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.
Strength, Selfishness, and Selflessness ThemeTracker
Strength, Selfishness, and Selflessness Quotes in Divergent
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.
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.