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Themes and Colors
Identity, Choice, and Divergence Theme Icon
Strength, Selfishness, and Selflessness Theme Icon
Competition, Groups, and Rivalries Theme Icon
Fear, Bravery, and Maturity Theme Icon
Women and Sexuality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Divergent, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Strength, Selfishness, and Selflessness Theme Icon

Early in the novel, Tris Prior joins the faction of the Dauntless: a community of strong, war-like people who are taught to worship strength and courage above all else. The Dauntless are constantly being ordered to “prove themselves”—by fighting, jumping onto moving trains, dangling over a chasm, etc. And yet there’s seldom any real discussion of what strength and courage mean: everyone seems to take the words for granted. Especially in the second half of her novel, Roth explores what it truly means to be strong.

For the leaders of the Dauntless faction, such as Eric—one of the book’s main antagonists—strength is the ultimate sign of power and self-sufficiency. By this definition, being strong is all about taking care of oneself and proving oneself the strongest—in short, extreme selfishness. We see this idea in the kinds of warriors the Dauntless celebrate, such as Peter—an aggressive young Dauntless recruit in Tris’s training group. Peter is one of the most promising Dauntless warriors: he’s merciless in a fight, and seems to have no qualms about eliminating his closest competitors (he even stabs one of his rivals in the eye with a knife). When Eric and his allies stage a coup of the city, they reward Peter with a good position: evidently, Peter’s brand of merciless, guiltless strength is the one they admire most.

There’s also another definition of strength circulating among the Dauntless, however—one that the novel’s heroes, such as Tris and Tobias, celebrate. According to the Dauntless manifesto (the summing up of its principles), being Dauntless means embracing selflessness: overcoming one’s own weaknesses and using one’s power in order to help other people. Tobias is the embodiment of this definition of power: although he was ranked at the top of the Dauntless recruits, he’s chosen to devote his adult life to helping new recruits (a selfless position), rather than exerting his power in the Dauntless government (a selfish position). In short, Eric and Peter define strength as being able to overcome one’s weaknesses and take care of one’s self; Tobias and Tris define it as being able to overcome one’s fears and take care of others.

From early on, it’s clear that the latter definition of strength (selflessness) isn’t remotely as popular among the Dauntless at the former (selfishness). On the occasions when Tris demonstrates selflessness, even her close friends misinterpret her actions, focusing on the most selfish, self-sufficient aspects of what she’s done—for instance, when Tris takes Al’s place in front of a target for knives, her peers compliment her for displaying her toughness, not for protecting Al. And yet the most impressive displays of strength in the novel are selfless—in other words, intended to help other people. In the novel’s climax, while the selfish Erudite and Dauntless governments hide far away, controlling their soldiers remotely, Tris endangers her own life by surrendering her weapon to Tobias, who’s being controlled by Erudite drugs. Due to her selfless sacrifice, Tris succeeds in “defeating” Tobias, breaking through his mind-control drugs—a display of strength, courage, and willpower far beyond anything Eric or Peter would dare attempt.

As Divergent makes clear, there’s a fine line between strength and selfishness; i.e., between power and the abuse of power. Left to its own devices, the cult of strength and courage has a tendency to devolve into the celebration of power for power’s sake—ideally, though, strength should be tempered by selflessness. When this broader view of power is accepted, it becomes clear that selflessness is actually a crucial part of true strength.

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Strength, Selfishness, and Selflessness Quotes in Divergent

Below you will find the important quotes in Divergent related to the theme of Strength, Selfishness, and Selflessness.
Chapter 8 Quotes

It takes me five rounds to hit the middle of the target, and when I do, a rush of energy goes through me. I am awake, my eyes wide open, my hands warm. I lower the gun. There is power in controlling something that can do so much damage—in controlling something, period. Maybe I do belong here.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker)
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Beatrice begins her training at the Dauntless facility. Naturally, she's instructed in the art of combat, psychological warfare, and military strategy. At first, Beatrice struggles to come out of her shell--she's so used to being modest and reserved that she doesn't know how to fight back. But after some practice, she discovers that she's an excellent shot--she can fire a gun and throw a knife with great skill. Beatrice begins to realize that she fits in well at Dauntless: in spite of her Divergent nature, there's pleasure to be found in settling into one identity and community, even if that identity doesn't totally represent her character.


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Chapter 9 Quotes

“It ends when one of you is unable to continue,” says Eric.
“According to Dauntless rules,” Four says, “one of you could also concede.” Eric narrows his eyes at Four.
“According to the old rules,” he says. “In the new rules, no one concedes.”
“A brave man acknowledges the strength of others,” Four replies.

“A brave man never surrenders,” Eric says, and Four and Eric stare at each other for a few seconds.

I feel like I am looking at two different kinds of Dauntless—the honorable kind, and the ruthless kind. But even I know that in this room, it’s Eric, the youngest leader of the Dauntless, who has the authority.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Tobias / Four (speaker), Eric (speaker)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Eric and Four--two of the important teachers at the Dauntless compound--organize a ruthless match between two new recruits, Will and Al. Although Four wants the fight to end quickly and honorably, Eric takes a different approach: he wants the fight to be as long and bloody as possible.

Eric and Four's exchange reflects the two different sub-factions within the Faction of Dauntless. Eric thinks of combat as a bloody, sadistic sport, designed to prove one's strength and superiority. Four thinks of combat as a more complicated undertaking, designed to confirm one's inner strength, not just his or her ability to punch, kick, or shoot. In short, Eric thinks that Dauntless means blood; Four thinks it means honor.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“What rank were you?” Peter asks Four. I don’t expect Four to answer, but he looks levelly at Peter and says, “I was first.” “And you chose to do this?” Peter’s eyes are wide and round and dark green. They would look innocent to me if I didn’t know what a terrible person he is. “Why didn’t you get a government job?” “I didn’t want one,” Four says flatly. I remember what he said on the first day, about working in the control room, where the Dauntless monitor the city’s security. It is difficult for me to imagine him there, surrounded by computers. To me he belongs in the training room.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Tobias / Four (speaker), Peter (speaker)
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

Four reveals the truth: he was an enormously talented soldier when he was younger. But instead of parlaying his talents into a cushy government job, Four chose to return to the recruitment process, this time as an educator.

Why doesn't Four accept the plum government position that's his for the taking? Four seems uncomfortable with governing itself: he's more comfortable working one-on-one with recruits, showing them how to fight, than he is with ordering his subordinates into action. Furthermore, Four seems to question many of the Dauntless government officials' decisions. He doesn't really fit in with the Dauntless mindset--instead of embracing the gospel of pure strength and bloodshed, he opts for a milder, more honorable form of courage. If Four were in the government, he could use his influence to advance his own interpretation of courage--but instead, he's forced to accept the sadistic teachings of his superiors. 

Chapter 13 Quotes

“Catch on? Catch on to what? That you wanted to prove to Eric how tough you are? That you’re sadistic, just like he is?”
“I am not sadistic.” He doesn’t yell. I wish he would yell. It would scare me less. He leans his face close to mine, which reminds me of lying inches away from the attack dog’s fangs in the aptitude test, and says, “If I wanted to hurt you, don’t you think I would have already?”

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Tobias / Four (speaker), Eric
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Eric has ordered Four to throw knives at Beatrice; Four reluctantly does so, eventually nicking Beatrice's ear on purpose. Afterwards, Beatrice angrily confronts Four about his behavior: she thought that they were friends. Four replies that he's trying to help Beatrice.

While Four doesn't explain exactly why he's "helping" Beatrice, we can infer the truth. Four is worried that he's making Beatrice look like a teacher's pet. By wounding Beatrice--albeit in the mildest possible way--he's making Beatrice look like an underdog, helping her earn the respect of her peers. Furthermore, by wounding Beatrice in front of Eric, Four is trying to protect Beatrice from Eric's sadism. In short, Four is always thinking ahead: a clever strategist, he hurts Beatrice a little in the short term to strengthen her in the long term.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“Cara,” says Will, frowning, “there’s no need to be rude.”
“Oh, certainly not. Do you know what she is?” She points at my mother. “She’s a council member’s wife is what she is. She runs the ‘volunteer agency’ that supposedly helps the factionless. You think I don’t know that you’re just hoarding goods to distribute to your own faction while we don’t get fresh food for a month, huh? Food for the factionless, my eye.”
“I’m sorry,” my mother says gently. “I believe you are mistaken.”
“Mistaken. Ha,” Cara snaps. “I’m sure you’re exactly what you seem. A faction of happy-go-lucky do-gooders without a selfish bone in their bodies. Right.”

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Natalie Prior (speaker), Will (speaker), Cara (speaker)
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the Dauntless recruits get a chance to reunite with their families. At the reunion event, Beatrice--now named Tris--reunites with her mother, Natalie. Tris also meets her friends' parents, including Cara, Will's sister. Cara accuses Natalie of using her influential position to greedily hoard resources. Furthermore, Cara accuses the people of Abnegation of misrepresenting themselves as selfless and loving, when in reality they're just as greedy as everyone else.

The fact that such an unpleasant argument breaks out at a reunion event suggests that the divides between the Factions run deep: Cara's Faction (Erudite) hates Natalie's (Abnegation), and always will. The dispute between Erudite and Abnegation is particularly enormous, because the divide between intelligence and selflessness (at least as Roth sees it!) is a wide one. Intelligent people desire power and control, while selfless people desire peace and equality. Thus, Cara can't help herself from shouting at Natalie, even though Natalie is utterly blameless (as far as we know).

Chapter 18 Quotes

“What changed?”
“The leadership,” he says. “The person who controls training sets the standard of Dauntless behavior. Six years ago Max and the other leaders changed the training methods to make them more competitive and more brutal, said it was supposed to test people’s strength. And that changed the priorities of Dauntless as a whole. Bet you can’t guess who the leaders’ new protégé is.”
The answer is obvious: Eric. They trained him to be vicious, and now he will train the rest of us to be vicious too.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Tobias / Four (speaker), Eric
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Four describes the history of the Dauntless community. There's been a massive shift in Dauntless ideology in recent years. Previously, the Dauntless leaders believed in a strict code of honor and respect: victors owed respect and support to the people they defeated. Now, the old Dauntless "code" has disappeared. Thanks to Max and Eric's leadership, Dauntless soldiers are encouraged to glory in victory, gloating at their opponents' pain and suffering. By controlling the recruitment process, Eric is ensuring that the next generation of Dauntless warriors will be just as brutal and sadistic as he is.

Four's explanation helps us understand why he chose to become an educator instead of a government administrator. Four is smart and talented enough to work for the government, but he wants to make sure that Eric doesn't transmit have sole control over the new Dauntless soldiers. In order to restore the old Dauntless code of respect, Four chooses to work one-on-one with recruits, teaching them how to win, but also how to be honorable.

Chapter 23 Quotes

Whoever he is, I like him. It’s easier for me to admit that to myself now, in the dark, after all that just happened. He is not sweet or gentle or particularly kind. But he is smart and brave, and even though he saved me, he treated me like I was strong. That is all I need to know. I watch the muscles in his back expand and contract until I fall asleep.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Tobias / Four
Page Number: 288-289
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Tris sleeps in Four's bed, while Four sleeps on the floor. Although there's no physical interaction between the two of them it's clear that Tris is beginning to feel attracted to Four: she likes his "masculine smell." But Tris's attraction to Four runs deeper than the physical. Tris admires Four for being strong and fast--in short, for being a perfect Dauntless warrior. But furthermore, Tris likes that Four is honorable: he treats Tris like a strong woman, even when he's saving her single-handedly. In short, Four is the ideal Dauntless warrior of the "old days" (before Eric rose to power). Four is tough and brutal, but he also believes in the old-fashioned values of honor and respect.

Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. I swear she exists, and she hurts for the repentant boy I see in front of me. But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her. “Stay away from me,” I say quietly. My body feels rigid and cold, and I am not angry, I am not hurt, I am nothing. I say, my voice low, “Never come near me again.” Our eyes meet. His are dark and glassy. I am nothing. “If you do, I swear to God I will kill you,” I say. “You coward.”

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Al
Page Number: 299-300
Explanation and Analysis:

Tris comes face-to-face with her former friend, Al. Al has supported Tris before. But as it becomes clear that Tris is a talented, dangerous soldier, Al begins to resent her success. Desperate to rise to the top of the soldier rankings, Al conspires with other Dauntless recruits to kill Tris. Later--after the plan fails--Al tries to make amends with Tris.

Tris considers forgiving Al--as her Abnegation community would do--but in the end she refuses to let her old friend off so easy. She's been so thoroughly schooled in the Dauntless code of behavior that she instinctively treats Al with hostility. Tris recognizes that she's changed enormously since her days in Abnegation: in spite of all her objections to Dauntless, she's grown into more of a true Dauntless soldier than she'd thought.

Chapter 34 Quotes

She presses her palms together. I see no vicious glee in her eyes, and not a hint of the sadism I expect. She is more machine than maniac. She sees problems and forms solutions based on the data she collects. Abnegation stood in the way of her desire for power, so she found a way to eliminate it. She didn’t have an army, so she found one in Dauntless. She knew that she would need to control large groups of people in order to stay secure, so she developed a way to do it with serums and transmitters. Divergence is just another problem for her to solve, and that is what makes her so terrifying—because she is smart enough to solve anything, even the problem of our existence.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Jeanine Matthews
Page Number: 431-432
Explanation and Analysis:

Tris comes face-to-face with her greatest enemy, Jeanine Matthews, the leader of the Erudite community. As Tris talks with Jeanine, she realizes the truth: Jeanine is using the people of Dauntless to wage an all-out war against the city. Jeanine is a cold-unfeeling woman, altogether unlike Tris's peers in Dauntless: she acts out of rationality, not anger.

The passage clarifies some of the differences between the Erudite and Dauntless communities (and perhaps, between a life of the mind and a life of individual bravery). The Erudite (or at least Jeanine) are coldly rational and unfeeling: their acts of evil are great, because they don't let sympathy get in the way. Even a Dauntless commander like Eric, in spite of his ruthlessness, isn't as dangerous as Jeanine: Eric thinks small, satisfying his desire for bloodshed in individual fights, not city-wide coups.

Chapter 38 Quotes

I have done this before—in my fear landscape, with the gun in my hand, a voice shouting at me to fire at the people I love. I volunteered to die instead, that time, but I can’t imagine how that would help me now. But I just know, I know what the right thing to do is. My father says—used to say—that there is power in self-sacrifice. I turn the gun in my hands and press it into Tobias’s palm.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker), Tobias / Four , Andrew Prior
Page Number: 475
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic scene of the novel, Tris points a gun at Tobias, who's been brainwashed to fight on behalf of Eric and Jeanine. Although Tris knows the "right" Dauntless thing to do is to shoot Tobias, she finds herself unable to hurt her friend and lover. Instead of embracing violence, like the good Dauntless soldier she's been trained to be, Tris opts for the way of Abnegation: she sacrifices her own safety and security to protect Tobias.

The passage proves that Tris, in spite of her success among the Dauntless recruits, can't be pinned down as Dauntless. A true Divergent, she alternates between Dauntless courage and Abnegation virtue. In the end, she seems to place a higher premium on love and compassion than on victory--a sure sign that she's transcended the petty factionalism of her society.

Chapter 39 Quotes

Abnegation and Dauntless are both broken, their members scattered. We are like the factionless now. I do not know what life will be like, separated from a faction—it feels disengaged, like a leaf divided from the tree that gives it sustenance. We are creatures of loss; we have left everything behind. I have no home, no path, and no certainty. I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave. I suppose that now, I must become more than either.

Related Characters: Beatrice Prior / Tris (speaker)
Page Number: 487
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Tris comes to terms with her identity, or rather, her lack of an identity. Tris has been trained to think in terms of Factions--i.e., a person can be brave or selfless, but not both. At the end of the novel, Tris sees the absurdity of factionalism: she's brave, intelligent, selfless, etc.--there's no good way to reduce her identity to one quality.

Beyond Tris's disillusionment, her two home factions (Dauntless and Abnegation) have both been destroyed by the citywide coup, so Tris is now forced to transcend factionalism altogether. In so doing, Tris becomes a more identifiable protagonist. No reader of Divergent can be easily reduced to one overarching category--we're just as Divergent as Tris. In other words, we're meant to identify with Tris for going beyond life's simple categorizations.