I’m currently taking American Visions: The Hero in Film with Professor Gillin. In this class we discussed the classic hero structure presented in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. This book analyzes in depth fairy tales and folk lore across many cultures, looking for similarities in the stories. Campbell boils down the structure of the classic hero adventure tale into segments.
I thought it would be fun to see if I could fit Ricky Rice’s character arc in LaValle’s big machine into Campbell’s theory. According to Campbell, every adventure begins with an initiation he refers to as “the call to adventure.” This is the beginning, what sparks the hero upon their journey, what causes them to cross the threshold of the mundane into the supernatural. This can occur on purpose or by mistake, either way the adventure has begun. For Ricky Rice, I would say his call to adventure is the letter and ticket he mysteriously receives at the start of the novel, which causes him to leave his ordinary janitorial life and venture into the unknown.
This is where Campbell’s call to adventure differs a bit from what I have put forth as such in Big Machine. Campbell identifies that often the call to adventure is delivered by a supernatural creature, being, person, or animal, called the herald. He makes no mention whether the herald could be an inanimate object like a letter. Cheryl (Ricky’s boss at the start) could be considered a herald because she gives the letter to Ricky, and nothing says the herald has to have a significant importance in the story besides the call. Or maybe there is no herald.
Following the call to adventure, the next checkmark in Campbell’s list is supernatural aid. This could be a witch or wizard giving the hero some sort of magical weapon or a fairy godmother bestowing a dress. In Big Machine, there are two people who in my opinion could be considered aid-givers; the Dean or Lake. I think the Dean and further the institution of the Washburn Library may serve this purpose. They/He gave Ricky a job, a cabin, food, and outfitted him with clothes. However, this doesn’t fit perfectly because the Dean does a pretty poor job of preparing Ricky (as we find out later in the novel, because of his own selfish goals). Ricky is barely given directions, is left mostly in the dark, and everything in the Washburn Library is outdated. Also, the supernatural aid according to Campbell occurs before the adventure begins, and some readers may consider the adventure underway by the time Ricky arrives at the Library. Lake may fit better because he is the first to usher Ricky, literally driving him, into the adventure. But Lake doesn’t really give Ricky much help besides that, and the only piece of aid I can find is him simply stating “this is the Washburn Library.” Aside from that, he offers little help.
After this comes the crossing of the first threshold and the “Belly of the Whale” moment, in which Campbell states that the hero is swallowed into the world of the unknown. Often this first threshold is accompanied by a guardian of the threshold with which the hero must compete, defeat, impress, or do anything else in order to pass. I think the scene that works best with this part of Campbell’s theory is when Ricky and Adele go into the sewers and Ricky first meets a Swamp Angel and becomes impregnated with their offspring. Belly of the Whale moments are often characterized by mystery and darkness, exactly like the sewer, alluding to the hero’s lack of experience with the supernatural world he has entered. However, I don’t think the Swamp Angel fits as a threshold guardian as Ricky doesn’t need to do anything to pass into the world of the Voice.
“The road of trials” is the next part of the hero’s journey. These are the struggles and tests the hero faces which show their strength of character as well as give the hero more knowledge and experience of the supernatural world. In Big Machine, the four days Ricky and Adele spend in Garland, tracking Solomon Clay, traveling to the Washburn Estate, learning more about both Clay, the Voice, and the Swamp Angels mimics the road of trials. All the struggles Ricky goes through serve to develop him into a more mature hero who will be able to use the knowledge he gains to complete his quest.
The following part of Campbell’s journey states that the hero then completes their goal, which is most often recovering some sort of item, and begins their return to the mundane world. However, before he or she can reenter the ordinary, they are faced with a final test. There are multiple ways I see this fitting into LaValle’s novel.
The easiest answer to me is that it doesn’t really work, perhaps because this is not the end of Ricky Rice’s story. Ricky’s accomplishes killing Solomon, but does he really succeed if the cost is the death of innocents? And after he kills Solomon, there’s no “final” boss he must face at the end of the novel. Perhaps if Ricky were to try and defeat the Dean this would work more into Campbell’s theory.
Or maybe the completion of Ricky’s goal occurs when he finds out that he is pregnant, and therefore Solomon would be a final test. Once it is confirmed in Ricky’s mind that he is carrying the child of a Swamp Angel, his goals shift so that he becomes at odds with the forces he initially worked with, the Washburn Library, and it could be argued the quest fundamentally changes from killing Solomon to providing a safe world for his child.
The fundamental final part of the hero’s journey is the “return with elixir.” This means that once the hero returns to the mundane, he uses what he has brought back to benefit a larger group of people or society. We see this when both Adele and Ricky comfort Ravi and tell him their story, imparting upon him the wisdom that everyone deserves a second chance.
I think it’s pretty interesting how much of Campbell’s outlined steps of adventure apply to Big Machine. Especially because LaValle plays with time and point of view a lot, often using flashbacks to events years or even decades prior. However, Campbell’s theory only accounts for the steps of the hero’s journey, it doesn’t go into what makes a hero. I’d be interested to know if anyone considers Ricky or Adele a hero. We see both characters at their worst, doing drugs, murdering, lying, and more, but don’t all heroes have flaws? Most of the heroes I know from Greek and Roman mythology are not perfect people. Hercules kills his wife. Theseus pillages a temple and slaughters all inside. If our only standard is Campbell’s rigid structure, I think the answer would have to be yes, especially because Campbell stresses that while not all hero stories check all the boxes, it is central that at the end they benefit someone else somehow, which both Ricky and Adele do. However, because Ricky’s motives change throughout the story it is hard to perfectly apply The Hero With A Thousand Faces to Big Machine.