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.

Is Divergent a Hero’s Journey or a Heroine’s Journey?

The 2014 film Divergent (a loose adaptation of the first book in the young adult dystopian series of the same name by Veronica Roth) follows sixteen year old Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she navigates crises of self-identification and political conspiracies. In the film’s futuristic version of Chicago, citizens are separated into factions based on defining traits: Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (bravery). Some members of the society, however, are categorized as Divergent, meaning they have behavioral elements which correspond to more than one faction and as a result they are perceived as threats to the carefully organized system. Of course, our protagonist Tris happens to fall into this latter category.

Tris is assaulted by three masked attackers. Upon unmasking one of them, she realizes it is one of her closest friends. Her sense of betrayal is immediately apparent.

The film presents many of the same aspects of the novel that could be categorized as touchstones of a Heroine’s Journey. Tris, as a Divergent, seeks a sense of wholeness that her fragmented society denies her. She leaves home and the comfort of her mother’s unconditional love to pursue a life in the predominantly male Dauntless faction. She is betrayed by someone she had believed to be a good friend when he attempts to sexually assault her, which fundamentally shakes her worldview.

In repackaging the narrative as an action film, however, Tris’s emotional journey is weakened and her action-based journey becomes the main focus. This shift in perspective causes the film to be read most easily as a typical Hero’s Journey. Tris begins the film in the Ordinary World of her life in Abnegation, unaware of the existence of Divergents. Once she takes the requisite placement test all sixteen year olds must take, her Call to Adventure occurs when she is forced to choose between factions and expected to choose to remain in Abnegation. Her Refusal of the Call is quite clear: she chooses to leave.

Tris undergoes a typical training sequence with her mentor/romantic interest Four.

Upon arriving in Dauntless, she has a Meeting the Mentor moment when she meets a Dauntless leader named Four (Theo James), who takes her under his wing as he is himself an Abnegation-to-Dauntless transfer. (He will also become her love interest, despite the sizable age difference the film adds. In the novel, there is a year or two between them; in the film, it is closer to eight years.) Tris Crosses the Threshold into a New World when she begins engaging in Dauntless training, quickly Meeting Tests (physical fights that she initially loses), Allies (a few friends such as Al, Will, Christina, and Uriah), and Enemies (the bloodthirsty Peter and Eric).

She suffers an emotional Death when she is assaulted by Peter and Al, but this Death results in her Rebirth as a stronger, hardened member of Dauntless. Along the way, she learns of the plan to wipe out her former faction Abnegation by the intercession of her brother, with whom she is supposed to have no contact. This fear drives her for much of the film, and when it becomes clear that the Erudite faction intends to do much more than just wipe out the Abnegation by means of mind-controlled Dauntless soldiers, her status as Divergent allows her to escape unharmed. She ultimately proves victorious and Seizes the Sword while engaging in a battle with the Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), whom she stabs and then injects with the same mind-control serum the leader used on the Dauntless.

By the film’s end, Tris’s journey is far from over, but with three films remaining in the series, it is clear that Hollywood intends to present her journey as a female Hero’s instead of as a Heroine’s.

The Journey of Christopher Vogler

While researching hero and heroine journey arcs, I came across a piece by Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood Development Executive, who claims to have played a central role in ensuring that the hero’s journey narrative has dominated American movies over the last thirty years.

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero's Journey

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero’s Journey

According to Vogler, while studying cinema at the University of Southern California, he came across Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s with a Thousand Faces.  Having seen Star Wars, he recognized the similarity between the plot of that movie and  Hero’s Journey arc described by Campbell and wrote a paper for a class theorizing that a key to the Star Wars’ success was its tracking of  the hero’s journey.  Later, when Vogler began working  as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, he applied his theory to the scripts that came across his desk.  He also talked with several of his colleagues who apparently found his ideas interesting, but not earth shattering.

However, before long Vogler got a job at Disney which had a strong corporate culture under Michael Eisner’s and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s leadership. Vogler reports that memos were a big part of Disney’s corporate identity, and everyone who worked at Disney at that time had to learn the memo art form, following the example of Katzenberg, an absolute master.

Yoda-in-Star-Wars-Episode-1According to Vogler, the discipline of writing succinct development notes and story coverage and research memos kindled within him a desire to “once and for all” get all of Campbell’s ideas down as creative principles and to use them as building blocks for constructing stories and tools for troubleshooting story problems.  He took time off from his job as a story analyst and spent a week in New York with his friend, David McKenna, watching movie clips, then came back and wrote a seven page memo which he refers to as “The Memo that Started it All” and sent it to Disney executives.

At first not much happened but Vogler had faith, picturing his memo flying off fax machines all over town.  And sure enough some people began to take notice.  Before long a junior executive at Disney saw the memo and tried to pass it off as his own.  Vogler, alerted to the usurpation by a colleague, immediately sent a memo to Katzenberg  asserting his status as true owner and asked to be elevated to story development.  Katzenberg immediately called Vogler and put him  to work  doing research and development for The Lion King.  When Vogler arrived he found “the Memo that Started it All” had preceded him, and the animators were already outlining their story boards using the Hero’s Journey stages. Thereafter Vogler’s  memo served as a springboard for numerous other hit movies,  his own book, and a teaching gig at UCLA.  According to Vogler,  people continue to attribute special powers to the  original seven-pager, and at one point, a museum dedicated to screenwriting requested a copy for a display of milestone documents and books in the history of screenwriting.

The-Lion-King-the-lion-king-33799433-1920-1080If Vogler’s description of his success and  formative role in  American movies sounds a little contrived, perhaps its because Vogler’s story of his own success so neatly tracks  the steps of the  tale on which he has made his fortune– complete with entry into new world (Disney) absolute master mentor (Katzenberg), enemies and allies (the usurping junior exec. and Vogler’s loyal colleague), success that nearly goes off the rails twice (first when the memo goes unnoticed and a second time when the junior exec. tries to appropriate Vogler’s memo), and his kinsmen’s final affirmation  of  special powers and his place as an enduring leader of the screenwriting tribe.  Of course, it’s possible that some people experience life in exactly this fashion.

To be sure, the hero’s journey is the narrative pattern for Disney children’s movies and many American coming-of-age films and weekly television dramas. (However, many American films made prior to 1970 also follow the hero’s journey pattern, and many critically acclaimed films made in and out of the United States have more causally complex  or ambiguous patterns and themes.  To see an analysis of Academy Award winning films that follow and don’t follow the hero’s journey pattern, click here.

And, you  might also ask yourself,  what if a woman had written the memo?  And then, written another memo about what  happened to her when that young junior executive  passed off the ideas of a lowly female story analyst as his own?  Might her  second memo have plotted a  different, heroine’s tale?

We will never know.  Instead, we have this website.   We may have some catching up to do, but we are not starting from scratch– as future blogs and other pages of the site illustrate,  women such as Maureen Murdock, Victoria Schmidt, Carol Pearson, and Jean Shinoda Bolen have covered much ground that we hope to expand upon.  We  invite you to  join the conversation and contribute your stories as well.