The Divergent Trilogy: Katniss Everdeen, Meet Tris Prior!

by John on May 7, 2012

Yesterday we discussed the many similarities between Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and the first two books in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. As remarkable as those parallels are, largely,I think, because Ms. Roth has been a serious reader of the Hogwarts Saga for the great majority of her life (remember, she’s only 23 — do the math!), these echoes are not what reviewers are noting in their write-ups of Insurgent this month. It’s the kinship between The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and Divergent‘s heroine, Tris Prior, that I’m seeing everywhere.

What does the author think? In a USA Today interview she was asked about the comparisons being made:

Do the Hunger Games comparisons bother you?

The Hunger Games is pretty fantastic, so I always get a little scared when people make those comparisons because I think, “Well, I never tried to do that…” And it’s so good that it’s a little daunting to see those comparisons out there. But at the same time, it’s been pretty incredible what it’s done for the genre and for my book’s visibility. Also, if you’re going to be compared to something, it might as well be The Hunger Games because it’s really awesome. At least it’s not something I didn’t like.

Well, all right, then. The author says she’s on board with the comparisons, so let’s make a few of our own… I’ll go first, then you jump in!

The Hunger Games

Genre: Ms. Roth has said more than once that she didn’t write Divergent to jump on the YA Dystopian bandwagon after Hunger Games became a big hit in 2008. From the GoodReads interview:

Goodreads: What attracted you to the dystopian genre as a storyteller? If dystopian lit is the new vampire, how do you think young adult literature will continue to evolve?

Veronica Roth : I’ve always loved the dystopian genre. My introduction to it was The Giver by Lois Lowry, which is a powerful book, and then 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. But I never sat down and thought, I want to write a dystopian YA book. When I was writing Divergent, I didn’t know it was a thing. I just had this story and this world and this character, and as luck would have it, it hit the market at the right time. I can’t predict how YA will evolve now, but I’m seeing a lot more sci-fi, in addition to dystopian, and I am so happy and excited about that. I hope it continues.

Ms. Roth’s story which she is sticking to is that during her senior year at Northwestern “I crammed DIVERGENT into the spaces between my classes. I woke up early to work on it, and I stayed up late. I worked on it rather than doing homework or studying for tests.” That was two years ago, so well before the Games movie and hype but Ms. Roth is obviously a Collins reader.

Not only a Collins reader, though. She favored dystopian books, it seems well before it was cool and her story, as she says, “wasn’t a thing” or story type but just her story. When you list the books that influenced you and half are dystopian (and more a little nightmarish), you’re believable. From GoodReads again::

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

VR: Oh, man. Books: The Giver by Lois Lowry, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Dune by Frank Herbert, the Animorphs series, Harry Potter, anything by Flannery O’Connor (she has a way of making you hate a character and then realize that you are like that character that is just incredible), I could go on forever.

Having said that, the obvious reason most folks say, “Oh, like Hunger Games!” when you try to describe what Divergent is about and begin with, “It’s a three volume book series set in the future when things have gone to hell and the government is set up in different factions…” is that there really is only one other dystopian trilogy out there in most people’s minds. [Neglect if you will that there’s another one that’s set in Chicago, too, for crying out loud, in which the Lake is also a mud puddle!]

Tris = Katniss — Let me walk back that “the obvious reason is…” part. If only one reason can qualify for “Most Obvious Link” then it is that both stories feature 16 year old female characters who are not only the lead figures in the book but the first person narrator telling us her experiences in present tense ‘on screen’ perspective. Did I mention that both women, while not born killers, are not averse to violence, even murder, just not random or unjustifiable violence? From the LA Times Book Jacket interview:

Jacket Copy: “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and dozens of other titles in this burgeoning dystopian genre showcase strong female protagonists. Do you see a new shape of feminism emerging here?

Veronica Roth: That’s a complicated question. What’s interesting about these characters is that a lot of their strength is expressed in a physical way. Tris is physically weak but she learns how to be skilled in a physical way. Katniss isn’t super buff, but she knows how to defend herself. I think that’s something that needs to be explored more. Characters like Tris and Katniss, their worth and strength is not limited to their physical abilities. They’re very much in control of their own destinies. In “Insurgent,” Tris says, “Where I go, I go because I choose to.” That element of “I can do it. I can control my life,” that everything that happens, good or bad, happens because of the choice of the main character, that’s sort of a new thing.

Not a new thing, but I went after that yesterday. Note that Ms. Roth makes the point that both Katniss and Tris are “physical” but then backs off from that with the clarification it’s not just their physical abilities that are important, but choice which defines them.

I get that. Katniss’ big moment is choosing to go to the Games instead of Prim; Beatrice’s choice is to follow her heart rather than family at the Choosing Ceremony.

But I doubt that I am alone in having struggled while reading the Divergent books this weekend in not imaging JLawr/Katniss, a little shorter, skinnier, and with a butch haircut fighting her way through Dauntless initiation and Erudite Headquarters combats.

The “Girls Making the Tough Choice” is an important tie between the two series, don’t get me wrong. I think, though, that new Divergent readers who are familiar with the first Games movie (which is to say most new readers in the next year or two) are going to be struck less by their choices than by Katniss/Tris seeming to have been poured into the same kick butt rebellion leader mold, with a real accent on the “kick butt.”

Granted, Tris of Dauntless is much more the Wonder Woman super hero World saver type than Miss Everdeen Mockingjay of District 12, in that she is trained as a Career tribute, if you will, by professionals during her initiation and that she is not an unwilling or unconscious rebel as Katniss is for 2 1/2 books. I’m confident, nonetheless, that the Goth Tris Prior action figure from Hasbro, if it came with a ponytail, would come with all the accessories the JLawr-Barbie does except for the bow and arrows.

The good news? No love triangle for this amazon! From the USA Today interview:

Love triangles do seem to be popular these days.

Yeah, they are and I think they can be great. But Tris is just not the kind of character who would be divided in that way. For me, it was always clear that there was not going to be a love triangle for her.

Did someone say “Violence”? Hunger Games ducked the onslaught from Christians objecting to witchcraft and vampirism (not to mention unsupervised celibate teen overnight stays) that Twilight and Harry Potter weathered. Suzanne Collins missed being beat up, too, by the brickbats of culture mavens like Harold Bloom, Anthony Holden, and William Safire, all of whom dismissed Ms. Rowling as a hack, and the whole world of critics and wannabe critics who all know that Mrs. Meyer cannot write full sentences. The only objections that found any traction against the Panem Saga was the remarkable violence, what one HogPro All Pro described on another site this morning as “soul crushing” violence.

All I can say is, if you didn’t care for the violence of the Hunger Games arena kid-on-kid fights to the death or the combat action of Mockingjay, do not even pick up Divergent which is to Hunger Games what Rambo is to Sound of Music. OK, a little bit of an exaggeration there, but the graphic, painful descriptions of the sometimes chapters full of  hand to hand combat and guns doing what guns do in the hands of the young and dumb, not to mention the occasional description of the body of a suicide who jumped from a great height onto rocks or the eye with a fork in it….

The book is described as being appropriate for “Ages 14 and up”? I let my 16 year old daughter read it and thought I was being a lax dad. If you were grossed out by Mockingjay’s violence rather than by its powerful message about both the necessity and consequences of modern war, a devastating combination, then Divergent will not be your cup of tea.

Institutional Violence and Mind Games: Divergent was sold to HarperCollins as “Hunger Games meets the Matrix.” Not being a movie lover, I haven’t seen the Matrix. I expect even the Amish know, though, that it is largely set in a virtual reality and this is one of the distinguishing features of Divergent and Insurgent. Tris must endure “simulations” during her initiation into the Dauntless faction, all of which are her having to confront her worst fears experienced as reality under the influence of psychoactive drugs. The leaders of the faction monitor the initiate’s response time when engaged by nightmares that are seen, heard, and felt as real.

Think of a Boggart without the Riddikiulus! charm. More than grim.

Like Hunger Games‘ madness shared on television, this internal violence is not only sadistic but a point of enjoyment to the Gamesmakers involved, the leaders of the faction. What I find intriguing is that both, while one is real and the other virtual for the most part, are institutional and accepted as such. Remember the Jabberjays in the Catching Fire arena, the eyes of the Muttation wolves in Hunger Games, and the scent of blood and roses in the Mockingjay sewers? This was the work of a government gone mad, a culture that not only allowed pointed attacks upon the psyche of an individual but designed and televised them.

I experienced the Divergent and Insurgent simulations like that: Nightmare attacks on the subconscious by the regime. It’s a parallel to the designer violence of the Gamesmakers’ pods throughout Hunger Games.

Districts Ruled by Minority Sect, Rebellion Led by Brain Trust: In Hunger Games, we have 12 subordinate Districts that are essentially enslaved to the Capitol and its Peacekeepers/Makers. The series finale features a rebellion against the oligarchy and Capitol by the ‘smart District, District 13, in which the scientists and nuclear engineers once lived. This District is led by a power mad woman who dies unexpectedly and suddenly at the hands of a woman avenging the death of a sibling.

In Divergent, there are five Factions but all the ruling authority is held by one, Abnegation, the ‘selfless’ faction the others trust to rule benignly. At the end of the first book, the faction Erudite attacks Abnegation and spends the longer part of Insurgent, the second book, effectively securing power by neutralizing or otherwise subduing the other factions. The Erudite, no surprise here, are the ‘knowledgeable’ folk who believe that ignorance is what caused the old world’s destruction. Its leader is a power mad woman who dies a surprising death at the hands of a woman avenging the death of a sibling.

Just sayin.’

Postmodern Audience, Postmodern Age, Postmodern Authors — You shouldn’t be surprised to learn, then, that the two series contain heavy postmodern messages. The metanarrative or defining societal mythos, for example, should be the principal evil in the world, against which the chief players must struggle to over come first in their own heads and then in the world.

The Big Lie of Hunger Games is that the Capitol deserves power and the Districts merit their subjection because of an original sin, namely, the Districts having started a war more than fifty years ago. Katniss takes two books to decide to fight and assassinates the leader determined to make the Capitol into the whipping boy in an identical if inverse metanarrative at story’s end.

The comic-on-the-face-of-it Accepted Premise of Divergent‘s dystopia is that every person is essentially, not just predominantly, one of five flavors, I mean virtues, and that this person will be happy from age 16 until death once having chosen and having been initiated into a cult that fosters this virtue. Yes, I get that’s it’s supposed to be an indictment of how Americans break into castes at age 18 depending on the type and quality of school a student gets into (or the factionless who opt out of “higher education”) but the allegorical quality of it all but requires the intelligent hero to say, “Wow — this really is a croc, isn’t it?” The reader, of course, agrees.

The only good metanarrative is a transparent and easily slain metanarrative?

Look for everyone to meet in the Great Hall afterwards and sit down at everyone else’s tables. Or something like that.

Sorry to be so snarky. Divergent‘s entire goal is transcending faction identity; divergence is a celebration of the diversity and broadmindedness that the leaders supposedly fear above all else. The heroes work hard to be brave, which is to say, to find their real identity beyond their individual fears. Having transcended these in love for the other — note especially Four’s victory over his own in tandem with Tris, they are obliged to “speaking truth to power” sacrificially.

Tris hasn’t filmed any Promos yet or brought down a President with an unexpected arrow but she’s got a book left. Note that comment above about Flannery O’Connor; it’s going to be a big payoff, that set-up.

There’s more, but it’s late and I know you all have a bunch of parallels to share. I want to share one big difference that I don’t think many people see, including Ms. Roth.

It’s About adolescence: There is a meme is ascension that Young Adult dystopian fiction is as popular as it is because, y’know, adolescents are so sensitive and self-consumed, High School seems like a world in collapse or one that could easily fall into the abyss.

Lev Grossman at TIME started this ball rolling last March with an article called ‘Love Among the Ruins:’

What feeds the teenager’s appetite for global destruction? We think of children and adolescents as being interested only in anodyne, escapist fiction–but that’s to forget what it’s actually like to be a teenager. When you’re that age, everything feels like the end of the world: every test and snub and class and audition and prom. Adults have been around the block a few times. Whether it’s because we have more perspective or we’re just jaded, nothing is that big a deal to us. But you need to tear down the entire planet to match what goes on in a teenager’s interior universe. The apocalypse is where they live.

Ms. Roth, not many years past adolescence herself, couldn’t agree more. From the LA Times Book Jacket interview:

Jacket Copy: What’s so appealing about dystopian storytelling?

Veronica Roth: When you’re a teenager, everything seems like the end of the world, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a silly thing. You’re waking up and becoming aware that the world has problems and those problems affect you, whereas when you’re young they don’t seem to affect you that much even if you’re aware of them. This dystopian trend picks up on that little part of your life where everything feels really extreme and it honors that part of your life and says, “Yeah. It is the end of the world. Look at it.”

And in USA Today:

Vampires were big a few years ago, now dystopian futures are hot in the YA world. Why is that?

A dystopian setting dramatizes in a really interesting way the struggles of the average adolescent. You’re starting to think about love and relationships — Delirium by Lauren Oliver is a book about love being outlawed and finding it in the midst of that society just makes the whole struggle more intense than the average teenager’s. They all kind of do that: They create this world where the struggle that a teenager is having feels like the end of the world, and are actually like the end of the world. [Laughs] There’s something really perfect about that. It honors what teenagers are experiencing because your emotions are so powerful at that age and everybody’s telling you to kind of chill out. But the dystopian books are saying, “No! It’s important! It’s a big deal!” And I like that.

The author of The Hunger Games, though, begs to differ. Her books may be experienced or shared as stories about adolescence but it isn’t what she’s writing about. The New York Times’ Susan Dominus wrote in ‘Suzanne Collins’s War Stories for Kids‘  (8 April 2011):

Writing in The New Yorker last year, Laura Miller suggested that “The Hunger Games” is most coherent when read as “a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience”: doesn’t everything feel like life or death on the battlefield known as the high-school cafeteria? Many of Collins’s fans surely see “The Hunger Games” through this prism (one children’s-bookstore owner told me the books would be a good tool for teachers broaching the subject of popularity). For protective parents, reading “The Hunger Games” as an allegory of adolescence rather than of war may be more comfortable. But this is not a theory that appeals to Collins. “I don’t write about adolescence,” she said. “I write about war. For adolescents.”

Ms. Roth, in strong contrast, isn’t “delivering a message” but a set of challenging questions. From the GoodReads Interview with Veronica Roth:

GR: Divergent can be interpreted in many ways: political, philosophical, and spiritual. When you began writing, was there a certain message or theme you wanted to communicate?

VR: I think it’s too easy to be heavy-handed or preachy if you set out to communicate a message in books, so I don’t. To me, at least, the books I write are just an exploration of things I’m thinking about, and my hope is that they make people think about them, too. What I was exploring in Divergent is human nature and the ways in which it warps our best intentions and, on the flip side, how people sometimes rise to do good acts in the midst of chaos. I was wondering what it means to be virtuous—specifically, what it means to be brave—and if that’s really important. And if it’s not, what is? So those are my questions. I hope readers have a few of their own.

And from the Veronica Roth blog: ‘The Message of Divergent':

What is the one thing/the message you would like people to take away from your book?

I try to avoid preaching of any kind, and it’s not just because teenagers can sniff out a message from a mile away; it’s because I want to give people space to think and breathe while they read my book. I don’t want to stifle anyone. That said, I do think every book says something other than what’s on the pages, whether you intend for it to or not when you write it. So yes, there are some things I think my book says, because I have interpreted it as a reader, just as you will.

But I would much rather you come away with questions than answers. Questions about virtue, and what it is, and if it makes you worth something, and if being “good” is the most important thing, and if it’s not, what is? Or: is the consistency of your character the best thing you have to offer the world? Can you can be defined, and should you even try? Or even: what should you look for in a friend, or a boyfriend, or a girlfriend?

I know books are a great escape, and my book, with all its action, may not give you a lot of quiet moments in which to think. But my favorite books made me think as much as they entertained me, and that’s my hope for Divergent.

The big difference? Again, as with Joanne Rowling, Suzanne Collins isn’t a “hybrid” writer who jumps neck deep into a story and then figures out where she’s going with it, what questions she’ll be asking the reader to take away from the experience. She plans it out after her out-of-the-blue inspiration and delivers a message. Maybe a message with ambiguity, but with a real right or wrong answer.

Tomorrow, the Twilight parallels, which are at least as significant as any with the Hunger Games or the Hogwarts Saga. Hold on to your seats.

Tonight, though, please share your favorite dot-to-dot connections and resonances between Katniss and Tris. Is Four the hero Gale always wanted to be? What about Dauntless initiation of a gaggle of 16 year olds being led by two 18 year old boys? Can you say “child on child violence”? “Careers”? How about the flaming mockingjay pin symbol and the Dauntless faction circle on fire?

Total coincidence. Have at it.

I look forward, as always to your comments and corrections!

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