Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act I


IntroductionAct II

This is the second post in my series analyzing dystopian literature as an inversion of the famous hero’s journey. If you want to know more about what I’m talking about, look at the previous post, but in short, I argue that where the traditional hero is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things to save or improve his world, the dystopian hero is the opposite: a successful person who rebels against the State, but eventually suffers a fall from his position and fails utterly.

In this post, I will lay out Act I of the “inverted hero’s journey” and how the four classic dystopian novels fit into it: We, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451.

Most interpretations of the hero’s journey agree that it happens in three acts: the Departure, the “Initiation” (what you might call the adventure proper), and the Return. However, different authors analyze the hero’s journey in different ways, with more or fewer stages in the narrative, and with different labels. There’s no single way to analyze it, and none of the most common ones (or rather, the ones listed on Wikipedia) quite match up to how I think of it, so I’m using my own interpretation. The list I’m using combines elements of two of the most detailed versions: the original of Campbell, and that of Christopher Volger (2007).

In my analysis, the Act I comprises the following stages:

The Ordinary World

The Call to Adventure

Refusal of the Call

Meeting the Mentor

Crossing the Threshold

Again, note that none of the major sources parse it exactly this way. Campbell doesn’t include The Ordinary World and adds an extra stage called The Belly of the Whale, which I honestly have a hard time parsing as distinct from The Road of Trials. Phil Cousineau (1990) includes only The Call to Adventure in the first act. David Leeming (1981) goes in a completely different direction with a miraculous birth for the hero and preparation for his quest. However, the list I chose is the most intelligible and recognizable version to me and therefore probably is to many of my readers.

The Ordinary World.

In the dystopian world, of course, the world is far from ordinary to our eyes, but it is ordinary to the dystopian tragic hero. Since this is an inverted story, you might change the name and call it The Oppressive World, where the State controls all and brutally destroys anyone who speaks against it. However, there is another inversion hidden between the lines. The idea of the ordinary world implies that the hero is also ordinary in some way. Just as Luke Skywalker starts as a simple farmboy on the bottom rung of society, most heroes achieve greatness rather than being born to it.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this includes modern, Young Adult dystopias like The Hunger Games. Unsurprisingly, a Katniss Everdeen in a YA novel is someone like the reader: young, no one special, near the bottom rung of society, and a natural rebel, who then has a traditional hero’s journey to overcome the evil State.

But in the dystopia classic, even though to the protagonist, his world is the ordinary world, he is not an ordinary person. In every case I study here, the protagonist is fairly high up in the system—and close enough to see glimmers of the truth and question things when no one else would.

1984’s Winston Smith rewrites history for the Ministry of Truth, and we see that he is good at his job. Even though he’s not a member of the prestigious Inner Party, he’s also not a common Prole on the bottom rung. He also recognizes the importance of his work and takes pride in it, even though his work doesn’t officially exist.

Likewise, in Brave New World, Bernard Marx is an Alpha—the top rung of society. He works on sleep learning, which brainwashes people to behave how the State wants from childhood—undoubtedly one of the most important jobs in his world. Guy Montag of Fahrenheit 451 is a Fireman—a professional book-burner who is respected by society and has certain privileges above the average citizen. Finally, We will be less familiar to many of my readers, but in short, the protagonist, known only as D-503, is the chief engineer of the Integral, an interstellar spaceship that will carry the State’s “perfect society” to other planets. D-503 is probably the most prestigious of any of these four men in his own world.

In other words the protagonist would already be a hero of his world, if his world had heroes, and is in about as good a position he can hope to have in his upside-down society. And then, he suffers a fall from grace. He not only fails to change his world, which is a reversal of the hero’s journey in itself, but he loses his prestigious position and winds up disgraced, exiled, or dead.

The Call to Adventure

In classic hero’s journey fashion, from his relatively safe position within the system, the dystopian hero hears the Call to Adventure. Except, in a dystopia, there is no adventure to be had—only disobedience and danger. Thus, the Call to Adventure becomes a Call to Rebellion. This call can come either from without or within—either questioning the system in some way or meeting someone else who does. If it comes from without, this stage overlaps with Meeting the Dissident as is described below. This is fine because, again, the hero’s journey is not a hard and fast rule. However, I think it’s more interesting when the call come from within because it follows naturally from the protagonist’s place in a privileged position in his world.

Bernard Marx is the most straightforward of the four. Because he works on the “sleep learning” brainwashing program, he sees how fake the world around him really is and begins speaking out against it. (Interestingly, the State in Brave New World is more accommodating than most and will only exile him for it.) In Fahrenheit 451, while Guy Montag does not personally hear the call from within, we later learn that Firemen are expected to get curious at some point and read a book and are given some unofficial leeway with this.

However, the most famous Call to Rebellion is probably that of Winston Smith. Winston does not consciously hold any dissident views or opposition to the State, until he goes into a fugue state and scribbles “Down with Big Brother!” over and over again in his new diary without understanding why.

Refusal of the Call

Naturally, Winston is shocked by what he’s written—not because it’s very likely to get him killed. Keeping a secret diary at all was enough for that. But also because he doesn’t understand why he wrote it. He didn’t know that he hated Big Brother—certainly not like that. This is the Recoil from Rebellion. Winston resolves to continue his outwardly orthodox life—although he doesn’t get rid of the diary. D-503 literally runs from I-330 when she tries to involve him in illegal activity, and he finds real comfort in his mathematically perfect world—although he can’t bring himself to report her. Bernard doesn’t give up his beliefs, but he does begin scheming to get his boss removed to protect his own position.

When confronted with rebellion, most dystopian heroes do the sensible thing and run away, but even so, something about the idea intrigues them—just enough that they don’t remove themselves from the situation entirely. They keep watching, and they keep doing the most dangerous thing of all in a dystopia: thinking.

Meeting the Mentor

Most heroes have a mentor—someone older and more experienced who teaches him what he needs to know. (Campbell calls this “Supernatural Aid.”) The dystopian hero also has a mentor, but it’s a mentor of a very specific type: a fellow rebel—someone who has been questioning the State for a while and can see through the lies. In dystopian literature, this stage becomes Meeting the Dissident. (This is in contrast with modern YA stories where someone like Katniss Everdeen is both the hero and the dissident, while the mentor is someone older and jaded who has long since given up, like Haymitch Abernathy.)

Julia is the dissident for Winston, as she confesses her love for him and later teaches him to get away with various indiscretions. Clarisse tells Montag to read a book (and questions many other aspects of their society), becoming both the dissident and the issuer of the call to him. Likewise, I-330 issues the call to D-503 by inviting him for an unsanctioned conjugal visit. (In We, even sex is done by the numbers.)

Brave New World is unusual in that Jonathan the Savage starts in a position where he might be the mentor of Bernard, but he later becomes the protagonist himself. You might alternately analyze the book that Jonathan is the protagonist, and Bernard is the mentor, even though we don’t meet Jonathan until halfway through the book, and Bernard isn’t capable of doing much more than introducing him to the modern world. But I’ll explore that more in the next post.

Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the Threshold is the point where the hero leaves his safe, ordinary world and embarks on his great adventure, committing himself to achieving his goal. And in dystopian literature, I think the label of Crossing the Threshold describes it well, too. You could change it to something else, like “Crossing the Rubicon” or even just “Breaking the Law,” but I think the threshold makes as much or more sense to the dystopian hero. The hero deliberately defies the State, crossing a line that will bring swift and brutal retribution from the government should it be found out. Winston meets Julia in the meadow. Montag reads a book. D-503 mostly acts by inaction—not reporting I-330, resisting reporting his dreams—but eventually crosses a literal threshold by following I-330 outside the Green Wall.

With the threshold crossed, the hero is committed to his adventure, but the dystopian hero is even more committed to his rebellion and cannot turn back. The narrative then moves into Act II, which I will discuss in the next post.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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