10 March 2014

On Forgiveness and Redemption - Further Thoughts on Divergent (Spoilers)

Be warned, the following contains spoilers.

After taking a few days to think about Divergent, I have some conclusions I thought were worth sharing. If nothing else, writing them out has helped me make some sense of them.
For me, Divergent's most interesting character was Caleb Prior. That may seem strange - after all, we never get any chapters from his point-of-view, and he spends most of the trilogy as an antagonist. Despite that, I felt like I understood him better than any other character.

A big part of that is just personal context. I myself have a sister who is three years older than me. However, she's had a number of medical setbacks over the last twelve years or so, and in that time our relationship has changed. I am now the protective one, the more mature one, and the one with more life experience. Caleb is less than a year older than Tris, but even so, I identify with him as an older-brother-type.

Bear with me. I really am going somewhere with all this.

Caleb is smart - not only that, but he knows he is smart, and chooses to join the Erudite faction. I too think of myself as smart. I don't know how to say that without sounding arrogant, but statistically speaking, I was in something like the 98th percentile of the national ACT average score (I got a 31) and that was on my first try, without studying for it.

One of the bad things about being smart - something that Divergent touches on - is the arrogance that goes along with it. When you tell yourself you're smarter than everyone around you, you start thinking you know what's better for them, too. You become able to justify all sorts of poor behavior. Caleb listens to Jeanine Matthews, and he decides to betray his family - his sister - because he convinces himself it's for the greater good. And in doing so, he hurts those who love him most.

I've done the same thing, though thankfully never to such a terrible degree. But I've hurt people without meaning to, just because I was convinced of my own cleverness. And I've tried to weasel out of facing the consequences using my wit to justify what were essentially poor choices.

What does all this have to do with forgiveness and redemption? You have to know what you've done wrong before you can have either.

Forgiveness and redemption are closely related, and yet, to my mind, discrete. It seems to me that forgiveness is something you are given, while redemption is something you have to search for yourself. What does Merriam-Webster have to say on the subject?

forgive (v): to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong); to stop blaming (someone)
redeem (v): to make (something that is bad, unpleasant, etc.) better or more acceptable

So much of the Divergent trilogy centers on how Tris handles her own guilt: guilt about shooting will; survivor's guilt; guilt for lying; guilt for so many of her choices. For simplicity, let's focus on her guilt about Will, the friend she killed in self-defense. It's a crippling guilt, one that drives her to a suicidal recklessness. Does she want forgiveness, or redemption?


I would argue that she wants both, but they have to come from different places. She takes her first steps towards earning forgiveness when she admits to what she has done. Though it invites the hatred of her friend (and Will's love) Christina, plus Will's sister Cara, the honesty she shows - and the sincere remorse - are the only things she has to give. Once that's done, she has to wait for Christina and Cara to decide to forgive or not.

She seeks redemption for it, too, but here is where she goes astray: she believes that throwing herself into danger, risking death, will make up for what she has done. It's an understandable impulse in her case: raised to value selflessness above all, and indoctrinated to value bravery above all, the combination is a volatile one. Only when she truly faces her own death does she realize she doesn't truly want to die. She wants to go on living.

Here is where she finds redemption, then: in living for what she believes, in honoring Will's memory, and in punishing those who were responsible for the situation that killed him.

Caleb is at a serious disadvantage. Tris had to apologize for what she had done, but apologies don't come easy when you're used to justifying everything you do in the light of "the greater good." When you know best, you can throw away things like loyalty and family, because the net gain will exceed the net loss.

Despite his betrayal, Tris gets Tobias to rescue Caleb from execution, and in doing so comes face to face with the brother she both loves and loathes. Caleb, too, comes face to face with the sister who was tortured before him while he did nothing to stop it.

How do you apologize for something like that? A hurt so bad that sorry is less than inadequate. And all the while, you are also faced with your own fallibility.

I do believe Caleb knew what he was doing was wrong. Otherwise why would he feel so guilty about it? And yet he's spent his life convinced that he can do no wrong, and so he wastes his words with empty excuses, avoiding taking any blame for himself.

He does, finally, admit to the mistake he's made. It's in a roundabout way - he never actually says he's sorry, that I can recall - but he does finally admit to Tris that he would do anything to be free of the guilt he feels.

He volunteers to sacrifice himself in the plan to save Chicago's residents from being mind-wiped, in exchange for Tris's forgiveness. You can't barter for forgiveness, of course; but at least the specter of death gives more haste to the process. Tris finds she can, in fact, forgive him - and in fact, sacrifices herself to save him.

We don't ever see Caleb get his redemption. When he delivers Tris's last message to Tobias, he admits he doesn't know why Tris saved him. Only when he truly understands that will he have found redemption.

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So that was long and blathering. I don't know if anyone will find any value in this, but I thought it was worth thinking about and worth writing about.

In other news, I had two exquisite bottles of wine last night: 2007 Ramey Claret and 2009 K Vintners Ovide en Cerise. I made sure to take actual tasting notes so I can get back to writing about the Bottles!