In Which Tris Continues To Be Special: Allegiant Chapter 17

Allegiant Chapter 17: Tris

After Tobias’s nighttime adventures in the last chapter, Tris wakes up as some of the Bureau employees are finishing their night shift, and has an adventure of her own to, like most things in Divergent, a metaphor that only sort of makes any sense.

[The sculpture] is a huge slab of dark stone, square and rough, like the rocks at the bottom of the chasm. A large crack runs through the middle of it, and there are streaks of lighter rock near the edges. Suspended above the slab is a glass tank of the same dimensions, full of water. […] another drop falls, then a third, and a fourth, at the same interval. A few drops collect, and then disappear down a narrow channel in the stone. They must be intentional.

george art

So there’s a not-quite-mainstream (English major mainstream, anyway – it’s where the cool kids hang out) concept known as an “overdetermined signifier”, where something isn’t quite able to convey everything it’s intended to, whether it’s trying to represent multiple unrelated concepts simultaneously, or trying to be symbolism while also explaining the meaning that symbol is supposed to be symbolic for. In other words, it’s basically English Major for “trying too hard”.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Well…

“It’s the symbol of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare,” [Zoe] says. “The slab of stone is the problem we’re facing. The tank of water is our potential for changing that problem. And the drop of water is what we’re actually able to do, at any given time.”

Do keep in mind that “the problem we’re facing” is evolution, and “what we’re actually able to do” is eugenics. That is the point in Divergent we have hit. Humanity has fucked itself over with mass-scale eugenics, and is trying to fix the problem with more eugenics.

Tris’s reaction to this is, as always, precious. Or at least it would be, if the reader weren’t supposed to be taking her seriously.

I can’t help it— I laugh. “Not very encouraging, is it? […] Wouldn’t it be more effective to unleash the whole tank at once?”

The whole tank of… metaphorical genetic change over time???


Zoe explains why Tris’s vague suggestion doesn’t make sense (because that is not how genetics work), but this is Divergent, where METAPHOR IS KING:

“genetic damage isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved with one big charge.”
“I understand that,” I say. “I’m just wondering if it’s a good thing to resign yourself quite this much to small steps when you could take some big ones.”
“Like what?”
I shrug. “I guess I don’t really know.”

Like not knowing a concept has ever stopped this book from trying to be a big metaphor/statement about that concept.

It’s right there on the cover! Of the first book! YOU DON’T CHOOSE YOUR GENES.

Sigh. The book quickly stops trying to be deep about itself to move along. Zoe has Tris’s mom’s teenage-ish journals and wants to give them to her, and also has a favor to ask of her. Zoe takes Tris to a research lab she works in, and Tris continues to experience a not-stupid society for the first time:

“Do the colors of the uniforms mean anything?” I ask Zoe.
“Yes, actually. Dark blue means scientist or researcher, and green means support staff— they do maintenance, upkeep, things like that.”
“So they’re like the factionless.”
“No,” she says. “No, the dynamic is different here— everyone does what they can to support the mission. Everyone is valued and important.”

Until Tris learns about capitalism and then learns that they’re not.

Because Divergent just won’t quit while it’s ahead (or at least “way way behind but seriously please just stop“), Zoe explains more about the science behind the genetic manipulation city experiments.

Astute readers might remember I’ve been critical of this aspect of the series.

“After a few generations, when your city didn’t tear itself apart and the others did, the Bureau implemented the faction components in the newer cities— Saint Louis, Detroit, and Minneapolis— using the relatively new Indianapolis experiment as a control group.”

Oh, hey, wait! That was actually something I criticized as a throwaway joke last week! I guess they do have an actual control group (in other words, biology major for “the one we do literally nothing to so we have a point of reference for the test subjects we are doing stuff to”) for this experiment! Guess I should rescind that criticism n-

“So in Indianapolis you just… corrected their genes and shoved them in a city somewhere?” […]
“Yes, that’s essentially what happened.”


The one thing you had to do was NOT do something to it. How do you fuck that up.

 “Genetically damaged people who have been conditioned by suffering and are not taught to live differently, as the factions would have taught them to, are very destructive.”

Hey, you know what probably isn’t helping them with that whole conditioned to be destructive thing? Calling them fucking “genetically damaged” all the time.

They finally get to the lab so they can stop trying to talk about science (ironically!), but this gets immediately ruined anyway.

“Sit. I’ll give you a [tablet] with all Natalie’s files on it so that you and your brother can read them yourselves, but while they’re loading I might as well tell you the story.”

Aren’t these basically text files? Your phone today can download a Word doc in like twenty seconds. How does this process take longer in Divergent‘s future of disposable brain-interfacing microcomputers injected into the bloodstream?

Zoe’s lab partner – who is named Matthew, because that’s just karma for you – explains that Zoe’s mother was “a fantastic discovery” from “inside the damaged world” whose “genes were nearly perfect”, because literally nothing that has happened in this story’s narrative has any meaning.

Not pictured: Meh, the people we found sitting around outside
Not pictured: Meh, The People We Found Sitting Around Outside

Matthew (not me) explains that Tris’s mother was brought to the Bureau, then volunteered to go into the Chicago experiment to resolve a crisis (ok, I guess I did just explain all that…)

“What crisis?”
“The Erudite representative had just begun to kill the Divergent, of course,”

I don’t even have a snarky joke. That’s exactly the level of laziness I’ve come to expect from this series.

Ever since then, Tris’s mom stayed in the experiment to extract the Divergent from the experiment before the other test subjects murdered them. After story time, Matthew (still not me) also asks Tris if she and Tobias would mind having their genes tested.

“Curiosity.” He shrugs. “We haven’t gotten to test the genes of someone in such a late generation of the experiment before, and you and Tobias seem to be somewhat . . . odd, in your manifestations of certain things.”

Even among the specials, Tris is still special. What a fun message.

“You, for example, have displayed extraordinary serum resistance— most of the Divergent aren’t as capable of resisting serums as you are,” Matthew says. “And Tobias can resist simulations, but he doesn’t display some of the characteristics we’ve come to expect of the Divergent.”

Question of the Day: What do you think this will mean for Tobias/Four, and will he have to change his name again?



  1. Bellomy Reply

    What it would mean is that seriously we’ve just confirmed even more that being divergent means LITERALLY NOTHING. It tells us nothing useful whatsoever. It’s a pointless buzzword, akin to the guy you feel bad for at the office and promote to junior assistant so he has something to tell his mom.

    • matthewjulius Reply

      LITERALLY NOTHING. Divergent means your genome contains “healed genes” through a large-scale breeding experiment! Or that it happened anyway, because that’s sort of just how genetics works?

      • Bellomy Reply

        And meanwhile these healed genes have absolutely no noticeable effect on your behavior.

        The biggest problem with “Divergent” is that Roth tries way to hard to justify the science. Ideally they should dispense with the jargon as quickly as possible and elaborate it with as little detail as possible, then spend the rest of that space creating a strong narrative.

        There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and several classic works have done this, notably Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which attained greatness during their best moments.

        Frankenstein is another excellent example. The monster has been brought back to life. The means for this are intentionally unexplained, and instead of dwelling on this Shelley constructs a compelling narrative around the concept.

        A “good” “Divergent” would involve setting up this society, revealing that what they thought was their choice was actually genetically engineered, and then learning that certain people, the divergent, defied the predictions made based on their genetic profile. Then the series never mentions the science behind this again except when absolutely necessary and instead frames the narrative around the divergent meeting up, overcoming outside forces, making allies, forming plans, and so on and so on. Somewhere in there is the big twist where they discover the truth, which is put in terms as broad and vague as possible and then only referred to again in terms of effects and not means.

        The people of each faction should be portrayed in intentionally over-stereotypical ways, so that there’s a creepy feel to it. Roth made them all perfectly normal people, which made divergence totally irrelevant.

        Done correctly a perfectly fine dystopian novel can be created, even preserving something close to the basic concept. In fact, I suspect this WAS the basic concept until Roth got too bogged down with the nuts and bolts, which caused her to miss the forest for the trees and ultimately make the entire concept of divergence a meaningless buzzword.

        But there’s something there in the germ of the concept that could make for a potentially good story, much like Collins had the seeds of a good Hunger Games series planted if she had decided to go in a more bold direction and take the spotlight off of Katniss. The potential is all there, but it’s entirely unrealized either by lack of imagination (Collins) or pure bad writing.

        • matthewjulius Reply

          I absolutely agree with you here, with one caveat. The people in the factions do feel like excessive stereotypes, but not in the creepy way you’re describing, and with more of a bad writing feeling. It’s weird that one of the elements of the book that bogs it down the most – so much ariel and I barely mention it anymore – could actually have worked in its favor if it were MORE over the top, like you point out. Weird.

          • Bellomy Reply

            Yeah, they feel like stereotypes, but more like…badly written normal people, if that makes sense, as opposed to Stepford wives, which is what they should be.


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