Why do we eat candy canes at Christmas? Why are they red and white? Why do we fold our hands to pray? If you ask a child these questions, they often offer an acrobatic answer. By the time they enter middle school, at least in this day and age, the answers become less and less varied. I havebeen teaching long enough to know that many American teenagers answer all the aforementioned questions similarly. They just do.
Perhaps that answer has nothing to do with this age. Perhaps it has more to do with the incomprehensibility of the world of adults. After all, adults do not always rationalize what they do or say, and to a teenager, the decisions of adults tend to float on a vast sea of mystery and discretion. Adults don’t always explain why a teenager cannot spend time with a certain classmate, see a certain film, visit church with a certain friend. What makes a friend a certain friend, and what makes a film a certain film, is often uncertain to those whose lives are under the watch of others. Consequently, the color of candy and flags and so forth seems to rest on similarly vaporous foundations. When pressed, even reasonable teenagers will sometimes confess that candy canes are red and white because, at some point, someone decided that candy canes ought to have a certain number of colors and “red” and “white” were pulled out of a hat.
Of course, such a teen (or even an adult) is probably speaking mythically and does not truly believe that so many aspects of culture are determined in the manner of a lottery. Behind the pulled-from-a-hat myth, though, is a kind of ad hoc nihilism. A Darwinian Genesis. An uncritical belief that, at the end of the day, everything is situated on top of nothing. I say all of this not because I want to be critical of teenagers because adhering to some degree of nihilist prejudice seems par for the course for anyone living in a finite universe. One of the purposes of a liberal arts education is to bring such prejudices under a critical light, though. Anyone who truly believes that the shape of a culture— be it an American reflecting on American culture, or an American reflecting on the animism of some African tribe— is purely arbitrary and random has been failed by their teachers. Which nearly brings us to Divergent.
The best science fiction imagines a great material and intellectual continuity between our own epoch and the epoch which will follow it, but substitutes some minor change in belief or technological advantage, then uses that change to investigate what it means to be human. A fine example of what I am speaking of might be Blade Runner, in which the shifting, vaporous nature of memory (and the connection between memory and personhood) is examined through a plot device which allows for false memories to be implanted in the mind. Or Gattaca, wherein an American desire for justice is traded for financial gain by means of sophisticated genetic engineering. Both Blade Runner and Gattaca take place in settings very much like our own, with characters whose desires are recognizably human and terrible and wonderful. The whole order of society has not been obliterated and cut anew from whole cloth, but some small hole has opened in the world and begun swallowing the rest of the world up. Good science fiction reveals just how precariously society is situated between the old and the new, the iron clad and the amorphous.
The world in which the Divergent plot unfolds is not much our own or any other world I can easily imagine. Society has been redrawn along five class lines and each class has an expertise in some aspect of human relationships. One class farms, another runs hospitals and soup kitchens and the entire government, another provides for defense, another for courts of law, another for data collection and analysis. Religion and art are non-existent, and as far as I could tell, no class of persons existed who could fix a leaky roof or a busted toilet.
The logic of the story suggests these five classes are mutually reinforcing, and that such reinforcement was stable enough to last ten minutes, let alone several generations.The film neatly unspools from said premises and a handful of teenage angst. The typical moviegoer will intuit in the first ten minutes that tyrants have established the social order and that any reasonable human being will (in the name of freedom, being yourself, and the venerable spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) revolt against it.
The race to get Beatrice to the point she can rebel is run at a breakneck speed. Nasty right-leaning action movies often succumb to the same kind of impatience and ticky-tack moral rule keeping. In the first ten minutes of the film, a group of thugs or statists ruthlessly and senselessly abuse an innocent or attack a woman. The scene is quick, groundless, sudden, and is followed by two hours of the hero graphically destroying the bad guys. Viewers can feel good about watching the bloody dismemberment because wicked limbs are getting hacked off, evil kneecaps are getting blown apart. Even Christians sometimes get sucked into defending this kind of thing, and the line of reasoning for doing so moves pretty seamlessly from war Psalms to generous helpings of blah blah blah. Gibson and Stallone specialize in righteous porno-violence.
In only a slightly different vein, the narrative hand is quick to sweep Beatrice towards a knowledge of her own power and the foolishness of the whole world. The Divergent society is so obviously stupid and the structure of the government is so manifestly corrupt, Beatrice needs no time to plot a course of action. She is quickly aware of the evil around her and she is given little time to contemplate what to do about it. No time to consult with adults. No time to read. She enjoys no deliberation process. The system over Beatrice is naive and ridiculous, so she need not think about retaining any of the old ways once the rebellion is begun. The need for an immediate rebellion is thrust upon her simply and blandly.
I suppose a teenager living in Germany in 1943 could have come to the conclusion that the Third Reich was evil, that Hitler was mad, and that rebellion and sedition and espionage were entirely warranted. However, I imagine such a conclusion would be years in the making and emerge only after being granted a sense of perspective. Reading a little, studying a little. Praying a little. The moral allowance to rebel could not be arrived at purely from the inside. That a teenager could happily grow up German, fly the flag, go to school, sing the songs, salute the eagle, then turn sixteen and immediately rebel against an evil State after an overnight maturation into moral sophistication… I think not. If you’re sixteen and lazy and bored and that’s why you don’t want to go pass out anti-Semitic lit down by the schnitzel shop, it is no credit to you, though laziness and boredom are far more typical expressions of teenage rebellion than, say, the need to push over immoral top-heavy social superstructures the first second you see them. Beatrice’s sense to rebel is automatic, a knee-jerk response to a poorly drawn world. She is a universal woman, a budding priestess who possesses the genetic qualities of all five classes, and so Divergent is yet another attempt by rich adults to sell young people a cheaply sacralized vision of giving the finger to the Man.