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By: Aishwarya Subramanian
‘Divergent’ is an example of story telling that grants full humanity only to the extraordinary.
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 is due to the special circumstances of his past; we’re given no hints that normal children, not the subjects of prophecy, 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 was just 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 composed of those who strive towards the value after which it is named. At 16, 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. 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 the powerful as dangerous.
It’s Tris’s trainer and eventual lover who articulates Divergent’s critique of its system. “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” It’s never 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 story is as a sort of coming of age, a defining of one’s own identity and a setting continued…