The Divergent Trilogy: Harry Potter Meets Beatrice Prior

Last May dear Deborah wrote me and Prof Baird-Hardy to urge us to read and then discuss Veronica Roth’s Divergent here at HogwartsProfessor. Lily the Librarian wrote us the same kind of recommendation not much later with a link to her intriguing review at The Hog’s Head’ and the kind note “I’m betting Roth has read your books, John.” I bought Divergent right away  — but, alas, in the move to Oklahoma and madness of a new job, it sat beneath the dust magnets on my crowded books-that-must-be-read shelf.

I finally read Divergent last week and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the second book of the Divergent trilogy, Insurgent, which was published 1 May, and read it, too. What a fun ride it was! As usual Deborah and Lily were right on in their recommendations.

To get the Divergent ball rolling here, I’ve decided to make next week ‘Beatrice Prior Week‘ at HogwartsProfessor. If you enjoyed Harry Potter, Twilight, and/or The Hunger Games, for reasons I explain below the jump, I’m pretty sure you’ll love these books.

I’m almost positive, as well, that we’ll be discussing them here at some length in anticipation of the series finale (due in 2013, a novel which the author says at her blog will be called Detergent, but I’m guessing will more likely be Convergent). You’re forewarned; the longer you take to buy and read the first two books, the more likely it is I will spoil them for you here.

When Publishers Weekly announced that HarperCollins had signed 21 year old Veronica Roth to a three book Divergent deal, the blurb closed with this from Ms. Roth’s agent: “the dystopian thrillers were pitched as The Hunger Games meets The Matrix.” I see that but let’s review the obvious influences of Harry Potter, Bella Swann, and Katniss Everdeen on this wow Bildungsroman. Today, Harry Potter, tomorrow Katniss, and then Bella. After that? I have some ideas after surfing through a pile of interviews with the author and her blog but I’m open to your suggestions! Fire away!

I want to assume that you haven’t read either Divergent or Insurgent. I think it safe to say, too, that having only read them once myself and very quickly at that, I’m not prepared to offer here much in the way of iconological criticism or anything like Ruskin’s “slow mining.” Trust me, though; we’ll be getting to the usual question — “Why do readers love these books?” — soon enough! All I can put up today are some connect the dot parallels with Harry Potter, the series most readers here know well.

Yes, of course there will be Divergent spoilers, so read on only at your own risk if learning plot points in advance pushes your buttons!

The reason to start with Harry Potter is not only that we are Hogwarts-oholics but Ms. Roth is as well. She mentions Ms. Rowling’s epic in almost every interview in her list of favorite books or reading that influenced her. Take this example from her USA Today Interview 1 May 2012:

Was J.K. Rowling an influence in creating this world?

I love Harry Potter. I’m a huge nerd — I would dress up if I could. I don’t know if she’s really an influence because it’s not really the same kind of thing I’m writing. Her attention to detail and world building is definitely something to aspire to. The world of Harry Potter is so intricate — I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but that part is definitely inspiring.

She almost denies the influence here, I’m guessing, because she fears the reader will take away the idea she used Rowling’s work as a template or that Divergent is in some sense an intentional or conscious knock off series. It isn’t, but the book has Harry Potter markings and traces all over it as the woman’s imagination was largely shaped by her reading of the Hogwarts Saga.

And you might get to see Veronica Roth dress up at Ascendio 2012! She’s fan enough that she’ll be in Orlando this July. More on that later this week.

I haven’t even explained what the books are about! To make a Harry Potter point while covering that plot overview base, here is how the author summarized Divergent in an interview with Lord Voldemort:

LV: Could you briefly describe the plot of Divergent for those non-Ravenclaws who were imperiused into reading this interview and might not have picked up the book yet?

VR: It’s about a girl who lives in futuristic Chicago (a land much different from Hogwarts) that is divided into five factions, each one dedicated to cultivating a particular virtue in its members (which is a lot like Hogwarts, actually): selflessness, bravery, honesty, kindness, or intelligence. She, along with all other sixteen year olds in her society, gets the opportunity to decide whether she wants to stay with her family in the faction she was raised in, or switch to another one. The book is about that choice and its consequences.

Divergent, the first book, which unfortunately like Hunger Games is also the name of its three book series, is the Beatrice Prior story, as told by her in present tense, first person narration. In it she chooses to leave the selfless faction in which she grew up, Abnegation, to join the the Dauntless faction that celebrates bravery. Divergent is the story of her trials in Dauntless faction initiation, a process involving physical training, then two stages of fear exploration involving psychoactive drugs that simulate each individual’s fears, a virtual reality the student experiences in his or her head as the real thing.

The opening novel takes place, then, once Beatrice or Tris as she is called after entering the School of Bravery (it is run by an SOB named Eric but, no, they don’t call the school this), almost entirely within the Dauntless Headquarters. We experience something of Abnegation life before Tris chooses to transfer, she makes one brief trip to another faction headquarters and two night excursions to Chicago landmarks for some field training, and then returns to King’s Cross and the Dursleys, I mean, to Abnegation and her parents at story’s end (sort of!) to close the circle. Those departures aside, I’d guess well over 30 of the 39 chapters are in training.

The second novel, Insurgent, is described this way on its Amazon page:

Tris’s initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable—and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

No plot point spoilers there! Miss Roth has said in several interviews, though, that Insurgent is a break out book in that through Tris’ adventures we see much more of dystopian Chicago than we did in Divergent, most notably the headquarters of the Erudite, Amity, and Candor factions, those that value knowledge, harmony, and honesty, respectively.

That sounds a little like Paradise, these communes in which the members work together to embody specific virtues. It’s more of a nightmare. As Miss Roth explains in a GoodReads Interview:

GR: Goodreads member Sarah Spiegel asks, “How did Ms. Roth choose the qualities that defined the factions? Do the sum of the five factions describe a person who inspires her (or someone society should strive to be like)?”

VR: The world of Divergent is basically what I would come up with if someone asked me to create a utopia. A world in which everyone is focused on becoming good people? Sounds good to me. So I asked myself, what qualities would I pick if I were making this world? And I came up with the five factions. It was only as I wrote that I was able to see how my so-called utopia was actually a dystopia, because it forced people to become narrower, twisted versions of themselves, and they ripped each other apart. It was a really strange experience, to realize that I would be a terrible God. Humbling, definitely.

There’s a lot of ‘God’ at the periphery of these books, from the author’s thanking God first in her Insurgent Acknowledgements (“for keeping His Promises”) to the various prayer practices in each faction, and, yes, we’ll be exploring the author’s Evangelical Christian faith at some length. Anyone who tells interviewers that “My faith shapes how I see the world, so it inevitably shapes my work” and that she reads “theology (lately, the writings of John Calvin and Augustine)” invites that kind of thing.

Psychology, though, looms at least as large as theology. Ms. Roth says first when asked what ideas influenced her, “Psychology! Exposure therapy, Milgram’s experiment on obedience and authority figures, anxiety disorders, phobias, group dynamics.” Elsewhere she says that she loves to cook, and, beyond that “I’m interested in psychology (especially as it relates to personality, brain chemistry, and group dynamics).”

We’ll begin those discussions later this week, I hope! Today, though, I want to begin the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games discussions with the echoes of the Boy Who Lived’s seven adventures in the first two Divergent series books.

The Hogwarts Saga

The Sorting Hat (a) — The inciting incident of Divergent is the choice of factions the 16 year old Beatrice Prior makes at the Choosing Ceremony before the crowd of everyone in her school community. The ages are a little different — it’s more of a graduation exercise or college acceptance assembly than a ‘Welcome to Hogwarts!’ moment, but I’m pretty sure Potter philes will experience this as I did, namely, evidence of Miss Roth’s belief that Dumbledore was right when he shared with Snape his suspicion that witches and wizards were sorted “too soon.”

The Sorting Hat (b) — Beatrice/Tris, like Harry, chooses the faction of bravery over the faction of power, though she is well aware of the consequences of this choice (well, as aware as anyone who knows nothing about Dauntless faction could be…). The big note is that choice is the series’ big virtue, to which even courage and sacrifice are secondary because, as presented, both require the will and discernment of choice. Very Aristotelian, but even more postmodern as the choice is almost always one of self-identity crystallizing sacrifice in “speaking truth to power.”

Both the hype on book covers and advertisements — “ONE CHOICE decides your friends, defines your beliefs, and determines your loyalties…Forever” — as well as the author’s comments in interviews confirms the Dumbledorean dictum that choice about who you are is what defines us. Miss Roth said to the L.A.Times:

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.

It may be a good thing and a challenging thing, but it’s hardly a new thing. It’s almost a rule of late 20th and early 21st Century fiction, to which rule the Divergent books are not a departure.

Four Houses, Four Factions and a Quintessence –As suggested in the Lord Voldemort interview quoted above in which the author notes that her five factions “are a lot like Hogwarts, actually” in being representative of virtues they foster in their members, the Hogwarts Houses and the five factions of Chica-gone, the post apocalyptic Windy City, are shades of one another. HogPro All-Pros won’t struggle to see through the transparencies of the symbolic elements representing the factions of the choosing ceremony: “grey stones for Abnegation, water for Erudite, earth for Amity, lit coals for Dauntless, and glass for Candor” (p. 40). The brave faction is fire, the truth tellers are air, the intelligent/calculating are water, and the humble are earth — or, to make the obvious translation, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, and Huffelpuff, respectively.

The fifth faction, Abnegation, from which all the greater heroes of the book originate or wind up, are the selfless or null set whose only quality is dispassionate love for ‘other.’ They are not one element but the Quintessence or resolution of the other qualities in the cycle of element’s center. Because the transcendent or divine ideal of this faction is not self-evident in at least one of its members, look to their manifesto for what they’re supposed to be about:

“I will be my undoing

If I become my obsession.

I will forget the ones I love

If I do not serve them.

I will war with others

If I refuse to see them.

Therefore I choose to turn away

From my reflection,

To rely not on myself

But on my brothers and sisters,

To project always outward

Until I disappear

(And only God remains).”

The last line is not compulsory.

It’s Four Elements for the factions or houses, and, either way, the door is open for discussion of an alchemical framework or story scaffolding. Don’t you love the “spiritual, not religious” obligatory finish lest non-believers gag?

Before moving on, I’m obliged to note that the factions are like the houses, too, in their being representative of an oppressive and identity smothering metanarrative that is only worse in being chosen. In addition, Miss Roth is here, I think, taking on both the psychology of faction-caste ideology and political partisanship as much as she is the culture’s defining myth qua postmodern. And she does it quite well, I think.

“You’re a Divergent, Harry” — Harry is a Gryffindor-Slytherin cross courtesy of his parents’ genetics and the consequences of their sacrifice (the Scar Horcrux). Beatrice learns in her sorting by psychoactive drug before the ceremony that she is a three way cross of factions or a double divergent, all of which characteristics we learn in the book are consequent to her parents’ mysterious origins and Tris’ upbringing. Like Philosopher’s Stone, Divergent is the heroine’s discovery that she has magical or super powers others do not because of her internal diversity.

Mysterious Origin, Sacrificial Parents — The parallels of the “why am I this way?” origin with no grandparents, not to mention watching mom and dad die for you, are hard to miss Potter-Prior analogies. If you don’t see it, look for Tris delivering these Lupinesque lines as she contemplates suicide in Insurgent’s nadir if not nigredo:

I lean forward into the air [looking down from the high building to the street], holding on to the side of the window with one hand. Another few inches and my weight would pull me to the ground. I would not be able to stop it.

But I cannot do it. My parents lost their lives out of love for me. Losing mine for no good reason would be a terrible way to repay them for that sacrifice, no matter what I’ve done. (p 157)

Pretty much word for word from Prisoner of Azkaban, right? “Your parents gave their lives for you, Harry. A poor way to repay them — gambling their sacrifice for a bag of magic tricks.”

Sky High — Like Harry Potter, Divergent can be read as something like a remake of the 2005 comedy-super-hero flick, Sky High, especially during the the first book’s Dauntless initiation and rebellion finish  (see Unlocking Harry Potter, in which I broke down this film’s postmodern elements at length). The series is essentially a School for Super Heroes, no room for Squibs or SideKicks, in which the reindeer with shining noses and queer dentists that are ostracized or just despised wind up having the exact super powers necessary to defeat the Dark Lord and save the powerful from themselves.

In Divergent and Insurgent, the ‘other’ — the ‘Stiff’ Who Become Dauntless — wins the war against the fascist power-holders and power-seekers, and, victorious, the ‘other’ resets the prejudicial faction paradigm to factionless equality; surprised? You shouldn’t be. It’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Order of the Phoenix as Rainbow Coalition winning the day, as always!

“Of course it’s happening in your head, Harry, but why would you think it isn’t real?” The Matrix reference in the line that Roth’s literary agent used to sell Divergent to HarperCollins, “the Hunger Games meets the Matrix,” points to the interior quality of much of the Dauntless initiation of its new members. Using psychoactive drugs, the newbies are forced to confront their fears as events really happening to them, mental experiences/confrontations-with-self that faction leaders are able to monitor and time to gauge the initiate’s courage.

Just as in Harry’s final sacrifice before the battle with the Dark Lord in the Great Hall, in Divergent interior warfare and mastery are the keys to winning the exterior battle being fought; it is victory over Tris’ self explicitly as well as implicitly in Insurgent’s last battle that wins the day. It’s not immediately clear to her or the reader whether she is in a simulation or Dauntless training room. But the victory is no less real and important than Harry’s in the Forbidden Forest and King’s Cross.

Differences? The ‘Peter’s in Harry Potter and Divergent are both traitors lacking in courage and who are burdened by debts each owes the person who saved his life. Wait — that’s not a difference but still another point of similarity…

Hmmm… How about that floating single eye in the Erudite faction symbol? Is that from The Great Gatsby or Deathly Hallows? Given Erudite’s Slytherin like leanings and the Dumbledore revealed in Hallows, I’d say the latter.

There’s the names! Harry’s name is heavy with meaning but ‘Tris’? ‘Beatrice Prior’ sounds like someone who writes stories about bunnies or an abbess. But there is the word play in ‘Be-a-Tris’ both because she becomes a ‘Tris’ at her coming out at the Choosing Ceremony and the ‘Tri’ in ‘Tris’ probably does refer to her three faction divergence. Not to mention the contrast with ‘Four,’ her instructor and friend. I’ll leave the discussion of the numbers three and four and what they represent for another day.

‘Prior,’ though, Tris’ last name, turns out to have remarkable importance at Insurgent‘s end, as in “what comes before,” even “origin” and “cause.” Again, that’s for another day.

So the name thing isn’t a difference after all.

Well, here’s a difference, if true. It’s rumored on the Twitter tumblr that Ms. Roth doesn’t know how her series ends. That’s a pretty significant difference from Ms. Rowling, no?

Some confirmation of this flying-by-the-seat-of-her-pants possibility via an interview from last April:

Kate: Are you an outliner or pantser?

Veronica : I am kind of an outliner/pantser hybrid. It’s important for me to explore in the beginning of a story without a plan or an idea of where everything is going to go. But about one hundred pages in, I start to get lost in the little web of characters and storylines I’ve made, and I need to sit down and make a plan for the rest of the book. Even then, though, I try not to make the plan so specific that I leave no room for surprising myself.

Whatever else Ms. Rowling may be, she’s more Planning Panzer than Pantser.

Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted!

Tomorrow, Tris and Katniss, the dystopian, Girls-From-Nowhere, Super Heroines, Rebellion Leader-parallels-in-a-package. See you then!


  1. Great thoughts, John! I hadn’t put together the idea of choice being the primary good in the story, but it makes sense, particularly in light of what the word Divergent means to the factions.

    Likewise, I hadn’t thought about the “tri” in Tris either. The Four and Six were too distractingly intriguing. But I like that.

    Four’s real name, Tobias, is the Greek form of a Hebrew name meaning “God is good”, using the most holy name of God. Roth being evangelical, I suppose there’s not a ton of connection to the deuterocanonical Bible book of Tobit, in which young Tobias is aided by the archangel Raphael in healing his father’s blindness and driving away a demon who has murdered his bride’s first seven husbands. 🙂

    Dystopia is most certainly not my thing, but I appreciated what Roth did with the first book enough to enjoy it. I just put myself in line for a copy of Insurgent at the library, but there are an awful lot of people ahead of me. Ah well. In this case, I might allow a few spoilers.

    Oh, and I’m betting on “Convergent” too.

    –Library Lily 🙂

  2. Arabella figg says


    Great review, John, much deeper than I was willing to go, not having liked the book much while appreciating an artistic scaffolding. That’s why I referred it to the expert for a thorough unpacking.

    I’m in line for Insurgent at the library, too, with a refresher on Divergent first. But it occurred to me that Tris Prior hints of “Tris First,” especially considering she turned her back on Abnegation.

    Divergent struck me as a strong critique of individuality-erasing fundamentalism and also cults, and that the author is an evangelical made this more interesting. I expect you’ll be covering (or disabusing) this notion as well.

  3. I’m really new to this series, Arabella, and don’t want to make any more embarrassing mistakes than I have already. I have called the author “Victoria Ross” at least ten times in the last few days and I cannot find out even the simplest details of her life, hence the ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms.’ alternations in the post above I’m just guessing she’s single from a comment she made to the L. A. Times about relationships in her books and in her life:

    Tobias wants Tris to be strong and is attracted to her because of her strength. That was so important for me to illustrate. They’re not without their problems and they have a complicated relationship, but at the heart of it, he always believes that she’s stronger than she believes she is. In my own relationships, I know that I should break up with someone who doesn’t encourage me to be strong and make my own choices and do what’s best in my life, so if you’re dating someone who doesn’t want you to be the best person you can be, you shouldn’t be dating them. Growing up with Disney movies, you don’t really get that feeling. Not that there aren’t books out there that send that message, but I wanted my book to be one of them.

    There’s a Wikipedia page for the author, there’s a Divergent Lexicon and a DivergentWiki for the books, and a host of fan sites for discussion and ‘news’ online about the series (which publishers are already exploiting actively with ‘give aways’ like chapters told from Four’s perspective) but not much to get a grip on the woman’s religious beliefs and the like. Probably best not to ‘go there’ when you cannot say with confidence “married,” “single,” or “divorced”!

    But when have I been so prudent? We know she’s from the North side of Chicago and went to school at Northwestern. What do the books tell us about that?

    The books do point to a White Bread Protestant upbringing on Chicago’s North Shore or North suburbs, a notoriously power oriented, conformist, and self-righteous group of WASPs (my wife was born in Evanston where her dad was a professor at Northwestern…). I think that’s part of Roth’s desire to rebel from Abnegation, equating her with Tris which equation I’ll explain Tuesday, and her longing for a good dash of bravery and non-conformity!

    More on the psychology and religion this week. For those interested, Ms. Roth has told fans her Myers-Briggs test results like Tobias’ are ISFJ. Pretty weird to be that wide-open on some scores and cards to the chest on others?, even if the Author Really Is Into Psychology:

    Veronica came out and did a short reading from Insurgent, then did a Q&A for about 15 or 20 minutes. She is so cute and witty. One of the questions asked was which character she most closely related to, and her answer was Tobias. The reasoning behind this response was “I was rated ISFJ on the Meyers-Briggs test (sic), and so did Tobias, so we have a lot in common.”

    Anyway, thank you and Library Lily again for this recommendation. Fun books and certainly the next ‘big thing’ after the Twilight and Hunger Games movies run their course.

  4. She is fairly recently married. I follow her blogs via goodreads and she has mentioned this. Just in case you were actually interested and not bringing this up to illustrate your point about how little there was on the internet about her.

  5. Louise M. Freeman says

    I’ve got another 8 hour drive ahead of me. Audio-book on the way!

  6. Louise — that sounds like a great drive! Wish I could join you for the distance-destroying reading experience, my favorite way to travel!

    Lynn — Thank you for this! I surfed her blog and found nothing but need to look for a search engine on it. Don’t you found the comment to the LA Times a little weird for a married woman? Maybe not for the newly married… My hope in pointing out that I didn’t know Ms. Roth’s marital status was only to point out how little I know, which, even with your clarification, remains at ‘ignorance’ on the know-o-meter.

  7. Louise M. Freeman says

    I finished up Divergent yesterday via audiobook. Will probably get print copies as soon as I can… this is going to be a great series for a psychologist to delve into.

  8. Psychology, though, looms at least as large as theology. Ms. Roth says first when asked what ideas influenced her, “Psychology! Exposure therapy, Milgram’s experiment on obedience and authority figures, anxiety disorders, phobias, group dynamics.” Elsewhere she says that she loves to cook, and, beyond that “I’m interested in psychology (especially as it relates to personality, brain chemistry, and group dynamics).”

    I’m hoping you’ll lead discussions of where these ideas are imbedded in the stories, Prof Freeman! Way out of my league — but obviously central to understanding what Roth is after in her stories. Lead on!

    How about a snapshot of her Myer-Briggs assessment for starters? With some thoughts about why she’d identify a character with that profile? Need we sort all the characters through this testing filter?

  9. Louise M. Freeman says

    Like a lot of physiological psych types, I’m not a huge fan of Myer-Briggs, but I’ll give it a shot.

    The most obvious psychological concept is Guilford’s Divergent thinking. The book starts with an “aptitude test” that labels a divergent brain as dangerous and ends with a lengthy explanation as to why Janeane’s convergent thought process makes her a complete psychopath.

  10. Can’t wait for these psych posts! I mean “exposure therapy“? Got to be in the books… Is this the whole point of Bravery training in Dauntless? A type of remediated exposure therapy?

    As I said, I can’t wait to read these, though right now I’m waiting on a plane… wishing I had a book as good as Divergent/Insurgent!

  11. @John me too.Can’t wait for these psych posts!

  12. Louise M. Freeman says

    Three of them (two on personality theory, one on mirror neurons) are up! If I wind up with a day or two at home with Hurricane Sandy maybe I’ll get some more written.

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