Transcendent Kingdom


Yaa Gyasi

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Themes and Colors
Science and Religion Theme Icon
Self-Discovery, Identity, and Individuality Theme Icon
Addiction, Depression, and Control Theme Icon
Trauma, Caretaking, and Intimacy  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Transcendent Kingdom, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Addiction, Depression, and Control Theme Icon

When she was in middle school, Gifty’s teenaged brother, Nana, died of an accidental heroin overdose. Following his death, Gifty’s mother fell into a deep depression. Many years later, Gifty is studying neuroscience, hoping to unravel the science behind addiction and depression. She understands that these are two sides of the same coin: addiction means that the brain doesn’t have enough restraint against reward seeking, and in depression, it has too much. As a child, Gifty intuits that restraint is at the heart of avoiding addiction. But the novel shows that her initial attempts at self-control are nearly as devastating as her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression. In the end, Gifty’s research into addiction and depression is important precisely because her story demonstrates how little control people have over themselves and their behavior.

As the novel slowly reveals, there were hints that Nana was prone to addiction before his injury; there was something inherent in his brain chemistry or character that made him vulnerable. For example, when he started playing basketball, he would spend hours every day practicing his free throws. Like Gifty’s limping mouse, which isn’t actually hurt but learns to limp in anticipation that it will experience an electric shock when it tries to seek out a reward, there was something in Nana that self-control couldn’t touch. Yet in response to her brother’s addiction, Gifty became an extremely rigid rule-follower, practicing the restraint she subconsciously wishes he had. She imagines alcohol as a dangerous stranger, trying to tempt into dark alleys. She doesn’t drink, do drugs, have sex, or skip class. She believes (incorrectly) that her rules will save her, her brother, and her mother from harm. But they don’t: Nana still dies and her mother attempts suicide. And in the process, the novel suggests that Gifty becomes addicted to restraint itself. When her friend Anne tries to repair a harm to their relationship, Gifty ignores her, feeling proud of her restraint rather than sad over losing an important relationship. Ultimately, this is why Gifty’s later success in changing the addicted mouse’s behavior (it finally stops seeking its reward) is so important and powerful: Gifty can finally accept that it sometimes takes an outside force, rather than a person’s self-restraint, to moderate or change one’s behavior.

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Addiction, Depression, and Control Quotes in Transcendent Kingdom

Below you will find the important quotes in Transcendent Kingdom related to the theme of Addiction, Depression, and Control.
Chapter 23 Quotes

What’s the point? became a refrain for me as I went through the motions. One of my mice … was hopelessly addicted to Ensure, pressing the lever so often that he’d developed a psychosomatic limp in anticipation of the random shocks…Soon he would be one of the mice I used in optogenetics, but not before I watched him repeat his doomed actions with that beautifully pure, deluded hope of an addict, the hope that says, This time will be different. This time I’ll make it out okay.

“What’s the point of all this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this questions is, “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing?”

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Nana
Related Symbols: Mouse
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 48 Quotes

She would tell me stories about her sister and then look at me expectantly as though I were meant to trade. A sister story for a brother story, but I wouldn’t do it. Anne’s stories about her sister, about the parties they’d gone to, the people they’d slept with, they didn’t feel like an even trade for the stories I had about Nana. My Nana stories didn’t have happy endings. His years of partying, of sleeping around, they didn’t end with him holding down a job in finance in New York, as Anne’s sister did. And it wasn’t fair. That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Anne
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 50 Quotes

It took me many years to realize that it’s hard to live in this world. I don’t mean the mechanics of living, because for most of us, our hearts will beat, our lungs will take in oxygen, without us doing anything at all to tell them to. For most of us, mechanically, physically, it’s harder to die than it is to live. But still we try to die. We drive too fast down winding roads, we have sex with strangers without wearing protection, we drink, we use drugs. We try to squeeze a little more out of our lives. It’s natural to want to do that. But to be alive in the world, every day, as we are given more and more and more, as the nature of “what we can handle” changes and our methods for how we handle it change, too, that’s something of a miracle.

Related Characters: Gifty (speaker), Mother , Anne, Raymond, Katherine, Han
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis: