I can wholeheartedly say that my love for Divergent by Veronica Roth in middle school was unhealthy. The embarrassing image of thirteen year old me laying in bed listening to ‘sad music’ next to my poster of Theo James as Four is burned into my brain.
Divergent drew me in for all of the usual reasons: a strong female protagonist, dystopian reality, lots of fighting, and of course a forbidden romance. It was also very popular at the time because of the impending film. Mostly, I was excited to read a book that my friends were reading, too.
I could go on and on about the failings of the Divergent films. With the success of Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games on the big screen, everyone assumed that Divergent was going to be the next big blockbuster franchise.
While there is a lot to be said about why the films flopped, I do think a discussion of the source material is warranted. Let’s be real: Divergent is the best book of the trilogy. Insurgent and Allegiant just do not match the plot, worldbuilding, and characterization of the first novel. So maybe the film sequels were already set up for failure because the books shoehorned them into a trajectory that a lot of Divergent fans disapprove of. Or maybe it’s the fact that the movies didn’t stay true to the source material that hurts them in the long run.
Let’s talk about what makes Divergent a great book from the YA perspective. It has received criticism for being similar to The Hunger Games, but I think that this critique is a bit surface level. Sure, they’re both teenage protagonists tackling rebellion. But in Divergent, Tris begins the story unaware of the negativity afforded by her complicity to the faction system. This is different from Katniss, a protagonist who begins the novel with her own agency motivated by a deep hatred for the Capitol.
Divergent really tackles the complex theme of personal identity. The faction system stunts personal growth, and thus personal freedom. The illusion of choice in the faction system is shown when Tris is able to select the faction she enters into for adulthood. But choices in Divergent are all a part of a larger constricting society. By choosing Dauntless, Tris limits her freedom to a certain way of thought and behavior that is required for the faction she enters.
While Divergent causes us to question the true scope of our personal freedoms, the trilogy starts to loose its footing in the second novel, Insurgent. We’ve played through the theme of identity in Divergent and followed Tris on her journey of self-discovery. But the strength begins to waiver in this series because it doesn’t really have a moral message to guide it through two more books. It feels not only as if the story has met an ideological resolution, but also the protagonist.
When I think of Tris’ desire, it can be split into what she wants and what she needs. Tris wants many things throughout the series, but the overarching want that she has is to protect other people. Even when characters like her brother Caleb egregiously wrong her, she cannot let go of the desire to keep them safe. This want to protect everyone leads Tris out of the city.
While Insurgent and Allegiant attack the want Tris has, the books never tackle her internal need. This is an issue because in order for Tris to achieve her goal of protecting others, she has to learn the lesson of her internal need. In this story, what Tris needs is to learn the lesson that she must value and protect herself the way she does other people. A recurring issue for her is that Tris fixates on the concept of selflessness, that she must constantly sacrifice herself for the good of others. But this conflicts with her desire to protect people because by endangering herself she hurts those she cares about.
We see examples of other character’s frustration with Tris throughout the books. Repeatedly Tobias warns her that she will get hurt if she keeps putting herself at risk for other people. He reasons with her that it is important to also protect herself.
While this conflict is brought up over and over again, the message is not received. Insurgent and Allegiant follows Tris as she takes risk after risk to protect herself and other people and each time causes herself more and more harm. This continues to build up until the end of the final book.
And then comes the biggest shock of the whole franchise: (Spoiler Alert!) Tris dies.
Yes, I cried. Yes, I took to Tumblr for support. Never in my reading life had I encountered a novel where the lead protagonist died. I don’t resent the idea of killing of the main character in theory. When done with purpose, I think it can be very powerful.
My feelings on Tris’ death are complicated. On one hand, I think it shows that her dangerous behavior had real consequences. On the other, it just felt really unnessicary. I would’ve rather seen her learn how to value and care for herself and her own life, perhaps channeling her caring energy into helping rebulid the city she loves. This twist shocked me and was very upsetting because it didn’t feel nessicary to the story.
Death, in this case, meant that Tris really never fully contended with the pleas of her loved ones. She never learned to live with value for herself, dying by the virtue that selflessness to save others is the only way to be truly good.
To look at her death through the ideology of the character, we can understand that Tris sees her own death as the combination of all the traits she learned to embody in Divergent. She is more than just selfless, she is brave and kind and honest and smart, too. But she already met this resolution at the end of the first book. When Tris dies in Allegiant, it feels so dissatisfying to me because her arc is unfulfilled. What did she learn by sacrificing herself? She never listened to the people that she cared about and learned to protect herself. She hurt them by sacrificing her own life for a person that betrayed her. I sit back and realize that even though we have followed a character through two books since her discovery of identity, nothing about her has changed. She has been, unfortunately, completely stagnant in her beliefs.
I praise Divergent for being a fun story that creates real questions about personal identity. The rest of the trilogy, however, falls short mainly due to the fact that the protagonist who steers the narrative is stagnant. When a character is unwilling to change, there is only so much connection and thought provoking ideas that can be explored. Insurgent and Allegiant are incredibly limited by the inconsistency of Tris. In the first book, she is forward thinking and progressive as she forms her identity and morals. However, there is no fluidity to her thoughts in the last two books, and this leads for an underwhelming conclusion to the trilogy.