Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act III

Act II

Generally, in the traditional hero’s journey, The Ultimate Boon (or its equivalent), will be the climax of the story. What’s left is simply the denouement, and it will be covered very quickly if it is written out at all.

Note that this is not always the case. The nominal third act can become the actual third act of the story, but if it is, it’s parsed in a less obvious way. For example, the original Star Wars very deliberately followed the hero’s journey, but if you map it out, Luke blowing up the Death Star and winning is not The Ultimate Boon. Instead, you have to back up and see that the Meeting with the Goddess is rescuing Leia from the Death Star, and The Ultimate Boon is returning with the plans that tell how to destroy it (the Return from the Underworld, in other analyses). When Luke actually succeeds in destroying the Death Star, it’s what Campbell’s calls Master of Two Worlds.

Most of the time, though, the third act of the hero’s journey is short, though still important. Again, different analyses parse it in different ways, but the main parts seem to be The Road Back, The Return Threshold, and Master of Two Worlds.

The Road Back

First off, this is where Fahrenheit 451 diverges from the other stories, as Bradbury’s optimism shines through. Guy Montag suffers The Ultimate Defeat, as discussed in Act II, being forced to burn down his own house for reading books. Yet after that, he escapes custody and successfully runs away to the countryside, joining the secret society of readers that will rebuild civilization after nuclear war stops the State’s unstoppable oppression and wipes it away (and in that society, it might really be optimistic).

In the other books, I call this stage the Release of the Penitent. The hero does survive and return home, but it’s not a kindness. Winston is released back into society only after he betrays Julia and loses his last bastion against the control of Big Brother. Jonathan is let go once he understands that his rebellion doesn’t matter to the State. D-503 has his imagination surgically removed, after which he is a model citizen. Part of the horror of dystopian fiction is that the protagonist doesn’t just lose in the usual sense. He doesn’t go down fighting. He’s broken by the State and has the rebellion beaten out of him so that he doesn’t even want it anymore. And once the protagonist becomes obedient again, he can be safely released, going back home, but changed for the worse.

The Return Threshold

This close to the same thing, especially when there’s not a long road back to where the hero started, but I think it represents the steps the hero takes to in some way rejoin normal society. I call it the Return to Normalcy—normalcy by the dystopian world’s standards, that is. Winston goes back to a job in the Ministry of Truth. Jonathan goes back to his solitary life. D-503 embraces his emotionless existence. It still seems that the hero has lost something, but it’s less tangible than his societal position, which he may recover.

Master of Two Worlds

The Return to Normalcy seems like it should be the end of the story, but then, there’s the final stage. In the traditional hero’s journey, this is where the hero takes his new, exalted place in society, but the dystopian hero’s fate is different and far darker. I call this Acceptance of Fate, where the hero doesn’t just return to slavery, for that isn’t indignity enough; he embraces slavery.

As O’Brien says, mere defeat of the hero is not enough for the State. Winston must love Big Brother, crushing all resistance so that not even dead martyrs nor the resentfully obedient remain. And this is exactly what happens to Winston—a spiritual death deeper than what merely killing him could do. And the other protagonists feel it too. Jonathan’s discovers that even though the State will leave him alone, the perverted society it created will not, and he hangs himself to escape it. D-503 turns his back on his earlier goals and expresses hope for the Benefactor to restore the order even as the Green Wall falls. You might even loop back around to Montag accepting his role in rebuilding the nuclear wasteland his society has become.

This is the true end of the dystopian hero’s journey: not just hopelessness and defeat, but willing slavery—a fall from a relatively high status to what we, the readers, would consider spiritually the lowest rung. Instead of returning in triumph, the hero loses everything that truly mattered. And I believe that just as the traditional hero’s journey resonates with something deep in the human psyche, the completeness of this inverted hero’s journey is what makes the classic dystopias so powerful as cautionary tales.

Note: look for this whole series compiled on my Essays page soon.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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1 Response to Dystopia as an Inverted Hero’s Journey: Act III

  1. engineercc says:

    i remember in my youth, i couldn’t finish 1984. it was too depressing and it was starting to take its toll on me. only after years later could i pick up the book and finish it. i saw two versions of the film adaptation, the latest one i think being the most faithful to the book.
    i think winston’s “i love big brother” is the most devastating line i’ve ever read…

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