State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: The Hero’s Journey

State of WonderThis week I read the novel State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. While there are aspects of the book I might quarrel with (the characters are mostly unlikable, and an element of the ending rang false to me), for the most part I thought it did exactly what a novel should—it entertained and enthralled. I wanted to keep turning the pages. I wanted to find out what the heck was going on and what would happen in the end. And it gave me some things to think about. A writer really can’t ask for more.

That was my reaction as a reader. As a writer, I had a slightly different reaction, and that was to marvel at the book’s structure. I recently read The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, which adapts Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and applies the concept of the hero’s journey to the plots of films and novels. Now, I don’t know if Patchett had these works in mind as she was writing this book, but her plot is an almost perfect rendering of this classic story structure.

The following discussion contains some plot spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book, you might want to stop here.

Based on Campbell’s work, Vogler describes 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey:

  • Ordinary World. In State of Wonder, the story begins in the laboratory of Dr. Marina Singh, our hero. We see her at work and at home, in communication with her lover, Mr. Fox, and pursuing her ordinary life, which is almost immediately disrupted by the news of the death of her colleague and friend, Dr. Anders Eckman, while he was working in the Amazon.
  • Call to Adventure. Eckman’s wife Karen and Mr. Fox both urge Singh to go to the Amazon to find out what happened to Eckman; Fox also wants her to complete Eckman’s mission, which was to find out what was really going on with the research project Fox’s company, Vogel, was funding in Brazil. (Hmm, could Patchett have been making a sly nod to Vogler with the name she chose for this company?)
  • Refusal of the Call. Singh does NOT want to go, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that she thinks it odd that her lover would put her in danger.
  • Meeting with the Mentor. Campbell and Vogler make it clear that characters can fill the function of various archetypes, and it might be that Fox is also considered Singh’s mentor. Or maybe the mentor is Eckman, who is absent; she does recall various conversations she has had with Eckman about the mission in the Amazon, and ultimately she decides to go.
  • Crossing the First Threshhold. Getting to the nearest city, Menaus, Brazil, isn’t easy.
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies. There’s the trip, the dreams caused by the malaria drugs, lost luggage. The driver her meets her seems to be an ally. The Bovinders, who sort of work for Vogel’s chief researcher and occupy her Menaus flat while she’s out at the research station in the jungle, may or may not be allies or enemies, but they are certainly gatekeepers, meant to keep Dr. Singh away from her goal.
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave. But finally Singh manages to get past the gatekeepers, and travels with Dr. Swenson, the researcher, deep into the jungle. (There are possible Heart of Darkness parallels here, also.
  • Ordeal. Dealing with Dr. Swenson is ordeal enough, but there are other challenges as well—the bugs, the anaconda, and, most importantly, the emergency surgery Singh must perform.
  • Reward (Seizing the Sword). By surviving the ordeals, Singh earns a measure of acceptance and is let in on the secret of Swenson’s research.

I was serious about that spoiler alert above; here it comes!

  • The Road Back. Based on Swenson’s comments, Singh concludes that her colleague Dr. Eckman might still be alive, held prisoner by a nearby tribe. Taking Swenson’s assistant/adopted child Easter with her, she approaches the other tribe. But the only way to free Eckman is to give them Easter, which she does.
  • Resurrection. Back in the research camp, Singh and Eckman make love and make plans to return to the United States.
  • Return with the Elixir. Singh returns. She doesn’t quite have the drug in her possession that was supposed to be under development, but she does have the secret of the jungle.

In addition to these stages of the Hero’s Journey, Campbell and Vogler name the various archetypes of myth: Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, and Trickster. It isn’t difficult to assign these archetypal functions to the characters in State of Wonder.

This discussion doesn’t really help us understand the novel, and so familiarity with Campbell’s work isn’t at all necessary. But for me as a writer it is fascinating to see how another writer, whether consciously or not, applied this classic structure to her work.

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  1. Nicely done. The recognition of Vogler’s structure and the structure of State of Wonder seems a classic coincidence in that you’d only recently read Vogler’s work. I didn’t understand the relinquishing of Easter to the tribe, but I guess that was fully explained in the story. I doubt that I could follow such stringent criteria. I prefer to let my characters work their magic and lead my writing.

  2. Enjoyed your analysis — I was focused on the many instances of people taking on challenges and realizing they are unprepared. Marina’s emergency C-section as a resident; Anders’ focus on birder manuals for his trip to the Amazon, rather than protecting his health; Marina and Mr. Fox going to Anders’ home to tell his wife about his death, with no plan for how to help her after she gets the news; Marina’s multiple losses of her ‘kit,’ leaving her physically unprepared for the heat, the sun and the insects; Annicka Swenson’s poor preparation for pregnancy and birth at her advanced age. All of these explorations of poor preparation are better understood through the lens of the hero.

    My sense is that Marina’s “return with the elixir” is a secret pregnancy, that Patchett signifies through her changed attitude towards chewing bark. The Lakashi women are “repulsed” by the bark from the moment of conception; the morning after Marina and Anders celebrate their safe return with sex, Marina decides not to indulge in the bark, which she has been heavily consuming and stockpiling to take with her.

    I have pondered the last scene, where Marina drops off Anders and tells the driver to go on. She has already made peace with deceiving Mr. Fox and Vogel, and is very protective of Annicka Swenson. I think she is on her way back to the Amazon, to take over Annicka’s role as leader of the research team and protector of the Lakashi — and perhaps to shelter Easter, if he decides to steal a canoe and return to the research station. He certainly knows how to navigate the rivers!

  3. I absolutely loved this book. So rare to be this engaged with the plot and characters, to continue thinking about them. After a couple of days, I decided to re-read it, to see how the author set it up, what clues were there, etc. Yes, it’s a classic hero’s journey, including Marina’s ability to say no to Dr. Swenson about returning and taking over her work. I don’t think she will do that, although I do agree she is pregnant with Eckman’s child. Their sleeping together at the end seemed very human to me, if foolish in the long run. The characters seem mostly very real. Dr. Swenson lies about Eckman’s death as a way to put closure on his disappearance and shut everyone up. She doesn’t want people coming and meddling in her empire. And then we learn that she had lied to the “dangerous” tribe and told them Easter was dead when he was still recovering from his ear infection. Later, she says of this child, “He’s mine,” and yes, I expect he’ll find his way back to her. She will do anything to get her way.
    I didn’t believe Dr. Swenson would vomit after the discussion with Marina of the mushrooms and their effects. She’s too tough, always in control of her emotions. I don’t think she’d be suggestible like that. And I think they would have had better showering/cooking facilities since Vogel was picking up the tab for everything. She has no trouble spending the company’s money and not being held accountable for how she spends it.
    I think the book is also about attachment: who people connect with, attach to, how those attachments are broken by various levels of betrayal or shared secrets.
    I read TRUTH AND BEAUTY, Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with the poet Lucy Greely, and enjoyed it and the quality of the writing, too. I plan to read Patchett’s other work now. Her writing, plotting, and characterization are superb.

    Thank you, Cliff, for alerting me to this blog post.

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