This might actually be a good movie for parents to go see with their teens.
Back in October 2012 in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a nineteen-year-old man by the name of Ilavarasan married a young woman with whom he had fallen in love. Now in most places, such a thing wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow, but among many of the citizens of Tamil Nadu, it caused a firestorm of fury. Ilavarasan, it turns out, was a member of the Dalits, the lowest of India’s five traditional castes, while his wife had been born amongst the Brahmins, the highest ranking caste in Indian society. This pairing between an “untouchable” and one of the upper classes upset a lot of people because, even though modern Indian law now permits inter-caste marriage, a good portion of the population still finds the idea abhorrent. Ilavarasan’s wife eventually left him due to the viciousness of the public outcry over their marriage, but the separation wasn’t enough to assuage the anger in the air. In August 2013, Ilavarasan was found dead by the side of the railroad tracks, presumably murdered for daring to overstep the boundaries of his social status.
To those of us in the United States, the idea of living under the shadow of such a rigid caste system is completely alien. This country is, after all, the “Land of the Free” – a place where (in theory) anybody can try out for any career they’re qualified for, move to any place they can afford, and marry anyone (within reason) that they love. No red-blooded American would ever volunteer to give up all that freedom and adopt a social caste system similar to India’s. (Unless somebody dropped a bunch of bombs on us, that is.)
Well, that’s the premise behind Divergent. The latest in a long line of Young Adult novel adaptations to hit the big screen since the Harry Potter series proved you could make a fortune doing so, Divergent takes place at an unspecified time in the future after a war has left the citizenry of the City-State of Chicago walled off from the rest of the country. Left to their own devices, the fine folks of the Windy City apparently decided that the best way to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty was to put in place a caste system somewhat reminiscent of India’s.
There are some notable differences between the two societies, however. While India’s present-day caste system is no longer officially endorsed by law, future Chicago’s is stringently enforced by the government. On the other hand, unlike in India, where heredity alone determines your social status, there is an opportunity in Chicago to escape the caste into which you were born. Once a year, all sixteen-year-olds participate in a required psychological aptitude test to determine which faction they are best suited for mentally. Afterwards, they may then choose to remain in the caste of their birth, or leave their families and join one of the other factions. Once the choice is made, however, it is permanent. There are no do-overs.
The primary difference, though, is how the divisions between the castes are structured. While India’s ranks are based mostly on occupational duties as outlined in ancient Brahminical texts (priests/scholars, governors, farmers/merchants, etc.), the organization of Chicago’s system is based on personality traits which appear to have been selected at random from one of those inspirational “word of the day” calendars. By name and trait, the five factions in Chicago are Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peaceful), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), and Erudite (intelligence). Once a teen has made their choice which faction they wish to belong to, they must then embody that faction’s singular trait to the upteenth degree. Abnegations must be so dead to their selves that they even abstain from looking in mirrors more than a few seconds each day. Dauntless must be so fearless that they are willing to jump from a moving train just to go pick up a snack. And so on. The philosophy behind such a division is that human individuality is what ultimately led to the great disaster, so in order to maintain a secure existence, all citizens must purge themselves of any personality except for that one trait which benefits society as a whole.