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.
Social structure and knowledge
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. 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.
Some reviews criticize the 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 effects 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 literacy 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".
Violence and fear
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 doesn't 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 novels 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."