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Kavalier and Clay + Campbell

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I'm posting this entry in the extended entry as it contains spoilers. It's not worth reading unless you've read the book. But if you've read the book, please visit and offer your thoughts on the question I pose.

meta has posted her detailed entry on Kavalier and Clay, and at least three of us (myself included), found the Antarctica part a bit strange.

I like the Antarctica as a separate storyline, but within the context of the book the transition into it does feel jarring. However, it is important as it demonstrates Joe's character sacrificing the only life he has actually saved in order to get revenge on a pathetic symbol of Germany. Also, I think, but may be wrong here, that Chabon is trying to mimic Campbell's journey of the hero, in which the hero must journey into the Underworld (Antarctica). It would be an appropriate allusion, given the comic book superhero theme.

I pulled this list of the eight steps in the story of the hero according to Campbell from a Web site. A story doesn't necessarily need to have all eight, but often hero stories follow this framework. I will point out here that I am only vaguely familiar with the work of Campbell.

1. the miraculous birth of the hero;

2. the childhood of the hero;

3. the withdrawal from the world to cope with the internal aspects of life;

4. the quest or the road of trials, coping with the external aspects of life;

5. the confrontation of physical death;

6. the descent into the underworld and the confrontation with the depths of the self;

7. the ascent from the underworld, usually with the help of a woman; and,

8. the immortality of the hero and the discovery of his oneness with the universal spirit of life or divinity.

So, for those of you who read the book, do you think that Chabon is trying to have Joe Kavalier follow the path of the hero, or is the comparison coincidental?

Update: this appears to be closer to the specific framework that Campbell outlines in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (note the belly of the whale). This page has a more detailed description of each:

I. Departure
- The Ordinary World:
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Supernatural Aid
- Crossing the Threshold
- In the Belly of the Whale

II. Initiation

- The Road of Trials
- The Meeting with the Goddess
- The Woman as the Temptress
- Atonement with the Father
- Apotheosis
- The Ultimate Boon

III. Return

- Refusal of the Return
- Magic in Flight (The Chase)
- Rescue from Without
- Crossing the Return Threshold
- Master of Two Worlds
- Freedom to Live

Comments (4)

Can you link to Campbell's page?

Sounds plausible. Makes me feel better about Antarctica in the context of the story.


See the updated entry. As some more background, Star Wars is considered to be a Campbell-ian story, which Lucas admitting as much, which is why people like me are familiar with Campbell. The Matrix is also considered to be based on Campbell's work (among many other things).

Andrew Wu:

I've tried to read Campbell since he's popularly cited, but have not really been impressed. I don't think the comparison is coincidental, but just that similar structures appear often because they work, narratively, in practice.


Agreed, the dramatic framework is common, and I think of Campbell's work is to elucidate this common narrative structure.

Another thing to think about is whether or not Joe Kavalier is a (super)hero. I suppose one has to start there before answering whether or not he is a Campbellian hero. His superhuman powers exist only on the story page or in the sleight of hand, but the entire book juxtaposes his actions and those of his comic book creations.

BTW - I got to thinking an another story that seems to follow the Campbell framework is Stephen King's Gunslinger. It's not a particularly good book, but the simplicity of the book makes it easier to fit it to the list.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on April 8, 2004 11:39 AM.

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