The novel is Veronica Roth's debut novel and was published a little over a year after Roth graduated with a Bachelor's degree from the Creative Writing program at Northwestern University. Roth wrote the novel during her senior year winter break and sold movie rights to the novel before she graduated.
The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth indicated that she did not originally intend to use Chicago as the setting:
I wrote the rough draft and I felt like it needed a more grounded sense of place, and I looked at the city I had described, which is all these trains constantly moving, and this lake marsh, and these rivers. And I realized that it was Chicago already, and it was just because that's the city I've known and loved the longest.
In a post-apocalyptic Chicago, survivors are divided into five factions based on their dispositions: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual. Each year, all sixteen-year-olds take an aptitude test that determines the faction for which they are best suited. After receiving the results, test takers choose a faction at the Choosing Ceremony, no matter what their results were. Those who do not complete initiation into their new faction become "factionless" and are forced to live in poverty on the streets of the city.
Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior is born into an Abnegation family. She doesn't feel she belongs in Abnegation because she doesn't see herself as naturally selfless. Her aptitude test results are inconclusive and indicate aptitude for three factions – Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless. The test administrator warns her never to tell anyone that her results were inconclusive as this marks her as "Divergent". Beatrice agonizes over Choosing Day, unsure about staying in Abnegation with her parents or moving to a different faction. On Choosing Day, Beatrice decides to leave Abnegation and join Dauntless. Her brother Caleb chooses Erudite.
The Dauntless instructor, Four, explains that not all Dauntless initiates will be allowed to enter the faction. The initiates will have to go through a series of training and evaluation. Unique to this faction, only the top ten initiates will stay, while the rest will be dismissed and become factionless; by contrast, the other factions allow everyone who complete initiation to enter. During her initiation, Beatrice renames herself Tris and befriends transfer initiates Christina, Al, and Will but comes into conflict with fellow initiates Peter, Drew, and Molly. She also befriends Dauntless-born initiates Uriah, Lynn, and Marlene.
Initiation into Dauntless is composed of three stages. The first involves learning how to handle guns and knives and hand-to-hand combat with other initiates. Tris lacks the physical strength of most of her fellow initiates but finishes in sixth place by beating the higher-ranked Molly. When the rankings for Stage 1 of initiation are announced, a jealous Peter, who finished second, stabs first-place Edward in the eye with a butter knife during the night. Edward then leaves Dauntless to be Factionless, and his girlfriend Myra follows him out of Dauntless.
During Visiting Day, Tris learns that her mother's faction of origin was Dauntless.
Erudite stirs dissent against the Abnegation leadership in the city's government and accuses Marcus, the Abnegation leader, of abusing his son. The fact that Marcus's son joined Dauntless two years before, and Tris' and Caleb's choices at the Choosing Ceremony, where they switched factions instead of remaining in Abnegation adds to the rumors. Abnegation is also alleged to be hoarding supplies meant to be sent out in the city.
The initiates enter Stage 2 of their training, which involves simulations similar to the aptitude tests. Initiates are forced to face hallucinations based upon their deepest fears. The simulations act in a hypnotic fashion and initiates forget their situation isn't real. Tris' Divergent abilities enable her to remember that she's facing a simulation, not reality. She uses this advantage and wins top rank in the class. Peter, Drew, and Al attack Tris in revenge with a threatened sexual assault and attempt to kill her by throwing her into the chasm at Dauntless headquarters. Four intervenes and stops it. Later, Al begs for Tris's forgiveness, but she rebuffs him. He later commits suicide by jumping into the chasm where he tried to kill Tris.
The final stage of Dauntless initiation gathers all their fears in a single simulation landscape. All the initiates, including the Divergents, are aware they are under a simulation and must use the skills they've learned in the previous stages to overcome each obstacle. Tris' relationship with Four continues to grow as she prepares for the last stage of testing, and he lets her into his own fear landscape. Four has four fears in his landscape, which is an uncommonly low number, hence his nickname. She also learns he is really Marcus' son Tobias, the child of the Abnegation leader the Erudites accused of child abuse. Four shares information with Tris that he discovered about Erudite's plans to use Dauntless to stage an attack on Abnegation.
Tris successfully overcomes seven fears in her fear landscape. After her test, she and the other Dauntless members are injected with a new "tracking" serum that supposedly activates if someone goes missing.
Before the official initiation ceremony, Four invites Tris back to his private apartment, and Tris expresses her feelings for him. The ceremony begins with the post of final rankings and Tris is ranked first. In the midst of celebrating she suddenly realizes Erudite will use the "tracking" serum to force Dauntless members to carry out their invasion of Abnegation.
The night after the ceremony, the serum induces a simulation and all the Dauntless become sleep-walking soldiers under orders to attack the Abnegation compound. The serum doesn't work on Tris or Tobias (Four) because they are Divergent. Tris and Tobias try to break away from the pack and escape as they arrive at the Abnegation compound, but Tris is shot and wounded. Tobias refuses to leave her behind and they are captured and brought before Jeanine, the Erudite leader who is the mastermind of the whole attack. She injects Four with an experimental serum that overrides his Divergence, to control what he can see and hear. Jeanine directs Tobias back to the Dauntless control room to oversee the attack and sentences Tris to death. Tris wakes up sealed inside a real-life glass tank that fills up with water, but her mother breaks the tank and rescues her. Her mother reveals that she is also Divergent before she is killed helping Tris escape. Tris gets away but is forced to kill Will, who attacks her under the influence of the simulation.
She finds her father, Andrew, and Tobias' father, Marcus in a safe house. Tris tells them the reason for Dauntless' attack on Abnegation. Later, Caleb, Marcus, Andrew, and Tris head to the Dauntless compound to find the source of the simulation and fight their way through to Dauntless headquarters. Tris' father sacrifices himself to clear the way for her to reach the control room. She confronts the mind-controlled Tobias, who attacks her. Tris realizes she can't bring herself to kill him and surrenders. This causes Tobias to break through the special sight-and-sound-only simulation. Freed, Tobias helps Tris shut down the Erudite simulation and free the remaining Dauntless from their mind control. They rejoin Caleb, Marcus, and Peter, who helped Tris find the control room in exchange for his safety. The group boards a train to the Amity sector to find the rest of the Abnegation survivors.
Many reviewers stated that the novel's writing style offers a distinctive, quick prose that creates a fast-paced reading experience. Susan Dominus, writing in The New York Times described the style as "brisk pacing, lavish flights of imagination and writing that occasionally startles with fine detail". Abby Nolan, from The American Prospect, noted that Divergent follows the structural and stylistic patterns of The Hunger Games and Blood Red Road.
As in other children's and young adult fiction, the novel probes placement of authority and identity within the youth's relationship to parents and other social forces. Critic Antero Garcia describes the thematic similarity between these dystopian novels as an interest in the "grasp of power between youth and adult authority" and compared the novel to Unwind by Neal Shusterman. In The New York Times, Susan Dominus stated that Divergent "explores a more common adolescent anxiety--the painful realization that coming into one's own sometimes means leaving family behind ideologically and physically". The Voice of Youth Advocates agrees, writing that Divergent shows the pressure of "having to choose between following in your parents' footsteps or doing something new". Critic Antero Garcia compared the thematic interest in the characters being "forced into limiting constraints of identity and labor associated with their identity" to similar interest in forced identities and labor in the dystopian children's novels Matched by Allyson Braithwaite Condie and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.
Government division of its population into fragmented communities is a frequent device in young adult (YA) children's fiction. YA classics such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Monica Hughes’s The Dream Catcher, and Zilpha Snyder’s Green Sky Trilogy use this device to different ends. In her masters thesis, Ashley Ann Haynes describes fractioning of societies within Divergent as a supporting comparison with Hunger Games. Unlike the latter, however, each person can choose which faction they want to join, so long as they follow the rules and pass the tests. Divergent adds a new layer of complexity with its creation of an illusion of democracy for participants in its fractioned society, with the factions controlled by outside force.
The basis of the social structure in Divergent is that each faction fulfils a role in society. If one cannot contribute to society, they are cast aside to become "factionless" and are deprived of access to an identity and resources. In a journal article, Andrea Burgos-Mascarell compares the factionless to illegal immigrants, as they do not have access to certain public services either. Both are marginalised from society because they are unable to contribute to it.
Some reviews criticize the lack of depth and realism of the social structures within the novel. Kirkus Reviews called the social structure a "preposterous premise". Booklist called the structure a "simplistic, color-coded world [that] stretches credibility on occasion". In a review for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's student newspaper "Royal Purple News", Abrielle Backhaus notes how the "entire system seems insubstantial" and asks rhetorically "How could it be possible for any individual, with his or her infinite emotions and experiences, to be condensed to one single quality to tolerate for the rest of their lives and to choose at the mere age of 16?" In an interview Roth describes the social structure to have expanded from her initial conception, adding Candor to fill "a gap in the reasoning behind the world that needed to be filled".
Social structure most affects the novel's themes by socially dividing different knowledge types that characters can access. In her book chapter exploring how literacy in different knowledge types affects the series, Alice Curry describes the factions, and character indoctrination in those factions, as deliberately creating knowledge gaps between initiates to different factions. Because of the initiation process, the characters become illiterate in the knowledge valued by the other factions. Tris's "divergence" allows her to be successful because she can become literate in a broad set of knowledges and information types, and thus she becomes more admirable to the reader. Curry argues that Jeanine's leadership within Erudite represents an academic ivory tower that alienates other types of knowledge, thus the book critiques academic learning, in favor of the broader knowledge embodied by Tris. Curry compares the novel to Julie Bertagna's 2002 Exodus, describing both as using spaces and landscapes where knowledge is learned to critique "crumbling knowledge institutions", like academic spaces, that "dissemble" knowledge instead of facilitating deeper holistic knowledge literacies that create "understanding".
Like The Hunger Games, Divergent depicts considerable violence for a Young Adult novel. The Publishers Weekly review emphasized this stylistic choice, calling it "edgy" and describing the initiation rituals that Tris endures "as spellbinding as they are violent [requiring] sadistic tests of strength and courage". But, as Susan Dominus points out, the novel does not keep this violence at the forefront of reader experience; she writes in The New York Times, that "Terrible things happen to the people Tris loves, yet the characters absorb these events with disquieting ease. Here, somehow, the novel's flights from reality distance the reader from the emotional impact that might come in a more affecting realistic (or even fantasy) novel."
When describing her inspiration for the Dauntless training their initiates through exposing them to their fears, Roth, in an interview for the website "PopSugar", says, though influenced by many sources, the most important was her "Psych 101 my first year of college [where] I learned about exposure therapy, which is when they treat people with fear, like for anxiety. It exposes them repeatedly to what they're afraid of, and gradually you become less afraid of it, or have a healthy level of fear, and I thought of the Dauntless then, because they're conditioning perfectly normal people to get over perfectly rational fears." Daniel Kraus's Booklist review of the novel described the intense psychological pressure as like "akin to joining the marines" but also providing the "built-in tension" that makes the novel a compelling read.
Though the novel does not maintain an overtly Christian thematic interest, some readers place the novel's themes within this context because of Roth's professed religiosity. In the postscript "Acknowledgements", Roth emphasizes her Christian faith saying "Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension." For some reviewers this element of Roth's lifestyle is important to the novel's impact; for example, when reviewing the novel for the Christian Ministry "Break Point", Sherry Early describes Roth as "a Christian" and the novel setting as "post-feminist, maybe even Christian". She also says that though the novel is "not overtly Christian", it follows a "Christian point of view" because it "fight[s] against the restrictions placed upon her by a controlling and totalitarian state" and because "Tris must also explore the cracks and imperfections within her own psyche." K. B. Hoyle also acknowledges that the novel would have a "Christian message", when reviewing the novel for the Evangelical book review organization The Gospel Coalition. However, Hoyle criticizes the novel for using profane terminology and for never "clarify[ing] what the practices are supposed to mean".
Reviewers outside the Christian community have also noticed the Christian context of the novel. In a review of the book and first movie, David Edelstein observed the book's treatment of intellectuals as following a tendency in Christian culture to question genetic modification and majority: the intellectual Erudite faction are largely depicted as control-hungry villains pitted against the Abnegation faction, who are depicted as righteous and merciful. He wrote "The novelist, Veronica Roth, reserves her loathing for the 'Erudites', who spend their days in intellectual pursuit," and that the trend of intellectualism (thinking without feeling) "makes people apt to seize power and impose Maoist-like uniformity on entire populations — on pain of death."
Divergent has received mostly positive reviews. In a review in The New York Times, Susan Dominus wrote that it was "rich in plot and imaginative details", but also that, compared to other such books in the same genre as the Hunger Games trilogy, it did "not exactly distinguish itself". In a review for Entertainment Weekly, Breia Brissey said that it was "flimsier and less nuanced" than The Hunger Games but was good, giving it a B+ rating. Similarly, though critiquing the "simplistic, color-coded world", Booklist reviewer Daniel Kraus positively concluded that the novel was full of "gutsy action and romance" and called it a "spin on Brave New World". Kirkus said it was "built with careful details and intriguing scope". Common Sense Media commented on the book's "deep messages about identity and controlling societies" and on the "unstoppable plot that's remarkably original". It was rated 5 out of 5 stars and given an age 13+ rating.
The book debuted at number six on the New York Times Children's Chapter Books Best Seller list on May 22, 2011, and remained on the list for 11 weeks. It also spent 39 weeks on the Children's Paperback list in 2012, reaching number one. The Times changed its Children's Best Seller lists in December 2012, eliminating the Children's Paperback list and recognizing "middle grade" and "young adult" books separately; Divergent continued its run on the new Young Adult Best Seller list. The novel stayed on the list for 47 weeks until November 3, 2013. According to Publishers Weekly, the combined three volumes of the Divergent series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 (three million hardcovers, 1.7 million paperbacks, and just under two million e-books). In the lead up to the release of the film adaptation, Roth's novel topped USA Today's Best-Selling Books list in January 2014.
Divergent won Favorite book of 2011 in 2011's Goodreads Readers Choice Awards, and won the senior category of the 2014 Young Reader's Choice Award. It was also number one in the Teens' Top Ten Vote, sponsored by YALSA.
Summit Entertainment bought the rights to film an adaptation of the novel in 2011. Summit recruited Neil Burger to direct. Initially, Summit gave the film a budget of $40 million, but Lionsgate later increased it to $80 million (which finally changed to $85 million) due to the success of The Hunger Games.
Shailene Woodley was chosen to star as Beatrice "Tris" Prior. The role of Tobias "Four" Eaton eventually went to Theo James after an extensive search. Kate Winslet was signed as Jeanine Matthews. Also recruited into the cast were Maggie Q as Tori, Zoe Kravitz as Christina, Ansel Elgort as Caleb, Miles Teller as Peter, Ashley Judd as Natalie Prior, Tony Goldwyn as Andrew Prior, and Jai Courtney as Eric.
Filming began in Chicago on April 16, 2013 and concluded on July 16, 2013, with nearly all filming taking place in Chicago. The film was released March 21, 2014, earning $150,947,895 in North America, and $137,228,004 in other areas, for a worldwide total of $288,175,899. The critic aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic both noted the films mixed reviews. However, audience surveyor CinemaScore showed that audiences were very receptive to the film.