Over the years I’ve tried to read books that are popular with my students on campus, from The Hunger Games to The Fault in Our Stars. This year it seems like all of my students, mostly female though a few males, are reading Divergent. I wanted to be able to enter the conversation so I read them.
The first book, Divergent, starts in the classic “not too distant future” where things have not gone well. Unlike other dystopian novels this one centers on and stays within the confines of Chicago. Of course, none of the characters call it that, they simply refer to it as the city. In this city the entire society is grouped into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation and Candor. Each faction values one particular character trait. Children are born and raised in a faction but upon their 16th birthday they must choose which faction to be in for the rest of their lives.
There is a sixth group of people, the factionless, who are not part of any faction. They serve as the untouchables, the lowest caste, in the story. If you fail out of initiation to your faction you end up here.
It is easy to see why this book is popular – it has so many elements of other recent bestsellers as to wonder if there is a formula out there that all these authors have access to. We get the sorting hat ceremony and grouping with like-minded people (Harry Potter) set in the dystopian future world where a young heroine must fight against all odds to some sort of victory (The Hunger Games) In preparation for this we see lots of training for war (Ender’s Game). The heroine here is Tris. She grew up in the self-denying Abnegation faction only to turn to the wreckless warrior Dauntless faction. We learn early on that Tris is “Divergent” which means she possesses faculties of more than one faction. In other words, she does not fit societies desired mold and this makes her a threat.
I enjoyed Divergent much more then the other two books in the series. Upon reflection there were some red-flags there that point to larger problems in the second two books, but overall I found it an exciting and fun read.
For me, the problems came right away in book two. By problems I mean plot-holes large enough to drive a truck through. First of all, the climax of the first book comes when the Erudite (smart people) faction injects all the Dauntless with a serum, turning them into mindless, obedient robots. The Erudite then begin to use the Dauntless to murder all the Abnegation. Thankfully Divergent folks are immune to such serum so Tris, and the love of her life Four (yes, that’s his real name), save the day and stop the killing. In the second book we discover that half the Dauntless have joined the Erudite, leading to a split in the faction.
No explanation is given as to why they would do this. And it defies understanding. You are brainwashed, forced to murder people, come out of the brainwashing and decide to join those guys? The story had presented maybe a few Dauntless members who would go for joining Erudite, but having half was simply unbelievable.
Another huge plot hole comes when we find out Uriah, a member of Dauntless and friend of Tris, is also Divergent. Okay, so where was he at the end of book one? If he is Divergent, he wouldn’t have been under the serum. This would not be a plot hole if he simply explained where he was (“So all my friends were killing people and I tried to stop them but, gee-whiz Tris, you and Four stopped them first!“). No explanation is ever given.
There are other problems: who is keeping the trains running as society falls apart? What exactly does Candor, a people who always tell the truth, do in society? Are they all lawyers, and if so, how has a society with 1/5 lawyers even survived this long?
I found the third book a bit better then the second if for no other reason then they leave the city, thus expanding the world and giving us the opportunity to see what else is going on. It turns out Chicago is a huge social experiment in the hopes of creating genetically pure people to then reinvigorate society. How exactly this works is not really explained other than some vague talk of genes, but at least we find out what is out there. Of course, therein is the problem with this book. It takes us in a whole new direction from previous books with little explanation and introduces us to new characters who are not developed enough for us to care whether they live or die.
Further, the gaping plotholes return. Tris and her friends get ahold of some memory serum which they let loose on all the people at O’Hare airport (headquarters of the people running the Chicago experiment). The goal is to wipe their memories so they won’t destroy Chicago, and all the people in it. Destroying their memories will make them forget they care about genetic purity. But it won’t stop the people above them, the US government, from not caring. There is talk of other cities and other experiments and some sort of national government, so why would destroying only one location help much? Couldn’t the government just send in another team and get the work back on track?
Overall, I can see why this series is popular and I enjoyed the first book but the second two were disappointing. I hope if any of my students read this they do not hate me.
Divergent – 3 out of 5 stars
Insurgent – 2 out of 5 stars
Allegientt – 2 out of 5 stars.