I recently finished reading Divergent by Veronica Roth, the first installment in what I am told is going to be the next big franchise in juvenile fiction (and, of course, juvenile movies). The novel is set in a somewhat post-apocalyptic, dystopian version of Chicago. Although there is ostensibly some sort of overarching government, the city is nevertheless divided into five “factions,” clans organized around various virtues such as truthfulness (Candor), friendliness (Amity), courage (Dauntless), self-forgetfulness (Abnegation), and knowledge (Erudite).
The novel chronicles the choice of a young woman, Beatrice or “Tris,” to leave her faction (Abnegation) and join another (Dauntless). However, the switch is by no means automatic–the new faction only accepts a limited number of applicants, so she has to undergo brutal training and testing in the attempt to make the team, as it were. In the course of doing so, Tris becomes aware of many things. First, that she is the possessor of a unique character known as “Divergent,” a combination of personal characteristics that is hated and feared for no apparent reason. Second, that there is civil unrest brewing, and an attempted coup against Abnegation (the ruling faction) may be imminent. Finally, and clearly most importantly, that she and her instructor “Four” are romantically drawn to one another. Of course they are. But don’t worry–he acts tough, but he has deep feelings too.
It is as bad as all that. Nevertheless, if you are a teacher, a parent, or a minister to teenagers or rising college freshman, then you ought to read it. My reasoning is twofold.
First, as C. S. Lewis somewhere remarked, the business of a shepherd is the sheep (and not, primarily, other shepherds). So while you might enjoy reading something a bit more “adult”–perhaps a scholarly article, or The New Yorker, or 50 Shades of Grey–you will be better at helping your charges if you are familiar with some of what they have read. Not so you can pander to them–as human beings, they can detect this, just like you detect it when it happens to you–but just so that you can illustrate difficult points with familiar examples should the need arise.
Second, and more importantly, Divergent actually does introduce some important philosophical issues. Of course they are introduced in order to set up an idiotic romance, but that is beside the point, since you can take whatever you wish from the book. Specifically, the novel raises the important questions of the ranking of virtues, and their possible interconnections.
Is there a virtue that is the most important, or the most fundamental? Or, to put it in the terminology of Divergent, which “faction” seems best? Is the fact that the reader naturally wants Tris to join Dauntless a sign that courage is the most fundamental virtue? But then how to explain the advantages that accrue to Tris through her excellence in other respects (her intelligence and self-forgetfulness)?
Is it possible to be virtuous in some particular way, yet bad in other ways? Is Eric, the greasy evil leader of Dauntless (subtle the book is not) truly courageous, or is something somehow lacking to his courage?
Or conversely, does one need to have every virtue in some degree in order to support the others? Although early in the book Tris castigates herself as “selfish,” could she really have courageously taken the place of another recruit who was having knives thrown at him without having also already achieved the excellence of “abnegation,” an overcoming of her natural self-love? But wasn’t this also an act of friendship?
These questions about the virtues are not just important philosophical questions, they are important human questions. To live a successful human life, it helps greatly to know that being a drunk is not really compatible with being a good father, or to know that nothing can really be done excellently without thoughtfulness. But that is precisely the problem: even though these are human questions, many young people have not yet thought about them. But we need to help them to begin to do so, to become interested in the questions. To the extent Divergent can serve as a starting point for a discussion of such matters, it is indeed a valuable book.