Divergent has been praised by some for its strong female protagonist. Tris Prior is a powerful, even heroic character, and during the course of the novel she protects the weak and saves countless lives. More importantly, Tris’s heroism seems directly tied to the fact that she is a young woman: her gender gives her a powerful tool for fighting evil. It’s worth considering the novel’s take on women a little more closely.
The majority of Divergent is set in a society that’s openly, even blatantly, masculine in its structure. The Dauntless—who are government by men and men only, it would appear—celebrate combat, aggression, violence, and other qualities that are more commonly associated with men than women. When Tris arrives at Dauntless, few people take her seriously, because she’s a woman, and a small, unintimidating woman at that. On a basic level, the structure of Dauntless society sends a strong message to Tris, telling her to be frightened, submissive, and meek. Throughout the novel, Tris responds to this “challenge” from masculine Dauntless society, sometimes by imitating masculine behavior, and sometimes by using her gender to her advantage.
At times, Tris tries to succeed by imitating the masculine norms at Dauntless, but often, she’s most successful when she doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a woman. She masters the basics of personal combat, but never really excels at fighting: frankly put, biology is against her—she’s not big enough to defeat an opponent like Peter. Tris’s most impressive feats at Dauntless occur outside the domain of combat and aggression. During the capture the flag game, for example, she uses quick thinking to find her opponents before they find her. While it’s certainly true that Tris lives in a masculine community, she’s able to gain respect herself through intelligence, wit, and strategy—avenues that, while not necessarily feminine, are certainly less stereotypically masculine.
One major sign that Tris’s gender is essential, not incidental, to her strength is the role of sexuality in the novel. Tris isn’t a 12-year-old “tomboy”—during the course of the book, she discovers and explores her sexual desires via her relationship with Tobias (and at one point, it’s strongly implied that Tris loses her virginity to Tobias). At the novel’s climax, Tris’s romantic desires become a weapon as well as a source of pleasure: when Tobias is brainwashed into wanting to kill Tris, Tris is able to “break through” to her lover by communicating her feelings, causing Tobias to regain control of his mind. Quite literally, Tris’s (heterosexual) feminine romantic feelings save her life. Because Roth foregrounds Tris’s passion for Tobias throughout the novel’s climactic chapters, we never lose sight of the fact that she’s a strong woman, not just a strong, genderless character.
From a feminist viewpoint, there are two major ways for young adult novels about women to go wrong. First, the book can make the mistake of depicting women as passive “damsels in distress”—waiting for heroic men to save them. Divergent certainly doesn’t make this mistake, as Tris isn’t just the protagonist of the book; she’s arguably the strongest and most competent character. Second, young adult novels sometimes depict women as almost androgynous characters: while they are, in fact, female, nothing they say or do can identify them as women. Divergent doesn’t shy away from gender or sexuality: Tris is a woman, with strong sexual desires for men. Although she learns to spar with the men surrounding her, she doesn’t try to imitate these men. Instead, Tris pioneers her own brand of bravery, becoming a true heroine in the process.
Women and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Women and Sexuality Quotes in Divergent
He pulls me forward a few inches and then slams me against the wall again. I clench my teeth to keep from crying out, though pain from the impact went all the way down my spine.
Will grabs Peter by his shirt collar and drags him away from me. “Leave her alone,” he says. “Only a coward bullies a little girl.”
“A little girl?” scoffs Peter, throwing off Will’s hand. “Are you blind, or just stupid? She’s going to edge you out of the rankings and out of Dauntless, and you’re going to get nothing, all because she knows how to manipulate people and you don’t. So when you realize that she’s out to ruin us all, you let me know.”
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.”
We stop on the concrete around the metal bean, where the Erudite sit in small groups with newspapers or books. He takes off his glasses and shoves them in his pocket, then runs a hand through his hair, his eyes skipping over mine nervously. Like he’s ashamed. Maybe I should be too. I’m tattooed, loose-haired, and wearing tight clothes. But I’m just not.
Simulation Tobias kisses my neck. I try to think. I have to face the fear. I have to take control of the situation and find a way to make it less frightening. I look Simulation Tobias in the eye and say sternly, “I am not going to sleep with you in a hallucination. Okay?”
“Sometimes I wonder,” I say, as calmly as I can, “what’s in it for you. This…whatever it is.”
“What’s in it for me,” he repeats. He steps back, shaking his head. “You’re an idiot, Tris.”
“I am not an idiot,” I say. “Which is why I know that it’s a little weird that, of all the girls you could have chosen, you chose me. So if you’re just looking for…um, you know…that…”
“What? Sex?” He scowls at me. “You know, if that was all I wanted, you probably wouldn’t be the first person I would go to.”
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.