My poor children.
All they want is to take the time occasionally to enjoy some purely recreational entertainment – a movie, a book, a game – and have a good time. They just want to be swept away on the wings of fantasy, transported to great adventures via characters with better lives – or at least more cooperative hair – than theirs. They want to let their guard down and relax.
Alas, but they are my children and I, as a student of story, meaningful narrative, and the relevance of myth, cannot possibly let such moments slide by without discussion and dissertation. My most recent vehicle for this abuse is the Divergent series. As always, I have read the books right along with my girls and as always, I found something to excavate and force them to explore.
Comparisons of this trilogy to The Hunger Games are inevitable. Yes, we have here yet another dystopian landscape in which teens are proving and discovering themselves as they fend off forces of oppression. And the main character is female, at least in the first two books – but that is where the similarities end. Though they both present Brave New World scenarios, The Hunger Games follows more the path of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Stephen King’s “The Long Walk,” whereas Divergent has more in common with Uglies or Twilight.
In this story, as the teenagers reach the age of sixteen, they are forced to choose a faction. Factions are subgroups within their society that elevate one certain virtue above all others and live out their days dedicated to the pursuit of it. The faction choices are Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Amity. All people are free to choose any faction regardless of where they were raised, but the choice is for life and can never be taken back.
In order to guide them in such an important and fateful decision, each teen takes a test by entering into a realistic simulation a la The Matrix. The responses and strengths that they demonstrate within this exercise point them toward the faction that will be the best fit for them.
The hiccup comes when some subjects demonstrate affinity for more than one faction. This is known as being “Divergent,” and it is very, very bad. Why it’s so bad is not clear at first, but it is clear that the Divergent are in great danger (or are dangerous?) and they must go along with a choice anyway, keeping their divergence a deep secret and burying all other instincts.
On the surface, of course, this is a story of freedom, about not being tied down by the establishment. The more I read, though, the more I see a picture of two wider truths on display:
1. Despite the fact that almost nothing good has ever come from it, there is something in us that craves and constantly reverts to an Us vs. Them mentality.
2. Just about the most radical thing you can be is a Moderate, and it will cause others to distrust or disregard you.
Now, I am two-thirds of the way through the third book and this problem is only getting worse. Everywhere the characters turn, there is another group vying for their allegiance, and it becomes less and less clear who, if anyone, is right. Way more than the battles or the relationship tensions or the overt tests of fear and confidence, this is the conflict I want my kids to zero in on.
Nations, political parties, tribes, religious institutions, anti-religious groups…these are our factions. They probably began with good intent (we all need community!), but have largely become insulated. Many spend more time and resources being against other groups than being for anything of value anymore . More troubling, they encourage members to invest their identities so fully into the faction as to negate any relationship that conflicts with it. Be they obvious (cliques, sororities) or subtle (family politics, issue-based fundraising campaigns), the message is always the same: Be one of US!
I want my girls to see the faction trap for what it is and resist the temptation to blend in. Yes, it means many people will not “get” them. They will have to explain why they believe or don’t far more often than those who are branded with a particular ideology. They may even be completely dismissed by one or both sides for being able to see the world / the problem / themselves more than one way.
That’s okay. I would much rather that they – and I! – err on the side of conflict that is healthy and opens dialogue than comfort that seems righteous but ultimately leads to unhealthy conflict, even war.