Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act II

Not one of the books I’m analyzing, but still illustrates the Meeting with the Devil pretty well.

Act IAct III

The second act of the traditional hero’s journey is usually (though not always) the adventure proper, from the time the hero leaves the ordinary world to go on his quest, to his victory over the enemy or otherwise achieving his goal. In my analysis of dystopian literature, I’m analyzing the classic novels of the genre in the context of an inverted hero’s journey, where the hero starts as a successful person in his world, but rebels against the State and ultimately fails and falls. As in the traditional hero’s journey, most of the action occurs here, in Act II.

Again, I am using my own list of signposts for the hero’s journey, not necessarily the same as you might see elsewhere. This is fine because everyone analyzes it differently, although I am basing my sequence on two of the most detailed analyses, those of Campbell and Volger. Below are the stages of how I analyze Act II.

The Road of Trials

This is arguably the longest stage of the hero’s journey, where the hero ventures out and must overcome many tests and obstacles in pursuit of his goal. This is especially true of longer works, like trilogies or even television series. The dystopian hero, however, is generally not on an adventure; he is rebelling, and having already broken one law (which will probably get him killed sooner or later), he is now induced to break others. He may have a vague notion of joining a secret resistance movement somewhere, but mostly, he is trying to grab hold of his small slice of freedom and not get caught in the process. Because this stage is characterized by the hero sinking deeper and deeper into rebellion, I call it The Road of Heresies.

This is a large segment of the plot, but I think it’s also fairly straightforward. The encounters the hero goes through on his journey may be fun, and they may even have moments of important character development, but the narrative function they serve is mostly to frame the lead up to the great confrontation with the State and the hero’s eventual fall.

I do want to focus on one of the four books I’m analyzing, Brave New World, because it is quite different from the others in this respect. Here, the protagonist, Bernard Marx schemes about how he can use Jonathan the Savage (who is the newly-found lovechild of Bernard’s boss) to avoid the consequences of Bernard’s own heretical actions. However, in the process, a strange shift takes place, and Jonathan becomes the protagonist himself, with Bernard as a supporting character.

Jonathan is also not the same as the other protagonists because he was born outside the State and has never known it. He is principled, religious, and almost ascetic. He rebels against the State’s hedonistic culture from the start, and that same culture sees him as an object of exotic entertainment and is content to let him for a while. His Road of Heresies is closer to a traditional Road of Trials where he is tempted by the decadent lifestyle, ubiquitous drugs, and beautiful women of “civilized” society. When he feels he is being corrupted by them, he recoils in a flurry of literal self-flagellation. I argue that the Road of Heresies still applies to Jonathan, however, because it is similar in form; his revulsion from the dictates of the State grows greater and more public until it cannot be ignored, and he is confronted directly.

In the other cases, the Road of Heresies does do one other thing. As the hero goes longer and longer defying the state, both he and the reader may be lulled into a vain sense of hope. Perhaps there is a way to overthrow the State after all. 1984’s Winston Smith begins reading Goldstein’s Book, which is billed as a manual for overthrowing the state. We even goes so far as to destroy the Green Wall, threatening the State’s absolute power, but even in that story, the hero’s luck must run out. He gets caught, and he is brought before the authority of the State, as it were, face to face.

The Meeting with the Goddess

The Meeting with the Goddess is an encounter of the hero with a powerful, often supernatural woman, who provides him with wisdom and aid separate from his mentor. This may be something of an over-romanticization by Campbell, who frames it in terms of a spiritual marriage. In practice, the “Goddess” may be a man, or the meeting may occur earlier in the story. (Frodo meeting Galadriel is a common example.) Or it may be omitted entirely, but I include this stage because I believe it forms the core of the dystopian hero’s journey, in the form of the Meeting with the Devil.

This was the connection that first gave my the idea for this series. In all of these stories, at some point the hero is brought before the dictator, or at least someone higher up who can speak with the authority of the State, who then tells him the true way of the world and just how hopeless his rebellion really is.

This “lesson” can take different forms. Winston Smith is shown by O’Brien that the Party’s tyranny is unbreakable, and there is no hope of freedom ever again. We’s D-503 is broken on more of a philosophical level (aside from the mock execution). Fahrenheit 451’s Montag is shown that the State has already anticipated his actions of reading books and has planned for them. (Not to mention nuclear war will probably kill everyone anyway.) Brave New World handles it similarly.

Generally, the lesson is more psychological than physical. Winston is tortured, yes, but he is also shown that the State’s control of reality is so great that no rebellion can spread its message far enough to get off the ground.

As a side note, I considered adding Cambell’s next stage, Woman as Temptress, transmuted to Temptation of Obedience. (“How many fingers?” would fit here.) But even in Campbell’s original formula, the Meeting with the Goddess and Woman as Temptress are in tension with each other, and later analyses omit this stage. In this case, I think it would be redundant.

The Abyss

The title of this section is sort of a placeholder, because the next stages of the hero’s journey are analyzed in several different ways that don’t exactly map to the dystopian hero’s journey (or to each other, for that matter). Basically, in the next section, the hero overcomes his enemies, first internal, then external—first resolving his personal or relational issues, then charging into the battle. Campbell calls this the Atonement with the Father (also known as The Abyss) followed by Apotheosis. Volger calls it the Approach to the Inmost Cave followed by The Ordeal. Cousineau doesn’t include either, so I think I’m justified in reducing it to one. For the dystopian hero, after the Meeting with the Devil, there is one clear outcome, which I call the Realization of Futility.

This is the end of the lesson, when the hero understands that he has no hope of overcoming the State. This is where 1984 really shines, painting a single, vivid image of this moment: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever”

That’s the famous quote, but that’s not all. It goes and rubs that image in deeper:

“And remember that it is forever. The face will always be there to be stamped upon. The heretic, the enemy of society, will always be there, so that he can be defeated and humiliated over again. Everything that you have undergone since you have been in our hands–all that will continue, and worse…”

You should go read it for yourself. It goes on longer than I can spare the word count for, and it’s deeply impactful. Winston resists the vision for a while, but he soon comes to understand that the State really is unbeatable. Andthis might be enough for other stories, but even this is not the dystopian hero’s lowest point.

The Ultimate Boon

Traditionally, this is where the hero wins his victory or otherwise achieves his goal, having successfully come through his ordeal. But this is where we see the greatest divergence of the dystopian hero’s journey (and perhaps the tragic hero’s journey in general) because at this point, the dystopian hero loses. This is The Ultimate Defeat.

This is a distinct stage because the hero may know it is hopeless and keep fighting anyway. He may yet defy the State to his last breath. But this is not enough for the State. To satisfy its insatiable lust for power, the hero must be broken.

When Winston is tortured with the threat of his greatest fear (having his face eaten by rats), he does break, and his loss comes in the form of giving up the last scrap of moral high ground he was clinging to, betraying his lover: “Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!”

Other heroes break in other ways. Guy Montag is ordered to burn down his own house as punishment for reading books, and once he is forced to start, he does it gleefully. Likewise, D-503 submits to the operation to surgically remove his imagination and become the perfect machine the State wants (though in his case, it overlaps more with Act III).

However, I like Brave New World’s take on it the best, where the Realization of Futility and The Ultimate Defeat come together in one horrifying, yet elegantly understated moment, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. With the State’s trademark soft power in this book, Mustafa Mond gives Jonathan exactly what he wants: the right to be unhappy. In fact, he does it without hesitation, dismissively. Just, “You’re welcome,” and the chapter ends. Jonathan even seems to accept this, but the horror slowly dawns on the reader: it doesn’t matter. Not just because of Jonathan’s ultimate fate, but because any attempt to resist the State is doomed to fail because the State doesn’t care. The dictators are so secure in their position that resistance means nothing to them.

With the hero defeated, this again seems like the end of the story, but there is still a third act to come. I’ll discuss that in the final post of this series.

About Alex R. Howe

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