Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
From the beginning of the book, it’s clear that the society in Divergent has placed unrealistic limits on its members’ identities. The segregation of different personality types into different factions has consequences on both the group and the individual level. Each faction’s values – kindness, honesty, bravery, selflessness, and intelligence – are admirable in their own right. But although the factions are meant to complement and cooperate with each other, they tend to splinter into competing forces. Erudite thinks Abnegation is forcing its identity onto the other factions by rationing food and luxury goods. Erudite and Dauntless also question whether the humblest faction should be the only one responsible for governing. The increasing tension suggests that the roles created by the founders were too simplistic and not responsive to the changing needs of a dynamic society.
By forcing every person into factions focused on a single personality trait, the government discourages the personal growth that normally takes place throughout a person’s life. For everyone in Tris’s society, identity is locked in at age sixteen and never allowed to change. Tris thinks she has to choose whether to be brave or selfless, because neither the Choosing Ceremony nor faction system acknowledges the possibility that she may be both. Although she initially thinks everyone else is happy to choose, and her discontent makes her an outlier, she soon learns that others around her are also conflicted, suggesting that the government’s attempts to quash individuality haven’t entirely succeeded. Caleb seems to be a model Abnegation member, but his choice to join Erudite hints that he has struggled with his identity, just as Tris has. Their mother was once a capable member of Dauntless, yet she hid her origins in order to become a responsible wife and mother in Abnegation. And Tobias tries to emulate the values of all five factions, even though it often makes life harder. Tris and Tobias’s Divergence rests in their willingness to acknowledge their own complexity, even when doing so is personally painful or challenges faction unity.
Thanks to her upbringing in Abnegation, Tris initially thinks that selflessness and bravery are incompatible. Her father calls the Dauntless “hellions,” suggesting that he views the Dauntless as dangerous people who do nothing but cause trouble. Raised to be strongly prejudiced against the Dauntless, Tris naturally feels guilty for wanting to join them: if they are troublemakers, then her desire to be like them must make her a bad person. But her guilt is outweighed by her desire to rebel against the boring life she thinks her parents want her to lead. As proof, when she picks Dauntless at the Choosing Ceremony, she thinks to herself, “I am selfish. I am brave.”
If Tris’s father made her think selflessness and bravery were incompatible, her mother’s actions have the opposite effect. On Visiting Day, Tris realizes that her mother grew up in Dauntless, making her exactly the kind of person Tris wants to be: responsible, loving, and generous, but intelligent and brave when necessary. Her mother becomes the perfect embodiment of selfless courage late in the book during the Dauntless uprising: first she rescues Tris from drowning, then she sacrifices herself to keep her daughter from being killed.
Tris comes to realize that her selfless instincts actually help her behave courageously. When Eric orders Al to have knives thrown at his head as punishment, Tris offers to take his place, both protecting her friend and showing her willingness to put her own safety at risk. During her fear simulation, when Jeanine orders her to kill her family, she refuses, offering her own life instead. Doing so allows her to escape the simulation quickly, suggesting that the computer program finds her response effective. This scenario prepares her for the novel’s climax, when she must choose whether to kill a simulation-controlled Tobias. By choosing not to, she brings him out of the simulation and allows him to put a stop to the computer program that has taken control of the Dauntless.
Tris is initially uncomfortable with displays of a romantic or sexual nature, since they show people giving in to their desires. Having been taught to think only of others, she considers public affection a selfish act. In Abnegation, her brother Caleb and their friend Susan showed they liked each other by asking polite questions, and her mother and father did so by holding hands. So when Tris sees two Dauntless initiates openly kissing, she’s disturbed, although her curiosity is piqued. In Abnegation she wasn’t supposed to explore adult relationships, but Dauntless is much freer.