When a book becomes a movie, the story inevitably finds new audiences and resonates in different cultural spaces—and, as a result, new interpretations and possible meanings bubble to the surface. That’s what’s happening today with Divergent, as a story that was enjoyed by readers, albeit a lot of them, is nevertheless getting much broader cultural exposure with a movie release. And the new meanings and interpretations that are popping up as a result? Well, for that we’ll go to Vulture’s David Edelstein, who appears to regard the story as a sort of conservative fantasy, enjoyable only “if you can forget what it’s saying.”
A quick summary of Divergent‘s premise for those who haven’t read the book: in the future, people are placed into factions based on their talents and temperament, and those who are factionless because of talents in multiple areas—the Divergent—are persecuted.
It’s Roth’s treatment of the Erudite faction that bugs Edelstein:
The novelist, Veronica Roth, reserves her loathing for the “Erudites,” who spend their days in intellectual pursuit. She appears to be one in a long line of religious conservatives (her first acknowledgement is to God, “for your Son”) who think there’s nothing more dangerous than intellectualism, which makes people apt to seize power and impose Maoist-like uniformity on entire populations — on pain of death. I happen to share her belief that some ideologies (Maoism among them) can lead humans to commit horrific acts. But it seems to me that knowledge is our best hope against the sort of brainwashing that produces true conformity, and that Roth’s view of higher education has another agenda altogether.
The first thing to say about this is that making broad assumptions about someone’s politics based on an innocuous expression of religious sentiment isn’t exactly fair, or pretty. But neither is anti-intellectualism. Though some on the right might view intellectualism as a step on the path to totalitarianism, many of the oppressive regimes of the 20th century in fact targeted intellectuals for imprisonment, torture, and killing; Pol Pot, for instance, infamously targeted intellectuals and people who wore glasses, thinking them to be signs of learning. If Divergent does indeed have an anti-intellectual streak, that’s a serious charge worth considering.
Edelstein’s review was the second time I’d encountered someone accusing Divergent of not-so-savory politics. Not long ago, I was talking with a friend about the book and impending movie, and he gave the opinion that the book was basically a “libertarian fantasy.” When I asked him to explain, he said: “It’s about a world where people who are good at everything are persecuted for being extraordinary. Isn’t that what rich people are always saying Obama does to them?”
And I thought: Huh. Well, if you look at it that way, I guess it does sound like something Ayn Rand might have written.
Some quick Google research didn’t turn up a ton of people reading Divergent as conservative propaganda, though. A few bloggers have noted similarities between the book and Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Lean Reviews, “A review site for conservative, libertarian, center-right readers,” has a 2012 review of the book that basically parrots the anti-intellectualism that Edelstein fears:
[T]he story itself was relatively conservative. The bad guys in the story come from the Erudite faction, who are obsessed with knowledge–basically, the faction of college professors. In typical left-wing college professor fashion, Erudite tries to take everything over, thinking that they know better than everyone else how to run society. Obviously, they’re wrong. Because of that plot point, I would say that Divergent leans conservative. Any story that inculcates a healthy skepticism of academics in the ivory tower is doing conservatism a favor.
Of course, just because a few reviewers read conservative ideology into the narrative doesn’t mean that it’s really there or that it reflects Veronica Roth’s intent. My contention is that Divergent is more about adolescent anxieties than it is about politics or society, per se. Roth, like Suzanne Collins before her, constructed her dystopia so that it mimicked certain aspects of a completely different world where all that matters is which faction you belong to, and where teens just happen to spend most of their time: high school.
“The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” says a villain in Divergent, a stand-in for the adults who are always pushing teens this way and that, pushing them to get better grades, to do more extracurriculars, to have a look at those college brochures that keep coming in the mail, to think about the future. Where do I fit? Will I be a Dauntless or an Erudite, a jock or a brain? Why can’t I be both?
Of course, this theme of fitting in resonates beyond just teens, and does have political content. One reason for Divergent‘s appeal to adults is almost certainly their own anxieties about themselves and their children in a world of increasing economic uncertainty, where workers change careers frequently and those who lose their jobs often drop out of the economy entirely as our society’s version of the “factionless”: the long-term unemployed. This makes Divergent anything but conservative—on the contrary, like The Hunger Games, it becomes a rallying cry for the 99 percent, a story that entertains even as it resonates with our dim certainty that we’re getting a raw deal.
None of this is to say that Edelstein and others who see conservative undertones in the story are reading or watching Divergent “wrong.” There’s no such thing, really. And the conservative undertones are there for those with eyes to see them; right alongside the invocation of anxieties about fitting in. As much as we might like to think that books and movies have a single discernible Point, a Moral of the Story that you can perceive either correctly or incorrectly, stories don’t work that way. The answers aren’t in the back of the book. Not even Veronica Roth has them. A story, on some level, is a Rorschach test, with interpretations that vary by the person: from the teen readers Roth wrote the series for, to the elite Erudites like David Edelstein who are getting their mitts on the story at last.
Which means that Divergent‘s politics are ultimately as messy, as fractious and divided and contradictory, as our own.