Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Black and white oversimplifications | Divergent

A few weeks ago I read the recently popular Divergent by Veronica Roth. The book was mostly what I expected it would be - exciting and fast-paced in the style of The Hunger Games, with the unreasonably kick-butt heroine and the ominous oppressive dystopian society, but it is otherwise uninspired. Despite the fact that I was interested enough to read the book late into the evening, I struggle to call it a good book. This is largely because Divergent has a disturbingly black-white view of the world.

This happens in young adult literature... a lot. It's been happening too frequently. Young adult literature has advanced tremendously over the past decade, but in some regards it is still its own genre. It still has its own definitions and cliches and predictable pitfalls. The predictable romances found now within the pages of almost every single young adult title is a troubling trend that alienates boys*. The current fad of dystopias-lite ignores the original purpose these novels served. And worst of all, there is a growing trend of explicit one-sidedness: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and there are the masses. This is a problem.

Divergent highlights this problem all too well. Main character Beatrice is obviously our good guy - she has to be, by definition. She is described as small and plain, but she nonetheless is special and strong. She is unique. She, aside from her love interest, is practically the only one who is unique. From a literary perspective, this is obviously a flattening of a potential character in order to make her more appealing, but I'll let it slide. No, I'm looking past the bland Beatrice to the bigger issue - everyone else. Divergent is a novel about factions that are determined by a certain personality trait or frame of mind. This already leads to gross over-simplification, in an attempt to set the stage for the sequels and to emphasize the dystopia-ness of the world. But even when I ignored this (for the sake of the story), the lack of depth in the other characters became increasingly disturbing.

Veronica Roth tackled her world with all the grace of an elephant. The good guys have "Good Guy" practically emblazoned on their foreheads. The "bad guys" are obvious from a mile away. This is all still well within the normal realm. Even when characters abruptly switch sides, it didn't feel like complexity, it felt like cheap manipulation on behalf of the author. The problem gets even worse when Roth attempted to add additional layers. Suddenly we have a layer of those who manipulate and those who are manipulated. Instead of creating believable, breathing characters with realistic motivations, Roth ensures that every character will be absolutely one-sided.

A lot of this has to do with the world of Divergent, which determines a specific character-trait faction for every character. I kept getting the feeling that Roth wanted me to see how she's "toying" with these definitions, and how she's showing that people are not defined by a single trait. But she didn't do that. Instead, almost everyone belonging to a certain faction has the same general personality and motivations. There is absolutely no grey. Except, of course, Beatrice (and possibly her love interest). I'm sorry, but I don't call that depth. I call that bad writing**.

I see the appeal of a book like Divergent. Heck, even I technically enjoyed the action of the book, until I really started to think about it (about five minutes after I finished it). Just because you know your book is going to have sequels doesn't mean that you can ignore developing your world at first. Just because you want to create a stark contrast in your "dystopia" doesn't mean you need to oversimplify your characters. Roth's mistakes aren't overt, but they're subtly problematic for any reader who takes a step back and thinks about the book for a moment. Why are we encouraging oversimplification? Why aren't we fighting this?

* And no, I don't understand how this trend flips itself for adults, such that books geared towards women are often shunted to a lower class while books geared towards men gain literary acclaim. It doesn't make sense to me either.
** In general I wasn't thrilled with Roth's writing. I'm not always a big fan of present tense and I felt like a lot of Roth's straight-up writing wasn't too clean. 


  1. We do - we don't read stuff like this...

  2. those are great questions! I don't read a lot of YA but when I do I tend to find it dull for those reasons.

  3. I'm giving in to the hype too and plan to read this one soon, even though I imagine my reaction will be somewhat similar to yours. I confess: I have lower expectations for young adult literature. I turn to these types of titles occasionally for entertainment and to see what kind of world building there is, but I rarely find young adult novels as interesting as those titles geared toward adults. I'll be curious if you continue on with the series and if the issues you raise stay the same or change.

  4. You know, I rather liked this book when I read it...though that may have just been in contrast to The Hunger Games, which I had some serious qualms about. After I liked it so much, I see so many people like yourself who give very good reasons NOT to like it. :)

    Personally, though, I'm going to stick to my guns--I hated The Hunger Games and liked Divergent. :p

    You say that the good guys and bad guys are obvious in this book, and perhaps that's true, but that becomes much less true in the second book of the trilogy. I felt that she tackled the sticky question of "what makes a good guy good and a bad guy bad" in that book. Granted, she did it in a rather predictable way. But she DID tackle the question. :)

    1. That's fascinating - I wish I could hear more about your opinion, because I felt that any problems The Hunger Games had (and it had plenty) were amped up to 11 in Divergent!

      Suzanne Collins' world-building is pretty sketchy, but she just about scrapes home with enough convincing detail and particularity to sell the world of THG. In Divergent, I felt there wasn't the barest effort to world-build: we know about the factions and, more vaguely, their roles. We know this is future Chicago. Literally anything beyond that, even what state of repair this Chicago is in, is not mentioned.

      While THG's premise felt far-fetched, it felt like plausible science fiction to me. I can accept the premise of a totalitarian government, they exist. I can accept human blood sports, they've cropped up many times in our histories. Collins didn't always do the best job of grounding things in believability (mutant dogs made out of people in some way, instant healing technologies - these things felt felt too science-magic for the type of gritty science fiction she was going for).

      But Divergent's premise doesn't even begin to make sense. Why would a society divided by personality traits? Why would it ever be assumed - en masse - that each person has only one prevailing trait? Why is this borne out, so that only a few Special Snowflakes prove to have more than one trait?

      Perhaps because of these foundations, the things built upon it - e.g. Tris' character - fall down almost immediately. How can Tris go through any kind of journey bound up in a world which makes no sense? How can her choice to be Dauntless, or Abnegation, have any weight when these ideas are so muzzy? We get some confused ideas of what Roth perhaps wanted to say with Tris's Dauntless/Abnegation turmoil (that true strength comes from selflessness, perhaps) but Tris's actions certainly don't bear this out. She acts very selfishly throughout, despite Four telling us Tris is 'at her bravest in defense of others'.

      Meanwhile Katniss was also a little sketchy. She and Tris both suffer from first-person-angst syndrome, where we get to hear about all their self-doubt and turmoil ALL the time. Katniss comes across as genuinely sharp-witted, but even she seems curiously dense with regards to whether a boy likes her or not. I found Katniss inconsistent - acting to suit the plot rather than according to any consistent characteristics. But there's enough that's clear and engaging about her to win me over. And while as a character she leaves a little roundedness to be desired but on the other hand she makes a great icon - with her bow and arrows, her plaited hair, her three-fingered salute and her mockingjay pin. Tris is dull and inconsistent, angsty and self-doubting to the point of pathology.

      Anyway, sorry for the essay! I just feel annoyed with having wasted money on a book I perceived as so bad and wanted to get that off my chest :)


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