Divergent is set in a dystopian Chicago, where society is divided into five factions, each founded on respect for a particular virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peace) and Erudite (intelligence). Each faction reveres their chosen virtue to a fault: the Candor are transparent but brash, the Abnegation selfless but sheltered, the Dauntless courageous but reckless, the Amity complacent but ambivalent and the Erudite astute but overly pragmatic. On an appointed day each year, all sixteen-year-olds in Chicago 2.0 must choose the faction to which they will belong for the rest of their lives. Notably, those who select a faction other than the one in which they were raised agree to an all but certain exiling from the friends and family they’ve always known.
From page one, Divergent falls in line with its predecessors in the Young Adult Dystopia (let’s call it YAD) genre: Abnegation-raised Beatrice shocks her family when she decides to switch factions, and shocks absolutely no one when she meets a “sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating” boy in her new community. Faction initiation reveals vulnerabilities; love blossoms; a treacherous plot is discovered; a battle is fought.
What makes Divergent interesting—dare I say mildly unique—is that its conflict doesn’t rely on the avarice or corruption of a single person or body of people. Sure, there are instigators in the war that’s ultimately waged among factions, but said war isn’t the byproduct of an immoral central government (see: The Hunger Games, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451). No one’s fighting evil vampires (Twilight, The Strain) or rebelling against dubious biological conditioning (The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go, Brave New World again). Rather, Divergent pits virtue against virtue, ideal against ideal, and good intentions against a paved road to Hell. This facet of the novel—a central fight that’s more Hufflepuff vs. Gryffindor than peasant vs. king—makes it special, and in some sense a better read for teenagers. “Would you rather be always honest or always brave?” is a more valuable question than “Would you rather be poor and oppressed or not poor and oppressed?”