by guest blogger, Jody Gentian Bower; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson. Jody Gentian Bower, PhD., is a cultural mythologist and the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.
In the 1980s, I belonged to a women’s book club. Over time I noticed that most of the novels we read featuring a female protagonist had a similar plot. Then I realized that many of the great novels by women, the established classics, followed the same plot. I found a similar plot in the biographies of many noted women.
The idea that women authors* have been telling a consistent story for centuries wouldn’t leave me alone. Yet I couldn’t find any discussion of this plot by scholars of literature. The Heroine’s Journey by therapist Maureen Murdock, Women Who Run with the Wolves by folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Jean Benedict Raffa’s memoir The Bridge to Wholeness touched on some of the motifs I’d seen (and opened my eyes to a few I’d missed), but their approaches were not quite what I was looking for. My fascination with the literary plot itself eventually led to Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.
I came to call this plot the Aletis story—aletis being an ancient Greek word that means “wandering heroine.” Her story is not defined by an external quest like the Hero’s Journey plot. Instead, her journey takes her farther and farther away from home until at last she finds the place—both within and without—where she is able to create the life that she has always longed for. Unlike the hero, who proves himself a man by a heroic act that enforces and preserves the idealized vision of the status quo of the community, the Aletis finds her inner worth and bases her life on what she values. She doesn’t ask anyone else to change, but her example often causes her community to shift out of old ways that no longer work.
I call her the wandering heroine because she keeps moving, keeps on leaving situations where she cannot be herself. For example, Jane Eyre longs for a life lived fully, with passion. She chooses to leave her adoptive, abusive home to go to school; chooses to leave Lowood School and her teaching job to become a governess for strangers; chooses to leave Mr. Rochester when he asks her to compromise her integrity; and chooses to leave the safe harbor she’s found with her cousins when St. John tries to force her into a loveless marriage. Eventually, the Aletis finds (or, like Jane, builds) her own home where she can put down roots and create what she was meant to create. She provides an opportunity for others to do likewise, like Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, who draws a community of like-minded creative people to her—including her own formerly abusive husband.
But first the Aletis must journey into the wild place, the place of danger, the very place her family and community have warned her against. In old tales like “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she goes from her little village into the forest where the scariest thing of all, the witch Baba Yaga, lives. In many recent stories the wild place is the big city, the center of sin and crime. The heroine has been taught all her life to fear this place, yet she is drawn to it.
In the wild place she encounters the witch. The wicked witch is often the villain of a hero story; the hero must defeat her. But in Aletis stories, the witch becomes the girl’s teacher. The witch must be approached with respect; not as an enemy, but not in a craven way either. The heroine has to prove herself to the witch, and the first thing she must prove is that she respects herself too. She must stand boldly before the witch and tell her what she has come for.
The witch sniffs, unconvinced. She sets the girl a series of impossible tasks. These tasks require the girl to use discernment—to sort out the good seeds from the bad—or be diligent and unwavering as she spins the mountain of straw into gold. Her commitment provides the magic that allows the task to be accomplished. Once the girl passes the test, the witch gives her what she needs.
Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is a modern Baba Yaga, feared by all who know her. (“Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestly” evokes someone in touch with divine power.) The heroine Andrea, newly come to the big city from her small town, walks boldly into Miranda’s demesne and asks for a job. Miranda sniffs, as do all the sycophants around her, but she lets Andrea stay and sets her a series of increasingly impossible tasks. After Andrea passes the tests, Miranda recommends her for her dream job, investigative journalism. Andrea will not only get to write but will have a positive effect on the wider world.
The Aletis story teaches us how to go willingly into the heart of the unknown. It teaches us that when we come face to face with those we’ve been taught to fear, we don’t have to fight them or defeat them. Instead, we must stand firmly in our integrity as they test our commitment to learning from them. In showing them respect while maintaining our own self-respect, we often receive their respect and ultimately, their cooperation and aid.
To learn more about Jody’s work or purchase a copy of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Journey, click here.
*And a few visionary men. Shakespeare’s Viola of Twelfth Night, Charles Dickens’s Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn of The Lord of the Rings are examples.
This is the second in a two part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
Students at a residential school in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.
In our most recent post, we examined the experiences of indigenous children within the Canadian residential school system. The practice of involuntarily removing children from their communities and cultures, which formally lasted for 165 years, fundamentally altered the lives of indigenous people and their communities. Our last post used the Heroine’s Journey as a framework in the attempt to better understand some of the impacts on survivors and the processes by which indigenous people were intentionally stripped of their identities. In this post we will use the Heroine’s Journey to approach the healing process.
The “history” of the residential schools does not have a beautiful, cathartic, final moment that marks the completion of indigenous people’s traumatic journey. A single monetary payment or moment of clarity cannot suddenly rectify what is now almost two centuries of hurting. The heroine’s journey is a cycle of stages that can occur non-linearly and can be passed through more than once.
“The residential school system took away my language, my culture, and my identity…People are left with a [need for a] sense of belonging. You want to find your sense of belonging and identity.”
Though the residential school practice officially ended in 1996, another decade would pass before the survivors received a formal apology from the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (See statement here). PM Harper’s acknowledgement that the federal government has caused lasting harm to survivors, family members, and communities was an important moment of recognition and apology. Harper also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) at this time; it is composed of both indigenous leaders and nonindigenous members. Seven years later, in 2015, the TRC officially declared the residential school system to have constituted cultural genocide and issued a list of 94 “Calls to Action” for how to move forward with reconciliation and reparations. The Calls to Action include such things as eliminating the discrepancy between educational funding for aboriginal schools and non-aboriginal schools; calling upon the Canadian government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights; and providing adequate resources to social workers to help keep Aboriginal families together.
Indigenous children at the Fort Simpson residential school in the Northwest Territories.
Progress has been slow, and a large amount of work remains to be accomplished. As of March 2018, only ten of the TRC’s 94 proposals had been completed. Harper’s 2008 apology did not include survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador because the residential schools in this province were not directly managed by the Canadian federal government when the schools were opened (the province did not join Canada until 1949). This apology finally came with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement in November of 2017. Although Catholic missionaries, priests, and nuns were instrumental in establishing and teaching in residential schools, in March of 2018, Pope Francis decided not to apologize for the role of the Catholic church in the residential school system.
“You know they were trying to tell me that’s this church, or this place we’re in, you know, I had to do, I had to be this perfect, perfect person or whatever. And yet at the same time, that’s not what I saw. Because I thought to myself, well, if you’re a priest and nun, how come you’re doing this to this child, or you’re doing this to me, and I would say it out loud, and I’d get more lickings.”
The Canadian government’s formal recognition is an important first step, but first steps are just that—they are not the journey’s end. Many questioned Harper’s 2008 apology when only a year later, he stated at the 2009 G20 Pittsburg Summit that Canada has “no history of colonialism.” In September of 2018, students at an Alberta school were asked on a multiple-choice exam to name a positive effect of residential schools on indigenous children. This is like asking one to identify the benefits of false incarceration. It is not indicative of a society in which both indigenous and non-indigenous people have embraced the process of healing, which requires a long-term collaborative effort.
“There was nobody there to give any hugs. There was nobody there to say goodnight. There was nobody there to even wipe your tears, or we will hide our tears… Late at night you can hear somebody crying. I don’t know what time it is. There’s no time or nothing that I know, but I know it’s very late at night. There’s nobody to tell us. Everything we do in there is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, is what I hear. Couldn’t do anything right.”
The Canadian government continues to negotiate settlements and reparations with indigenous individuals as well as working toward providing adequate funding for schools on reserves. Indigenous communities continue to be at odds with the Canadian government in the effort to achieve reparations that truly respond to survivors’ and communities’ needs.
The government has focused on payments to individual survivors depending on the number of years they spent in the residential school system. Some indigenous people have criticized this as an insulting attempt to put a price on human suffering and loss of cultural identity. Although some money has gone towards healing and education programs, indigenous communities have called for more community-based, intergenerational reparations. Those who went through the residential schools are called survivors, and their children are called intergenerational survivors. This stresses the impact that the school system has had on indigenous communities beyond those who personally experienced the residential schools. Providing financial aid only to survivors who are still alive does not address many of the issues that indigenous communities face today.
Indigenous people protesting against the C-45 bill in Ottawa as part of the Idle No More movement
Individual reparations alone do not address the deeper level of the persisting trauma. Individualizing reparations fails to acknowledge that the survivors are both individual victims of violence and group victims of a dominant group’s systemic dehumanization. Reparations and healing must consistently recognize and address both.
The heroine journey framework emphasizes that healing is not an oppositional dichotomy between natives and settlers in which natives reclaim their cultural identity simply by convincing settler that they deserve respect. Nor can settlers atone for the natives’ traumatization with one apology and a donation. The heroine’s journey is a one of non-linear movement toward wholeness. Attempts to erase what has been done or purchase forgiveness doubles the initial violation and continues to marginalize indigenous peoples. Healing is not what the federal government determines to be adequate or affordable funding according to non-indigenous standards.
We cannot alter the past injustices suffered by indigenous people faced through the residential school system. However, we can continue to recognize what has happened and to address long-lasting and multidimensional impacts honestly and empathically. We must consistently be aware that healing from trauma is neither linear nor subject to a quick fix. And we must not let this, or other similar things, happen again. We cannot participate in the healing of communities and their members while also treating them as separate and other. To heal the split between the original and dominant cultural identities in the pursuit of wholeness, we must listen to the requests and needs of indigenous communities and incorporate both the experiences of the survivors and the role of the dominant culture in survivors’ experiences into our consciousness.
“That’s our belief as First Nations that we don’t just think about ourselves. We have to think of the next generation and the ones yet to come…They’re not here yet, but we have to prepare for them. And preparing means we’ve got to put down that hurt and that pain we carry now. We can’t let that be our life.””
Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience …”
– Where Are The Children website
Complicated stories rarely fit neatly into the theoretical stages of Mauren Murdock or Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey cycles, as we’ve seen in stories such as Willa Cather’s Coming, Aphrodite!and Barbara Leckie’s Kicking the Stone. The real life stories of people who struggle toward wholeness–and toward being recognized as an essential, respected part of the larger world’s narrative–are even more complex. In this post, we want to recognize and examine the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Canada.
Beginning officially in 1831 and extending to as recently as 1996, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, and placed in residential schools. The residential school system was ostensibly designed to help native youth assimilate into the settler Canadian society, but the schools functioned more as work-houses. In these schools, the children were constantly reminded that they would never belong in their own communities, nor in the settler communities. Virtually all of the children endured years of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. An estimated 35-60% of the children did not survive the experience. The residential school “history” is a story that stretches into the present day. Today, native communities continue to struggle with survivor’s trauma, substance abuse, and interpersonal issues.
This post will view the experiences of the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis’ children and communities through the lens of a heroine’s journey framework. Can doing so can help us to empathize with those impacted by the Canadian residential school system and to become allies in the joint effort toward recovery and reparation?
A study period in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.
Using Maureen Murdock’s heroine journey arc, the indigenous children’s involuntary removal from their communities can be interpreted as a separation from the born-into culture(which Murdock terms “the feminine”). Similar to the so-called feminine approach to child-rearing, the traditional indigenous educational approach emphasizes guiding and nurturing children when teaching them holistic life skills, while also recognizing and respecting the integrity of the child.
Murdock’s separation from the feminine often involves a heroine’s voluntary decision to reject a limited identity that has been thrust upon them by society. However, the forcible separation of indigenous children from their identities better resembles Victoria Schmidt’sbetrayal. This stage launches the heroine’s pursuit for wholeness. The indigenous communities experienced a profound betrayal when their children were taken from them. Although some indigenous community leaders had wanted to learn more of Western culture, and to consider how some integration might be beneficial, they never intended to reject the native identity, community, or way of life.
The non-indigenous narrative may have claimed that the residential school system would allow the children to identify with the dominant culture (eg. the masculine) and assimilate (eg. gather allies). However, this was not the reality. The children were discouraged from befriending each other and were punished for speaking their native languages. The “teachers” consistently humiliated the children and physically punished them for anything the teachers deemed to be mistakes or misbehavior. Few staff or faculty provided any comfort or support. Instead, they inflicted, or turned a blind eye to the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of the children by those in positions of authority.
On the rare occasions that children saw their parents, many children did not know how to communicate their experiences, which were so foreign to their native lifestyles. Some children reported feeling ashamed and did not want to explain what had been done to them, or they felt too distant from those in their native communities, which seemed to be a separate reality. Those who did seek help were ignored by law enforcement. Many children entered the residential school system between when they were four and seven years old and were forced to remain within the system for eight or more years. Their roads and trials seemed to stretch on forever.
“The residential schools thing is the biggest factor that has shaken the Indian people down to their roots and it’s the thing that has changed our total look on history.”
Indigenous children may have imagined that they would experience a boon of success when they survived, finally exited the residential school system, and could return to their communities. The community may also have imagined its children would be able to heal and reintegrate when they returned. Both the children and their communities suffered and continue to suffer from the trauma of the forced removal, separation, and abuse.
The community leaders were able to take control of and abolish the residential schools, but the trauma remains. This ongoing impact can be likened to Murdock’s feelings of spiritual aridity. In many cases, the children subjected to mistreatment within the residential schools grew up to have children who were also taken from them, as were their children’s children. Unsurprisingly, many survivors and their families are troubled by alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anger, doubts regarding their ability to control their own lives, an inability to fully connect with either native or settler identities, and/or a lack of experience creating and functioning within loving, supporting relationships.
Students at Blue Quills Residential School in St Paul, Alberta.
The children and their communities have been irreparably damaged in that they cannot reestablish the life and identity they would have had without the residential school system. The strategies that were forced upon them to help them contribute to mainstream Canada have not had the desired benefit. Neither their traditional (so-called feminine) nor Western (so-called masculine) living strategies work for them and this situation can be seen as parallel to the initiation and descent to the goddess stage.
Survivors have tried (and continue to try) to reclaim their indigenous identities, practices, and cultures. This is akin to Murdock’s yearning to reconnect with the ancestral (goddess). Their ability to reclaim their cultural identity is complicated by the fact that multiple generations have had their identities stripped from them.
Reconnecting with their indigenous identity and then reconstructing their relationship with a non-indigenous society is an even more complicated, reciprocal, nonlinear process. It necessarily contains provisional solutions that may later be changed or replaced, and effort on behalf of both non-indigenous and indigenous individuals and communities. Healing and the pursuit of wholeness involve both a yearning to connect to one’s own origins and the need to heal the original/dominant cultural identity (eg. the mother/daughter) split. Indigenous community members can provide some of the necessary support, but the burdens of healing cannot rest solely on those hurt by the experience and legacy of trauma. To expect indigenous communities to provide for all of their own healing for tragedies foisted upon them by the dominant society is to continue the marginalization of indigenous people. Wholeness is a process that involves all of us.
Cree students and teacher at the All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan. 1945.
In our next post, we will focus on the present-day relationships between and among indigenous peoples, the Canadian government, and non-indigenous people. We will consider what the heroine’s journey framework might teach us about strategies for healing and pursuing wholeness.
“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience. Only through understanding the issues can we undertake this healing journey together.”
– Where Are The Children website
For more information on the history of the residential school system, and the indigenous experience and perspective, you can visit wherearethechildren.ca/en
Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.
—Coretta Scott King
This year we’ve vowed to explore the work of activists and social action organizations and movements through the heroine’s journey lens. We believe that a heroine’s journey perspective can help activists to sustain themselves and their commitment in the face of what seems like failure or regression. We begin our examination by reviewing a new play about early 20th century U.S. women’s struggle for the vote written by Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center Resident Scholar Pam Swing and her student-scholar partner, Elizabeth Dabanka.
Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, I Want to Go to Jail follows a group of women suffragists and their struggle for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The drama generally follows Maureen Murdock’s articulation of the heroine’s journey and also demonstrates how a heroine’s journey often skips forward and loops backward rather than proceeding in a single arc or cycle.
The play opens in February, 1919 at the National Woman’s Party Headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. Since politely asking for the vote hasn’t persuaded men to enfranchise women, Suffragist Betty Gram announces that they must picket—e.g. she issues a clarion call to separate from their culturally prescribed feminine role. Several well-known and lesser known members of the National Woman’s Party voice their support—consistent with stage 2 of the Murdock version of the journey: identification with the masculine and gathering of allies. But I Want to Go to Jail isn’t so much about a central protagonist gathering allies, as it is about a group of individuals with distinct personalities working as a body to move the story and their shared cause forward.
In the first scene we are introduced to half a dozen characters of different ages, political experience, commitment, and concerns. They prepare to picket the U.S. President Wilson’s motorcade that is coming to Boston, knowing that they are likely to be arrested. Together, they plan for their road of trials, but of course, planning and experiencing are two different things.
The following day the women take their places outside the State House. Their demonstration has barely begun when the Boston Police Commissioner informs them that if they don’t move before the President’s motorcade arrives, they will be arrested for loitering. Their decision to remain and express their First Amendment right to demonstrate peaceably results in their being forcibly taken into custody. Suffragist Alice Paul foresees their imprisonment as a means to increase publicity and sympathy for their cause. Thus, their arrest actually appears to be a boon of success even though President Wilson doesn’t arrive until after they are arrested and are being taken to the courthouse.
In Act II the suffragists, triumphant at having been able to march past a line of marines holding banners, continue their unified protest in the courtroom by claiming they are all named Jane Doe and insisting on their right to go to jail rather than pay a fine for exercising their constitutional rights. Up until this point, it seems as if the story could be a hero’s journey: women protest, gain support from the public after going to jail, and force the legislature to support a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Indeed, we know that something like this in fact, happened. But both the play and the historical facts are more complicated.
Outside the courthouse, a journalist asks passersby how they feel about women having the right to vote. There is support and dissension. The dissenters point to tradition and use self-righteous references to religion– the same arguments used today throughout the world to justify limiting women’s rights. Both sides claim to have moral values on their side.
Inside the Charles Street Jail, the suffragists, who have vowed to go on a hunger strike, have been separated and housed in cold cells with buckets for toilets. Suffragist, Betty Gram, who has been jailed before, starts to experience what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or Acute Traumatic Stress since she is again in jail), as she recalls rats dragging food from her cell during her previous time in jail as an advocate for women’s rights. From their own cells, other suffragists call out their sympathy and support. Others muse about how the world and their homes households are proceeding without them. Eventually, they access their strength and commitment to sisterhood by singing together.
The play then loops back for another road of trials: the father of one of the suffragists comes to bail her against her wishes. When her father threatens to turn her out of the house if she does not leave, she reluctantly puts on her suffrage sash and departs, still protesting. Another suffragist hails the jailer to complain that he isn’t delivering the packages that she knows are being sent to them. The Sheriff appears and tells Suffragist Katherine Morey that her fine has been paid by a mystery man that the women believe is is trying to undermine public sympathy for their cause. The remaining prisoners again find a “boon of success” when they discover that they’ve received 268 telegrams from supporters and are being covered in newspapers across the country. One of the suffragists writes a letter to President Wilson calling upon him to reconnect with his prior promises to enfranchise women. When all of the suffragists except Mrs. Rosa Roewer–whose husband supports her political action– is released from jail, the released women gather outside the jail to sing to the Mrs. Rosa Roewer in their own reconnection with their sister suffragist.
In the last act of the play we learn that the last anti-vote Senator they needed to win the vote had decided to vote for the constitutional amendment, but other anti-suffrage Senators had prevented the amendment from coming to the floor for a vote. Suffragist strategist Alice Paul urges the dismayed activists to regard this as a temporary setback. Mrs. Rosa Roewer, the last suffragist to be released from jail, points out that Susan B. Anthony worked for women’s right to vote throughout her life and died without seeing it. One of the new, young suffragists promises Mrs. Roewer that this won’t happen to her, but we know that she can’t be certain of this. In the last scene, the women hold a ceremony at a local theater to honor those who went to jail for the cause and present them with “jailhouse door pins.” It is a momentary pause and time for celebration, for the play appropriately ends with Alice Paul announcing that there is more work to be done, and a new cycle of activism must begin.
I Want to Go to Jail will be performed at Brandeis University on Saturday, February 9, 2019 during their [Bran]“Deis” Week of Social Action, and at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA on February 28. Both performances are free and open to the public. For more information on the performance at the State House, click here. To see more about the Heroine’s Journey in contemporary literature and drama, click here.
Playwrights Pam Swing and Elizabeth Dabanka, I Want to go to Jail
Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
From the day Bambi first struggled to his feet in 1942, Disney has been a strong proponent of Hero’s Journey plot arcs. Indeed, as explained in our blog about Christopher Vogler’s “Memo that Started It All,” for the past quarter century this has been a deliberate commercial decision. To respond to the contemporary demand for female protagonists, Disney has produced a number of films about marriageable but defiant princesses who engage in quests of one sort or another that culminate in a happily ever after ending without loose ends. The 1998 film Mulan, released four years after The Lion King, provides some interesting complications to the Disney Hero’s Journey formula. Although the title character, Mulan, achieves great fame and honor by the film’s end, her motivations are more complex than the typical hero’s and at the film’s end it is clear that her journey is far from over.
As in Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, the movie begins with Mulan’s Separation from the Feminine. Fa Mulan does not fit the traditional feminine ideal of her community, evidenced by her disastrous failure at fulfilling her role as a potential bride during her meeting with a matchmaker. Due to this failing, the matchmaker chastises her for bringing “dishonor” to her family. Following this Separation, she moves on to Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies when she learns that an order has been issued for sons and fathers to join the army in the fight against the Huns. Rather than allow her aging crippled father to go to war, Mulan cuts her hair and dresses in his armor. Her ally is Mushu the red dragon, the film’s stock anthropomorphic comic animal sidekick, and an alleged ancestral guide.
The final shot of the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song number depicts Mulan as fully integrated among her fellow (male) soldiers.
With Mushu at her side, Mulan sets out for the army camp and finds herself traveling the Road of trials and Meeting Ogres and Dragons. Upon arrival at the camp, Mulan struggles to find acceptance, but she eventually makes a name for herself by succeeding at an exercise no other man can, depicted in the film’s most popular song, the ironically named, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” This is the first of many times when Mulan’s new (heroine) perspective permits her to creatively solve a problem that all the men around her are stuck on. After earning the respect of her captain, Li Shang, Mulan joins her fellow soldiers battling the Huns. During this crucial battle, Mulan experiences the Boon of Success by aiming a firecracker at the overhanging cliffs and creating an avalanche that kills many Huns. In this attack, Mulan is thought to have killed their savage leader, Shan Yu.
Her success is short-lived, however, and Mulan is soon propelled into Feelings of Spiritual Aridity. She is injured during the Hun attack and once the dust settles and she is treated for her injuries, her gender is revealed. Her betrayal of self was impossible to maintain and Mulan is fed up with attempting to perpetuate the lie that denies and limits who she truly is.
The sentence for having pretended to be a man would normally be death, but her life is spared since she saved her captain’s life during the battle. Instead, she is cast out of the troop and left with nothing but her horse, her armor, and her animal guides, Mushu and Cri-Kee the “lucky” cricket. Left behind by her fellow soldiers, Mulan learns that Shan Yu and some of the Huns actually survived the avalanche. She realizes she must go to the Imperial City to save the emperor and her comrades.
When Mulan arrives in the Imperial City, she attempts to advise Captain Li Shang about the Huns and their plans to attack again now that the city’s guard is down, but he doesn’t listen to her because she is a woman. In the face of this rebuff, Mulan realizes she alone can avert disaster and is forced into Healing the Wounded Masculine. She knows that she needs to take action to save China. Ignoring Li Shang, she enlists the help of the three close friends she made while in the army who accept and trust her even knowing that she is a woman.
Mulan shows her skill at subverting gender expectations by working her society’s sexist views to her advantage.
The film’s rising action reaches its climax when Mulan is able to use the skills she learned training to be a soldier and her intelligence and feminine wiles to defeat Shan Yu and the Huns. In an Integration of the Masculine and Feminine, Mulan instructs her fellow soldiers to dress as concubines in order to enter the palace, since the invisibility of women will now finally work to her advantage. She also confronts Shan Yu personally, and by drawing her hair back to imitate the style she wore while posing as a male soldier, she shocks Shan Yu by revealing that he was defeated by a woman the first time, and will now again be defeated by a woman. She is rewarded by the emperor for saving China and offered a prestigious position among his staff. Mulan rejects the Emperor’s offer, preferring to return home, having brought honor to her family.
Had the movie ended there, Mulan would be one of a very few heroine’s journey tales aimed at children.
However, rather than endorse Mulan’s family-oriented motivation to return home to an every day life to be a satisfying ending, Disney tacks on a quick and confusing love plot. Captain Li Shang arrives at the Fa family home to return Mulan’s father’s helmet, but he suddenly acts sheepish and love-struck. Mulan invites him to stay for dinner. Her grandmother asks if he would like to stay forever. Mulan has already fulfilled her mission of having worked for something greater than herself, but by introducing the marriage-with-Li Shang plot, Disney steps back toward the more familiar Snow White ending and sets up ground for the direct-to-video sequel Mulan II. In the sequel, Mulan becomes a political escort/body guard for the Emperor’s three daughters (who are also the subjects of a series of aborted and then successful marriage plots) and a quasi-princess in marrying into the Li family. Unable to believe that Mulan’s personally motivated but ultimately selfless drive could satisfy their audience, Disney has tweaked this heroine’s journey tale enough to fit on the rack with their other princess stories and produce a sequel that lacks both the heart and truth of the original.
Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Barbara Leckie’s “Kicking the Stone,” in Salamander’sSummer 2018 issue, is a wonderful, complex short story that interleaves three life stories that broadly follow Victoria Schmidt’s formulation of the heroine journey. The short story revolves around the life trajectories of two sisters and a husband and the changing relationships between and among them.
In our lives we often complete the heroine’s journey cycle nonlinearly. We return to stages as new challenges are presented, and we examine previous experience more deeply. We can also work on several stages at one time. “Kicking the Stone,” illustrates the role that memories play in our navigating and narrating our lives, and flashbacks play in composing stories. Indeed, the “present” of the story takes place in the relatively static setting of a University town coffee shop in the space of about an hour. Flashbacks provide tension, action, context, emotional complexity, and pacing.
The story begins in a cozy coffee shop where Sylvia waits for her sister. It’s early spring, but a surprise snow storm has temporarily buried the crocuses. The setting suggests Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey’s Stage one–the illusion of the “perfect” or “normal” progressing world, but almost immediately we realize that things are not what they seem because Sylvia is tearing tiny holes in numerous packages of sugar and pouring them into her tea to make a sugary slush at the bottom, as if her drink cannot be made sweet enough to swallow. She overhears a student at the next table say, “We are never quite prepared for death. I don’t think.” The overheard statement sounds unreal due to the lack of context and curious grammatical construction, but also ominous because it comes so soon in a composed short story.
Sylvia’s sister, Marg, arrives and apologizes for being late. The author then describes Marg’s illusory perfect world from Sylvia’s point of view. Marg is a university professor who teaches in the linguistic department who “possessed the room” and commands “a sort of erotic attention [by] her confidence.” Sylvia, a couple of years older than Marg, feels as if she plays second fiddle to her younger sister. Sylvia has worked at a variety of community non-profits doling out food to the homeless and delivering community newspapers door-to-door. She is, by her own half-joking admission, “still trying to find herself.”
From this description of Marg as the “successful” sister and Sylvia as the plainer one who travels in her sister’s orbit, we are jolted by the matter-of-fact revelation that Sylvia is living, and has lived, with Marg’s husband for years. We are also told that Sylvia believes Marg had been negligent with her husband. The story thus abruptly enters the land of betrayal, or at least, coping strategies have not gone as expected.
We return to the present and Marg, the accomplished jilted sister, asks Sylvia if she is angry at her, again apologizes for being late, and asks if Sylvia has been waiting long—signaling that the story itself is moving on to Stage 3—Awakening and Preparing for the Journey. Sylvia reinforces this sense of anticipation by telling Marg that she has something to tell her without revealing what it is. Both sisters lean toward each other, signaling the importance of their relationship which the reader senses has been, and will be, its own journey.
The author again references Sylvia’s “affair” with Marg’s husband (the Stage 2 betrayal), and then a second blow up (Stage 6), before describing the period between the estrangements when the sisters reconciled and referred to Hugh, Marg’s former husband and Sylvia’s current partner as “our Hugh.” This moment feels like a Stage 5 “Eye of the Storm”– during which the sisters had managed to find equilibrium in their relationships with Hugh and each other.
We return to the coffee shop with Sylvia privately wishing she could begin the current conversation with something “as light and intimate and bonding” as an “our Hugh” reference– strongly suggesting that the story and the sister’s relationship and lives are headed for a Descent (Stage 4).
The story then takes one last backward glance at stage one’s illusory perfect world as Sylvia tries to find her footing before moving forward with the descent. She muses that she would have liked to open a similar coffee shop-bookstore, but the vision quickly fades. From here, the story continues to tack forward and back, like a carefully crafted multi-thread chain stitch that braids together the heroine’s journeys of the sisters and their relationship. We learn that Marg and Hugh were in a car accident years before that left Hugh in a wheelchair (his descent). Marg, who was pregnant at the time, appears to have recovered, but she has some irreparable nerve damage, and she lost her baby. Thus, we are introduced to Marg and Hugh’s experience of death (stage six) before we find out Sylvia’s news.
The semi-omniscient narrator describes the cause of the accident (a child’s game that ended in the street and an SUV rear-ending Marg’s and Hugh’s car); Marg’s rehabilitation and response to Hugh after the accident (the descent of their relationship); and Sylvia’s support of both of them. While Marg has largely blocked out the details of the accident and aftermath, Sylvia remembers them because “it had given her her life.” In this and in numerous other instances, Leckie uses a single sentence and moment to move characters into different stages of their journeys—in this case the Descent for Marg, and the Preparing for the Journey for Sylvia.
The narrator continues to slice back and forth through Sylvia’s memory and narrative flashback, revealing the literal and psychological journeys of each of the characters as they move toward and away from their relationships with one another. With each move, Leckie illustrates the effect of a character’s action on the others and their relationships, which lead to new actions and effects that ripple throughout all the characters’ lives.
Back in the present, Sylvia reveals that the reason she has asked Marg to coffee is to tell her that Hugh (her partner now for at least a dozen years after the accident) has stage four colon cancer. We see a moment of shared concern for Hugh and for one another. Sylvia then refuses Marg’s request to go see Hugh immediately which we sense is, for Sylvia, a moment of truth and resolve (Stage 8) in the midst of her responding to others’ decisions and calamities. In this moment Sylvia is able to know and say what she needs—as hard-hearted as it seems at that moment of the story.
The story again flashes back to Sylvia’s support of Hugh and Marg after their accident, Marg’s growing impatience with Hugh, and Hugh’s attention to Sylvia in a way that makes her feel that she is more than Marg’s shadow. The story is constructed so that the reader is repeatedly surprised by the flashback action and then comes to understand and empathize with the character(s) and their journeys only to be surprised by another revelation—from Marg’s affair with a neighbor which launches Sylvia’s romantic relationship with Hugh, to Hugh’s confession to Sylvia that he and Marg have been once again sleeping together after Sylvia tells Marg that she is pregnant, etc. In each betrayal and struggle we wonder how things can be repaired after this move while hoping that somehow they can be, and knowing that somehow they must have been repaired, for now the sisters are sitting in a coffee shop talking honestly with each another and expressing concern for Hugh. There are no neatly tied-up endings in this story or in these lives, but there is beauty in the efforts each makes to live an authentic life and preserve difficult relationships that change in ways they do and don’t control under circumstances that are never ideal.
Back in the present, Sylvia has still not agreed to a specific time when Marg can come visit Hugh, but Marg has stopped pressing, and the story and the sisters know that it will not be long. Marg listens to Sylvia describe Hugh’s illness and the difficulty of telling Sylvia’s kids (she now has two) and tears up when Sylvia tells her she already finding feels sad to see High’s empty coat hanging in the hall.
Nothing is simple for these characters, but there is an underlying conviction that they will do whatever it takes to affirm their important relationships and themselves, although they don’t yet know how this will happen. In the last paragraph of the story, after Marg has left the coffee shop and Sylvia is preparing to leave, Sylvia remembers Marg telling her the last last thought she had before the SUV slammed their car into the car ahead in the accident that altered the course of all of their lives. “Brace Yourself” is both a warning and a strangely affirming declaration that the task of life, regardless of our current situations, is to engage reality while acknowledging and aligning ourselves as best we can with internal truths.
“Kicking the Stone” can be found in the summer 2018 issue of Salamander.Salamander is one thirty-plus literary journals offered by the Journal of the Month Club that enables you to sample a variety of literary journals for the price of one or two. Click here to see their holiday specials.
Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Until women can visualize the sacred female, they cannot be whole and society cannot be whole.
– Elinor Gadon
In late November in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday to celebrate the harvest and gratitude. Many of us also share food with people from other cultures and circumstances. The first “American” Thanksgiving was celebrated by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans in 1621. Thanksgiving was officially declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War to express hope for an end in civil strife, and as a day of gratitude. Some Americans also observe American Thanksgiving as a day of mourning to commemorate genocide against Native Americans by United States settlers.
Not surprisingly, the United States was not the first to celebrate harvest feast days. The Canadians held October harvest feast celebrations years before the Pilgrims arrived, and the French and Spanish have been celebrating harvest feast days since at least the 16th century. Wisdom practices such as honoring female deities connected to nature, expressing gratitude, sharing, and giving, are integral to many indigenous cultures and communities.
Regardless of your geographical location or cultural identity, the season of harvest seems appropriate time for The Heroine’s Journey Project to review some of the year’s gifts.
We appreciate the thousands of site visitors from around the world who read our blog posts, send comments and suggestions, and ask us questions. We are grateful for the essays, plays, books, and stories sent to us by our readers. In particular we’d like to give a shout out to Jean Marie Bishop who sent us her plays about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office in the United States when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, and Mary Dyer, an American Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1660 for defying Puritan law banning Quakers in the colony. We would like to give a shout out to Jody Gentian Bower, author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters; How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story who sent us an essay on the Heroine’s Journey; to Duda Dorea, who is translating The Heroine’s Journey Project site into Portuguese so that it can be more widely shared in Brazil, and Judah Quinn, a filmmaker in Australia who is making a documentary on five women’s experiences with the Heroine’s Journey in their lives. We are hoping to feature some of this work in the coming months.
This year we are sorry for the passing of Elinor Gadon, cultural historian, Indologist, art historian, Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the author of The Once and Future Goddess; a visual chronicle of the sacred female and her reemergence in cultural mythology and was an exuberant student of the heroine’s journey throughout her long life. Filmmaker Megan McFeeley put together an excerpt from her two-hour interview with Elinor in 2000 for Elinor’s Celebration of Life at Brandeis. We hope to introduce you to Elinor Gadon’s and Megan McFeeley’s work in the near future.
Your most-requested items are the names of books, films, and stories that include a Heroine’s Journey. This fall we have begun to compile lists which we plan to add as permanent page to the site this spring.
Some of the books with heroine journeys that we’ve reviewed in the past year include:
Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (fiction);
Fun Home by Allison Bechdel (graphic novel, later made into a musical);
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction with many heroine journeys depicted in the descriptions of the lives of non-conventional families);
Once and Future King by T. H. White (the first portion of the book known to many as the story of The Sword in the Stone is a Hero’s Journey, but the book as a whole is a Heroine’s Journey);
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (nonfiction); and
Chalice and the Blade; Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler is not a heroine’s journey story but traces the origins of the descent of goddess worship and the psychological impacts of the denigration of female deities on men, women, and cultural values through archaeology, anthropology, history and religion.
Movies we have recently reviewed and plan to blog about in the future include:
Boys on the Side directed by Herbert Ross and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore;
RBG, a 2018 American documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, on the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg which includes both elements of the Hero’s Journey and Heroine’s Journey. RBG was chosen by the National Board of Review as the Best Documentary of 2018; and
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, the story of a Native American’s health worker’s search for the truth about the death of prominent transgender activist Marsha Johnson.
In the next few weeks look for an upcoming post on “Kicking the Stone,” a wonderful short story by Barbara Leckie in Salamander, one of the literary journals that’s one of the offerings from the Journal of the Month Club.
Later in the winter and spring we will be exploring work by Jean Marie Bishop, Elinor Gadin, and suffragist scholar, memoirist, and playwright, Pam Swing and her student playwright co-author, Elizabeth Dabanka. We are also seeking to interview several others working with the Heroine’s Journey in a variety of disciplines.
We will also be focusing on how the Heroine’s Journey can be applied to social activism and, hopefully, collaborating with others working on similar projects.
We would love additional suggestions from our site visitors. Send the name of a book, story or film with a sentence or two on why you think it follows the Heroine’s Journey and we will review it as we work to expand our lists. Meanwhile, may your lives be full and your burdens light.
This chalkboard mural by Coty can be found at the wonderful Green Goddess Cafe in Stowe, Vermont.
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.
Eden 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 TheHero 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.
In 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.
Written by Sage Calder; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
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…”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.