Willa Cather’s “Coming, Aphrodite!”; The Hero and Heroine’s Perspectives on Success

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard. 


Willa Cather’s short story Coming, Aphrodite! includes both a Heroine’s Journey and a Hero’s Journey—with a twist. Published in 1920, it chronicles a woman undertaking the Hero’s Journey while a man simultaneously undertakes the Heroine’s Journey.

Originally a small-town girl from an Illinois prairie, Eden Bower has set her sights on becoming an international-stage star when she moves next door to Don Hedger, an orphaned and independent artist living in a small New York apartment.

nyc broadway theatres 1920sEden has wanted to an actress from the time she was very young and is convinced “that she would live far away in great cities, … be much admired by men and … have everything she wanted.” This vision guides Eden throughout her life and she accepts advice (such as changing her name from Edna to Eden) from anyone whom she believes can move her closer to international fame and adoration. She goes to New York, where she believes she is fated to find someone who will take her to Paris. In New York, Eden is for the first time momentarily free to do what she wants, when she meets Hedger who presents her with the opportunity for a new life perspective .

Meanwhile, Hedger, who has grown up in foster homes, has already brushed up against recognition and prosperity as an artist which Cather describes as twice having been on the verge of becoming “a marketable product.” However, Hedger has turned down easy renown because he recoils at being stuck doing “the same old thing over again.” Hedger wants to follow  his inner artistic intuition  and supports his modest domestic needs through occasional commercial work.

As neighbors, the Eden and Hedger (the story refers to the female protagonist by her first name and the male by his last ) have several brief and tense odd couple-like interactions and then fall into a  brief romantic relationship. Their affair begins after Hedger invites Eden to Coney Island, a trip which Eden uses to insert herself into a hot-air balloon performance (for which she has no training) to show off her talents. Hedger, upset by her disregard for his feelings in taking such a this “foolish risk,”  forgives her in part because he recognizes that Eden causes him to consider things “that had never occurred to [him]” before.

Their different worldviews, which initially intrigue and excite them, soon lead to conflict. Eden does not understand how there can be any achievement or purpose in being an artist that “nobody knows about” and criticizes Hedger. Eden wants to be popular in the eyes of the general public and she cannot forgive Hedger for consciously rejecting fame. For his part, Hedger believes he has already found success because he works for himself on projects that please him. Hedger wishes to create new things and paint for other artists “who haven’t been born” yet. He is looking towards a future, but it is one that values internal personal progress and ingenuity, not one that is subject to the taste of popular culture. He chides Eden’s focus on public approval, telling her that “a public only wants what has been done over and over.”

After their fight about success (which, of course, cuts to the core of their identity and sense of place and value in the world) Hedger is hurt more than he’d previously imagined possible and leaves Eden for several days “to be among rough, honest people.” when he returns he is ready to forgive Eden and attempt to integrate their lifestyles so they can continue their relationship, but in his absence Eden has found a way to get to  Paris, so Hedger finds only a hastily written note of explanation.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the hero’s journey as  “a hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.” Eden has embraced this (hero’s) journey and managed to become successful (at least by her lights). The story picks up when Eden returns to New York after performing in an opera in Paris. She visits an art gallery to ask about Hedger in order to find out if, in her absence, he has become rich and famous. The gallery owner tells Eden that Hedger is a well-received and influential artist among the New York crowd who has gained the respect of others for being “original” and “changing all the time.” Eden cuts the gallery owner’s explanation short, demanding to know if he’s much talked about in Paris, saying that’s all  she wants to know.  The story then pulls back closes with a wonderfully enigmatic paragraph description of Eden sitting in a car after leaving the gallery as she is being driven to her next performance.

hermione lee secret selfIn Coming, Aphrodite!, Cather presents her readers with a complex  discussion of success. Both characters find the success they seek, and  Cather is careful to present a neutral view. But by the close of the story one senses that her sympathies lie with the Heroine’s Journey.

To learn more about Willa Cather and read her short story Coming, Aphrodite!, you can find it here or in Hermione Lee’s wonderful collection, The Secret Self: Short Stories By Women

The Heroine’s Journey in Sylvia Plath’s Life and Poetry

Written by Sage Calder; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


Ariel-Plath

The Restored Edition of “Ariel”

I recently found myself rereading Sylvia Plath’s final manuscript, Ariel and other poems.  I had read the collection several times before, but this was my first time reading the “Restored Edition” — the manuscript exactly as Plath left it. This edition also contains a foreword that casts an entirely different light on the book for me. In the introduction, Plath’s  daughter, Frieda, notes that her mother described the book as, “beginning with the word ‘Love,’ and ending with the word ‘Spring.’” Frieda recognizes that her mother wrote the book to talk about the end of her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and move toward a new life. In contrast to these intentions, Plath left Ariel as her final manuscript before committing suicide in 1963.

It is a constant struggle to discuss Sylvia Plath’s work as an author and poet without bringing her personal life into the discussion. This seems to be a struggle that affects female artists far more than male artists. As Frieda notes in her foreword, “…Ariel’s notoriety came from being the manuscript on her desk when she died, rather than simply being an extraordinary manuscript…”

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Plath with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes

Reading Frieda’s foreword, which is both insightful and earnest, I began thinking about Ariel in relation to the heroine’s journey — first as a collection of poetry, and also as the final collection of poetry before Plath’s death.

In her foreword, Frieda discusses a “unique Ariel voice,” one that had, “an urgency, freedom and force that was quite new in her work.” This voice came as Plath emerged from her marriage to live on her own with her two children. In Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey, Plath’s illusion of the perfect world was broken with her husband’s infidelity. She writes about her pain in poems at the beginning of the collection such as “Barren Woman” and “Thalidomide.” Throughout Ariel we watch Plath work through these issues in preparation for her separation from the security of love. The act of her writing this poetry represents Plath’s descent; she recognizes her faults, she enters the eye of the storm and emerges from it. All of the poems are in the unique Ariel voice, but as the book goes on, we see poems of support. In the poem, “Medusa,” for example, Plath writes – “I didn’t call you at all/ Nevertheless, nevertheless/ You steamed to me over the sea/ Fat and red, a placenta//Paralyzing the kicking lovers…” It is clear that when Plath refers to Medusa in this poem, she is referring to something within herself — the part of her that is able to paralyze and leave lovers, and the one who is able to say to her deceased father in the infamous poem, “Daddy” — “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

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A facsimile of one Plath’s drafts of the poem, “Daddy”

By shedding the men in her life who hurt her and reconnecting with her own feminine power, Plath is tracking toward a heroine’s journey in Ariel. The quest of the heroine is wholeness, which normally implies continuing to live your life. In her real life, Plath was unable to do this — she killed herself and was never able to separate herself from the presence of her husband, since she continued to receive financial support from him and even potentially sought reconciliation. I am not Plath and could not possibly know her life well enough to characterize it as a hero’s journey or a failed heroine’s journey.

Instead, I look to the last poem, which indeed ends with the word “spring.” Plath ends the collection with a series of poems about bees and in her final stanza wonders — “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas/ Succeed in banking their fires/ To enter another year?” We have come to associate these bees with Plath herself. And she ends — “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Plath succeeds in presenting to us a work displaying the heroine’s journey — she writes herself as a heroine who succeeds in leaving her husband and other harmful men in her life behind her. Like the bees, the Plath who is the speaker of the Ariel poems not only plans on surviving into the spring — she already has.

Captain America: A New Kind of Hero(ine)

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


By virtue of being superheroes, it would be easy to assume that all popular DC and Marvel superhero films would chart neatly onto the Hero’s Journey. Indeed, popular movies such as the Christian Bale Batman trilogy and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy do map smoothly onto these paths. As film-viewing audiences become increasingly interested in more complex story lines there may be more opportunities for superhero(in)es and Heroine’s Journeys. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the sequel to Captain America: the First Avenger) Marvel has created in Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) a hero whose selfless and emotionally-driven arc more accurately resembles Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey than it does Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

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Steve tries to take in the world around him in this deleted scene from The Avengers.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with the very purposeful meeting between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Sam is a former air force para-rescue member who now works with Veterans Affairs helping former soldiers with PTSD. Steve is a perfect case study for this kind of psychoanalysis. Having been a soldier in World War II who witnessed his lifelong best friend plummet to his presumed death, and having been reanimated seventy years after his own presumed death, Steve has many issues to grapple with. In a three minute scene from the previous film involving Steve, The Avengers, he is pictured struggling to come to terms with the world around him. He struggles to understand the end of World War II, the fact that all of his dearest friends are dead, and the preponderance of bizarre technology filling the world around him.

steve rogers visits the captain america exhibit at the smithsonian in the winter soldier

Steve visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian with presumable regularity, reinforcing his feelings of guilt.

Considering this backstory, it is significant that the first friend Steve makes in this film is Sam and that Sam sees in Steve a familiar vulnerability. After meeting during an early morning run, Sam simply asks, “It’s your bed, right? […] Your bed. It’s too soft,” and in doing so, Sam reveals his own sleep difficulties. Steve acknowledges that he too struggles with sleep and states that his bed now feels like “lying on a marshmallow [and that he] feel[s] like [he’s] gonna sink right to the floor.”

Steve also avoids developing romantic relationships and frequently visits the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America in order to reinforce his self-inflicted feelings of guilt about the loss of his past friends. He even visits his lost love, Peggy Carter, who is now elderly, suffering from dementia, and forgets his visits the moment he is out of her line of sight. The Mayo Clinic lists sleep issues, emotional numbness, “reliving the traumatic event,” “overwhelming guilt or shame,” and “hopelessness about the future” as markers of PTSD. The film therefore invites the audience to infer that Steve is going through this trauma. As we have observed on our Best Picture Oscar Winners page, Heroine’s Journeys male protagonists often have some kind of marginalizing characteristic. For Steve, it is PTSD.

Following this introduction of Steve’s emotional state, the film refocuses on the familiar patterns of typical superhero films. For Steve, the Illusion of the Perfect World is his naive belief in his status as Captain America working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), a governmental agency staffed with superheroes that help combat all forms of terrorism. Steve is sent on a mission he believes is to save hostages on a ship, but discovers that his current partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), has instead been given a different mission: “saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intel” from the ship’s computers. This initial Betrayal or Disillusionment from both his partner and his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), quickly sets the tone of mistrust that will continue to build in a series of successive Betrayals. After confronting Nick Fury with his valid concerns about the lack of transparency between them, Steve is made privy to information regarding the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. that are far above his clearance.

steve rogers realizes he is going to be killed in the winter soldier

Steve realizes that the surprisingly crowded elevator is filled with men who have been ordered to kill him.

For a brief moment, Steve is an insider in the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., but just as soon as this new coping strategy is created, Fury is the subject of an assassination attempt from within S.H.I.E.L.D. When Fury shows up injured and bleeding at Steve’s apartment, he shows him a series of messages, including the simple but powerful “SHIELD COMPROMISED.” This new Betrayal causes Steve to realize that the Perfect World he had lived in was, in fact, an Illusion. Fury gives Steve the flash drive with the intel that Natasha had saved from the ship, and moments later, Fury is shot fatally through the wall of Steve’s apartment. As he lays dying, he urges Steve, “Don’t trust anyone.” Fury’s assassin is a figure known only as The Winter Soldier, a terrorist who has wreaked havoc and committed mass murders for nearly seventy years. Rather than give in to the temptation toward hopelessness, Steve attempts to do justice by avenging Fury’s death. When he is summoned by the new leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and questioned about Fury’s death, he claims to know nothing. The next Betrayal takes place immediately after this, as he is branded a fugitive by Pierce and finds himself the subject of an assassination attempt in an elevator in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

After this third Betrayal, Steve undergoes The Awakening and Preparing for the Journey. He becomes even more determined to honor Fury’s memory and expose S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inner corruption, and due to this new determination, he goes against his previous state of emotional numbness and forms a hesitant allegiance with Natasha once again, as they both have a stake in having the truth brought to light. During The Descent or Passing the Gates of Judgment, the usually honest and straightforward Steve is forced to follow the guidance and tactics of the Russian-trained spy Natasha, which results in his growing sense of discomfort with the world around him. As he is hunted by men whom he had previously considered allies and friends, he becomes a more covert operative than he has been accustomed to.

steve sam and natasha form a team in the winter soldier

“Everyone we know is trying to kill us.” “Not everyone.”

In The Eye of the Storm, Steve discovers a hidden bunker belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D. that is being used to preserve the digitized consciousness of Arnim Zola, a founding member of the Nazi subsidiary Hydra. In an interrogation with the digitized consciousness, Steve learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the corrupt and morally devoid members of Hydra, but before Steve and Natasha can receive all the answers they are looking for, they are thrust into the Death/All Is Lost phase as they find themselves the subject of an assassination attempt once again organized by Pierce. Following this near death experience, Steve immediately seeks out Support in the form of Sam Wilson, who proves to be a more capable ally than either Steve or Natasha could have expected. Sam possesses a specific skill set with an EXO-7 Falcon set of wings from his days in the military and, therefore, becomes the perfect third member of their quickly forming heroic team.

As the trio begin working together to isolate the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. who have been corrupted by Hydra, Steve’s journey cycles back and presents another Eye of the Storm. They are successful in apprehending Agent Jasper Sitwell and begin to interrogate him for the information they desire regarding Hydra’s plans. Before they can get all of this information, however, another Death/All Is Lost moment occurs. The group is attacked by The Winter Soldier, the same assassin who killed Fury near the film’s beginning. But as Steve engages in a hand to hand combat with the assassin, he learns the most shocking truth of all: the Winter Soldier is his own childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whom Steve had believed to be dead but who was, in fact, frozen in time just as Steve had been.

Following this revelation, Steve appears to have lost all hope until he, Sam, and Natasha are saved by the Support of one of the few uncorrupted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). The group then gains more psychological Support when they learn Fury survived his assassination attempt. With his team growing larger and stronger, and with the revelation that his lifelong best friend has been turned into a brainwashed killing machine, Steve enters a stage of Rebirth/Moment of Truth. While preparing to launch an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Steve breaks into the Smithsonian Captain America exhibit to steal his old Captain America uniform in the hope that Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, will be stirred enough by the familiar memory to recognize Steve for who he really is.

bucky remembers steve in the winter soldier

Steve finally gets Bucky to recognize him.

As Steve and the Winter Soldier engage in a presumable fight to the death, Steve desperately tries to trigger Bucky’s memories. “Bucky, you’ve known me your whole life….Your name is James Buchanan Barnes….I’m not gonna fight you. You’re my friend,” he implores, but Bucky remains firmly fixed in the mode of the Winter Soldier, even with Steve’s familiar uniform and candid speech. “You’re my mission,” the Winter Soldier replies coldly before attacking Steve again, but Steve won’t give up. “Then finish it,” he says shakily, before adding, “’cause I’m with you ’til the end of the line.” This phrase, a direct callback to what Bucky told Steve when Steve’s mother passed away (a flashback scene inserted within the film’s main narrative about half an hour prior), seems to finally bring Bucky back. He gazes at Steve in wide-eyed horror and recognition, unable to move, before suddenly, Steve is ripped from his hands as the aircraft they are fighting on begins to give way. Steve falls to the Potomac below, but Bucky saves him from certain death by dragging him to shore.

At the film’s end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles, Fury leaves in hopes of finding and destroying whatever remains of Hydra, and Steve and Sam go off in search of Bucky to see if they can help him. Very few things are clearly resolved, but there is no doubt that Steve is undertaking a Return to a World Seen through New Eyes. His emotional journey of saving and reconnecting with his best friend is just beginning, as is his friendship with Sam, and a subtly hinted-at romance with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). Steve’s world at the end of the film may appear similar to the world at the film’s beginning insofar as he is still undertaking dangerous adventures as Captain America, but he is now wrestling with the disillusionment that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not as idealistically motivated as he had believed. He still seeks to do good in the world, but it is his own personal, emotional drive that compels him to do so, not any kind of blind faith in the government or America as a whole.