Four from Divergent chose his (unfortunate) name to symbolize that he has only four fears: heights, claustrophobia, killing the innocent, and getting beaten by his father. But I’d argue Four really should’ve been named Five, because one of his greatest fears is being constrained to fit behaviors sanctioned by his faction, Dauntless. “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest,” he says, listing the virtues of the five factions society has split into in dystopian Chicago. Four is Divergent, along with Tris, and together they strive to destroy the faction system altogether.
Societies reliant on a rigid grouping system have proven to be an enduring YA obsession. The “realistic” sub-genre of YA often takes high school cliques—jocks, arch dorks, mean girls, nerds, all that fun stuff—to the extreme, like in Kate Brian’s Private, reminiscent of Gossip Girl. These are the people you sit with at the lunch table every day; to fraternize with most other cliques means social suicide within your own.
Fantasy and dystopian novels, in an attempt to simulate or critique that same social structure, often create an elaborate sorting ritual like Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat. While things like Divergent and Harry Potter take high school social hierarchies to an extreme, dividing people based on personality traits, many other YA groupings deal with social class inequality, such as in An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, where there are Scholars and Soldiers and the Scholars are derided. Regardless of genre, these groupings play on our fears that one test, one facet of our being and nature, will define our career paths and how others see us, forever.
An Ember in the Ashes
This doesn’t get at the heart of our obsession with these groupings, though. It doesn’t explain why, even though the plot may revolve around taking down the Capitol, we still enjoy taking the Buzzfeed quiz to see which District we belong it. We have an obvious hunger for the clarity, simplicity, and social assurances these groupings bring even as we shudder at the thought of actually being denied the right to choose where we belong.
To me, this has to do with our desire for purity. There’s a reason Peeta, who’s a master with words, tells Katniss “They’re playing with you because you’re so … you know. … You’re so … pure,” after they’ve watched Johanna Mason strip for them in an elevator in Catching Fire. While he’s referring specifically to Katniss’s asexual tendencies, he gets at the heart of what we want most out of our protagonists, and even many of our antagonists. We love villains who embody pure evil because it takes care of a lot of those moral quandaries we might otherwise feel when rooting for their destruction (President Snow has no redeeming qualities). At the same time, we love heroes who are the embodiment of good—they are the bravest, the most selfless, the smartest, the kindest, or the most honest.
That said, there is a distinctly sexual element to all this. We’re hooked on romantic tales about virgins and their struggles with impure impulses. In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta play like they’re sexually active adults for the Capitol audience, while remaining completely chaste off-screen. It’s a clever inversion of the typical notion of teen rebellion, one where young people refuse to be adults on the terms expected of them.
Which may be the very embodiment of taking down the factions in YA—rejecting that we must be corrupted by adulthood, rejecting that we were ever that innocent to begin with, rejecting that being purely one part of your personality is better than accepting the strange mix that makes you. Hybrids—a person with common Red blood but Silver powers like in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen, a person who’s Divergent, a person who likes sports and classical music—allow us to see new, better ways of living and thinking. They show us that it’s better to be well-rounded than strive to be the best at one thing at the rejection of all other beautiful things.