Christine Wesley: Literary Alchemy in ‘Insurgent’ — Albedo

This is Part 2 of a series of three Guest Posts by Christine Wesley on the Literary Alchemy of Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. Click here for Part 1: On Divergent as Series Nigredo.

One Choice Can Destroy You: Insurgent as Albedo

In the first post of this alchemical exploration, we posed the following question: if Book One of the Beatrice Prior novels bears significant nigredo hallmarks of an alchemical work, does Insurgent’s artistry satisfy the requirements of the work’s albedo?

In Divergent, Tris learned not only to overcome fear, but also recognize that two parts of her tripartite Divergence—courage and selflessness—when working in tandem, enable her to achieve heroic status. But her achievement comes at a sobering cost: her parents are dead, having sacrificed themselves to save her, and she carries the guilt of killing her friend Will while he was subject to Erudite’s mind-controlling simulation. If Tris had to choose between bravery and meekness in Divergent, in its sequel she grapples with prioritizing truth (Candor) over willful ignorance in the service of peace (Amity).

More after the jump!

Truth and the recognition of reality are powerful forces in the simulation-fraught world of Insurgent: Tobias, remarking on the Amity’s denial of events unfolding in the city, says, “Sometimes people just want to be happy, even if it’s not real.” Tris’s remorse over Will’s death motivates her to withhold this information and its emotional burden from her boyfriend, creating crippling doubt and suspicion that plague their relationship until the book’s resolution. Almost everything that drives Tris’s reckless decisions originates in a desire to remove this weight from her heart. We also observe Tris wrestling with her spirituality, wondering what it means to forgive, the nature of grace, and the possibility of peace after death.

As an albedo novel, Insurgent sets out to cleanse Tris of her moral failings; imagery of water and whiteness bind the events of the novel together like a silver ribbon. The early chapters of Book Two feature a key scene where Tris, in her search for truth, corners Tobias’s father Marcus in the Amity water pumphouse. As she pumps the former Abnegation leader (sorry) for information he refuses to provide, Tris watches gray water sluice through clear pipes and emerge, purified, from the filter. She drinks various healing tonics in her time with the Amity, and when she receives a too-high dose of Peace Serum, Tobias dubs her drugged behavior as “lunatic,” a nod to the celestial body that governs the tides. The roots of the great tree in the Amity greenhouse rest in pools of water rather than in earth.

When Tris and Tobias relocate to Candor headquarters and are forced under Truth serum to divulge their deepest-held secrets, Tris contemplates fighting the serum, but wonders if might be “better for the people I love if I come clean.” Rain taps frequently against the windows of the Candor headquarters, and Roth often ties Tris’s moments of greatest self-doubt to a strong desire to bathe: the first night in the Amity compound following her parents’ deaths; after learning that Tobias withheld his mother’s existence as the Factionless leader; and in her white-walled jail cell at Erudite headquarters.

In regard to Insurgent’s internal nigredo, as Tris walks into the Amity apple orchard, she smells “wet earth,” a clue that she now enters the watery second cycle of her spirit’s putrefaction. Tris wears her father’s gray Abnegation shirt, reluctant to change. Amity’s bright red and yellow clothing repulse her, and she chooses the darkest, dullest shades she can find to wear. In an echo back to her mother trimming her hair in the first pages of Divergent, and another example of her reduction, Tris cuts her long locks to a chin-length bob. When the Erudite and Dauntless traitors arrive to search the Amity compound, Tris likens her inability to feign Amity’s jollity as a “leaden” feeling. After Tris and her friends flee the Amity compound and seek refuge at a Factionless safe house, Tris notes how the windows are so “thick with grime” that they admit almost no light, and she feels at home in the darkness, so like that of Dauntless’s caverns.

Tris experiences various emotional troughs during Insurgent’s nigredo, but perhaps the lowest moment occurs after Marlene, under the influence of an Erudite simulation, leaps from the roof of Dauntless headquarters to her death. Afterward, Christina forgives Tris for shooting Will in a teary reconciliation, a hint that Insurgent’s albedo is close at hand. In order to prevent more deaths, Tris determines to surrender to the Erudite, though she knows it may permanently destroy her relationship with Tobias.

At the Erudite ivory tower, a series of brutal simulations purify Tris of her death wish, but they also force her to submit to her Erudite curiosity. The night she learns her execution is to follow the next morning, Tris offers Peter forgiveness even though he has done nothing to deserve it. In response, Peter saves Tris at the brink of her execution, then smuggles her and Tobias (who’d also come to her rescue) out of the building via the trash incinerator—out of water, into fire.

In perhaps one of the most beautiful reunion scenes I’ve read, Insurgent’s albedo culminates in a moment of humility and submission: Tobias washes Tris’s feet, dirty and bloodied by a barefooted flight from Erudite headquarters—an echo of Christ washing his disciple’s feet the night before Judas’s betrayal. If Divergent’s alchemical wedding represented a physical (though chaste) union, Tris and Tobias’s humble exchange of “I love you” signify a spiritual mingling. The water of the tub turns pink with Tris’s blood, ushering in Book Two’s rubedo.

The next day Tris wanders into Abnegation’s headquarters in the “orange” light of sunset—a liminal time; a choice-making time. Marcus informs Tris that Erudite holds information critical to revealing the truth of the five factions’ isolation inside the fence—knowledge that, should the Dauntless and Factionless follow through in attacking Erudite, will be lost. Tris knows that trusting Marcus will mean turning her back on Tobias, will mean refusing the possibility of ignorant bliss with her lover. As Tris walks back from her meeting with Marcus, she encounters bowls of burning coals, their fires another nod the book’s final alchemical turn.  

Tris and Christina, wearing bright Amity red and yellow, return to the compound of the peace-loving faction to seek aid in infiltrating Erudite headquarters. The young women encounter Johanna Reyes, Amity’s tacitly acknowledged leader, in a greenhouse filled with mist and moonlight. At Tris’s behest, Johannah sacrifices her neutrality and pledges to lead a group of Amity into the city as peacekeepers in the struggle between Erudite/Dauntless traitors and the Factionless/Dauntless alliance.

In a scene reminiscent of Harry’s conflict of will with the Mirror of Erised to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, Tris battles with a simulation-created doppelganger in the antechamber to Jeanine’s laboratory. Tris must also shoot an imaginary Will for the second time, completing the circle by putting to death her rebellious will, thereby regaining her potency as a warrior (see what Roth did there?).

To reinforce the closing of the albedo book and the ushering in of rubedo installment Allegiant, the ivory halls of Erudite are put to the flame, the knowledge they contain burning with them. The lies that have been troubling Tris and Tobias’s relationship throughout the book wash away as Tobias chooses to trust her despite her apparent defection. Just as two nigredo characters, Tris’s parents, died at the close of Divergent, so we have the death of Lynn, whose name in Gaelic means “pond” or “lake” at the close of the albedo stage of the story. Johanna Reyes, clothed in red and smeared with blood—our Red character—returns at Insurgent’s conclusion, dragged into Erudite’s headquarters by the Factionless.

Tune in for Part 3 of this discussion to discover how Johanna, gatekeeper to the world beyond the fence, will enable Tris to acquire the knowledge kept secret by those in power, and help her to dissolve the inside/outside dichotomy of their Five Faction society …

“Erudite is the coldest of the five
Knowledge is a costly thing…”


  1. Louise Freeman says

    Wonderfully well-writtened, Christine. I always thought the choice of the Amity tree for the Insurgent cover was an odd one… Amity seems to be the faction where the least amount of truly important action takes place, certainly compared to the Dauntless flames of the first cover, but if we see the book as bracketed by Johanna at both ends it makes more sense.

    I am intrigued by the Allegiant cover that shows us no Faction symbol, but instead a wave. It seems to me that could signify several things…. the water of the Erudite choosing cauldron, as Tris, having resolved her courage/service and peace/truth conflicts, is now ready to embrace the knowledge that the Erudite tried to conceal. Or, the restoration of the city symbolized by the re-filling of Lake Michigan (something the Amity, with their water purification system should be helpful with.) Or, Ms. Roth’s coded message to me that yes, the society was built around O.C.E.A.N. personality theory after all.

    I have some predictions for Allegiant myself but will wait to hear your alchemy-based ones first!

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