The Genres of the Monomyth: Beloved, Moby-Dick and the American Epics of Transformation

Just as there are different types of literature, there are also different approaches to understanding and interpreting them. One method is the Monomyth as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has become a dominant model in recent years. A possible reason for this lies in the importance of the hero in social mythology: during the current major paradigm shift in the Western world. Many of these heroes are on an individual quest, paralleling the Jungian process of individuation, rather than a journey to save the civilization of a society. The relevance of this model suggests that the hero’s journey has become the central theme in Western epic. Another method is found in Louise Cowan’s introduction to The Terrain of Comedy in which she models another approach to literature, identified as the Genre Wheel. She uses this wheel to outline a theory of genre, inspired by Aristotle, as applied to literature. The four categories of genre – lyric, tragedy, comedy, and epic – and their subcategories are convenient categories for cataloguing entire works. This wheel can be further applied to individual works, thus creating a system akin to the Monomyth, except that it captures the sensibility, or phenomenon, of each realm of the journey, making it about the experience of being a hero, as opposed to a stair-step process of literary criticism.

To elucidate this claim, I will look at two social epics, tightly linked to the psyche of America: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published in 1851 during the height of Romanticism in American literature, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987 as a response to the lack of adequate narrative literature detailing the difficulties of African Americans faced while adjusting to a life after slavery. Though written in different centuries, both epics are nonetheless set during the same time of American history (1851-1873). Their respective sensitivities to all of the related issues have endeared them to the literary canon.

Joseph Campbell outlines eight steps to the hero’s journey (with embellishments): 1) the call to adventure, 2) the threshold guardian, 3) the threshold crossing, 4) magical helpers, 5) trials and ordeals, 6) confrontation with the boon guardian, 7) the return threshold, and 8) reintegration and sharing the boon. These steps he very nicely diagrams into a circular image, to stress the continuity of the journey (see Figure 1 in Appendix). In the myths that employ this model, they end once the hero has accomplished his or her task, but for the readers life continues. Our own hero’s journeys are on-going and are likely to continue as long as we are living.

This disconnect between literature and reality is brought to a compromise in Cowan’s Genre Wheel (see Figure 2), which also takes the hero on a similar cycle. The lyric realm is the hero’s point of origin. It is a period of implied innocence when the psyche of the hero is untarnished and relatively pure, “the place of origins and sources, the land of heart’s desire, symbolized by the garden” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10). The only way the hero gets to return to this realm is by transcending to a state of bliss, the foundation of which are the life experiences built from passing through the other three realms, akin to the Jungian process of individuation, or the Buddhist experience of Nirvana. Only after he or she has found peace, can the hero return to the lyric. From lyric, the hero can proceed to either the tragic or epic realms; however, modern Western literature favors sending the hero through tragedy to experience a cataclysmic event that initiates the journey as though it is essential for the hero to forcefully leave his or her old myth behind in order to embrace the epic myth of society and civilization. Indeed, this reflects the very nature of the United States – and entire country built by immigrants who have to, often, sever ties with the Old World to forge ahead and forage for the American Dream of wealth and prosperity. In contrast, if the hero ventures from lyric to epic, then he or she is willingly undergoing a quest for a something. Presumably, based on the configuration of the wheel, the hero then ends in tragedy. Tragedy is understood to be “marked by the sudden catastrophe of the loss of a garden state” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10), and is associated with the death of the hero. Yet tragedy can also be recognized as the inability to return to the lyric state, because something is left incomplete in the hero’s mission, and the narrative concludes before we get to its resolution. Joseph Campbell would recognize this state as belonging to one who does not follow their bliss, and undergoes the epic self-journey for success only to reach a profound state of unhappiness in mid-life or beyond.

Regardless of the direction a hero takes, he or she must inevitably pass through the comic realm, “the realm of faith, hope and love in a fallen world: endurance, regeneration – the community within the city” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). This is the alchemical vessel that prepares, percolates, and performs the hero’s transformation. Every action of the hero affects the community, and in the comic realm, the hero relies on the community for support: they form the helpers who train, arm, and prepare the hero for the Battle of the Boon that stands at the threshold of return and the next realm.

The narrative story of Beloved moves Sethe from lyric through tragedy, comedy, and epic, before attempting to return to lyric. Moby-Dick, however, recounts Ishmael’s journey, inextricably linked to those of Queequeg and Ahab, from lyric, through epic, comedy and into tragedy, and concludes before attempting to return to lyric. The terrain of comedy is diagramed as the underworld, which it indeed is. It can be viewed as a Jungian unconscious underworld where transformation and individuation. It can similarly be viewed as the realm of imagination – the cesspool where all the shit is stirred with the nutrients of life.

The time period that birthed the mythic reality of Moby-Dick and the historical reality of Beloved was one of major transition for the United States. The honeymoon phase of the colonial idealism was ending, and the United States had not yet emerged as a super-power. The issue of slavery very nearly tore the nation in two, while the Romantics and Transcendentalists concurrently wrote of the inherent beauty of the land. No one was keen on addressing the tensions of the cultural shadow. In literature, only the Gothic Romantics, which include Melville, were writing about the shadow, without necessarily writing about the shadow. Melville was writing as the Industrial Revolution took over the nation, and Moby-Dick is not a salute to the beauty of nature, but more of a criticism of human’s attempt to own and manipulate nature. When Toni Morrison wrote Beloved, it was after the post-slavery dust had settled with the collective efforts of all the participants of the Civil Rights era. Beloved recounts the struggle of slavery, as epitomized in the trinity of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Sethe is the tragic hero who suppressed and bore the burden, Denver is the voice of progress and healing, and Beloved is the shadow itself that links the two. As long as Beloved is around, healing cannot begin.

It is irrelevant that these two novels are separated by a century. Both are written in the spirit of mythopoesis, which divorces their plots and settings from the actuality of time and history. Furthermore, that Morrison was able to write Beloved when she did suggests that the issues manifest in both novels of the cultural shadow carried through the turn of the century.

Ron Schenk, in his recent article in Spring Journal, identifies Captain Ahab as “American personified,” who, quoting from a different edition of Moby-Dick, piles “’upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it’” (Schenk 12-13). In this way, Ahab is the Anti-Captain America, after the comic book superhero, because he goes after the whale to destroy, not to rescue and restore. This destructive nature is inherent in the American psyche, Schenk further argues, relating to the founding of the nation by Puritans who equated themselves to “God’s Chosen People” in the Old Testament (8). Similarly, Morrison recognizes slavery as akin to this behavior. To the Colonial and Post-Colonial Americans, slavery was quite literally the recipient of the dark shadow projections of the American psyche: “There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness,’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated” (Morrison, “Playing” 37).

For Melville, it is a great, white whale. For Morrison, it is the ghost of the crawling-already? baby. Both of the heroes are haunted by this shadow and either have to conquer or be engulfed. Neither Ishmael nor Sethe is able to conquer their shadow, although Ishmael nearly died trying, and Sethe feel into a lethargic apathy, unable to shoulder the burden any longer. Both offer an image of what can happen if the cultural shadow goes ignored: Ishmael is sucked into and becomes a part of Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of his shadow projected onto the whale, allowing the obsession to overtake him. A modern manifestation of this image is the United States’ “War on Terror,” an obsessive revenge mission to find a figurative White Whale in the desert ocean of ideology. As the years following 9/11 and the quest of the Pequod demonstrate, it really is a futile mission that does more harm to the crew than to the actual whale. There is only one survivor, Ishmael, who is rescued by the wooden coffin inscribed with the life-force of Queequeg, his spiritual brother and protector. Sethe, on the other hand, avoids the shadow until it literally stares her in the face, begging for attention. Even then, she still does not confront it, only spoils it out of guilt and perceived affection. It requires the entire community unified under Denver to exorcise the shadow leaving Sethe without energy to continue. I would offer that this is exactly the environment in which Melville found himself writing, a sort of cultural “Now what?” – “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison, Beloved 322). But the shadow is elusive to time. While both epics attempt “to look away from the past and to see the American future as either a new beginning or a new synthesis” (B. Cowan 227-8), in the end they wind up right back at yesterday, but are hopeful for change.

Turning now to the Monomyth/Genre Wheel journey, the call to adventure comes in the lyric state. For both the journeys of Ishmael and Sethe, we join them in media res, having already accepted their respective calls. Their lyric state is far from being “a realm of love (not law), wholeness, consummation, joy – the right order of being…” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). This state is associated with Edenic qualities, meant to characterize love with the divine and an innocence of the hardships in life. Yet, to an extent for our heroes this is true. Both behave as if they have already seen the worst of the worst, and neither believes that the journey confined within the novel will be in actuality the worst they have experienced yet. Ishmael’s call is driven by his own melancholy and a sense of adventure. He knows that it is time for a change:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses … and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. (Melville 18)

For Sethe, on the other hand, her call begins when she sees schoolteacher walking down the drive. One could say that her call comes when she escapes, when schoolteacher’s nephews abuse her, when she hears herself compared to animals, or even as early as the death of Mr. Garner. Rather, Sethe’s time at Sweet Home is what she brings into this new adventure, convinced that nothing she could be worse. In fact, however, it is schoolteacher coming to the house on 124 Bluestone to collect her family that defines, ultimately, the journey of Sethe in Morrison’s novel. She believes 124 is an Edenic paradise and falls into a very lyric state until schoolteacher comes, pushing her across the threshold.

Tragic Threshold Sethe’s journey diverges from Ishmael’s in that she leaves the idealism and hope of the lyric state and enters into the tragic state. When she kills the crawling-already? Baby and nearly kills the other three. She is convinced that killing them is the only way to protect them from the same fate that happened to her. For her, Schoolteacher and his nephews are “the lowest yet” in her life, and no one – especially her children – should have to endure that. Tragedy is understood to be the “realm of suffering – loss, fragmentation, pain…” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). Before schoolteacher’s visit, Sethe bears the marks of a slave, and she is no different than the rest of the community; however, afterwards she is marked as a prideful murderer. She puts up the walls to hide her pain and loss, which only invites the ghost to visit. But like her dress at the hands of Paul D, her walls tumble down and the pain threatens to engulf her. She ignores it, favoring the company of Paul D, forcing it to come back to her. Fortunately, “[d]eep within the wound is the power of healing; the wound is then a paradox because it contains within it the impulse to bring the parts back together – to rememory them” (Slattery 215). “What we see through the body marked and violated is that memory itself is deeply wounded, scarred, and in need of a counternarrative that heals” (Slattery 209).

Epic Threshold Ishmael, in contrast, when he leaves his melancholic state of Eden travels through the epic threshold, aspiring to undergo an voyage such that “the great flood-gates of this wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my innermost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (Melville 22). He arrives into New Bedford in preparation for his voyage to Nantucket, where he will embark on a voyage. Cowan defines the epic realm as “taking place in some sort of natural surrounding, struggles to build or cleanse or govern this larger order, the just city. Hence, the epic goal … is no longer Eden but the New Jerusalem, the major human enterprise redeemed and made new” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10). This is the terrain of civilization as a whole. On the Wheel, it is opposite tragedy, which is the terrain of the individual. Because Ishmael wants to leave the land in pursuit of one of the largest creatures on earth, it can be suggested that Ishmael desires an attack against humanity itself, but, as he lacks the prowess, he goes after leviathans instead, which is ultimately more humane. Clearly, he is unhappy about some aspect of civilization, as he is driven by melancholy to remedy whatever it is within himself that manifests as the conquest: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Melville 20). That his path should converge with Queequeg and Ahab reflects the complexity of his epic undertaking. Queequeg is a savage, but “just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manner. His education was not yet completed. He was an undergraduate” (Melville 38). But he is “a human being just as I am: he has just enough reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him” (Melville 36). They meet in New Bedford and share a bed together in a symbolic spiritual marriage. Ishmael cannot do this journey alone. Ahab represents the fire within Ishmael for this epic undertaking. His obsession with Moby Dick reflects the conquest of humanity versus nature; he is “the ‘Apollonian’ destructive character undoing the old social contract” (B. Cowan 239). It is his failure that brings Ishmael to a tragic return.

The Comic Underworld Cowan observes that comedy “endures and perseveres in a fallen world … making its way by mutual helpfulness toward a community of love within the larger order of society” (10). Acknowledging the comic underworld as an alchemical vessel, love becomes the catalyst of transformation, represented by the coniunctio. During this cycle of Genre Wheel qua Monomyth, this catalyst represents the development of a new kind of love, as seen in Beloved, or a loss of love, as seen in Moby-Dick and the loss of Queequeg. Following Dante, Cowan divides comedy into three spectra: inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso. If the Genre Wheel is in fact another outline of the Monomyth, then it follows that all heroes must pass through these three spectra before completing the journey. It also stands to reason that if one proceeds through the tragic threshold, then one will pass inferno to paradiso, and vice versa if coming through the epic threshold.

Captain Ahab takes Ishmael on his voyage of vengeance, driven by an unparalleled madness that Ishmael associates with madness fueled from his injury (Melville 156). The journey of the Pequod is, from the outset, one long allegory of the defeat of humanity’s hubris. In the Paradise stage, Ishmael is idealistic and ready to go along with Ahab’s mission – he eyes the doubloon nailed to the mast as a marker of the challenge of the hunt (Melville 138). But the sighting of the squid soon turns Ishmael into a purgatorial state, such that he grows melancholy about his chances of surviving the voyage and rewrites his will with Queequeg (Melville 189). Gradually, he realizes that the sea is more than he had imagined, that to go after the leviathan, specifically this whale, is more than a typical whaling voyage. Like the American movement towards spreading Democracy all over the world, Moby Dick will not be easily converted, and his resistance shakes the foundation of Ahab’s (and Ishmael’s) mission, moving the story into the inferno state, as the legends of the whale actualize in Ishmael’s reality.

Sethe’s story moves in the other direction. Her inferno begins with a devilish red flash as the baby-ghost resists the entrance of Paul D into 124. Though she feels love for the first time in years, she is still tormented by her past. She daily tackles the Sisyphean task of escaping it, only to be shoved right back into the re-memory of it. The reappearance of Paul D after eighteen long years is the most catastrophic reminder she could receive, second to the reappearance of schoolteacher. Morrison’s narration makes it clear that Sethe’s view of the world is skewed, if not a little naive, but driven solely by her pride. Because she had good experiences working for the Garners and was not mistreated by the Sweet Home men, she grew into believing she was entitled to her different treatment, so when the nephews mistreat her, she believes that running away is her only option. When schoolteacher arrives to bring her back, she believes that killing her children is her only option, which it is within the context of Morrison’s narrative. But she never takes the time to work through her experience – she puts on a metaphorical tough skin similar to the scar tissue on her back and thinks no more of it – until Paul D touches her, and the emotions and re-memories of a life she thought was behind her comes back again. Beloved’s appearance marks her entrée into purgatorio, for this “girl” is Sethe’s chance at redemption, to make up for her actions. Is she making amends to Beloved or to herself? Morrison’s narrative is vague on this issue, but through the eyes of Denver, it seems to be a little of both. Paradiso occurs after Beloved is gone and Sethe retires into the Keeping Room. There is not anything left for her, nothing else to run away from, and nothing else to fight. Sethe finds a state of “bliss” while Denver takes her place in the outside world, embarking to complete the journey Sethe cannot.

Epic Return Sethe’s contribution to the community is tied to her legacy in Denver. If the Epic terrain is the mythology of civilization, then Denver’s entering the world marks a “successful” passing/transition from slavery to freedom with the new generation – the first generation born into freedom. This has many American parallels outside the context of slavery, notably the first generation born after the American Revolution, the first generation born after World War II, affectionately dubbed the Baby Boomers, and this novel among the first generation of African American literature post-Civil Rights. This epic transition is at the core of the American mythos: the illusion of freedom and the newness of a new state of consciousness, contrasted only by the realistic hardships and actualities of the past.

Tragic Return Tragedy begins on the Pequod with the near death of Queequeg and the building of his coffin, culminating in the confrontation with Moby Dick. The tragic realm is the realm of the individual, and, as is so often the case, the demise of all the people he or she brings along for the adventure. This is the reality of the American mythos. The illusion of freedom has created a society of individuals, each acting in their own best interest. Ahab tries to conquer the world through Moby Dick, only to realize too late that he cannot. Could Melville have been foreshadowing the failure of the Democratic Gospel?

Both books leave us hanging. Ishmael recounts his story as he remembers it, but we do not know what happens to him next and thus do not know if he made it home to lyric Paradise. Sethe and Denver are starting a new life of hope, but still, there is no assurance they have returned to the lyric domain. Sethe’s retirement suggests that she found some lyric peace, but Denver is just establishing herself in the outer world, and the novel ends with the hope and a sense of redemption for the African American people as a whole, not just the triad of characters. The American civilization needs to recognize its parallels in these novels: we are a country founded on an endless journey, but surely somewhere they have to end, or are we, collectively, destined to walk in the previous generations’ footsteps? Beloved seems to loop right back into Moby Dick, and Moby Dick back into Beloved (like Sethe, Ishmael has a heavy burden to escape from). Is this the ever, never-complete cycle? Louise Cowan comments, epics appear when society is in a transition (L. Cowan, “Epic” 22-3); however, these two epics themselves one hundred years apart, reflect a transition into constant flux, as though our civilization is trapped on a Möbius strip and cannot get off.



Figure 1 – Monomyth


Figure 2 – Genre Wheel

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd Ed. Princeton: Bollingen, 1968. 245. Print.
  • Cowan, Bainard. "America Between Two Myths: Moby-Dick as Epic." The Epic Cosmos. Eds. Larry Allums and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992. 217-46. Print.
  • Cowan, Louise. "Introduction: The Comic Terrain." The Terrain of Comdy. Ed. Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984. 1-18. Print.
  • —. "Introduction: Epic as Cosmopoesis." The Epic Cosmos. Eds. Larry Allums and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992. 1-26. Print.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Print.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.
  • —. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1992. 36-55. Print
  • Schenk, Ron. "Captain American and His Zealous Blast." Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture 81 (Spring 2009): 1-21. Print.
  • Slattery, Dennis Patrick. The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of the Flesh. Albany: SUNY P, 2000. Print.