by Veronica Roth
This is going to be long and full of spoilers, so don’t read if you haven’t finished the book yet!
Finally, we find out what happened to wreck Chicago and split humanity into factions based on virtues! I’m ready for fireworks! Here it comes…
I have two big problems with the book.
First, I do not like Four. I know, I know. Grab your torches and pitchforks. I also hate Edward Cullen, so hoist my head on a pike. This book made my dislike for Four even stronger. The chapters alternate between Tris’s perspective and his, and you can’t tell them apart. I constantly had to check the chapter heading to see who was talking. This is a problem with writing skills and character development, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book. On top of that, his brooding grumpiness just made me want to smack him and say, “Snap out of it!” Roth would have benefited from a heavy-handed editor and more time to hone Four’s unique voice.
Second, I couldn’t stop myself from nitpicking the book into oblivion and wishing she had taken things further. My background is in psychology, and I’m a science nerd. I feel like Roth was going for a discussion of nature vs. nurture with the plot points about genetic damage, and that happens to be one of my favorite topics. In my opinion she fell very short of the mark. The news today runs stories about scientists searching for genes that “control” X, Y, or Z. That’s simply not how it works, and no good scientist thinks that way. Multiple genes influence multiple systems in the body. Genes can switch on and off. Life stressors can activate hormones and genes and even change your brain chemistry. But humans are not animals acting on pure instinct. We are shaped by our environment, and we have this precious unique thing called “free will.” In truth, DNA gives people limitations and vulnerabilities, not predetermined life paths. As my amazing psychology professor said in psych 101, “I am 6′ 3″, so my genetics mean that I can jump higher than someone who is only 5 feet tall. Someone short is limited by their genetics. But my height doesn’t mean I’ll be amazing at basketball or that a short person will be bad at it. I’m actually terrible at basketball, and there are short guys who can beat me blindfolded.”
It’s not one or the other. It’s the tension between nature and nurture that makes us who we are. I know Roth hat-tipped this idea several times, but I wish she had done so much more. The whole debate about “damaged” DNA would have been far more powerful if Roth had taken a slightly different tack. What if the scientists created the faction system as a way to control nurture as well as nature by reactivating certain genes with the environment as well as breeding them back in? Each faction suppresses undesirable traits and encourages desirable ones.
But the system clearly doesn’t always work, and Tris would be forced to decide whether to save the system despite that it seems to be hurting those that need it the most: the Factionless. Without the protective effects of a faction, the Factionless are at the mercy of their DNA and degenerate into cruelty, cowardice, ignorance, selfishness, and deceit. Or at least that’s what the researchers tell her. But in truth wouldn’t they also be a product of their poverty and isolation? The Factionless are treated as irredeemable, but with a system to activate the right genes, no one should be irredeemable. In the end Tris would have been left to wonder, “Am I a product of my mom’s genetics or the way I was raised? Does my divergence even mean anything if the faction system is designed to produce it?”
Again, Roth touched on these concepts, but they deserved to be fleshed out and wrestled with. Outside Chicago is a mess. People are miserable, damaged, and dying. But inside Chicago the very experiment designed to improve humanity became a mirror of the rest of the world. Why? The truth is the human heart can’t be redeemed through rules and regulations imposed on it by society or the miracles of medicine and science. The brokenness is in our very souls, not just our DNA. We are fundamentally flawed. It’s called a sin nature, or, to use Calvinist lingo, total depravity. We need something outside our broken universe to reach in and fix us.
I gather that Roth is a Christian, so I don’t believe I’m expecting something unusual from her. Maybe she was trying to use Tris as a Christ figure by letting her sacrifice herself in place of her treacherous brother, but it rang false to me. I leave the Divergent universe unsatisfied and wishing she had pushed harder, and that is a shame.