to the ways in which Divergent is generic and often silly, I’d like to see the pleasingly ruthless, by no means self-abnegating Tris punch her way into box office success.

I’d also like the occasional Hufflepuff hero, but one can’t have everything.

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3 Comments to “On Divergent and self-definition and specialness”

  1. Everybody yearns to see Hufflepuff win out in the end.

  2. I can’t get past the grammatical inconsistency of how the factions are named long enough to quibble over the symbolism of intelligence as evil. ADJECTIVE OR NOUN, PICK ONE. So frustrating.

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