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A young female narrator sits nervously in front of a mirror while her mother cuts her hair. Along with her sixteen-year-old peers, she is about to take an aptitude test to match her with one of society’s five factions. After the test, she will decide whether to stay in her current faction, Abnegation, or leave it forever. As she heads to breakfast with her mother, she reflects on her family’s unselfish life and feels guilty for wanting to leave it behind.
On the bus ride to school, the narrator’s brother Caleb, who is also sixteen, gives up his seat to another rider. As they arrive, she asks Caleb if he is nervous about the test, but instead of answering, he asks her the same question. She lies about her anxiety and they leave for separate classes. In the crowded hallway, a boy from the Erudite faction calls her “Stiff” and knocks her down. She explains that tensions between the Abnegation and Erudite have grown recently. As she does every day, she pauses at a window to watch dozens of pierced, tattooed students from the Dauntless faction jump out of a moving train. After scolding herself for watching, she continues on to class.
Classes over, the narrator awaits testing in the cafeteria. There is no way to prepare, so she watches students at the Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, and Candor tables. While Caleb is being tested, the narrator thinks about his easy selflessness and wonders why she finds it so difficult. Caleb is pale when he returns, but he stays quiet, since discussing results is forbidden. When the next group is called, we learn the narrator’s name is Beatrice Prior. Her test administrator, a Dauntless woman named Tori, has a tattoo of a hawk on her neck. After Tori asks Beatrice to sit next to an ominous-looking machine, Beatrice impulsively asks about the tattoo. Tori explains that she chose the hawk, a symbol of the sun, after conquering her fear of the dark. She attaches wires to Beatrice and gives her a vial of liquid to drink.
Beatrice awakens in the empty cafeteria. A voice asks her to choose between two baskets on a table, one containing cheese, the other a knife. Beatrice resists, the baskets disappear, and an angry dog enters ready to attack. Recalling that looking in a dog’s eyes is a sign of aggression, she lies down, and the dog becomes friendly. When a little girl appears and the dog prepares to pounce, Beatrice tackles it and is suddenly transported back to the mirrored room. She walks out onto a bus and sees a scarred man holding a newspaper. He asks whether she knows the man on the front page, a murderer who has just been caught. Though he looks vaguely familiar, Beatrice senses danger and professes ignorance. The man accuses Beatrice of lying and says she could save him if she confessed, but she refuses.
Beatrice awakens to find Tori looking concerned. Tori briefly leaves the room, leaving Beatrice to worry that she will be left factionless and in poverty. When she returns, Tori explains that the test was inconclusive. Instead of eliminating four factions, it only ruled out two: she possesses traits of Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. These results make her “Divergent.” Tori warns Beatrice that the label is extremely dangerous and she should never tell anyone about her results. She sends Beatrice home to think about how to handle the next day’s choosing ceremony.
Beatrice plans to intercept Caleb and ensure he doesn’t reveal her early return to their parents. As she passes through the decayed factionless sector, an unkempt man approaches and asks her for food. She gives him a bag of apple slices and he grabs her wrist, asking her about the choosing ceremony. As she prepares to hit him, he lets her go and tells her to choose wisely.
Divergent is set in an American city at some point in the future, possibly after a cataclysmic event has changed the landscape and social order. The setting is an urban matrix of glass and steel buildings bordered by a giant marsh that was once a lake. When combined with buildings named in later chapters, it eventually becomes clear that the protagonist lives in an alternate version of Chicago. Though elements of her life are familiar to contemporary readers– children ride the bus to school, adults have jobs, politicians govern – Beatrice’s opening sentences reveal that this isn’t contemporary America. As she watches herself in the mirror, a recurring motif, we learn her “faction” only allows her to look at her reflection once every three months. In dystopian fiction, existence is unpleasant or frightening in some way, usually because an unseen authority controls people in ways that are imaginable but unlikely in real life. Dystopian novels often feature a protagonist who tries to fight authority through a struggle that either succeeds or goes horribly wrong. Beatrice is the novel’s protagonist, and because the narration is first person, giving readers access to her innermost thoughts, readers are invited to sympathize strongly with her.
The rules that govern thought and behavior seem especially strict in Beatrice’s faction, but no one in the novel’s society has much free will. An unnamed authority has separated society into five factions. At age sixteen, each person must take an aptitude test that tells them which faction they are best suited for. The factions each have corresponding professional roles. For example, in Abnegation, Beatrice’s mother works for a volunteer organization that helps renovate buildings. Once they join a faction, idividuals must suppress their preferences and hide inconsistencies in order to conform to the community’s values. There are clearly tensions and overlap between factions, both in Beatrice’s inner world and in society at large. Throughout the book, she and her peers will wonder who and what actually determine the qualities that define each faction.
Beatrice is anxious about the upcoming test and ceremony for conflicting reasons. The fact that her mother still cuts her hair indicates that in some ways she is still a child, and is apprehensive at the thought of leaving her parents and brother behind forever. However, at sixteen, she’s also on the cusp of an adult revelation. She senses that she has never belonged in Abnegation and that in a different faction she could be a different person. Adding to her inner turmoil, the other members of her family seem to be ideal Abnegation members. When she compares herself to them, Beatrice feels like an “outsider.” She freely admits she has trouble tamping down on her curiosity, making her feel both incompetent and oppressed. She is also drawn to the Dauntless, envying their life of climbing tall statues and jumping out of moving trains. Tori, the Dauntless woman who administers her test, provides Beatrice a new adult role model, and a chance to see what she could achieve if she left the safe but boring comforts of her selfless life.
Though Beatrice is shocked when the aptitude test labels her “Divergent,” the result confirms her instinct that she is out of place in Abnegation. But the result takes that difference a step further by separating her not just from her faction, but from any clear identity in a society that forces people to show only one aspect of their personalities. Beatrice finds the prospect both exhilarating and terrifying. Though she never says so directly, her thoughts imply that she is trying to decide between Abnegation and Dauntless. Her encounter with the factionless man as she walks home shows what could be in store for her by reminding her that those who fail to conform, whether by choice or lack of ability, are doomed to live terrible, lonely lives. Nonetheless, she also recognizes that her inconclusive test allows her to make an unexpected and meaningful choice about her future.