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

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

Wonder Woman: Another Hero’s Journey Hollywood Success

Leading up to, and since its release, the DC superhero(ine) movie Wonder Woman (2017) has garnered approval for partaking in the new wave of “feminist” movies due to its female director (Patty Jenkins) and protagonist. The movie follows Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who, having grown up in a mythic land surrounded only by powerful women, struggles to achieve success in a man’s “real” world (both on and off the battlefield) and make sense of her identity. Placing a confident woman hero on the big screen is a success for female representation in the film industry, but the movie does little to alter the typical male heroic plot. Some have argued that Diana’s completion of Hero’s Journey is long-needed proof that the monomyth applies to both men and women, but this ignores countless women who’ve already gone through the Hero’s Journey, and men who’ve completed the Heroine’s Journey. We believe that, while this movie shows young girls and women that they can take the main stage, it fails to present them with any alternative to the masculine narrative society usually demands they fit themselves into if they want to succeed.

In the recent movie, Diana’s story begins on the secluded, paradisiacal island of Themyscira, and it is all Diana has ever known. This is her ordinary world where she feels safe and comfortable, and yet, there is tension between her and her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who forbids her from learning to fight, knowing that Diana’s growing strength makes it easier for Ares (David Thewlis), the god of war, to discover and destroy her. Diana looks up to her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who goes behind Hippolyta’s back to teach Diana to fight and is a strong role model (mentor) for the young superheroine-to-be. Diana refuses her personal call to leave the island out of respect for her mother’s wishes—to a certain point. However, the death of her mentor and her second call to adventure coincide when World War II pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes from the sky and convinces Diana that the world beyond her island cannot be ignored.

While many Hero Journey characters metaphorically cross the threshold, Diana literally crosses the veil that separates and protects Themyscira from the time-bound outside world currently engaged in WWII. Diana encounters her tests, allies, and enemies as she befriends those fighting with Steve (Samir, Charlie, and Chief) in the war, struggles to comprehend the suffering around her, and combats the villainous Nazi doctors (Ludendorff and Dr. Maru). As the team goes through their approach and prepares to confront and defeat the doctors creating weapons of pain and destruction, Diana reaches her ordeal when she decides to cross through No Man’s Land.

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Diana successfully crosses through No Man’s Land.

Through this scene, Diana recognizes her potential and secures her position as a leader. There is reward in the trust she has gained and the brief moment of peace experienced by the small town she liberates. For a moment Diana imagines a less chaotic life with Steve, but she’s not deterred from continuing with their plan to kill the Nazi doctors and thus end the production of their weapons. The group finally confronts Ludendorff but is unable to prevent the death of the people of the small town Diana liberated only moments ago. Diana eventually kills Ludendorff, but this does nothing to end the war, and she grapples with the reality of this. Diana loses faith in the possible goodness of man but when Steve tells Diana she is the best equipped to save mankind, she accepts all her superhuman powers and fights Ares (e.g. Resurrection). Having accepted and fully achieved her role as a superhuman weapon, Diana turns Ares’ power against him and defeats him, thus reaching the climax of the movie. Having been recognized as a leader and savior by Steve—the ones who counts in Diana’s mind—the movie jumps to Diana in the modern day where she continues her commitment to fight for justice, keeping the picture of her times with Steve close at hand.

Wonder Woman’s message that a Hero’s Journey can be completed by both women and men is not revolutionary, although it is a positive development that Diana, as a female hero, isn’t immediately killed upon completing the journey’s arc. At its core, the movie reinforces the masculine Hero’s Journey paradigm rather than moving toward a larger vision of wholeness. Throughout her journey, Diana seems to only come closer to the preordained role she already desired. She questions the efficacy of violence when she succeeds in killing Ludendorff and nothing changes, but instead of altering her worldview and coming to terms with this, she doubles down and confronts Ares to destroy him and end the war.

There is ironic beauty in Diana defeating Ares by harnessing his own power and turning it against him, but this is not a new, un-masculine tactic (for example, in the conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang strips Ozai of his power to end his tyrannical rule instead of killing him). Diana kills the god of war, and in the flash forward to the future, she seems to still be content with this. She accepts her duty to protect mankind even if they do not deserve it but falls short of healing a mother/daughter split. Diana does not have to reconcile her view with her mother’s admonition that “fighting does not make you a hero.” In the present “real” world, Diana Prince—Wonder Woman—still fights in the name of justice, and ultimately is stuck within the constraints of the Hero’s Journey.