Divergent: Choosing the Greatest (Social) Virtue

What’s your favorite virtue? What is the most important human virtue for society?

Dystopian films and novels of the young adult variety are really not something I enjoy, and with so many releasing lately, my antipathy has grown. But I’d heard some interesting things from young people about Divergent, so I decided to  read the novel and see the film. I was not disappointed.

For my five-minute take on the film, visit last week’s Salt + Light’s Radio Hour: http://saltandlighttv.org/radio/sl-hour/papal-agency-helps-christians-in-the-middle-east


In Divergent, the civilized world of the future  is reduced to the city of Chicago, where its citizens are divided into five factions, each of which is based on a social virtue and has a particular role to carry out in society:

Dauntless (Courage) includes law enforcement and soldiers

Erudition (Knowledge or Wisdom) includes librarians, doctors, scientists and teachers

Abnegation (Selflessness) includes government leaders and workers

Amity (Kindness) includes farmers

Candor (Honesty, Truthfulness) includes lawyers.

So what I really loved about the Divergent world is not just that it’s based in Chicago (a city where I spent two wonderful years), but that the society is based on some of the virtues. Of course, what becomes clear pretty early on is that when the virtues are isolated, they can sometimes carried to an extreme: e.g. Candor’s symbol in the choosing system is glass—a symbol of transparency, but also a symbol of the ability to cut and divide. Without love, without the religious or Christian underpinnings of the virtues, the factions give in to an extremism that becomes destructive—especially Erudition, who seek to take over the government from Abnegation.

The film starts with the day before 16-year-old Beatrice Pryor takes the test in which the young people are told which faction they have an aptitude for. For viewers, it’s fairly obvious that some people would fit well into more than one faction. However, this comes as a surprise to Beatrice Pryor, who has aptitude for three factions—in other words, she is a “divergent.” She is told by the person who tests her that she needs to keep this a secret or she will be killed. Raised in Abnegation by devoted parents who serve in the government, Beatrice doubts her own selflessness and has always been drawn to Dauntless, eventually choosing Dauntless as her faction. But with her secret Divergent identity, the conspiracy/adventure is off to a fast start, and Beatrice has to learn who to trust in her new faction, including her mysterious mentor/teacher, Four.

Take the aptitude test for the five factions, and see where you come out strongest!

If, like me, you feel a bit “been there, done that,” because of the sheer number of YA dystopian stories and films, then the virtue backdrop of this action/adventure/coming of age/romance genre mix might make it one you choose to see. The fact that Beatrice Pryor is a strong, female heroine who lives in a violent world but doesn’t see violence as the primary solution, is another plus for this story.

Problems with the film are both artistic and age-appropriate content. The overemphasis on action in the film, and some of the battles/violence included in both book and film could be questionable for some teens. The film’s script oversimplifies the plot of the book, yet this is a plus for those who haven’t read the book because the plot is understandable, if it has a few holes that only the novel fills in. The greatest disappointment is that the film comes up quite short with regard to character development. In some ways, the film feels like an imitation Hunger Games, with just less quality all-around. Despite this, Divergent is a powerful coming-of-age story with sympathetic characters and a few story twists that are as dauntless as Beatrice herself. Acting, cinematography, and production values may not be extraordinary but contribute to a credible, solid, and well-done film. Not only did it feel quite credible to me, some of the scenes were exactly as I’d imagined them from the book.


The World of the Story

It’s hard not to immediately compare Divergent to The Hunger Games, and there are many similarities—all the elements found in dystopian stories, with the addition of a strong heroine. While The Hunger Games has a lot to offer as social commentary on our culture, I don’t think its commentary is appropriate for children (tweens and younger teens) because the stories and films engage the imagination in a dark and disturbing way, rather than fostering a healthy moral imagination. (The Hunger Games uses morally abhorrent situations for its social commentary, such as entertainment that centers on children killing children that is generally accepted by society; or a society where everyone “uses” everyone else for their own ends). I find Divergent much healthier spiritually and morally for younger audiences. No one is all bad or all good; there are adults that can’t be trusted, but there are also good adults. And we don’t necessarily feel forced to participate in the moral depravity of the world we’re exploring. Divergent, while still taking place in a violent, morally challenged world, has some anchors; the world is not completely dark—we as viewers can find grace there, not just in Beatrice’s character, but in others as well.

Virtues As the Basis of Society

While the political and ultimately military struggle for power becomes the major plot of Divergent—as in any good dystopian story—the premise of building a society upon the virtues gives us as the audience the opportunity to reflect more on these particular virtues:

* As people strive to live them

* When the virtues (and the people who practice them) are isolated from each other

* How the virtues are needed together and the importance of moderation even in the practice of certain virtues.

The two virtues that are explored best get the most screen time, and reflect the factions Beatrice comes from—Abnegation (or selflessness), and goes to—Dauntless (or courage). As someone who has personally struggled a lot with fearfulness, I found the exploration of courage and fear intriguing.

This story—both the film and the book—can open a great discussion into the moral life for teenages and viewers: how do we practice virtue even in the most difficult of circumstances? Faithful to its virtue-driven themes, the protagonist Beatrice Pryor is, over and over again, put in very difficult or even seemingly impossible situations where she has to make moral choices.

Another reason I like this film is that it contrasts the virtual world—imagined simulations where the Dauntless are trained to overcome their fears by confronting their deepest fears—with the real world. Beatrice has several opportunities to practice so that, when she is finally put into the position of choosing whether or not to kill someone she loves, she makes an unexpected courageous choice.

The film’s violence gives it a deserved cautionary rating for young people: PG in Canada and PG-13 in the USA.

2 thoughts on “Divergent: Choosing the Greatest (Social) Virtue

  1. Dear Sister Marie Paul,

    What an awesome post! I’ve only read a bit of Divergent as an e-book preview, but I’m waiting to read the whole thing and see the movie.soon!

    I hope that you are doing well – are you on email much anymore? How is your new assignment?

    God bless!!

    Anela 🙂


  2. Anela,
    It’s great to hear from you here! I’d love to hear what you think about Divergent once you’ve read it. (Yes, this is a case where the book is better than the movie, but I liked the film, too.)

    Yes…I’m on email still but I periodically become inundated, so I don’t always respond as quickly as I’d like. Also, I’m starting to travel a bit to promote my newest book, so that’s keeping me busy…and my new blog-to-book project, which is so exciting, is also keeping me on my toes. I’m counting on you to check it out!

    Looking forward to “staying connected” online!

    God bless,
    Sr. Marie Paul


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