An immediate national bestseller, Station Eleven is a contemporary dystopia by Emily St. John Mandel. After a flu pandemic destroys 99% of the world’s population, most of the remnant live in small survival-focused communities. But not all. The Traveling Symphony travels around the Midwestern United States performing classical music and Shakespeare plays. Because “Survival is insufficient.” The real magic of this book is in its presentation of the truth that art and beauty and culture are worth preserving even in the darkest of times.
Art and Beauty Matter
What made this book memorable was the fundamental truth that even in extreme circumstances, beauty and truth shine through. The post-pandemic world depicted in Station Eleven is bleak, ruthless, and uncivilized. In stark contrast to the overall darkness of a collapsed world, the truth and beauty in Shakespeare and classical symphonies shine forth and touch the hearts of everyone who hears the Traveling Symphony’s performances.
Likewise, the beauty of friendships and family are a powerful theme in Station Eleven. This is where we’ll find happiness in a dystopian world, the novel teaches, whether it’s siblings saving each other during the early days of the pandemic, loyal friends risking their lives for each other, or simply a father baking bread for his children.
But Goodness Should Also Matter
And here’s where the book loses its moral compass. Starting with a glitteringly beautiful premise about beauty and truth redeeming a dark world, Station Eleven loses its way in the moral morass of twenty-first century subjectivism and social agendas.
The biggest problem is the depiction of religion as a path to insanity and evil. The “Prophet” is a mentally unbalanced polygamist and killer who hunts the Traveling Symphony. This Bible-quoting villain is Station Eleven‘s one and only religious character or reference point.
On the other hand, all the “good” characters live according to their own moral systems- which are predictably modern and anti-traditional morality. The members of the Traveling Symphony engage in various extra-marital relationships. There’s a homosexual character who keeps bemoaning his dead boyfriend, which is so unnecessary to the plot and character the “normalizing” agenda just screams through.
Suicide is held up as an acceptable alternative to living in a difficult world. A disabled character kills himself to make it easier for his brother to survive.
Should I Read It?
Maybe. For all it’s problems, Station Eleven is a well-plotted and thought-provoking story. There’s a lot of shaky morality, but I will give the author credit for refraining from including any sex scenes whatsoever. That’s actually pretty unusual for a contemporary book in this genre.
If you’re wondering about violence: yes, there’s some violence. Members of the Traveling Symphony defend themselves against the Prophet’s men on a few occasions. Somewhat graphic descriptions of wounds, but on the positive side a main character talks about the gravity of killing, how it haunts you forever, how awful if it has to be done even in self-defense.
If you are an adult who enjoy dystopias and you don’t mind sifting through the author’s anti-religious views, you may find Station Eleven worth the time and even moving. But I definitely do not recommend this book for teens or those who are just looking for a “good, clean book.”
If you’re going for it, here’s a link to buy it through my affiliate link: Station Eleven
With a memorable first line, Ray Bradbury introduces his classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. In a world where books are forbidden and houses are fireproof, “firemen” prowl the streets and pump fire into any homes where books remain. But fireman Guy Montag finds an open book one day and sees the words “Once upon a time…” And his life begins to change.
Fahrenheit 451 is timely
For a book written three quarters of a century ago, Bradbury’s novel rings eerily true in our current day. Bradbury imagined a world where people were isolated by earbuds, entertainment devices, and a constant stream of entertainment. Looking at you 21st century teens- and adults!
Bradbury portrays a society which chose to abolish books because they made people uncomfortable. His imagined society began by censoring then turned to burning. Instead of books while rile people up, his world pushes pleasure and forgetfulness. These are the two remedies his world chose to the problem of pain and unhappiness.
Did it work? Not at all. In the opening pages fireman Guy Montag shows us a world where suicide is so common it’s become the norm. It’s socially acceptable for teens to drive at high speeds in an attempt to kill others or themselves. No one notices- or remembers- when their neighbor dies.
The Power of History and Education
Bradbury had a powerful message that his generation didn’t heed: whoever controls the education of the young and historical narrative controls the future. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 no one knows what is true or false because they have lost the ability to remember much of anything themselves and have no written records to help them. Guy Montag can’t even remember how he met his wife a decade ago. He is amazed when someone tells him that firemen haven’t always set fires but used to put them out.
But there’s hope. Guy’s life is changed when he meets two outliers. First, an old professor who has secreted away books both physically and in his memory. Then, a teenage girl who is awake to the beauty of nature and open to learning from the memories of her ancient uncle. Awakened himself, Guy can’t unsee the disorder of the world he lives in. He sets out to set a new kind of fire and wake up those around him.
A Warning and a Hope
Fahrenheit 451 is a warning. But it’s also a hopeful book. Guy finds other rebels and learns their plan to preserve the knowledge of the world in memory and oral recitation until people are ready to hear wisdom again. Like the monks in ancient times, Guy joins the ranks of the preservers of ancient wisdom.
Older Teens Should Read It
Because this book is thought-provoking and hopeful, it’s perfect for high schoolers. Any content? Well, it’s wonderfully clean from all sexual content. Bradbury says the romantic interest is “a man falling in love with books.” There’s a few instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain by characters in moments of crisis, though these could also be interpreted as genuine cries for help.
The most important thing for parents is to make sure their kids are mature enough for the stark despair of the early chapters where one suicide attempt is dwelt on in detail. There’s also some violence later including one man setting another on fire and watching him burn, described in some detail.
Despite these caveats, I think most older high schoolers will appreciate and take away a lot from this book! The symbolism is very rich and rewarding to track down. (Why the salamander? Why the snake? Why the hearth?)
But Also Adults
But if you’re an adult who hasn’t read it yet, Fahrenheit 451 is worth the time even for busy moms! It’s short: less than 200 pages. It’s fast-paced. And it’ll make you think! My moms book club really enjoyed our discussion on this.
The last couple weeks I’ve been deep in the philosophy of Ayn Rand as I submerged myself in Atlas Shrugged until late in the night. And I can’t deny I enjoyed this iconic novel. Despite totaling over 1000 pages, Atlas Shrugged is surprisingly readable, especially when you consider that is fundamentally an apologia for Rand’s philosophy: objectivism. I found that I agreed with more of Rand’s ideas than I expected, but her philosophy as a whole is fundamentally incompatible with Catholicism. That means you as the parent have some critical thinking to do about whether this book is appropriate for your teens.
A Myth Retold
The title Atlas Shrugged points the reader to the Greek myth of Atlas, the titan who was sentenced to forever hold the world up on his shoulders. Rand equates the brilliant businessmen who produce the ideas and money that keeps the economy growing with Atlas: the few carrying the weight of a whole world on their shoulders. In Atlas Shrugged, one genius named John Galt decides to teach the ungrateful parasites of the world a lesson by convincing all the brilliant businessman and capable workers to go on strike. The world collapses without them. They come back and remake the world according to Rand’s Objectivism.
Objectivism and “objectivism”
So what is Objectivism? Well, traditionally the term “objectivism” was used as the opposite of “subjectivism” in philosophy. Aristotelian metaphysics states that an individual possesses life independent of his or her mind whereas Hume’s school of thought is that a being is only real as the mental presence which acquires our representation of it. Rand, and Catholicism, follow Aristotle’s metaphysics and affirm that a being has existence independent of its mind.
Put more simply, Aristotelian metaphysics argues for an objective reality that exists outside the mind and that the mind can understand.
So far we agree.
But Rand took the term Objectivism and used it in a more all-encompassing sense to describe her philosophy, which applies to both the political and economic realm and the moral realm.
Atlas Shrugged and Politics Today
What I really appreciate about Atlas Shrugged is the prescience Rand shows about Communism and its pitfalls. If Rand’s philosophy strays too far towards egoism, Communism goes to the other extreme.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand traces the inevitable path of a world where private property is abolished, merit unvalued, and excellence frowned upon. In one chilling section, she describes a factory of several thousand workers who decide to abolish salaries and instead vote to distribute the money based on “needs.” Of course, the result is that no one has motivation to work hard, and everyone has motivation to try to be the neediest and most pitiful. The factory soon stops making a profit, the workers hate each other, and the town faces starvation.
In the setting of Atlas Shrugged, America is the last capitalist society; the rest of the countries are communist in government. The American government demands that the businessman surrender their profits to send huge sums of money to the starving Communist countries. Higher and higher taxes are placed on Americans to feed the rest of the world. Even within America, increasing tax burdens are placed on the producers- the workers- in order to support an ever growing welfare state. In response, the American workers begin to stop trying to earn more than the basis for survival since the rest of their money will be taken anyway. When the big businessmen follow suit and stop producing, the economy collapses and the entire world is plunged into a primeval darkness both literally and figuratively.
Atlas Shrugged was written in 1957.
When it comes to politics and economics, Atlas Shrugged has a message America might need to hear today. But when it comes to Rand’s applications of her economic philosophy to morality, there are some parts of Rand’s Objectivism we just can’t accept as Catholics.
Rand’s Objectivism and Morality
As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of human life. In Objectivism, Rand argues that there is no intrinsic value in human life. What determines and bestows value to a life is the free choice to think and choose values. For Rand, survival is achieved by choosing to pursue one’s own self-interests exclusively. Selfishness is her ultimate virtue, and altruism her ultimate vice.
Sacrifice is the ultimate altruism, so of course Rand detests it with a passion.
Rand and Religion
Now, as I read Atlas Shrugged, I realized that Rand valued many traditional virtues greatly: justice, temperance, honesty, prudence, and even humility in its true sense of knowing one’s own worth. But she insists that all of these virtues are simply part of man’s battle for survival: his struggle to fulfill his own natural purpose, independent of anyone else.
I think she misunderstood religion, and especially Catholicism. There’s a great Fulton Sheen Quote: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” Rand must have been one of those who misunderstood Religion.
Some of what she hates is a straw man. She claims that religion tells us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, whereas Catholic commentary on Mark 12:31 always emphasizes that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first love and care for yourself.
She also equates religion with an excuse for people to demand what they haven’t earned in the name of charity. Of course, in its true sense, charity has to be a gift freely given: not something ever demanded as a right. (Note that here as in many places, I noticed parallels with the current state of our country where the government demands taxpayer dollars be given to “development” in other countries without our volition.)
For Rand, one of the greatest sins is a man using someone else’s pity as a weapon to manipulate them. Interestingly, in The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis comes down on this particular sin with a vengeance also. Now, a discussion between Rand and Lewis: that would have been worth hearing!
Original Sin is another huge stumbling block for Rand. She sees it as a cop out: a free pass on which to blame all our imperfections. In her view, man is born able to think clearly but begins to doubt his own mind and judgment as he submits his mind to others’ rules. This may be Rand’s view of the ultimate sin: to be untrue to our own idea of what is right.
Sound a little bit like the Catholic idea of never going against your conscience? It does to me. Of course in the Catholic view of conscience, a conscience must be formed correctly in order to be trustworthy.
There may be more common ground than Rand realized in her fundamental ideas and Catholic social teaching and beliefs. But unfortunately, in Atlas Shrugged, her conclusions are vehemently anti-religion, anti-God, and anti-charity.
Rand and Death
In Atlas Shrugged, the term “death” refers to a failure to live. Living, of course, refers to exercising one’s capacity to think and reason for Rand. So “death” in Atlas Shrugged refers to men who refuse to use their capacity to think. She describes such men as “no longer living.”
What exactly Rand thought about death in the sense of the separation of mind and body I wasn’t able to figure out from Atlas Shrugged. I don’t see how her philosophy encompasses this inevitable eventuality, unless perhaps she believed that there was nothing after death. This latter surmise is a probability given her hostility to Christian religion with its emphasis on a heavenly reward.
But Blaise Pascal’s classic wager comes to mind as I consider Rand’s philosophy: is the wager that there is nothing after death worth whatever pleasure we can wring from this world? Or is sticking with religion worth it given the unnerving possibility that it might be true?
Atlas Shrugged and Teens
Should teens read Atlas Shrugged? Philosophy aside, what else would parents want to consider about this book? The language is clean, and there is no graphic violence. However, there’s quite a lot of sexual content. One of the protagonists, Dagny, punctuates the book with her sexual relationships with 3 different men. Promiscuity is completely acceptable in Rand’s philosophy. (I actually found this surprising given the easily observable benefits of stable families to the individuals of the family.) Dagny’s sexual encounters are described quite sensually and take up a lot of pages. There’s also a lot of rhetoric about sex with multiple people not being a betrayal or immoral.
As far as the philosophical aspects of Rand’s Objectivism, I think that it’s too dense for most teens to sift through without guidance. As often happens, there’s enough true premises included that it’s quite difficult to determine where exactly the logical flaws are in Rand’s arguments. To really understand and refute the philosophy, a teen would need a solid grounding in metaphysics, ethics, and more.
Given the overt sexual content and hefty dose of flawed philosophy, I don’t recommend this even for older teens unless the parent is involved and helping unpack this dense and thought-provoking story.
By request, I conclude my series of reviews of popular teen dystopian series with my thoughts on Divergent. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is one of the most popular in this genre, probably second only to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”. Like Hunger Games, Divergent features a strong female protagonist, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who tells the story in the first person present. And like Hunger Games, Divergent raises questions about societal norms, fascism, and what a good person is to do when confronted with an unjust government. Like Hunger Games, there are certainly positive messages to take away from reading the series, but the question is: do the positives outweigh the violence and negative messages?
THE OVERALL STORYLINE
Divergent, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to a dystopian Chicago which is divided into five factions, each of whom is obsessively fixated on one virtue. Abnegation values self denial, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values bravery, Erudite values knowledge, and Amity values kindness. Usually a person has an aptitude for one faction, but a few special Divergents have aptitudes for multiple factions. At 16, a teenager has one choice to decide which faction to join, and Beatrice “Tris” Prior chooses Dauntless. Divergent follows Tris through the initiation process, then stars her and her boyfriend Tobias “Four” stopping an attempt by the Erudite to seize control of the city.
Book two, Insurgent, describes Tris’ attempts to figure out what is beyond the fence which encloses Chicago. With the help of a few unlikely allies, she reveals hidden Erudite footage about the origin and mission of the city: to produce a primarily divergent population which can help the outside world.
The final book, Allegiant, reveals Tris, Four, and others leaving Chicago and entering the outside world. There, they learn that Chicago is actually an experiment by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare to determine if living in factions can help return damaged DNA to its original “pure” form. The series concludes with Tris sacrificing her life to wipe the memory of the scientists at the Bureau so that the genetically damaged will be regarded as equal human beings thenceforth.
Overall, it’s an exciting, fast-paced series with a compelling, charismatic first-person narration style. Its popularity is easily understood. But beneath the swift-moving story line there are a host of issues which parents may find concerning.
Hunger Games took a lot of bad press for violence, but honestly I found Divergent much more consistently violent. Teenagers intentionally harm other teenagers, such as one occasion where a sixteen year old sticks a butter knife into a rival’s eyes. There is an inordinate amount of hazing in the first book, both instructor on student and student to student. There are massacres, and there are executions which involve shooting the wrongdoer in the head. There is a scene where a group of students attempt to sexually molest and then murder Tris.
Even more alarming to me is the amount of violence Tris herself commits willingly. At least in Hunger Games Katniss mostly committed violence under duress. Tris chooses Dauntless as her faction because she craves the danger and adrenaline rushes, but quickly decides that if it takes hurting others to excel, she’s willing to fight her way to the top. She scorns her classmate who refuses to beat others senseless to improve his rankings. In contrast, Tris herself continues kicking a girl who has bullied her long after she’s beaten, and then says she doesn’t feel guilty at all. Tris also repeatedly has to shoot her family in the head to escape her fear landscape, a visual I had a hard time shaking.
Divergent is simply awful when it comes to setting an example of a chaste relationship to teens. The protagonists, Tris and Four, are forever ending up making out in bed together, sometimes scantily clothed. There are no explicit sex scenes, but a lot of talk about wanting to have sex, descriptions of taking off clothes, hands under clothes, and sleeping together. There is also a disturbing theme about using each other and kissing or sex to forget problems temporarily and avoid addressing relationship issues. Tris is forever saying things like, “I press my mouth to his, because I know that kissing him will distract me from everything.” Are these messages about what is appropriate between teenagers and using one another what we want to teach our teenagers?
Having tattoos is apparently an integral part of the Dauntless identity, which is obviously lauded since Tris and Four choose it. Parents should realize that in Divergent, tattoos are normalized as a legitimate way of immortalizing a memory. Tris gets several to mark important events and persons in her life. There is also an interesting motif about enjoying the pain involved in getting a tattoo. For example, Four describes getting his first tattoo: “It was agonizing. I relished every second of it.”
The drugs in Divergent are a series of serums which achieve different results: memory erasing serums, peace serums, death serums, fear-inducing serums, and so on. The way these drugs are used is mostly by injection, and some characters use them in ways alarmingly similar to real life drug use. The Dauntless use a fear-inducing serum to cause a hallucination of one’s worst fears: a fear landscape. Four obsessively injects himself and goes through his fear landscape, and even injects Tris so she can “journey” with him. The Amity inject a peace inducing serum to send troublemakers into hippy happiness again. The Amity also bake this peace drug into their bread so that their entire community “feels peaceful” constantly. I find all this drug use normalization concerning in a novel aimed at teens.
Another normalizing attempt in the series is a couple of completely unnecessary plugs for homosexual relationships. One of Tris and Four’s friends, Lynn, confesses on her death bed to “really loving” her friend Marlene. Another minor character, a grown man named Amar, confesses to having had a crush on Four when he was a minor. However, he is described as being over that and now being in a relationship with another minor character, George. There are repeated descriptions of Amar and George hugging and sharing affection.
Another extremely disquieting theme in Divergent is that lying is not a big deal. From the beginning, Tris declare she could never belong in Candor because she lies easily and often. She does not seem to see this as a negative at all. She describes herself at one point: “I don’t know when I became so good at acting, but I guess it’s not that different from lying which I have always had a talent for.” Tris also lies to Four repeatedly, even premeditated lies. For example, in an emotional scene in Insurgent Four begs her not to sacrifice her life by going to Erudite headquarters. She knows she is going to go anyway, but looks him in the eyes and promises not to go, then thinks: “This lie- this lie is the worst I have ever told. I will not be able to take it back.” Additionally, many of Tris and Four’s plans are contingent on lying convincingly. Tris can even resist the “truth serum” and gets herself out of trouble multiple times by lying while under its influence.
ENDS JUSTIFYING MEANS
The reason Tris and Four lie frequently is that they believe the ends justifies the means. Divergent gives lip service to the belief that ends do not justify means insofar as Tris states that it is wrong to sacrifice the lives of human beings for the purpose of genetic cleansing. But in practice, Tris and Four often lie and even kill to achieve their goals. Four explains at one point in Allegiant that for his father, his mother, and sometimes himself, “the end of a thing justifies the means of getting there.” For Tris, it doesn’t even have to be a noble means. She will lie to save herself embarrassment or inconvenience.
Unlike Hunger Games, where God and religion are absolutely ignored, Divergent flirts with the idea of God and religion having some meaning, at least for some people. Praying and talking about God and heaven is something only the Abnegation do in Divergent. I consider this relegation of God and prayer to being a belief specific to a particular Faction an extremely subtle way of dismissing religion.
Tris herself has little to say on the subject of religion. She is basically an agnostic, treating all things religious with ambivalence. She is generally uncertain about the existence of any afterlife. But when faced with imminent death in Insurgent, she states that she does not believe that anything she does or doesn’t do will make an impact on her eternal future, if there is one. “I don’t believe that what comes after depends on anything I do at all.”
PHILOSOPHY OF VIRTUE
At first, I was excited that Divergent was raising questions about what it means to have various virtues. But by the end of the series, I realized that the conclusions Roth leaves the reader with regarding specific virtues and how virtues relate to one another are quite problematic.
I believe one fundamental issue in Divergent is a lack of understanding of what a virtue actually is. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines virtue as a disposition to act rightly, and as a mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency. This simple yet powerful definition is what Roth was clearly lacking when she wrote the Divergent series. She often describes an excess as the virtue. For example, the Abnegation are supposed to be selfless, which Roth describes at times as a complete unwillingness to ever accept help. Unwillingness to accept help is a form of pride, not a virtue. Similarly, she describes the Dauntless bravery in terms of recklessness or rashness, which are actually vices directly opposed to the virtue of courage. These muddied examples of virtue are concerning in a teen novel since many teens are not going to have the ethics background to recognize the false understanding of virtue shown in Divergent.
Another part of Aristotle’s definition of a virtue is that the virtues do not exist in isolation; they are facets of a virtuous person. Divergent definitely treats the virtues as separate goals to pursue, and even vacillates on the question of whether different virtues are actually opposed to each other. Four is more correct than Tris when it comes to this question, telling her in the first book that “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” But Tris disagrees, saying: “It doesn’t work that way. One bad thing goes away, and another bad thing replaces it. I traded cowardice for cruelty.” She honestly believes that one person cannot have two virtues.
I hoped that by the end of the series, Tris and Four would espouse a more accurate understanding of virtue, but the last book, Allegiant, leaves the reader with the message, “Every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling.” I do not accuse Roth of intentionally confusing teenagers about the nature of virtue, but I think she lacks a coherent, correct understanding of virtue. Unfortunately, this translates into potentially dangerous misconceptions about virtue in impressionable readers.
Considering the sexual content, violence, lies, agendas, and shaky philosophy, I advise not having your teenagers read Divergent. In case you’re still unsure, let’s talk about the ending of the series.
Spoiler here, but Tris dies near the end of Allegiant, so the trilogy ends with a devastated Four receiving life advice from Tris’ best friend Christina. The important take away for teenagers here from the surviving main characters? “Sometimes life really sucks. But you know what I’m holding on for? … The moments that don’t suck. The trick is to notice them when they come around.”
Okay, I will admit there is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. But honestly, I found it sort of depressing. The best we can do is hold out for the moments in life that don’t suck? Really?
How about seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful? How about living with passion and purpose? How about seeking all the virtues and becoming the best version of yourself? How about striving to see each moment as a gift, each suffering as a kiss, each joy as a taste of heaven?