The Platonic Elements of “Divergent-” Dystopian Month

Being deeply engrossed in Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy, I find the strong Platonic elements of her text to be far too overt, to simply ignore. One of my favorite literary scholars, John Granger (who often writes about the religious and spiritual elements of series) has a lot of very strong, interesting points about the Platonic elements of series like Hunger GamesHarry Potter, and even Twilight (I respect his analysis of that series, I’ve read it, enjoyed it, just don’t really like that series all that much). He wrote a book about the literary alchemy in Harry Potter, in his excellent scholarly volume-Unlocking Harry Potter-Five Keys for the Serious Reader. I’m going to write one short, cursory overview of Plato’s Cave allegory, then relate it directly to CS Lewis’ Silver Chair, and then we are going to talk about how Veronica Roth skillfully grafts this metaphor, much like Suzanne Collins in many ways, onto the template of a YA dystopian novel.

Anyone that has ever taken Philosophy 101 knows about the Plato Cave Allegory. The general gist of this metaphor is that this cave is a model of our structural reality of society (my own interpretation of it). It can be any structural reality, in either a fictitious sense (as in “Middle Earth”); a global sense (as in “the Earth”); your small municipality; your own psyche (and your perception of your “interior reality,” “or the reality without.”) Okay, let me make this simple again, for the sake of making this cohere with the Silver Chair more. The “cave” is reality, devoid of your analysis, your personality, your questions; it is a facile grasp of the surface layer. So, a cave is just a cave,in a sense, and it seems idyllic, because you have habituated yourself to this belief that this drafty, slightly dour, but mostly pleasant cave environment is nice.  There are people, surrounding you, who also feel the same shred of complacency with this acceptance of the “homey cave,” and they don’t even ponder “just who the hell made us, who put this cave here, who is the one engineering this reality, motivating my acceptance that it’s comfortable, idyllic” In reality, it might really be dour, as you suspected earlier, but you brushed it off, because the idea of a comfortable cave, without all those difficult philosophical aforementioned considerations ruins what you have adopted in your mind of the “only acceptable, palatable idea of cave. The person (or persons),who bravely venture on a harrowing journey of escaping from the cave,, to observe the world outside, and wonder who created all of this, why am I here? etc. is/are the quintessential hero figure ( or figures).

Now, in CS Lewis’s Silver Chair (one of the most exemplar, crystal-clear portrayals of this allegory), Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum must escape from not one, but two different forms of  Plato’s Caves in the story. In the middle of the story, we are given a rather tense, unnerving sequence, as both Eustace and Jill become smitten with the Giants abode, where they are smothered with sentimental pleasures, like hot beverages, good hearty meals, which are things that provide fleeting diversions from the marked despondency of finding any entrance into the subterranean world below, where the Lady of Green Kirtle dwells (in a world with grey-skinned, servile, monosyllabic-speaking minions, who are the fun Dickensian caricatures of the hard-working, marginalized peasants of Dickens’s  Hard Times). It is through a troubling dream that Jill remembers their quest, along with Puddleglum’s own insistence to Jill and Eustace, to not be so enamored with the Giant’s treatment, that this comfortable reality really hides a more sinister, ulterior element. We learn soon that they were to be eaten, and quickly, they run to the entrance to the underground world, where the Lady of Green Kirtle keeps them captive. It is this band’s (or triumvirate’s) resolve to believe in a deeper, more paradoxical, more edifying notion of a deeper dimension to the world (Narnia, in this case, being this deeper dimension beyond the comfortable, though vacuous realm of the Lady of Green Kirtle world) that really saves them and Prince Rilian in the end.  It is this continuous insistence to believe in deeper, more miraculous things, ethical good that allows them to destroy the fragile reality of the Lady of Green Kirtle cave/underworld, in the end.  It is also another retelling of the Plato’s Cave story, like the tale of Orpheus, that tells true reality is mind-blowing, rapturous, beautiful, edifying, and it runs deeper than what our mind is capable of grasping.
Hard Times, by Charles Dickens,is much the same, which conveys the message that abstract mysteries like self-consciousness, justice, love, are all things that exist deeper than material, structural reality of industrialized, smog-choked London.

In Divergent, the question that plagues Tris is that the values held by the different groups are really far too shallow and technical, given their true nature. For one, Eric-the repugnant, sadistic leader of the Dauntless clan- perverts the idea of being brave, only to really superficialize the value of your life and the lives of others, and that being brave is a guise really to act cruel and malevolent towards others, which Tris rightfully recognizes as being shallow, empty cowardice, and that it is a deeper aspect of bravery (as embodied by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), involves selfless projection and empathy into the minds of others. She was raised in abnegation, which touts itself as being self-effacingly “selfless,” but being divergent; her understanding of bravery is more nuanced, and it is about having the right, moderate (not immoderate) degree of selflessness/ “ethical” selfishness. It is about moderation, or temperance-this is not about belonging or ascribing completely to each and every virtue, in a way that psychologically cloisters an individual in a “Plato’s Cave” form of extremism or neuroticism,  but learning to adopt the deeper, more nuanced ideas of each of the five classifications and beyond. By having a world that takes these things too literally and they become cogs in a societal machine (as in the dystopian world of Divergent), they merely become severely erudite, or things that are only ways for someone, with control of the structure of reality, to take advantage of entirely.

Having a sober mind (or divergent mind) is the Platonic inclination of minds that help to create a more democratic, ethical society; it is what keeps Narnia from being overrun by a thawing winter, the world of wizards in Harry Potter from being overtaken by the cruel, repressive tactics of the Death-Eaters, etc. All these tales, are in some sense, analogously recreating the Plato Cave Myth, which is invariably a cathartic form of storytelling that lets readers engage with the plight of everyday life, and find renewal, enlightenment, edification, by journeying into the dark depths of unenlightened,ethically-void evil,  out into a world bursting with possibility, miracle, alchemical-transformation, and paradox. Divergent continues the same mythic thread, used by these modern novels and others, lending to signs of their popularity, because there is something universally resonant for readers of stories like these, that really engage readers of any demographic and age-group.

 Next Post about the Divergent Trilogy,for Dystopian Month, will revolve around Insurgent, and the meaning behind the truth and peace serums, what are the hidden psychological or philosophical meanings behind simulations, serums in this series of books?

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