Christine Wesley: Literary Alchemy in ‘Divergent’ — Nigredo

A Guest Post, the first of three on Divergent and literary alchemy, by Christine Wesley. Enjoy!

One Choice Can Change You: Divergent as Nigredo

Having devoured Divergent and Insurgent over the past week, I could not help but ponder what influence, if any, the literary alchemy of the Harry Potter books, of which Veronica Roth is an admitted fan, imparted on the writing of her work. Given the release of the first “Divergent” teaser trailer and the Fandango Behind-the-Scenes featurette last week, and the upcoming launch of Allegiant in October [editor: not to mention the The Transfer story coming out Tuesday and The World of Divergent on 22 September…], the time seems as ripe as any for a thorough unpacking of the literary alchemy undergirding Divergent and Insurgent (Significant props to Jenna’s first post and to Arabella over at the Hog’s Head for her early analysis on this topic).

On the surface, the theory that Divergent operates as the nigredo installment of Tris’s story—the crucible reducing her to her most essential understanding—seemed to apply: well over 80 percent of the narrative unfolds in the shadowy depths of the Dauntless compound’s system of caves and tunnels, with the entry point a seven-story drop into darkness. And of course, Dauntless faction members and initiates wear black.

But for Divergent to resonate on an alchemical level, it must first function as one part of a tightly woven three-act narrative. Plenty of tripartite book series earn the classification of “trilogy,” but while the individual books share settings or characters, each installment may not necessarily flow together as a singular, uninterrupted narrative. Considering that Insurgent begins at almost the second Divergent concluded, I think it is safe to say that Roth intends for her trilogy to operate as one story. (To find more evidence of this, check out her weblog). Secondly, for Divergent to unspool as a narrative of distillation, Insurgent’s crises must influence Tris’s development in a washing, purifying capacity. Part 2 of this post will demonstrate how Insurgent’s structure fulfills that requirement, and Part 3 will attempt to predict how Roth’s alchemical framework might support the plot of Allegiant.

But first, Divergent as alchemical nigredo —

Over the course of Divergent’s narrative, Tris undergoes a series of physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges, reducing her to an essential understanding of bravey—that selflessness and courage share more similarities than differences. Overall, I think that is Roth’s ultimate goal for Tris’s character, what Tobias already understands and manifests in his back tattoo: that no one virtue supersedes another, and it is in fact necessary to develop each equally in the process of becoming a fully mature adult.

It’s pretty evident just from the book’s jacket—gray, gloomy, the fiery symbol emblazoned over the skyline—that Divergent fulfills the requirement of nigredo for Tris Pior’s story. Even before Tris descends into the pits of Dauntless initiation, Roth prepares her heroine for a process of reduction: the book opens within the gray, leaden, concrete-bound walls of Abnegation self-denial. As her mother trims her hair, Beatrice, caught staring at her reflection in the mirror (behavior the Abnegation frown upon, deeming it to be self-indulgent), laments that she will never be “good enough” to remain in the faction of her birth. “I am not enough,” she mourns. “I am selfish.”

Divergent also possesses an internal alchemical framework; Beatrice launches into the process of distillation and putrefaction as the first Dauntless initiate to jump into the Pit. When she meets Four, she further reduces herself in the shortening of her name: “Beatrice” is now “Tris.” Stage 1 of Dauntless initiation hones its neophytes’ physical strength. If there was ever a clearer, more brutal depiction of a nigredo’s “nadir” in YA fiction, surely Peter’s beating Tris to a pulp tops the list. Following Tris’s completion of Stage 1 (in which she is ranked a fair but unremarkable 6th place), Tris has three ravens tattooed over her heart—the black birds yet another nod to the alchemical engine driving her transformation.

In Stage 2 of Dauntless initiation, Tris faces fear simulations meant to spur her to conquer emotional weaknesses. The blackbirds return. Crows swarm Tris, pecking and clawing her until she presses her body into the earth, defeated. In the second fear simulation, however, Tris may be turning a corner; she stands in a glass tank that fills with water, threatening to drown her. Trying to find a way to save herself, Tris discovers that she is able to wrest control over the simulation, and forces the glass to break—her Divergence manifests as a unique ability to recognize the “real” world from the dream-world of the fear simulation.

When Four refuses to answer her questions about her special ability, Tris instead seeks out answers from Tori, the tattoo artist who first informed Tris of her Divergence. Tori has a river inked into her right arm, another touchstone to the characters entering the cleansing, purifying phase of Divergent’s albedo. Tris learns that Tori and her brother Georgie, also a Divergent, transferred from Erudite: the faction whose symbol in the Choosing Ceremony basin was water.

By the end of Stage 2, due to her remarkable ability to defeat the fear simulations, Tris ranks number one among her class of initiates. That night, on her way to the water fountain for a drink, Peter, Drew, and Al abduct Tris and attempt to throw her into the Dauntless compound’s underground river, “the chasm”—a near death and symbolic baptism. Four saves Tris in the knick of time. After her rescue, she describes her anger toward her attackers as “replacing my blood with bitter water… filling me, consuming me.”

The chasm recurs as a setting for Tris’s spiritual cleansing: following her attempted murder, Al’s body is discovered and dragged from the river, him apparently having committed suicide. Eric and other Dauntless uphold Al’s death as heroic, but Tris begins to question her chosen faction and the meaning of true bravery—the Abnegation consider suicide to be cowardly and selfish. After Four takes Tris through his fear landscape and reveals to her his name—Tobias—the symbolic baptism comes to fruition as the two share a kiss amongst rushing waters.

Tris then proceeds to Stage 3 of initiation, the fear landscape, meant to challenge her physically, emotionally, and mentally— and the ushering in of Divergent’s rubedo. She learns she possesses seven fears, a number of perfection and completion, and fewer fears than any other initiate in her class (the least of all the Dauntless, except for Tobias’s four), and the Dauntless leaders accordingly rank her number one over her peers.

Having been fully accepted into her faction, Tris and Tobias share an intimate, though sexless, union—the alchemical wedding. Tobias pulls up his shirt to reveal a back covered in tattoos, one for each of the factions. The Dauntless flames catch Tris’s eye before the other symbols, and her face flushes “hot.”

Divergent wraps up with a veritable bloodbath of a rubedo: Tris’s bleeding shoulder wound, the “crimson” staining her mother’s shirt as she dies, the “violent red” Tris sees when she shuts her eyes. After a descent underground into the Pit, Tris ascends to the top floor of Dauntless HQ, where a simulation-controlled Tobias nearly kills her. In her willingness to allow her lover to shoot her, Tris finally concludes that selflessness and bravery are, essentially, the same virtue transformed by action. And as she recognizes this about herself, the revelation spawns a mirrored moment of recognition in her male Divergent counterpart. Tobias awakens from his slumber (a nice reversal of gender roles to ice the cake), the two share a kiss, and they flee the city toward the Amity compound.

Tris emerges an alchemical orphan, armed with her parents’ deaths (Harry Potter, anyone?) as examples of loving sacrifice. She also carries with her the guilt of killing an innocent, her friend Will. In the next book, Insurgent, Tris undergoes a sequence of watery purifications in her attempt to overcome this guilt, to be addressed in Part 2 of this analysis.

Stay Tuned! Tomorrow, the Albedo of Insurgent; until then (and after, of course), your comments and corrections are welcome.


  1. Louise M. Freeman says

    A wonderful essay and I look forward to the follow-ups!

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