The city is divided among five factions: the selfless Abnegation, the brave Dauntless, the intellectual Erudite, the compassionate Amity and the honest Candor. Every child chooses their faction at the age of 16 after being guided by their test which shows where their tendency lies.
Abnegation-born Tris’s test was inconclusive. She has the traits of more than one faction; she is a Divergent, something she is urged to keep hidden for the sake of her life.
She joins the Dauntless and has to struggle with the vastly different culture there and hope to pass their rigorous, dangerous and arduous tests to earn her place among them – all while concealing her difference.
But in the city tensions between the factions are flaring and the very thing the factions were created to prevent – war – is looming.
At first glance, the world setting for this dystopia seems quite ridiculous to a level of parody. The factions take their “virtues” to such extremes that not only would it be nearly impossible to live according to their principles – but it wouldn’t be advisable to do so either. The factions themselves are ludicrously simplistic, have a ridiculously narrow view of humanity and frequently twist their “virtues” to mean things that are completely nonsensical (like the Dauntless apparently conflating “courage” and “cruelty” to say nothing of “suicidally reckless”); the whole concept of factions ignores the sheer complexity of humanity and the impossibility of dividing people down such simple lines. Even the test they all take is laughable in its simplicity (they picked up the cheese! That means they’re Amity… or hungry… and the poor lactose intolerant would-be Amity are out of luck).
This world setting doesn’t work – cannot work. This society is more than a little ludicrous. The flaws are huge, there are far too many people who fall through the cracks (and there are so many, huge cracks) and it would be a deeply terrible way to try and actually run things.
But I think it’s supposed to be. While the story focuses on Tris’s story and why she doesn’t fit into the world (with a heavy dollop of super-chosen-one-specialness), in the background there’s an ongoing theme that this society doesn’t really work – and that the steps that are taken to make it work are dubious to say the least. We have an entire group of people, the factionless, who are just jettisoned from the system, ignored and regarded with contempt by much of the rest of society (even if it is pitying contempt). We see how much the Dauntless faction has completely twisted and warped what it means to be Dauntless to create a twisted parody of what it once was. It’s shown repeatedly – and even told – that the reason most people fit into these simplistic factions is because they’re basically brainwashed from birth. Of course they’re going to choose the appropriate, simplistic choices on the test because that choice been hammered into their heads from the moment they’re born – hence the rarity and remarkability of faction transfers. The “Divergent” are less people who have aptitude in more than one virtue, but are more reasonably people who have resisted or avoided their familial brainwashing (then with a dollop of Chosen One on top). We see how people exploit the system – an Abnegation abusive father gets away with it because how could one of the selfless do such a thing? A Candor manages to cause all kinds of trouble without consequence because no-one believes he could possibly be lying. And, yes, the Erudite may be up to naughty shenanigans, but the fact that no other faction has a say in government other than Abnegation is deeply flawed and questionable.
We see the flaws in the system – mainly in Dauntless who, even without the twisted sadism and bullying, seem to think that “courage” means “strength” and “bravery” is synonymous with “recklessness”. Even Tris herself has moments of “bravery” which reap more like being a thrill seeker.
Not only does the system fail as a society, it utterly fails in what it was trying to achieve – peace. And that’s not just clear by the plot itself and the conflict that develops; it’s clear from the very moment any faction thinks of another faction. This society has created 5 mutually antagonistic cults who are each sure of their own unique superiority and each of which regard the others with contempt, anger and even hatred (and yes, that includes Abnegation – look at Tris’s father considering leaving Abnegation a betrayal). This system for peace contains the inherent seed of the next conflict precisely because it wasn’t created as a system. Five factions came together each with their own visions for how permanent peace can be maintained – but each of those visions only works if their vision is the ONLY vision. The system wasn’t created to have five factions, the system was created to try and bring these five factions together. They were never meant to work together – but you had five sides with irredeemable disagreements