“There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.
I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.
When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot. I note how calm she looks and how focused she is. She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself. I can’t say the same myself.”
Divergent, by Veronica Roth
The novel Divergent opens with the image of a mirror, emphasizing its singularity and unique existence as well as elevating it from just a common household object. The next thing we learn is that its use is restricted and regulated and that it can only be used on the “second day of every third month”. There is a certain absurdity to it, and of course, for such a rule to exist, some form of systematic control must be present in the world of the narrator. A clue like this usually leads us to deduce that it is a dystopian society dominated by a rigid governmental regime–at least, for the people who are familiar with the genre, or for people who have read Hunger Games, since Divergent is also a Young Adult novel.
The subsequent hair-cutting is apparently also regulated to be done at a certain date, and the fact that it is done by a family member suggests that the family (or the society, or “faction” that they belong to) is self-reliant or luxury either isn’t an option or isn’t preferred. The second paragraph reveals to us the race of the narrator. She is blond, so most likely she is of Caucasian descent. The mother then twists her hair into a knot, a simple, unadorned and practical kind of hairstyle that further indicates the lack of luxury, or vanity.
The third paragraph also shows that the narrator, and the protagonist, is conflicted about herself–which we will learn later is significant since she must choose which faction she will belong to, which will determine the rest of her life. To do this, she must know herself, know what she wants, but she doesn’t. The mirror, then, may serve as a symbolic device that parallels the narrator’s current situation–in which she must examine herself in clarity and choose. The hair-cutting, also, being a common trope for “change”–adds to this.
While I may be overly keen on symbolism (I reckon the regular readers probably won’t care to consider their implications), I do believe the symbolic images will resonate with us subconsciously. I was a bit unclear about her mother, however. “She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself.” What does that mean? Does it mean she mentally retreats into herself and does not interact with the ones around her? Is she emotionally withdrawn and distant? That was the feeling I got when I first read that sentence. It wasn’t until later that I continued reading I found out that “losing herself” means being “selfless”, the defining quality of her faction, “Abnegation”. The narrator’s internal conflict, then, is actually referring to her doubts to her own nature. Does she belong to Abnegation or not?
But nevertheless. Not knowing what “losing herself” meant drove me to read further. If her mother is emotionally distant, I want to find out why. In the back of my head, I reasoned that she must be this way because of the “system”. I wanted to find out what the system was. So I kept reading. Overall I find this opening highly effective (I’m already fifty something pages in), although it does strongly remind me of the opening chapter of Hunger Games–probably because it is the same genre, and both openings portray similar situations: the emotional uncertainty and predicament as the narrator faces the imminent changes in life–changes brought by the “system”. The three paragraphs establish already a great sense of world, present a strong hook and urge the readers to read on.
Perosnally, I’m a big fan of the dystopian genre. I would continue reading just out of sheer interest. However, I do think the hook in this particular beginning is the feelings of uncertainty that allows you to identify with the narrator, a well-established sense of world, as well as the underlying symbolic meanings achieved by both the mirror and hair-cutting. Most importantly, it prompts the question: what is the narrator uncertain about? Ultimately, it is the questioning and the desire to find out what happens next that reels in the reader’s attention. I took the bait–so I declare this fishing mission successful.
(Sorry. I just really wanted to use that fishing reference in there. Wooooot.)