Searching for heroines (I): Hester Prynne

What exactly is a female hero — ie, a heroine? In this post and the next, I’ll put forward two possible models.

Today: The model of Hester Prynne (above, with her baby Pearl) and Demeter (below).

Even though one is a character in 19th-century American fiction and the other a Greek goddess, you may, by the end of this post, agree that they tap into the same archetype of female heroism.


So far in this series exploring heroism, we breezed through all sorts of mythical and timeless heroes, both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian). The presumption has been that they are all different and yet all the same, because they tap into archetypes of human storytelling (this is called the Monomyth theory).

But along the way we repeatedly slammed into the “problem” of women. Is there a female version of heroism?

(We’re not, by the way, just talking about an individual being brave, or admirable, or good. You can be all of those things and yet not be a hero.)

I engaged the topic with an opening salvo on Joan of Arc, but the prodigious debate that ensued in the comments taught me, and I think all of us, that we were in an intellectual cul-de-sac. We need an entirely different way of approaching the topic of feminine heroism. We cannot just graft male archetypes onto female protagonists to declare them heroines.

Female as opposed to male heroism

Implicitly, the monomyth relies on male archetypes of heroism:

  1. A young man proves himself to be unusual in some way, usually by passing a test by, or for, or against, his father. (For example, Theseus moves the boulder to find the sword left there by his father, King Aegeus.)
  2. The lad then receives a call to adventure, and follows it.
  3. He leaves society in an act of autonomy and individualism, crossing thresholds (for Theseus, the dangers along the road to Athens) to emphasize this separation.
  4. He meets women along the way, but they are probably temptresses, femme fatales or helpmates (Ariadne, for Theseus).
  5. He finally succeeds in his quest (in Theseus’ case, killing the Minotaur, liberating Athens), and
  6. returns to society, bringing it a boon (Athenian democracy).

(Now you might be able to see why I looked into the story of Joan of Arc, even though she was a historical rather than mythical character: her journey hewed closely to these male archetypes.)

A female version would look quite different. Meredith Powers apparently explored this in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature. I haven’t read it, but I listened to some lectures on mythology by Grant Voth, which he bases on Powers’ book.

Here, according to Powers and Voth, are the differences:

  1. Instead of some tense situation between father and son which marks the son as hero, it is now the deep connection between mother and child, and probably mother and daughter, which marks the mother, not the daughter, as the heroine.
  2. The ‘call to adventure‘ takes a totally different form than for men. It is probably some oppressive inflexibility in patriarchal society that threatens the mother/daughter dyad.
  3. In answering the call, the heroine does not leave society in an act of (male) individualism, but stays within it. As Powers puts it: “alone, apart, she accepts herself as a living critic” of her society.
  4. The heroine then form new bonds of solidarity with other women and
  5. also gives a boon to society in the process, a civilizing gift of a communitarian nature that is good for the group.

Example 1: Demeter and Persephone

Demeter was not, of course, a heroine but a goddess, but for Powers she establishes the archetype. Demeter (the Romans called her Ceres, whence our word cereal), was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She was the sister of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.


The love between mother and daughter is our archetypal starting point. So what is the call to adventure?

It comes in the form of a deal between her brothers, Hades and Zeus, whereby Hades is allowed to abduct Persephone and take her as his wife in the underworld. This is classic patriarchy: Zeus is the mightiest of the gods as well as Persephone’s father; Hades is Persephone’s uncle.

Demeter is beside herself with maternal grief and for one year becomes barren — meaning that the crops fail. Her brother Zeus realizes that he has destabilized Olympian society and tries to placate her.

But Demeter does not accept the abduction. Nor, however, does she confront or attack Zeus or Hades in a test of power. Nor does she exile herself from the Olympian family. She stays within it.

As she does so, she wins the solidarity of other women, including her (and Zeus’ and Hades’) grandmother, Gaia, and mother, Rhea. Together they sway the men to soften their stance.

Finally, they reach a compromise. Persephone is to spend half of each year with her mother and half with her husband. The first half becomes spring and summer, the second becomes autumn and winter.

Thus Demeter gives her boon to the world: It is called agriculture, and introduces the rhythms of fertility, where every death (Persephone’s departure) leads to a rebirth. Everybody is better off.

Example 2: Hester Prynne

Those of you who are American and have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, probably already see how its heroine (for that is what she is!), Hester Prynne, is really a Puritan Demeter.

Hester bears a child, named Pearl, out of wedlock in 17th-century Boston. This makes her an adulteress, so she must wear a prominent and scarlet letter A to bear the public shame.

Here, too, the archetypal love between mother and daughter is our starting point. And again, the call to adventure arrives from an inflexibility of patriarchal society: the community demands to know who Pearl’s father is. Hester goes to prison, then stands for hours on a scaffold in Boston. But she accepts the call to adventure: she does not divulge the father.

Again, Hester is, in Powers’s phrase, “alone, apart, a living critic of society.” She embroiders the Scarlet A as though to emphasize it. She does not leave Bostonian society (although she will later go to Europe before coming back). Nor does she attack it.

Instead, she reaffirms the act that created her daughter and the relationships around it.

And she changes society in the process. Years later, she returns to Boston with her boon. She does charitable work. Society now respects and admires her. Everybody is better off.

64 thoughts on “Searching for heroines (I): Hester Prynne

  1. great post. i was just telling some friends about the discussion that occurred after the joan of arc essay. we then briefly talked about what exactly might make a woman a hero(ine).

    but powers and voth came up with much better than anything we did. when i read their ideas, the first female that comes to mind is vianne from the movie (and book) ‘chocolat.’ i suppose it has something to do with my having watched that movie for a second time a few weeks ago…

    • well, we still wanted a heroine to possess courage, but figured it would be played out differently than with male heroes. bravery, but not physical strength. more of a meekness — power under control. we thought self-sacrifice should be involved. and we kept trying to put nurturing in there somewhere.

      that’s about as far as we got before moving on to the next trivial pursuit question…

  2. Interesting and I look forward to the discussion.

    I must confess though that I’m not convinced we have the definition we need. I’m not usually one to invoke the patriarchy but it seems like the definition of heroine according to Powers and Voth is a woman who behaves as expected by the patriarchy. Demeter and Hester Pryne are both transgressive women who atone for their sins by doing what women are supposed to do (i.e., be maternal) and by improving the lot of others.

    But maybe male heroes are also living up to some expectations as well?

    • Hang on. How are they doing what is expected by the patriarchy? They are maternal out of instinct (as Heracles is virile out of instinct), but what the patriarchy expects of them is, in Demeter’s case, to accept the abduction of Persephone and, in Hester’s case, to feel ashamed and disclose who the father is.

      At a meta, meta, meta level, all archetypes more or less have to do what is expected (eg, Hercules = strong etc), otherwise they would not be archetypes. But for there to be a story, they also have to do something unexpected.

      I think Hester’s got a good bit of heroic resistance going for her…

    • I agree when you look at it that way. I’m not being facetious but I guess it depends on which layer you define as the meta layer. Yes, Hester and Demeter go against the grain in the specific instance. And at some level that may make them heroines. But the denoument is them “returning” to patriarchal acceptability by assuming the roles they are supposed to.

      So maybe we are back to the problem of who is defining hero(in)ism and the happily ever after for heroines must of necessity be a display of maternal instincts.

  3. Your title amuses me. If we have to ‘search’ for them, are they heroines?

    There is something painfully self-conscious about this inquiry.

    During the Brezhnev years, Bernstein (in an almost certainly apocryphal story) had dinner with the conductor of a major Soviet orchestra. In a heated discussion about anti-semitism, the Soviet conductor says:

    “There is no anti-semitism in Russia. In my orchestra, out of 120 musicians, 80 of them are Jews. And Jews comprise only 3% of our population. Can you say the same of your orchestra? How many Jewish musicians do you have?”

    Bernstein: “I have no idea.”

    We’ll never get there.

    In the meantime, I’m with Thomas. And don’t think that it’s just the patriarchy imposing its go-be-a-good-mother message. So, we bring the world a boon by bonding with other women? That’s gonna work great in my dissertation in the Women’s Studies Department. A heroine for the world of academia. The rest of us have already dozed off.

    • “…That’s gonna work great in my dissertation in the Women’s Studies Department…”

      Somehow I have trouble picturing you writing dissertations in Womens’ Studies Departments…

      “…Your title amuses me. If we have to ‘search’ for them, are they heroines?…”

      Irony granted. Somewhat to my surprise upon innocently starting on this thread on heroism, I am finding myself having to embark on this tangential search. But the topic came up, and it caught my interest. For the time being.

      Notice, btw, the (I) in the title. You might like (II) better…

  4. Have any commenters on the Hannibal Blog been following the discussions on and other sites about the fact that women are conspicuously absent from today’s agreed-upon pantheon of serious English-language novelists, and why this is so?

  5. I want a heroine, a common want,
    When every blogger’s post sends forth a new one,
    Till whining commenters weigh in with cant,
    And we discover she is not the true one.
    Of such as these we should not care to vaunt;
    Is there no lady thrilling as Don Juan?
    Jeanne d’Arc was crazy; Hester is a bore;
    Twas ever thus: men paint us saint or whore.

    joking, joking….

    • There once was a quest to find the heroic,
      tho’ it was a blog, and thus prosaic,
      but you’ll have your lass,
      and not without sass,
      so till the next post remain stoic.

  6. First you write about my favorite myth, Demeter and Persephone, and follow up with one of my favorite classics, The Scarlet Letter. I’m overwhelmed, Andreas!

    The abduction of Persephone is sometimes referred to as the Rape of Persephone for she, innocent and young picking flowers in the field, was so unaware of the dark forces that move about and through a life, had no idea of what was to come. (Possibly a hint of the unconscious in youth that projects all the good and zest which is there for the picking.) The young Persephone is present in both genders archetypally of course.

    The tale is rich and full and lavish. The tale concludes with the moral that Jungians adore in that while down in the bowels of the earth Persephone takes and eats of the seeds of the pomegranate offered to her by Hades before she reemerges to the upper world symbolizing that she has learned something from this suffering, this tortuous experience. Yes, she has found some meaning.

    This weekend I watched a modern and fabulous rendition of myths with three grandchildren. Hades was depicted with every horror imaginable and I covered the eyes of one of the wee ones not counting myself this Persephone, this Demeter.

  7. Pocahontas is one,
    Says me in fun.
    And why not agree amicably?
    Transformation is needed
    And there she suceeded,
    By all accounts of the young,
    A myth and a Heroine in one.

    • Pocahontas ain’t the lass
      in the next post, alas;
      but perhaps thereafter,
      I say without laughter,
      for she had balls of brass

      (PS: What rhyme scheme is that you’re using? Me knows only Limmerick…)

    • Ere you write of the Pocahontas maid
      Be sure to read what John Barth said
      In The Sot Weed Factor, where he explained
      That her maidenhead could not be gained.
      (According to Barth the maiden’s hymen
      Was impervious to normal men.)

      But Captain Smith succeeded and won the maid
      He used an eggplant as an aid
      He earned her everlasting devotion
      And that’s why she saved him from execution.

      I apologize profusely, but you asked for it. If you haven’t read The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, I recommend it–highly amusing and very creative. His Pocahontas and Captain John Smith fall far short of any definition of hero and heroine!

  8. Andreas – “….Do you want to point us to a specific article on Slate…..?”

    Not to a particular one, because there are several. But one (I don’t remember which) said that women novelists are not regarded as seriously as are their male counterparts because women as novelists think ‘small’, whereas men as novelists think ‘big’.

    Could this be one reason why ‘heroines’ are not regarded as seriously as are ‘heroes’?

  9. With a title like this, don’t be surprised if one of these days an illiterate DEA SWAT team will bust into your house.

    The German drug company Bayer named its new over the counter drug “Heroin” in 1895. The name was derived from the German word “heroisch” (heroic) due to its perceived “heroic” effects upon a user. (Wikipedia)

  10. @Andreas…no rhyme scheme that was planned.

    Of all the myths the story of Persephone in Hades is my favourite. I always think of it on Halloween night; the only time I could have a pomegranite. Thanks for the post.

    (PS: Don’t forget Pocahontas – she’s all gold and bright yellow.)

  11. @ Andreas – “……My initial reaction (and, as a rule, I distrust my initial reactions) is to find that unpersuasive………”

    Satoshi Kanazawa would probably tell you to always trust your initial reactions (I think Satoshi Kanazawa would be right on this).

    Your initial reaction would be right in this case, because I, in my comment, neglected to use the word ‘perceived’

    Hence I should have said that, according to the writer of article I had read, women as novelists are perceived to think ‘small’, whereas men as novelists are perceived to think ‘big’.

    However there is lots of evidence that this perception isn’t true. But it passes as true because perception is, as we know, reality.

    • The gripe is basically this (as I recall): Franzen writes a novel about family and all of America hails him as the next Tolstoy. Women write about family, and everybody shakes their heads and bemoans the miniature, domestic scope of the female imagination. So, yes, there has been a perception that women (we’ll leave Pocahontas out of this) think small. It’s a variation on the ‘men are assertive/women are pushy’ problem.

      I haven’t read enough contemporary fiction to say whether this argument has merit. Could be that some just write about family in a grander way than others.

    • Funny, the first thing that came to my mind as I read your two comments was what a “small thinker” Aeschylus was. I’m sure that he must have been a women using a male nom de guerre.

      Just take his Oresteia: Father kills daughter, wife kills husband, son kills mother. Purely domestic, all in the family.

  12. Jenny – “…..I haven’t read enough contemporary fiction to say whether this argument has merit…….”

    The New York Times appears to think that novels by men have more inherent merit than those by women, because it’s been found that it reviews nearly twice as many novels by men than by women.

    Since the New York Times is by common consent the repository of the Truth, we must accept that its choices over which books to review are the right ones.

  13. When I was an undergrad psychology student we learnt about experiments that have been repeated many times over in which an exam paper or essay is submitted for marking using either a male name, a female name or an ambiguous name. In every experiment, the papers with a male or ambiguous name would be scored more highly than those with female names … even though the paper being marked was the same paper. This so impressed me that many years later when I was submitting a thesis I legally de-gendered my name so I could have it examined without using my female name. And because this was not a scientific experiment and I had no “control” condition I’ll never know if the result — first class honours — had anything to do with femaleness and its assumed absence.

  14. @ Solid Gold “……the papers with a male or ambiguous name would be scored more highly than those with female names … even though the paper being marked was the same paper…..”

    If it’s not now already being done, universities might best hide the names of those who write examination papers and theses from those who mark or grade them.

    Universities would thereby do what symphony orchestras now routinely do with auditions.

  15. @jenny/Lady M: haha! Charlotte Bronte and her sisters, Emily and Anne, were sisters twice over too:

    “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”

  16. When I was a kid I was taught that true heroism was performing our duty day in and day out without fanfare and without ostentation. Thus there are millions off unsung heroines nad heroes on this planet.

    • Yes, but in this thread we’re examining the archetypes inherent in the SUNG heroes (those in our myths, folk tales, legends etc).

      Calling the day-in-day-out stuff “heroism” is sort of like printing money: leads to inflation, does it not?

  17. Japanese animation artist Miyazaki believes a girl can be a heroine. This movie, Spirited Away, is so beautiful I can hardly stand it. One of the reasons that I think little Chihiro (of all names!) is a real heroine is that even boys like this movie.

    If Hannibal Blog readers with children and grand-children are not watching this movie, they should be.

    • The trailer is beautiful indeed. I know nothing about anime. But this heroine is off to an Odysseus start: her parents turn into pigs. That could be her call to adventure….

  18. What adds to Hester’s heroine status is the backdrop of the supernatural (also an element of American Romanticism…think the Headless Horseman, Moby Dick, most of Hawthorne’s short stories).

    Hester’s status causes note in her town and in the reader.

    Her electrically charged little gem, Pearl, seems of another world (she is! the natural world), the scarlet A on Hester’s bosom radiates heat and seems to move, Dimmesdale, Prynne, and Pearl form an “electric chain” on the scaffold–that rock solid symbol of puritan punishment– and constellations blink in the night sky in the shape of an A. (May have stood for Andreas, who knows?)

    All of these cool images, as backdrop to Hester’s austere life at the edge of town, elevate her literary legacy to heroine.

    I used to ask my students what they thought Hester and Pearl did after the sun went down and what Hester did after Pearl went to bed.

    Made for some fascinating discussion.

  19. Surely they snuggled, especially in the winter there on the East Coast.

    As to the question of what Hester did with herself after Pearl fell asleep, one student suggested my question ought to have been, “What did Pearl do after Hester went to sleep?”


    Hard to stay ahead of these kids, nowadays…

    • I seem to recall, though (it’s been years since I read it) that Hester would NOT have snuggled with Dimsdale, for there wasn’t much in the way of ooh la la after the Pearl-generating act.

      Pity. If you’re going to be scaffolded anyway, might as well….

    • Cheri: Of course, the question is what was Pearl doing. This idea of mother as heroine is contrary-to-human-nature nonsense.

      Andreas: Go. Be. Elsewhere.

      The Breakfast Club here will take care of itself. The worst thing that will happen is we will run through the halls and dance in the library.

  20. No, Andreas. Hester and Dimmesdale made eyes at each other throughout the book. And then, they went back into the forest when they had hoped to escape…before the final scaffold scene. Oh god, all my hormonal girls were hoping they would get it on and get out…

    But the pirates came to the settlement. There was a distraction. Roger was in the crowd…he knew Arthur was trying to get out with his woman….it wasn’t too be. Plus, Christianity stepped in.

    Teaching this story to girls is like teaching Ethan Frome to boys…terribly, sexually frustrating.


  21. ….”momentous life events of a positive nature require me to be elsewhere”…


    boy or a girl?

    best wishes regardless if my guess work is sloppy.

    • Good to have you back, dafna.

      Thanks for the generalized congrats. But we’re on the open internet (where nobody, famously, knows whether you’re a dog), so I’ll leave it at that, if you don’t mind.

  22. So THIS is how you get me back into the discussion, Andreas! Sorry I’ve been away for so long; I’ve been trying to right myself back in America. It has not been easy. So. I’ll admit that I only scanned the comments so far, so if I repeat anything … that’s why.

    I’ll say this again because I think this post illustrates more than ever that you are not looking for female heroes; you’re looking for feminine heroes. Otherwise, why the reluctance to apply supposedly “male” archetypes to women? Aren’t archetypes, by definition, supposed to be universal and all deep-seated in every human psyche? Or are men’s and women’s psyches so essentially different?

    Part of the problem, I think, is that you have established as your resource pool for hero(in)es a really, really sexist group of stories. That is, Greek myth. I wager you would have absolutely no problem applying “male” archetypes to women in modern movies. Especially modern action movies. I’ll cite Helen Mirren in Red as only the most recent example. Or, as jenny insightfully pointed out, Chihiro from Spirited Away. Cuz we’re not nearly as sexist as the ancient Greeks.

    It wouldn’t bother me so much if you weren’t searching for a model. Cuz models aren’t only supposed to account for previous experience but future behavior as well. And, since heroes are people who are cherished in society, heroes are supposed to highlight some aspect or quality that is cherished by society. The dominant society. So you get discussions like JamesBrett had, in which he and his friends “kept trying to put nurturing in there somewhere” for no other reason that I can gather than women ought to be nurturing.

    A large part of me hates the Persephone myth. It’s the part of me that hates society for expecting women to be heroically steadfast in the face of sexist bullshit. Sexist bullshit that isn’t even addressed. Note, for instance, that Demeter’s heroism comes in mourning, a passive action, which just happens to invent the seasons. Her heroism does not come from, say, ensuring that men (be they gods or not) are no longer free to steal whatever daughter they feel like raping on a given day. That might be too proactive for a mother.

    Isn’t it curious that your reiteration of the myth doesn’t address–not once–Persephone’s desires? You say in the end that everyone is better off, but what about Persephone, who by the end has to feel like a just a lump of meat with a vagina, bartered and traded by her brothers. Yeah, I bet she loved that.

    I must resist the bitterness I’m sinking into, which I must add is not directed at you, Andreas, but these patriarchal attitudes.

    I’ll grant that there is a kind of heroism here, but I don’t believe it falls along a male/female dichotomy. Instead, I would label it a mainstream/minority dichotomy. Take, as two examples, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ll try to illustrate this, using the points listed by Powers and Voth.

    This kind of hero, to me, is one who seeks to radically shift the structure of the mainstream in order to account for her or his personhood, identity. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Hester Prynne were all subject to a rigid system that denied their full personhood and autonomy. Gandhi was Hindu, not even Indian because India didn’t exist; Martin Luther King, Jr. was black, considered subhuman by the white ruling race; and Hester Prynne was an adulterer and therefore damned, no longer a full member of her Puritan community. All three of them experienced a “call to adventure” within a society that defined them as Other. For any minority group simple existence is a call to adventure or, rather, action. All three of them stay within their society because it is their society that is their Wilderness. Daily life is a struggle. Your average “male” hero doesn’t find Guardians and Perils in daily life because he’s already a member of the dominant ruling class.

    Gandhi and King both worked their magic by forging ironclad bonds between the oppressed against the oppressors. Their “boon,” then, was to realign their societies to properly establish a full identity for those who did not have one before. Hester Prynne didn’t change her society till returning to it many, many years later from Europe, but her effects were felt throughout, especially by the women.

    Persephone’s and Demeter’s failure–or, rather, the sinister nature of the myth–is in not changing the patriarchal society to grant women the same rights and dignity as men. But this myth wasn’t supposed to be a heroic one; it was part of a genre that purported to describe the origin of natural phenomenon–why the world is the way it is. “Seasons change,” says our hypothetical myth-maker, “life blossoms, grows and dies. That’s just how it is.”

    “Women are bargained over and taken, raped, by men. That’s just how it is, woven into the very fabric of Nature.”

    To which I respond, “No, sir, it is not.”

    • Welcome back stateside, Chris. It was getting dull around here without you. But now we’re all on the edge of our seats again. 🙂

      “… Aren’t archetypes, by definition, supposed to be universal and all deep-seated in every human psyche? Or are men’s and women’s psyches so essentially different?…”

      Try this analogy (a poor one, but just for this purpose): Archetypes = Genome. Ie, yes, they’re universal (men and women share the same genome, with one chromosome different), but the genes (archetypes) are then “expressed” in different ways. So I would say, yes, men’s and women’s psyches are fundamentally different.

      “… you have established as your resource pool for hero(in)es a really, really sexist group of stories. That is, Greek myth….”

      Totally true. In fact, I’m well aware of the limitations and will stop now. 😉 Why Greek myths? To be honest, because I love them.

      “… For any minority group simple existence is a call to adventure or, rather, action…”

      I think you’re right there. In fact, comparing Hester Prynne to Gandhi and MLK works pretty well here. In the case of all three, in fact, one can debate when and how they changed the society they confronted. (Gandhi died frustrated about the violence between Hindus and Muslims and Partition. He would not have declared “victory” himself.)

    • Chris,

      I appreciate that you have put considerable thought into the feminine. Men who can do that have contact with their own ‘inner feminine’ and it makes for deeper understanding of both sexes to be sure.

      Demeter’s heroism comes in mourning you have stated. My thought is yes it was that and also ‘in the loving’ of her child. I think this mother’s love of her child prompted Demeter to march fiercely to Olympus and demand Zeus return her daughter. I think Demeter wanted to tear his sinister passive-aggressive throat out.

      Demeter was the goddess who held the power in her feminine by making all the lands barren. Demeter had stars flowing from her breasts. Demeter’s rage was strategic and wise; she knew when compromise must be used (feminine) rather than brinkmanship (masculine) and lose all.

      Your thought that mourning was a passive state I considered but I believe its process to be more of an active experience. Sorrow’s agonies, its crushing and hammering blows must be faced lest one be beaten to death from within. Those of us who have mourned, and are still, know that only the brave survive the descent and whether that emotion rises up from the masculine or the feminine psyche I cannot say for certain. I wonder what others think.


    • Hey, Mary Jane, how’s it going? I feel like we’re trying to ascribe heroic status to qualities that are found in all good mothers (loving her daughter, mourning her daughter’s loss). And saying “All good mothers are heroic” is just a skip and a hop away from saying, “[T]rue heroism [is] performing our duty day in and day out without fanfare and without ostentation” (Paul Costopoulos above), which is something Andreas does not want to do. Neither do I.

      Heh, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard someone call Zeus passive-aggressive.

      But … I dunno, I’m unconvinced. In the variants of this myth that I know, Demeter causes everything on Earth to die because she’s too busy wandering, aggrieved, searching for her daughter, to properly oversee the growth and continuation of life. Then, finally, Zeus is like, “Alright, jeez, she’s gonna do this till everyone on Earth is dead; let’s get her damn kid back.” (That’s how Zeus talks in my brain 🙂

      I still say mourning is a passive act, because it occurs completely within the individual. Grief afflicts you, and though you struggle with it metaphorically, this struggle is occurring completely inside yourself. I’m not saying it isn’t hard. I have mourned in my life and it’s terribly difficult. Just like I have little doubt that sitting under a Bodhi tree until you are enlightened or sitting at a diner counter for “Whites Only” while the police come to beat and arrest you for your insolence, is hard. But that doesn’t change the fact that all these things are passive things. That Demeter struggles doesn’t make her heroic in my mind; it makes her human, or … well, at least anthropomorphic. The active thing would have been to go to the Underworld and get Persephone back, which, I’ll add, Hecate (something of a badass and definitely a woman) does in one of the variants of this myth.

      Which, aaaargh, brings me to something else that nags me about this: The monomyth does not belong here. Or so say I. This just isn’t a heroic myth. This is a myth about nature and about the rhythms of life. But such is the nature of the monomyth that it plonks itself down where it isn’t needed and muddies up the original understanding of the myth. Archetypal theory aside, Demeter isn’t a hero in the Campbellian sense of the term. She does not come-of-age; she does not achieve apotheosis. And I think Andreas is forcing a “boon” here.

      The seasons are an unintended consequence of the crippling grief Demeter feels every time she loses her daughter. And it’s no good telling her, “Dem, just give it four months and she’ll be back,” because Demeter’s too crazy-emotional to, apparently, understand that. So the same thing happens every year. That’s the opposite of character growth. To my mind, a Campbellian ending would have had Demeter realize that Persephone’s absence is but a temporary event that makes the period that she is present all the more poignant and sweet, thereby giving her wisdom and stuff, allowing her to usher in an eternal spring/summer during which no one’s crops ever fail ever again! followed by an Ewok dance party.

      Or, better yet, Hades, who in the Campbellian framing would come to symbolize everything nasty and bad in the world, somehow dies/is banished/gets blown up in the Death Star and Persephone returns happily ever after, ushering in an eternal spring/summer Ewok dance party. But maybe that’s the “masculine” version of it. My point is, Ewoks need to dance!

      No, my point is, the monomyth always has a happy ending; the hero always achieves godhood, reaches an inner-peace that transcends the muck of the world. That’s the “Ultimate Boon” that Campbell insists is found in every hero myth. A communal version of this would see this boon bestowed upon everyone in the community.

      But that’s not what happens in this myth. This myth is an affirmation of the inevitability of grief and death, not an overcoming of it. Love does not overcome here; love endures, bittersweetly, at best. In that respect–patriarchal though it may be–at least it is not naive. And I s’pose that’s something to take away from it.

      PS – I’m not saying you shouldn’t use Greek myths, Andreas (and I think your comment about stopping was a joke but I’m just covering my bases here); I’m just saying that you shouldn’t conclude that there are no female heroes or heroic female archetypes or whatever just because the Greeks didn’t write about them.

      What do you think? Convince you of any of this? 🙂

    • @Chris

      I am your friend forever and ever, world without end.

      Waiting to see the results of your Dancing-Ewoks litmus test in Heroines II.

    • “…Convince you of any of this?..”

      Yes, convinced by a whole lot of this, as usual. This is why I so enjoy your comments here. I’ll take one commenter like you over 1,000 of the flame-warrior commenters on our (The Economist’s) web site.

      In particular, convinced by this:

      “…The monomyth does not belong here. Or so say I. This just isn’t a heroic myth. This is a myth about nature and about the rhythms of life… Demeter isn’t a hero in the Campbellian sense of the term….”

      I agree, actually. Notice two things, though:

      1) Voth (and, I assume, Powers) tap into whatever archetype Demeter might represent to call Hester Prynne the heroine.

      2) It’s Voth and Powers who are doing this theorizing, not I. You say that “Andreas is forcing a “boon” here.” In fact, I’m putting their theories on display to discover exactly what you are helping me to discover.

      You also say that ” I think your comment about stopping was a joke.”. Actually no. I am stopping, indeed HAVE stopped, this particular inquiry.

      Recap: Months ago, a commenter here threw this question of whether women can be heroes into the debate and it piqued my interest, so I looked around at the “experts” to see what I could find. Very little, as it turns out. but it was a good ride.

      But the topic is barren. In fact — and don’t take this wrong, Jenny — the women who have followed the thread are the ones proving the barrenness of the topic. (I am extrapolating from comments left not just here but on other blogs.) No approach to the topic pleases them, and yet nobody has yet put forth a new approach. Perhaps there just isn’t one.

      I, meanwhile, move on to other impossible mind-scratchers and eye-brow-raisers. 😉

  23. @jenny

    Ha ha ha, awww, thank you. I thought much the same whilst reading your comments. I’ve read the Psyche post once … I’m still pondering my response. Unfortunately, my being rejects so totally the monomyth that formulating a response is proving difficult. It will come, though; oh will it come!


    Aww, thank you, too. Jeez, you’re gonna make me blush 🙂 I’m glad you enjoy my comments. I respect in the utmost your continued willingness to consider the opinions of us lowly commenters.

    I did not realize that you were “reporting” in this post and not actively “theorizing.” Sorry bout that. I’m actually halfway through a really, really good book (one of the books I was most excited to return to in the US) called, of all things, Psyche as Hero, and one of the first characters the author discusses is Ms. Prynne. The author (Edwards) makes a distinction which I really, really appreciate — between a (masculine-ish) “female hero” and a(n oh-so-feminine) “heroine.” She (Edwards) calls Hester a “protohero” because she (Hester (gah, pronouns …)) doesn’t achieve full herohood, in the end reverting back to a heroine. Edwards blames this on Hawthorne, because Hawthorne could not (and very probably did not want to) imagine a new social context in which a woman such as Hester Prynne could find an avenue to flourish. He stuck, instead, to the dour and oppressive Puritan society (Hester returns, remember), and in order to have a happy(ish) ending, Hester had to integrate herself back into that society, which necessitated capitulation.

    Only after another fifty years, Edwards makes the claim, would storytelling and (more importantly) society evolve such that a fully-fledged female hero could arise. But I haven’t read that far yet….

  24. Whoops, ha! Well, I thought I remembered the html for a link. Guess not…. That’s fine; there isn’t any information (other than purchasing info) on Amazon’s site.

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