This essay is adapted from a series of posts in which I analyzed dystopian literature in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. Dystopia is a catch-all category for fiction featuring tyrannical governments, post-apocalyptic worlds, or the general break-down of society, but here, I’m referring mostly to the most famous, “classic” dystopian novels that you probably read in high school: 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. I propose that most of the classic dystopian novels feature what I call an “Inverted Hero’s Journey,” where the protagonist rebels against his oppressive society and then suffers a fall from “grace.”
The Hero’s Journey is a widespread narrative structure often found in both mythology and literature, first popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell catalogued an elaborate plot structure for the hero’s journey, but he summarized it as follows:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
I’ve seen 1984 analyzed with the traditional hero’s journey, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The classic dystopian novels to me seem like the opposite of this. In each case, the protagonist actually starts off fairly high up in society. He rebels and sees the reality behind the State’s lies. (I’m using “State” for whatever name the dictatorship takes in each novel.) But the State has great powers arrayed against him, and the protagonist suffers a decisive loss and returns usually alive, but beaten back into line.
When I started this blog, I never imagined I would be doing deep literary analysis here of the kind that makes most people cringe in English class, but when you read enough books and listen to enough book and movie review podcasts, a funny thing starts to happen: you start to notice these things on your own. This idea came to me when I was listening to the audiobook for another classic dystopian novel called We.
(As a general note, I use male pronouns in this essay because that is how the Hero’s Journey is traditionally formulated, and because in all of the books I’m specifically analyzing, the protagonist is male, but you can certainly have a Heroine’s Journey too, inverted or otherwise.)
My idea was this: one of the stage’s of Campbell’s hero’s journey is called the “Meeting with the Goddess,” where, usually leading up to the climax of the story, the hero meets a women (or sometimes a man) who imparts wisdom and gifts to him. The hero’s journey is not a hard and fast rule, and many later interpretations don’t include this stage, but I saw a clear parallel with dystopian fiction: in each of 1984, Brave New World, and We, there is what I call a “Meeting with the Devil,” where the protagonist is confronted with one of the people who runs the dystopian world and learns just how hopeless his position is.
I will lay out the stages of the inverted hero’s journey in these books, and if you haven’t read one or more of them, there will definitely be spoilers galore. However, I want to start by explaining some of the history of the genre, to give you a clearer idea of where I’m coming from.
Most people have probably read or at least heard of the big three: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953), but the roots of the genre go back further. While these three writers drew on each other for inspiration, they also drew on the earlier Russian novel, We, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921. In We, people have numbers instead of names; all of society is built around mathematical principles, cut off from the outside world, and people are expected to be emotionless automatons running the “machine” of civilization. You can probably see the parallels already.
Interestingly, even We wasn’t a wholly original idea. Zamyatin drew clear inspiration from H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, first serialized in 1899. In Wells’s Rip Van Winkle-esque story, a man falls asleep for two hundred years and awakens to find the trustees of his estate have established an oppressive world government through the powers of investment and compound interest. As with science fiction in general, while there were threads of dystopianism in earlier works going back at least to Gulliver’s Travels, Wells was the one who got it started as a genre. However, we only see a little of what we now call dystopia in his work, so I will pass that one over.
The three main books stood for a long time, with a few additions to the literary canon—A Clockwork Orange, Logan’s Run, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so on. Later, Lois Lowry’s The Giver introduced us to Young Adult dystopian fiction, which led to a wave of similar stories sweeping through in recent years—The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and more. However, I’ll be passing over those. All of these stories follow a more traditional hero’s journey with the protagonist being ultimately victorious, or at least their fate left ambiguous.
Instead, it is the early dystopias that leave us with this hopeless, inverted hero’s journey to underscore the cautionary tales they represent. Even here, I’ll note that Fahrenheit 451 is a little different from the others because Bradbury, at the end of the day, was an incorrigible optimist, but I still think it fits the inverted narrative better.
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 outline 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, 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 in Act II. 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 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. This standard “everyman” hero also 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 goes through a traditional hero’s journey to overcome the evil State.
But in the dystopia classics, 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 it doesn’t officially exist.
Likewise, in Brave New World, Bernard Marx is an Alpha—the top rung of society—and 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 within or without—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, 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 immediately. (The State in Brave New World is more accommodating than most and will only exile him for it.) In Fahrenheit 451, while 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 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, on the other hand, 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 to say that Jonathan is the protagonist, and Bernard is the mentor, even though we don’t meet Jonathan until halfway through, and Bernard isn’t capable of doing much more than introducing him to the modern world. But more on that later.
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, which leads us to the second act. In the traditional hero’s journey, this 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. Likewise, in the inverted hero’s journey, most of the action occurs here. Again, different authorities parse the second act in different ways, but here is how I analyze it.
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.
But let’s take another look at Brave New World because it’s so different. Here, Bernard schemes about how he can use Jonathan (who is the newly-found lovechild of Bernard’s boss) to discredit his boss and 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 books, 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. Winston 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 in its original context may be something of an over-romanticization by Campbell, who frames it in terms of a spiritual marriage, 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. In all four 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 is shown by O’Brien that the Party’s tyranny is unbreakable, and there is no hope of freedom ever again. D-503 is broken on more of a philosophical level (aside from the mock execution). 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 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 just 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 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. And this 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 The 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. 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. 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 the war (for now) 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. After Montage burns down his house, he escapes custody and successfully runs away to the countryside, joining the secret society of readers that will rebuild civilization after nuclear war destroys the State’s power (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. After D-503 has his imagination surgically removed, he becomes 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 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 particularly 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
Once again, 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 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, finally, 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 the hero’s fall in this inverted hero’s journey is what makes the classic dystopias so powerful as cautionary tales.