Names on the Verge: Beatrice, Tobias, and the World of Divergent
In the baby naming world, not all literary cultural phenomena are created equal. Not even all cultural phenomena from the Young Adult shelves, featuring love triangles and fights to the death (and beyond). Twilight and The Hunger Games both have huge fanbases, but only Twilight moved the baby name needle.
It all comes down to style. The names Jasper, Emmett and Esme were full of fashion potential. Peeta, Gale and Primrose, not so much.
One of the heirs to the YA throne is Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy. The final volume of the series is due to be published this year, with a film version of book one expected soon after. At a brief glance, it's easy to take Divergent for a Hunger Games imitator. (The publishers clearly saw it that way, if their shamelessly similar cover theme is any indication.) Both trilogies focus on a strong teenage girl in a future, post-apocalyptic America divided into factions.
To this reader, though, the series feel very different. Where The Hunger Games was fundamentally about violence and dehumanization, Divergent dwells on subtler questions of the nature of people. Think of it as a musing on what society would be like if we were all sorted by Harry Potter's sorting hat. The progression of the plot seems to be leading Divergent even further from the Hunger Games model of increasingly spectacular body counts.
In names, too, Divergent charts a different path. Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins used names as symbols. The residents of her District 1, a relatively prosperous community that produced luxury goods, were given names like Glimmer, Marvel and Gloss. Humble, agricultural District 11 was peopled by the likes of Thresh, Seeder and Chaff. The wealthy, decadent ruling Capitol, meanwhile, was steeped in ancient Rome: Claudius, Seneca, Caeser.
The names of Twilight, in contrast, were all about style. The aforementioned Jasper, Emmett and Esme were all vampires, born in different places and different eras but united in cutting-edge name style. Werewolves mostly had more modest names, often with a biblical spin: Paul, Leah, Seth. And other groups, like rival vampire covens, were distinguished by names with more stylistic than ethnic/historical coherence. (Take the "Romanian coven" of ancient Dacia, represented by Vladimir and Stefan.)
In Divergent, the overall naming approach is...ordinary. Aggressively, even surprisingly ordinary. In a future world divided into sharply delineated factions, with the whole spectrum of science fiction naming available to the author, we find a cast of completely familiar names.
What's more, author Roth largely resisted the temptation to choose names as reflections of character. Contemplate this lineup: Christina, Eric, Will, Jeanine, Marcus, Lynn, Peter, Tori, Caleb, Marlene, Drew. Any guesses who in that list is a hero, and who a villain? Who a thrill-seeking "Dauntless," and who a knowledge-seeking "Erudite"? This refusal to name by type makes it harder to see the individuals themselves as types, planting a hint of doubt about the society's determination to sort them.
The one exception to Roth's neutral naming approach is the selfless "Abnegations," whose names tend toward the old and traditional, often with religious associations. The collection of names like Caleb, Susan, Robert, Beatrice and Tobias has the effect of linking Abnegation to past cultures of simplicity and self-denial, like American Puritanism.
The lead character names, Beatrice and Tobias, appear to be particularly careful and canny choices. Roth managed to find two familiar, old-fashioned names with long vowel sounds that have been largely overlooked in the recent stampede toward such names. (Neither ranks in the current top 500 for boys or girls.) That makes the characters sound individual, even while fitting naturally into the book's name landscape. In the case of Beatrice, Roth goes a step further. The character is known as Tris, a nickname that could have a transformative effect on the real-world name Beatrice.
The extent of Divergent's cultural reach will hinge on a successful film adaptation. That's no sure thing; think of how a limp movie stalled "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." But if the film fulfills the books' promise, expect to see more Beatrices called Tris, and Tobiases not called Toby, by 2014.