Shailene Woodley in Divergent (2014).

I Sacrifice, Therefore I Am Good: Young Adult Fiction Heroines and Self-Destruction

Veronica Roth's Divergent series undermines all that we try to teach our young women about self-worth and the importance of maintaining autonomy and control over one’s body and mind.

Being a girl is a privilege only the rich can afford, and even for them girlhood tends to be a very short window in time. And nowhere do young girls grow up faster than in the realms of fantasy and dystopian literature. Usually orphaned or otherwise deprived of parental units, the heroines take on huge responsibilities, and their individual motivations and goals become secondary to the “greater good.”

Acts of bravery often equal acts of sacrifice. Perhaps this is the nature of heroism, but even as first-person narrators, women never seem to be the stars of their own show. The young adult speculative genre is teeming with female protagonists, and they are ferocious: they volunteer to fight, run headfirst into danger, take charge, and refuse to stay at home and wait for the men to return from battle. Young adult fantasy storylines allow the girls to engage in acts of courage as equals to boys, but I would question the construction of this “new woman”. As I understand it, this “new woman” archetype validates sacrifice and self-harming behavior through the camouflage of male-associated behaviors.

“In a way, Roth’s universe is the perfect allegory for peer pressure: everyone is living in a clique, where any sign of divergence can be fateful, and result in being cast out.

The YA readership barely had time to catch its breath after Katniss Everdeen’s odyssey from a girl-next-door to Girl on Fire, when Veronica Roth’s heroine Beatrice “Tris” Prior took us through yet another public choosing ceremony in Divergent. Divergent (2011) has been accused of leeching off The Hunger Games: “Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than [sic] something called ‘Divergent’ will come hurtling toward us,” scoffs The New York Times’ Michelle Dean, who calls it not just a copycat “but its parallel themes—totalitarianism reducible to the lies of adults, teenage years presented as a blessed state providing unique access to Truth, hand-to-hand combat-training as a coming-of-age ritual—make it cut awfully close.”

Book: Divergent

Author: Veronica Roth

Publisher: Katherine Tegen

US Publication Date: 2011-04

Format: Hardcover

Length: 487

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/d/divergent_roth_bookcover_200.jpg

The likeness, however, is what makes these novels intriguing. I propose that there are larger similarities at work with these new kinds of female protagonists featured in both series and beyond. Tris, a female protagonist in yet another dystopian rebel, is depicted in ways that reflect the need for unhealthy behavior in order to sacrifice for the greater good—a trait not isolated to her story.

Sixteen-year-old Beatrice, the heir apparent to Katniss, is growing up in post-apocalyptic Chicago surrounded by an impenetrable, locked fence. Society is divided into five different groups, factions, that all uphold one virtue above all others. Roth’s factions fall in line with Harry Potter’s magical houses and The Hunger Games’ Districts: Beatrice is born into Abnegation, the selfless faction; the Amity believe in peace; the Candor are brutally honest; the Erudite value knowledge; and the Dauntless are all about bravery. Every year, the sixteen-year-olds are required to take an aptitude test and then choose the faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.

Simply put, this is the only major choice they will ever make: up until that moment, their lives have been preordained according to the strict rules of their factions, and after the ceremony the same will hold true to the years to come. I must admit that even to a fantasy/dystopia aficionado like me, the setting of this series requires such suspension of disbelief that it gets in the way of character development. The idea of the factions is not so hard to believe, and it is initially quite fascinating, but the strict adherence to the behavioral codes without an external threat, along with no interest to what lies beyond the city walls, render the characters rather two-dimensional. The further we get into Tris’s story, the more she seems like a medium for Roth to transmit her own moral code to the reader, and this haphazard utopia is just a convenient setting to display extreme situations.

So who is our brave heroine? Like so many other protagonists, our girl does not belong. Her aptitude test results come back as Divergent, someone with the aptitude for several factions. This, of course, must be kept secret. Tori, the woman conducting the aptitude tests warns her: “Under no circumstances should you share that information with anyone … Divergence is extremely dangerous” (Roth, Divergent, 22-23). The stage is set for our heroine to enter, bringing with her the winds of change.

When Beatrice chooses to leave her family and faction, she knows that she will most likely not see them again. After she sees her brother, Caleb, choose Erudite over Abnegation, Beatrice battles between her desire for something different and her sense of duty. “Faction before blood” is a motto for this community, and the factions are not supposed to mingle. “I am selfish. I am brave,” Beatrice thinks when she makes her choice under the watching eyes of her parents (Roth, Divergent, 47). Her choice will deprive them of a family unit.

She defines herself in a transcending moment when she, unsurprisingly to the reader but to the shock of the people watching her, joins the flashy, daring, tattooed Dauntless, and jumps onto the train that carries her off to her new home, away from her parents. Her decision was made purely for her own reasons, not to save anyone and not to serve some greater purpose, and she lets her choice redefine her: “‘What’s your name?’ ‘Um…’ … A new place, a new name. I can be remade here. ‘Tris,’ I say firmly” (Roth, Divergent, 60). She decides to be the first one to jump off a rooftop—a part of the initiation—in an attempt to shake her Abnegation qualities and persona.

As refreshing as Tris’s selfishness and choosing for herself feels, there is an undertone of self-harm to her recklessness. In Abnegation, physical exercise is seen as selfish, and she longingly looks for the Dauntless jumping on and off trains before Choosing Day. To her, the Dauntless are everything Abnegation—and Tris—is not. Once she is an initiate, she throws herself in, volunteering to go first, and takes initiative in dangerous behaviors. Her new identity comes through an over-corrective movement from the meekness of Abnegation to the adrenaline-junkie⎯and media-sexy⎯behavior of Dauntless, and she is constantly trying to prove herself to be worthy of her chosen faction.

In a way, Roth’s universe is the perfect allegory for peer pressure: everyone is living in a clique, where any sign of divergence can be fateful, and result in being cast out, becoming factionless: “Places that stink so powerfully of sewage and trash that I have to plug my nose. This is where the factionless live. Because they failed to complete initiation into whatever faction they chose, they live in poverty,” Tris’s narrator voice explains, illustrating why the choosing is just the beginning (Roth, Divergent, 25). If the teenagers cannot prove themselves worthy of their chosen faction, they will be ostracized from society altogether.

By choosing Dauntless, Tris has knowingly put herself in a very precarious position, and the Dauntless initiation is the worst of the five, and even entering the Dauntless compound requires jumping off a rooftop: “We do dangerous things and people die… Several stories from us is the members’ entrance to our compound. If you can’t muster the will to jump off, you don’t belong here” (Roth, Divergent, 56-57). In her new faction, bravery equals facing one’s fears, not only when necessity calls for it, but deliberately seeking danger.

No YA novel would be complete without a heterosexual romance, and the Divergent series is no exception. From the first moment Tris meets Four, an older Dauntless boy, after jumping down through the entrance, the reader knows she has met her male lead. “He has a spare upper lip and a full lower lip. His eyes are so deep-set that his eyelashes touch the skin under his eyebrows, and they are dark blue, a dreaming, sleeping, waiting color” (Roth, Divergent, 59). Four, or Tobias, is the strong silent type, carrying the deep secret that he, too, chose Dauntless over Abnegation. He left his faction to flee from his abusive father, who turns out to be an Abnegation leader, Marcus.

What follows is a very chaste courtship, showing that they have both retained their Abnegation nature even after they were supposed to let all that go when they jumped the train. While this romance follows a familiar pattern—Tris is younger and Four is her trainer; Tris seems more interested where Four keeps his distance; they have to keep their relationship secret—it is one of the more believable aspects of this series. Tris does not have to choose between two boys, and she is not consumed by her feelings for Four. Neither is their relationship perfect: in Insurgent (2012), the second novel in the series, they run into ideological differences and break up, and despite their reconciliation before the end of the series in Allegiant (2013), they never find the happily-ever-after together.

Tris and Four both wish for there to be no factions, and believe that the combination of all virtues is the key: “‘I think we’ve made a mistake,’ he says softly. ‘We’ve all started to put down the virtues of the other factions in the process of bolstering our own. I don’t want to do that,’” Four says, as Tris is discovering that he has all five factions’ symbols tattooed on his back (Roth, Divergent, 405).

In the heart of this transparent commentary of the faction system’s faults—faults that were blatant to the reader from the onset of this tale—seems to be the message that Abnegation’s way might be the right way: the Dauntless manifesto is “We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.” “I will be my undoing / If I become my obsession” is the Abnegation’s core belief.

“Dishonesty is a veil that shields one person from another,” say the Candor. Erudite’s manifesto is “Intelligence is a gift, not a right. It must be wielded not as a weapon but as a tool for the betterment of others” (Roth, Divergent, “Bonus materials,” 35-47). The Amity trust in amity as a way to peace. Selflessness, putting others first, and the desire to help one another seem to be the universal ideology, and Abnegation and Dauntless are the two factions highlighted as the most important ones.

“A Good Death”

The Dauntless boast with their physical bravery, pushing themselves in fights and other tasks, and relish in the adrenaline high created by physical danger. More disturbingly, an intricate part of the initiation is the “Fear Landscape,” a kind of exposure therapy simulator that puts the initiates through their worst fears. Four, called so for having only four fears, compulsively puts himself through his fears over and over again in an act of self-harming behavior, where Tris goes out to seek physical danger.

Women must sacrifice; that is where their power lies, and they must understand abusers when they themselves cannot control their violence.

This behavior relates to how Kimberly Reynolds’s chapter in Radical Children’s Literature focuses on three main areas of self-harming behaviors: depression, suicide, and cutting, and sees that most children’s books that address these issues focus on cutting: “It releases high levels of endorphins producing a ‘high’ that counteracts the depression often associated with cutting, it makes the cutter feel detached from and able to purge her body and provides a sense of control” (Reynolds, qtd. in Kokkola, “Sparkling Vampires: Valorizing Self-harming Behavior in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series,” 33-46).

The physical high from self-harm is comparable to the high that adrenaline-junkies get, and Dauntless seems to be a sanctified community of said junkies. “‘My first instinct is to push you until you break, just to see how hard I have to press,’ [Four] says … ‘Fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up. I’ve seen it. It’s fascinating’” (Roth, Divergent, 313). The fear simulations are meant to help people overcome their fears and make them stronger, but the initiates suffer terribly from them, screaming through the night with paralyzing nightmares. Tris, however, can distance herself from the fear landscape, and she can manipulate the simulation.

As it turns out, Four and Tris both have a genetic flaw that allows them to stay awake during the different types of simulations the factions use in their initiation. Tris is Divergent, which makes her resistant to all mind manipulation, and Four is able to resist some aspects of the serum. Tris enters Four’s fear landscape with him, and she helps him face his worst fear: his father. In the simulation, Tris takes a belt lash that was meant for Four, sacrificing herself in a manner that harms her. Even if it is a simulation, she still feels the pain, but she does not give it a second thought. She is doing it out of love.

Comparing Tris with Bella Swan from the Twilight series seems like comparing a hawk to a handsaw, but the identical characteristics are there, just wrapped in a different package. Lydia Kokkola writes about Bella’s self-harming behaviors, suggesting that Meyer’s novels contain “explicit descriptions of depressive, self-loathing feelings, as well as repeated acts of deliberate self-harming (both physical and emotional) and attempted suicide,” but that at no point do Meyer’s characters seek help in changing their self-harming behavior, nor do the texts display signs of concern that they may trigger copycat behavior: rather, they valorize self-destructive behavior (Kokkola, “Sparkling Vampires: Valorizing Self-harming Behavior in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series,” 33-46).

Both Bella and her soul mate, Edward, are determined not to go on without the other in full-blown Romeo-and-Juliet dramatics. In Divergent, however, there is a definite stance against suicide: The Abnegation view suicide as “an act of selfishness. Someone who is truly selfless does not think of himself often enough to desire death” (Roth, Divergent, 25). Tris’s choice to join Dauntless has not erased the Abnegation values from her instincts, and she recoils at the Dauntless’ valorizing of suicide as bravery, and a preferred choice to being factionless.

When Albert, one of the initiates from Candor, commits suicide, he is celebrated as a hero: “Albert was not yet one of our members, but we can be assured that he was our bravest,” speaks a Dauntless leader at his funeral, raising a toast “To Albert the Courageous!” Tris reacts violently, “Pride is what killed Al, and it is the flaw in every Dauntless heart. It is in mine” (Roth, Divergent, 308). She is grappling with survivor’s guilt, since Al attacked her earlier, and then tried to apologize, but she refused to forgive him. But her struggle goes deeper than that: she is conflicted with her selfish impulses and her Abnegation upbringing.

The harmful behaviors Tris progressively shows in Divergent are seemingly the opposite of what Kokkola is identifying in Twilight. Tris harms herself by volunteering for all the operations, being the first to jump, climb, and fight, and she goes on a suicide mission to the now-enemies, Erudite’s, headquarters. This tendency to offer oneself up, to sacrifice, is a glorified version of cutting oneself. Getting hurt on a brave mission validates the self-inflicted pain, and is, at least in Tris’s case, an act of repentance.

Kokkola talks about how, in the minds of those who self-harm, physical pain and injury has a legitimacy that mental anguish does not. By turning psychological pain into an easily recognized physical problem needing stitches and bandages, self-harmers can find a way of reaching out for the help they need. (Kokkola, 33-46). I call Tris’s sacrificing the same exact thing, and so does Tobias (who is using his given name instead of Four now) who confronts her: “I love Tris the Divergent, who makes decisions apart from faction loyalty, who isn’t some faction archetype. But the Tris who’s trying as hard as she can to destroy herself…I can’t love her.” Tobias hits a nerve with Tris: “I want to scream. But not because I’m angry, because I’m afraid he’s right. My hands shake and I grab the hem of my shirt to steady them” (Roth, Insurgent, 261). Like many cutters, she is ashamed of being found out.

Book: Insurgent

Author: Veronica Roth

Publisher: Katherine Tegen

US Publication Date: 2012-05

Format: Hardcover

Length: 525

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/i/insurgent_roth_bookcover_200.jpg

What makes Tris’s behavior problematic beyond the obvious level, however, is that her self-sacrificing behavior is validated through her motivations. The act itself is not important, only the reasons behind it. During the Erudite coup d’état, spearheaded by the Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, the Dauntless are all put under a mind control serum, and they become an army of mercenaries. Tris and Tobias get taken hostage. Tris’s mother rescues her, but she gets killed while covering Tris’s escape. “That is good,” says Tris’s father. “A good death” (Roth, Divergent).

Tris embraces this evaluation of a tragic loss as a way to measure good and bad sacrifice: “Eric called Al’s suicide brave, and he was wrong. My mother’s death was brave. I remember how calm she was, how determined. It isn’t just brave that she died for me; it is brave that she did it without announcing it, without hesitation, and without appearing to consider another option” (Roth, Divergent). It is not important to stay alive; it is only important to not offer oneself up for the wrong reasons.

While Tris was left to die, a serum strong enough to make him consider friends enemies was controlling Tobias’s mind. He was sent to the Dauntless headquarters to control the army of mindless Dauntless members. Tris finds him, and attacks him. Tobias is beating her, but she refuses to kill him, even though it is evident that he will not back down. “I can’t shoot him. I can’t shoot him. I can’t. He’s in there somewhere,” Tris thinks as Tobias is knocking her around. “My father says … that there is power in self-sacrifice. I turn my gun in my hands and hand it to him” (Roth, Divergent, 308).

The ’70s feminist psychologist Lenore Walker coined the term Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) in an attempt to explain why so many women stay with their abusers (Walker, qtd. in Kokkola, 33-46). Tris is not abused by Tobias! I hear the readers exclaim in defense of Tobias, as he is under the influence of this serum. But the scene described above is a classic situation of interpersonal violence. The perpetrator is not in control of himself; it is like he is possessed by an alien nature, under the influence, all the old standards. And the victim—a woman, as it so often is—must use the only power she has, the power of self-sacrifice. He is in there somewhere, and the victim’s unconditional love and surrender will bring the “real him” out again.

Walker says that women who are repeatedly battered learn to be helpless, since all attempts at fighting back seem futile. In many cases they also turn to their abuser for reassurance and comfort (Walker, qtd. in Kokkola, 33-46). “My shoulder blazes with pain, but I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. He sets me down and stares at me, his fingers brushing over my forehead, my eyebrows, my cheeks, my lips … he kisses me again” (Roth, Divergent, 478). No amount of dystopia, utopia, and fantastical villains with serums can erase the fact that, if Tris is to be seen as a role model for young women, she has just been glorified as a victim. Women must sacrifice; that is where their power lies, and they must understand abusers when they themselves cannot control their violence.

Roth is clearly conscious of her audience. In an interview for the Independent, she expresses concern over not alienating her very young readers. “I remember reading books at that age and stopping because I wasn’t comfortable. I’m not trying to talk down to them. It’s definitely a scene of great intimacy. That’s what was important. I didn’t want to have smut on the page. I don’t want to titillate,” she says, when asked about whether Tris and Tobias consummated their relationship in Allegiant, the last installment (James). The intimacy between Tris and Tobias is certainly there. Their relationship is one of the more authentic ones in YA: they do not idolize each other, and they pursue their own goals, even when it means driving a wedge between them. Their relationship has been tumultuous through the second and third novel, but right before the big fight in the end they reconcile:

I was so afraid that we would just keep colliding over and over again if we stayed together, and that eventually the impact would break me. But now I know I am like the blade and he is like the whetstone—

I am too strong to break so easily, and I become better, sharper, every time I touch him. (Roth, Allegiant, 415).

There is nothing wrong with not promoting sex; however, if a character is mature enough to kill and prepare to die, there is little in the way of justification as to why she could not have sex when she clearly wants to. I am arguing this is all to prepare her for her final sacrifice: she needs to be able to offer herself up as a pure maiden, like Joan of Arc.

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Splash image: Shailene Woodley in Divergent (2014)

“My dear child, you’ve done so well”

Out of the three novels, Divergent is the one with most character development. In it, the foundation is laid for Tris and Tobias, and they follow their paths throughout the other two novels. Tobias is haunted by his family, and he works hard to not be his father, taking a leadership role in the rebellion. Tris continues to do what she does: sacrifice. She jumps to every situation, alienating her friends and even Tobias, offering herself up in whatever situation arises. They become estranged due to their different ideas of what is best for their people, including Tris: Tobias is frustrated by Tris’s attempts at martyrdom, as mentioned before.

While selflessness certainly is one of the universally accepted moral virtues, in this case it cannot be said to promote healthy values.

She comes close to death several times, at one point she is already tied to an execution chair, and she is preparing to die. “And then rising from within me is a single thought: I don’t want to die. All those times Tobias scolded me for risking my life … I was sure I wanted to emulate [her parents] self-sacrifice … I’m not done!” she realizes, as the lethal injection is being plunged into her veins (Roth, Insurgent, 348-9). And behold, she is saved by her former antagonist, Peter, who has switched the liquids in the needles.

After a long back-and-forth battle with switching alliances, Tris and her friends set out on a quest to find out what lies beyond the city walls. As it turns out, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare has been conducting an experiment on them all. This deux ex machine attempt to make sense of the whole situation seems almost like a soap opera evil twin returning from the dead scenario, or worse: a dream sequence. Except that people died. Lots of them.

The upside to this, in terms of the story, is that Tris has yet to make her final sacrifice. She uncovers yet another government plot to reset the minds of the Chicago population and start over. Tris’s brother, Caleb, has betrayed her and wants to make amends by volunteering for a suicide mission to stop the evil plan. “What is the biggest reason you are doing this?” Tris asks him. “I guess I feel like it’s the only way I can escape the guilt for all the things I’ve done,” Caleb says. Tris realizes that Caleb is not sacrificing for the right reason: “the Abnegation say you should only let someone sacrifice himself for you if it’s the ultimate way for them to show they love you. And for Caleb that’s not what this is” (Roth, Allegiant, 446-7). Tris eventually takes his place in the mission.

Tris succeeds in her task, but gets trapped in the process. “She taught me all about real sacrifice. That it should be done from love… That it should be done from necessity, not without exhausting all other options. That it should be done for people who need your strength because they don’t have enough of their own” Tris muses to David, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare’s director, about her mother during her moment of final sacrifice (Roth, Allegiant, 447).

David shoots Tris, and as she is dying her dead mother appears to her. “She kneels next to me and touches a cool hand to my cheek. ‘Hello, Beatrice,’ she says, and she smiles. ‘Am I done yet?’ I say … ‘Yes,’ she says … ‘My dear child, you’ve done so well’” (Roth, Allegiant, 475).

Book: Allegiant

Author: Veronica Roth

Publisher: Katherine Tegen

US Publication Date: 2013-10

Format: Hardcover

Length: 526

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/a/allegiant_roth_bookcover_200.jpgTris has fallen in line with most other female protagonists. The typical ending for a female character is pinpointed by Tania Modleski in her study of mass-market romance fiction, Loving with a Vengeance: “at the end of a majority of popular narratives, the woman is disfigured, dead, or at the very least domesticated. And her downfall is seen as anything but tragic” (Modleski, 122). Like Katniss and Bella, Tris is forever changed. Katniss becomes a wife and a mother, Bella becomes a vampire, and Tris dies. Tris’s death has been foreshadowed throughout the series, as sacrifice has been the overarching theme in the narrative.

And it is a good death, a right kind of sacrifice: not an act of selfishness, but an act of bravery. “I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different. All your life you’ve been training to forget yourself, so when you’re in danger, it becomes your first instinct” (Roth, Divergent, 336). Tobias summarizes my thesis for me: it is brave and desirable to be selfless to a point where the instinct of self-preservation vanishes and your value is measured with how completely you can forget yourself. “I left Abnegation because I wasn’t selfless enough, no matter how hard I tried to be” (Roth, Divergent, 336). Tris replies at the time, and this moment is bookended by her finally becoming selfless enough in the end.

In pairing bravery and sacrifice as the core values of the two main factions, Roth equates sacrifice with bravery. While selflessness certainly is one of the universally accepted moral virtues, in this case it cannot be said to promote healthy values. The extent to which Roth takes her valuation of putting others first undermines all that we try to teach our young women about self-worth and the importance of maintaining autonomy and control over one’s body and mind. Tris’s attempts at selflessness come at the cost of losing the instinct for self-preservation, and her acts of sacrifice manifest as self-harming practices masquerading as bravery. Combined with the overly chaste romance in the midst of a very graphic carnage, these aspects make for a potentially harmful role model. The shaming of selfishness, of pursuing things for the good of oneself, should not be the opposite of being a good person, and being selfless should not equate putting oneself last and sacrificing all that one has for the sake of love. If this is the “new woman”, she looks an awful lot like all the other women that came before her.

Works Cited

Dean, Michelle. “Our Young-Adult Dystopia.” The New York Times, 01 Feb. 2014. Web. 8 Mar. 2014.

Kidd, James. “‘I Don’t Want Smut on the Page’: Divergent Author Veronica Roth on Sex and Teen Fiction.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 5 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Kokkola, Lydia. “Sparkling Vampires: Valorizing Self-harming Behavior in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 49.3 (2011): 33-46. Project MUSE. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. 2. Ed. Print.

Roth, Veronica. Allegiant. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2013. Kindle.

—“Bonus Materials.” Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2011. Print.

Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2011. Print.

Insurgent. New York: Katherine Tegen, 2012. Kindle.

Katja Huru is a native of Finland, and graduated in May 2014 with a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Degree from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is also a contributing editor for Palaver, UNCW’s interdisciplinary journal, which is housed in the Graduate Liberal Studies department. Katja’s main area of research interest is fantasy literature from a gender studies point of view. She does not like chocolate, but loves coffee, cake, and vampires.

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Splash image: Shailene Woodley in Divergent (2014)