The Divergent Trilogy: Twilight, MarySue, and Tris Prior

We are in the third day of ‘Beatrice Prior Week’ here at HogwartsProfessor and it’s the last day of comparisons with the three other popular series we’ve discussed at length here. Yesterday, it was Hunger Games, Sunday it was Harry Potter, and today we come to the neglected corner, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. What could Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy have to do with the Paranormal Romance in Forks?

Quite a bit! Even some interviewers are talking about it with Ms. Roth, albeit only in terms of her movie deal with Summit, the makers of the Twilight films. From’s interview with Ms. Roth (December 2011):

People inevitably will make comparisons to Stephenie Meyer, since you’re both YA novelists signed to Summit. She’s producing her first film now — are you planning to be Meyer-level involved in the making of “Divergent?”

Not really. At least, I haven’t really been involved with it for very long, so it’s hard to say. But I really just love books and I never really watch movies. I’m more into the slow, sort of meditative process and movies are like bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam! So I don’t know if it’s really the place for me. I don’t know, it’s been really fun to see “Twilight” from the inside, but I’m really just observing, I’m not really involved.

Ah. Ms. Roth… You have won my heart! Time is short, though, so let’s skip right to the five points of congruence with Twilight that I noted on my first trip through Divergent and Insurgent.


One Woman Man — The core genre of the Twilight books, for better or worse, is Harlequin Romance. Most of the hate that the Forks Saga inspires, and, really, I’ve never seen anything that causes the culture mavens and serious readers to curl their lips and sniff the air the way Mrs. Meyer’s Bella Swann novels do, is revulsion from this type of story.

I understand that — no self-respecting educated person in the country can have endured the mind-mold of American higher education without having their brains tattooed with lists of the “sort of books we read” and the “sort of books those without our learning read.” Harlequin Romance outsells literary fiction by many millions every year but the formulas of the genre, its relatively unadorned prose, and its politically incorrect boy-gets-girl teleology are necessarily repugnant to the Gate Keepers of Caste and Privilege.

No matter what kind of story you’re reading, the moral, allegorical, and sublime layers of it, should it have that many, all have to come through the surface narrative. Just like a cake and its icing, then, if you cannot stomach the genre at the outside layer, you’re not getting to get any of the substance of it (and, as likely as not, you’ll be bewildered, even annoyed, by those who do).

Twilight is pretty much an over-the-top girl-falls-for-dreamy-guy romance. Bella’s story turns into something of a triangle because Little, Brown refused Forever Dawn as the two books post Twilight to fulfill the original three book contract and Mrs. Meyer had to invent two more novels as filler (producing the best pieces of the series, I think). Hence Edward’s disappearance in New Moon and Jacob’s ascent in that book and Eclipse.

Bella, though, is always Edward’s girl and a one woman man. He, too, is totally Gone-for-That-Girl.

This is exactly the case with Divergent‘s principal players as well. Tris meets Four and falls head over heels, very much despite herself. Four guards his feelings for a while because he is her instructor but he is a goner pretty much from the get-go as well. They have their struggles but there is no question that he and share ‘Are The One.’

We also have a little of the Edward superman quality in Four. Not only is he Mr. Super Dauntless that nothing and nobody ever fazes, but he is incomprehensibly mature and still a very young man. I remember what it was like being 18. I have taught 18 year olds. I have been in Marine Corps units that were predominantly young men in their late teens. Four/Tobias would definitely pass the Edward test as in “Which one of these guys is not like the others?” if put in a line-up of men his age.

[Creepy, too, that the instructor initiates a relationship with a student during training. Like the 100 year old man in love with Bella, this has an unavoidable ‘Eeww” factor.]

Beatrice Prior, likewise, is something of a second Bella Swann in being more post graduate student than sophomore becoming junior in High School. Why this is so we’ll get to in a minute.

Locking Lips — Lev Grossman in his look at YA dystopian fiction last March in TIME pointed out that the recent flood of titles in this genre feature romance openly and heavily; he mentions Divergent as illustration of this feature because Tris and Four, once they discover their true love, have a hard time keeping their hands, lips, arms, and legs off each other anytime they are alone. Only that pesky shoulder wound that Tris has prevents the pawing foreplay from becoming a teen pregnancy on more than one occasion  — which just-in-time fall-back-from-the-brink-of-passion Twilight despisers and Twi-hards will recall as a hallmark from the just-barely-celibate Forks Saga lovers.

But like Bella and Edward, it really is the girl who is the aggressor here and both couples are virgin sets and wonderfully aware of the depth of the decision it will be to cross ‘that line.’ It’s suggested more than once in Insurgent that they break the barrier in the nether world of page turnings between chapters but it is never implied heavily or made explicit. The readers — including young adults, right? — are left to imagine them as retaining innocence, doing the deed, or not thinking of it at all.

The passion scenes, though, suffice to communicate their ardor, believe me, and establish Divergent‘s cred as popular romance fiction wrapped up in a dystopian Bildungsroman. If only Mrs. Meyer had thought to make Forks the only community to have survived a nuclear blast, I’m thinking she might have received a better reading from the critics.

Wish Fulfillment Mary Sue Fantasy — Enough fun and games, though; let’s get to the meat of this discussion.

Both Twilight and Divergent are ‘Mary Sue’ Wish Fulfillment fantasies from the sub conscious of women who are first time authors.

Let’s review the Twilight part of that with an excerpt from another post that I re-wrote for my Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Novels:

Robert Pattinson, the UK heart throb who plays the part of Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies, supposedly told E! magazine in a video interview that he has thought of the books as Mrs. Meyer’s barely repressed fantasies.

“When I read it I was convinced Stephenie was convinced she was Bella and it was like it was a book that wasn’t supposed to be published. It was like reading her sexual fantasy, especially when she said it was based on a dream and it was like, ‘Oh I’ve had this dream about this really sexy guy,’ and she just writes this book about it. Like some things about Edward are so specific, I was just convinced, like, ‘This woman is mad. She’s completely mad and she’s in love with her own fictional creation.’ And sometimes you would feel uncomfortable reading this thing.”

Even if Mr. Pattinson didn’t say that, the idea that an author’s first work is almost necessarily psychological projection is sound. I detail in the later chapters of Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of the Twilight Novels the several personal issues and circumstances Mrs. Meyer was dealing with in 2003 that she has revealed in interviews and how the novels she wrote from her first wish-fulfillment dream are fantasy resolutions of these problems.

The temptation here after recognizing that the author is writing a wish-fulfillment fantasy is to dismiss the consequent work as necessarily worthless because it had therapeutic value and inspiration. That would be an unfortunate and very silly mistake.

Most obviously, it is a mistaken impulse because, if we threw out as soiled bandages every “Mary Sue” novel in which the author acts out satisfying, compensatory dreams through a story surrogate, we’d lose a lot of great books. Start out with Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bronte’s Jane Eyre and work your way through English fiction up to and including Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter.

All of these books have their reflection in Twilight but none as much commented on as Harry’s influence on Bella. In addition to magical or paranormal settings and characters, the two series are both ‘Mary Sues.’

We can see Harry as a stand-in for Ms. Rowling, for example, in noting that they share green eyes, a birthday, and a beloved dead mother. Ms. Rowling’s painful estranged relationship with her own father is revealed and acted out in the books via the violent deaths suffered by almost every father figure in the narrative line; she admits that she only had Mr. Weasley survive the snake bites he received in Order of the Phoenix because she had killed all the other daddies in Harry’s adventures.

A character, especially the main character, serving as an author surrogate is no measure of a work’s value. It means only that the writer is human. All books, perhaps even all artistic endeavors, have a significant psychological component of the inside being expressed on the outside in therapeutic narrative. Especially, it seems, in first novels.

Every novel as a creative work represents in varying degrees a psychological exercise of its author to work through unresolved interior conflicts. The subconscious content of Mrs. Meyer’s Twilight Saga, though, asks for our reflection more than most books both because it is her first book and because its core inspiration is dream material.

Robert Anderson, a psychiatrist whose Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith (Signature Books, 1999) explores Smith’s Book of Mormon as an exercise in psychobiography, explains the importance of an author’s first composition:

It is a general truism that the first artistic creation of an artist or writer is usually most revealing of his personality, for it is hoped that the artist’s work will also be psychotherapeutic work and contribute to resolving original conflicts and problems…. If the creative work of the artist or author is psychotherapeutic (as one hopes it will be and does sometimes seem to occur), then subsequent work will become more and more removed from the original struggles and conflicts….

The creative artist may reveal aspects of his life throughout his works, but it is hoped that the artistic work will be therapeutic and maturational for the artist. When this is so, the first work of the artist is usually most revealing of his personality, and the problems or conflicts most transparent. (pages xxx, 30)

In June 2003 Mrs. Meyer has told us that she had three sons and felt heavy, old, fragile or broken, and weighed down with responsibilities that kept her from her self-expression. She was inspired by her dream of the girl and vampire in the meadow and feverishly wrote a story in which her main character Bella has one daughter (there will be no more…), her love for the baby is acknowledged and praised by everyone as sacrificial and heroic, and the fruit of her labors are peace on earth or, at least, a stop in the fighting around Forks.

Anderson calls this sort of reversal in a psychobiography a “fantasy conquest” in which the author is “compensating for a horrible real-life experience by displacing it with a conquering fantasy.” Mrs. Meyer works out her personal issues through her story proxy Bella and writes, as Anderson believes the Mormon Prophet did in The Book of Mormon, a “fantasy compensation for [her] real life incompleteness and loss.”

Mrs. Meyer writes Twilight after being inspired by a dream, she writes it without thought of publication, and, perhaps most important in seeing the work as auto-therapy, she writes it and Forever Dawn, the first sequel or “epilogue,” for herself and her sister, the closest likeness to a mirror’s reflection she could find in another person. Her work reflects the several psychological tensions and conflicts she was working though at the time of her inspiration for the series.

End excerpt — This is what gives Forever/Breaking Dawn its wild Feminist Super Hero Comic Book atmosphere. Bella becomes not only the earth mother goddess who saves the world through her sacrificial child bearing but the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl in addition to the Thing’s physical new-vampire strength. She almost single-handedly disarms the Volturi in the final X-Men vs the League of Evil Mutants confrontation, thereby forcing them to disband a retreat. Bella is greater than Edward and at long last is able to open her mind to her husband, perhaps the greatest wish-fulfillment fantasy of the author because reserved for the parting shot.

Again, does this kind of self-insertion and resolution of psychological issues makes Twilight a fanfiction Mary Sue not worthy of adult attention? I don’t think so. It does explain, perhaps, the relative frenetic and unreal qualities of the first and last books of the Saga which were written first and my preference for New Moon, Eclipse, Bree Tanner, and The Host, but, as I said above, every first book of an author has this projection, self-insertion, and therapeutic function to a greater or lesser degree.

Note what The New York Times wrote about Suzanne Collins and her first book, Gregor the Overlander:

In 1968 the family moved to Indiana. It was the year Collins turned 6. It was also the year her father left to serve in Vietnam. War was a favorite topic for her father; and war, she understood at a young age, determined her family’s fate. “If your parent is deployed and you are that young, you spend the whole time wondering where they are and waiting for them to come home,” she said. “As time passes and the absence is longer and longer, you become more and more concerned — but you don’t really have the words to express your concern. There’s only this continued absence.”

Although young-adult fiction often dispenses with caretakers to give the characters control over their own lives, the anxiety provoked by an absent parent seems particularly pivotal in Collins’s fiction: “Gregor the Overlander” starts with a young boy’s pining for a mysteriously missing father. In “The Hunger Games,” it is clear early on that the death of Katniss’s father has forced her into the uncomfortable role of family provider. The lifelong repercussions of Collins’s father’s service in Vietnam also provided her with a perspective that fuels a key plot twist of “Mockingjay,” which follows one character’s struggle to recover from tortured memories of violence. (In his case, the memories are false, created by an enemy who plants them in his mind.) Collins said her father came back from Vietnam enduring “nightmares, and that lasted his whole life.” As a child, she awoke, at times, to the sound of him crying out during those painful dreams.

This is a natural, even important part of the drive-to-write and the form of what is usually shelved as “inspiration.” Divergent is no exception.

We don’t know much of Ms. Roth’s life beyond that she is a Christian, either Protestant or Evangelical, that she grew up in Barrington, Illinois, a wealthy suburb north and west of Chicago founded by Methodists and Congregationalists, and that she has a degree from Northwestern University in Creative Writing. But Tris’ super hero-like behaviors and her braver-than-brave qualities, not only in jumping off the Hancock building but in personal relationships, especially with parents and lovers, I think are fairly transparent fantasy projections and dream conquests of a young woman.

  • Tris fearlessly steps outside her parents’ expectations (or what she thinks are their expectations) by forsaking the family faction and becoming Dauntless. Ms. Roth’s Barrington high school is almost certainly a North Shore ‘feeder’ to Northwestern, a fine University, but also one with a tradition as a finishing school for upper caste Chicago debutantes. It’s also the best school a very short distance from home. I think it’s safe to assume Ms. Roth wanted to jump a little farther from the nest or the elevated train than Evanston, the school down the street. Or it could be her self-insertion as the girl who chose to major in Creative Writing despite the  parents’ concern that this was impractical…
  • Tris remembers her parents’ simple religious pieties, none of which touch her as meaningful. There is the suggestion that Abnegation devotionalism masks family violence because of Four’s history. Miss Prior is shaken to the core in Insurgent by the fervent, natural, and loving worship of the Amity, however, and moved to something like pity for Peter’s world view — doing the right thing, even a heroic and sacrificial thing, only because of a debt he owes rather than from love. Forgive me for thinking Ms. Roth admires her parents’ white bread faith (which obviously works for them in the end!) but that she wishes she had the courage for a more unconventional, loving faith. She certainly isn’t drawn to Catholicism, though, at least not if Peter is the caricature of it I think he is; whatever faith or worldview he is the cipher for, she views as juridical, atonement theology that is lacking in love.
  • Tris is the heroine in a story pitting the secular scientists and know-it-alls of Erudite faction against the “We were placed here” citizens believing in a Creator or at least a life purpose beyond knowing and “prospering.” It’s Abnegation, a heroic remnant of Dauntless, and the factionless against the mindless honesty of Candor, the leaders of Dauntless, and all of Erudite in a battle to reveal or conceal the origin of their metanarrative. Ms. Roth is a Christian who has spent four years in an elite education factory that denies God, for the most part. As she describes her life there on her blog, wityhout touching on religious issues so much, it is not a stretch at all to undestand the writing of Divergent, with its anti-Erudite faction message, as her fantasy conquest of the academics that made her hate reading and feel shame for the books she loved and wanted to write. Tris’ victories and smash-mouth bravery are almost certainly compensation and satisfaction for the humiliation she felt as ‘Classroom Victoria’ wearing the mask of someone she wasn’t.

Read ‘Victoria Roth on Literary vs YA Fiction and the Disdain Academics have for Fantasy’ for more on that. I hope to discuss more of that tomorrow. For today’s comparison of Twilight and Divergent, though, I offer for your consideration that this kind of super-heroine comic book action in which the not-so-beautiful girl wins Prince Charming, vanquishes the Evil Geniuses, and is an icon of bravery and decisiveness, look for a youngish woman as the author working out her issues with faith, boyfriend, teacher, school, family, and timidity.

I think the text shows a person behind the curtain who longs for an experience of God “beyond the fence” of selfless, lifeless faith, of knowing that is not academic pride and conceit, and of an honesty that is courageous not self-consumed or without integrity. If those are indeed Ms. Roth’s “issues” and desires, whole or in part, rather than my projections (always a real possibility in these kind of interpretations!), it’s no wonder she has so many readers joining her, MarySue, and Tris for the liberating experience her stories deliver and the “fantasy conquest” in these struggles most of us can recognize as our own.

Relatively Thin World Building — Just a couple more connections before I turn in.

I lived in Chicago for four years and spent almost all of it on the South Side. I did, however, get up to Northwestern and the North Side more than once and downtown quite a few times. The Chicago I knew isn’t here. I’m a little cranky, I guess, in not admiring the image of El trains that never stop (well, only stop once) and the lack of experience of the many neighborhoods that even in a post-apocalypse Windy City would be fascinating. North Shore types, forgive me, are known for their parochialism and I fear that is in evidence here.

Which frankly, reminds me of Mrs. Meyer’s Forks. I lived on the Olympic Peninsula for several years, too, and on more than one occasion I had to laugh at the scenes being described — or the lack of the real scene.

I suspect that the third book, be it Detergent as the author jokes or Convergent or whatever, will be supplying the background for the apocalypse or the origin of the faction metanarrative origin, but it is overdue, even if it needed this big a set-up. It’s such a far-fetched mythos that it’s a real stretch that there is no questioning of same — and that the Smart Guys are those most ardently working to keep anyone from looking at the history of how we got in this mess.

Divergent Chicago, then, is really just five pod-Headquarters for the factions and a lot of faceless, abandoned buildings for the factionless, with a side-helping of mysteriously empty but maintained skyscrapers, with Lake Michigan as a marsh and in which town nobody questions the way everyone lives. It’s a lot like like Forks-Mayberry, then, except for the tall buildings and the absence of vampires? I’m looking forward to the big reveal in the last book!

Orson Scott Card Syndrome:  Stephenie Meyer is a big Scott Card fan; she claimed once to have read everything he wrote at least twice (which given his productivity and diversity as a writer, would be astonishing if true). It wasn’t much of a surprise to me, then, when she began writing Twilight over again to tell the story from Edward’s perspective. Mrs. Meyer didn’t finish Midnight Sun but if she had, it would have been a page from her Master’s playbook. Card has written endless new-tellings of his Ender’s Game books from the various points of view of its many characters.

Ms. Roth says she is a big Ender’s Game fan, too, and, sure enough, before the Divergent trilogy is even finished, she’s already getting fan’s prepared for a re-telling of the books. Here is Divergent’s Knife Throwing Scene From Four’s Point of View!

Too funny.

I look forward to reading your comments and corrections, as well as all the Twilight and Divergent parallels I missed, More tomorrow in Day 4 of Beatrice Prior Week here at HogwartsProfessor!


  1. Hoping this isn’t too tangential (and asking for your forgiveness if it is):

    While I think the idea of an author’s first book being an expression of their own psychological struggles is fascinating, (something I hadn’t really considered before), and I also think that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and conclusions, I just want to share my own belief that the Book of Mormon is not fiction. Rather, I believe that it is comparable to the Bible being a record of a real people that actually lived, and is a remarkable witness of Jesus Christ. I haven’t read Anderson’s book and so I don’t know his particular arguments or ideas, I just wanted to share the flip side of the story in that there are people who believe that the Book of Mormon wasn’t authored by Joseph Smith. This belief has brought me more happiness and joy than almost anything else in my life, and hopefully it can to others as well.

    Thanks, John, for sharing your perspectives with us. I love learning from the insights that you and others at HogwartsProfessor share. Thanks too for making HogwartsProfessor a place where readers can actually discuss their ideas, not just argue about them. It’s a very refreshing place to come.

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