When examining the word “hero” a great deal of confusion or uncertainty may come over the thinker regarding the actual definition of the word. This sense of indecision has to do largely with the ambiguous nature of the word hero. In truth, a hero can be the protagonist of a story or a person who exhibits a set of ideals and acts in a certain honorable or admirable way. Oftentimes it is difficult to ascertain whether or not a character deserves to be called a hero in the later sense of the word. (Kiley) An excellent device for determining hero-status is following the character through the story using the model of the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell first published extensive literature on the idea of the Hero’s Journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces where he examines “The Adventure of the Hero:”
“The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. Therefore it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres? Those are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.”
— (Campbell, 121)
Campbell’s description of the journey or adventure of the hero strays from the generalized idea of a strong man fighting a dragon and saving a princess. Campbell says that the term hero exists in a very broad and general world, and it simply takes courage and intellect to discover one’s own boundaries in this world. With this is mind, the roles of the protagonists in The Guide and Midnight’s Children can be examined in relation to the various steps of the Hero’s Journey and their hero-status can be revealed.
The first stage of the Hero’s Journey is called The Separation. During the two steps in this stage, The Call to Adventure and The Threshold, the hero is first given notice that everything is going to change, whether he knows it or not and is forced to venture into the unknown. In Midnight’s Children it is unclear when Saleem actually faces his call to adventure. This is due largely in part to the disconnected nature of the novel. At the age of thirty-one, Saleem is attempting to record his history in relation to the history of India as an independent nation. Along the way, however, Saleem ventures off into stories about his family and their various misadventures. By definition, Saleem’s call would be when virtually his entire family is killed during the bombing of Bombay. Though this event does not take place until the end of Book Two, it is the first time Saleem is faced with a world outside his normal environment. Strangely enough, Saleem stumbles into his role as a hero without even knowing what quest he must complete. Saleem crosses the threshold with almost no memory of his past and finds himself in the Pakistani army. It is at this point that Saleem becomes a hero in the second sense of the word and is no longer simply the story’s main character. Saleem must set out to reclaim his life and satisfy his “desperate need for meaning” (Rushdie, 190) and thus encounter the world outside his own.
The disconnected nature of The Guide makes it difficult to pinpoint Raju’s call and threshold, just is it is hard to decipher when Saleem encounters his heroic mission. Unlike Saleem, Raju has not had the call waiting for him all his life. Saleem was born with a sense of duty and purpose; his mission was to find out what that purpose was. Raju on the other hand leads a very simple life, one that he finds tedious and repetitive. It is this sense of ennui that drives Raju to answer his call to adventure. Growing weary of the life of a station shop manager, Raju begins an entrepreneurial venture into the realm of tourism. Acting as a guide, Raju dazzles tourists almost as much as he swindles them. Though this venture is different than his life as a shop keep, Raju does not actually encounter his call until he meets Rosie. Rosie acts as a catalyst for change in Raju because his “life is so blank without [her] presence” (Narayan, 63). Raju crosses the threshold when he takes on the role of Rosie’s manager and lover. It is harder to identify where Raju encounters his call and threshold because he does not embody the typical characteristics that a hero does, at least much less than Saleem does. In addition, Raju has the capability to adapt very well to new and unusual situations, thus it is difficult to say when exactly he is placed outside his normal, comfortable environment. Change in Raju, much like change in his comfort with his environment, is much less obvious; as he tells his story to Velan, it is almost as if he is trying to tell it objectively. This makes it much harder to determine whether or not Raju is a true hero.
The second stage of the Hero’s Journey is called the Initiation. During this stage, the hero encounters many Challenges, faces his Greatest Trial, endures a Transformation and achieves Atonement. It is almost as if Saleem is in a daze when he enters into this stage, stumbling through the threshold into an adventure he does not expect. Saleem begins the Initiation Stage in the army; used as a tool for sniffing out enemies, Saleem does his job just as a dog would- unquestioning and loyal. However, Saleem soon begins to realize that he still is on a quest to find his purpose, and in turn leads a group of three young soldiers on a mission through a deadly jungle. This is one of the first challenges that Saleem faces. Survival is obviously an issue in the dark and dangerous unknown, but there are several other dangers as well. Temptation is a common challenge that heroes face. Saleem and his companions encounter four young maidens in a hidden temple who trick the men into believing the jungle is safe to stay in. When they realize that the maidens are only dangerous illusions, they flee the jungle and Saleem makes it to civilization safely. After several challenges, Saleem faces his greatest test when he is arrested along with all the other Midnight’s Children. Locked in prison, Saleem tries to rally his companions to not lose faith and to remain optimistic that they really can change the world. Saleem also faces his adversary and fellow Midnight’s Child, Shiva, who Saleem has been avoiding for his entire life. However, Saleem’s will and desire to live overpower his fear of Shiva and this empowers Saleem to keep trying to “save the country” (Rushdie, 444). His release from prison and subsequent return to the magician’s community marks Saleem’s transformation into a father who is responsible for the life of another, not merely for himself. The birth of Aadam serves as both the catalyst for Saleem’s transformation as well as his source of atonement.
The value of Raju’s journey through life is again more difficult to determine than Saleem’s. Because Raju’s change throughout the novel is much less apparent, it is difficult to relate to him or to understand his motives. However, the Hero’s Journey’s second stage applies to Raju as well. Raju faces challenges such as whether or not to continue his relationship with Rosie. Though the thought of the affair does not seem immoral to Raju, he becomes paranoid about getting caught, which shows that he gives consideration to the illegalness of his actions. Raju also faces the challenge of financial insecurity due to his lack of care and attention given towards his neglected station shop. Because Raju has become bored with the shop, he let it deteriorate into a nuisance for the station manager and a worry for his mother. Raju’s immaturity and insensitivity contribute greatly to the fact that he even has to deal with challenges. If it were not for Raju’s self-absorbance and self-centered nature, he would probably live a relatively carefree life. Instead, Raju falls in love with a married woman, gets into debt and is forced to take on yet another role as Rosie’s manager in order to organize his life. While Raju thinks of Rosie’s dance career as an opportunity for success and empowerment, he overlooks the negative side of the situation. With an inflating ego and a continuing disregard for finances and stability, Raju sets himself up for his greatest test. More often than not, the hero wins this final battle, but in The Guide, Raju fails miserably. As he forges Rosie’s signature, Raju signs away his life of comfort and happiness. Despite this, by failing the greatest trial and going to prison, Raju allows himself to change. By setting himself up in the old temple, Raju allows himself the opportunity for a transformation unknowingly. Figuring he has no where better to go and nothing better to do, Raju decides to act as a holy man in order to remain fed and sheltered. It is not until the very end of the novel that Raju transforms into the swami who for so long he just pretended to be; at the pinnacle of Raju’s spiritual role-playing he follows through with the transformation that he very basically started while he was in prison.
The final stage of the Hero’s Journey is titled The Return. In this stage the Hero crosses back through the threshold into the world that he once knew. After being released from the Widow’s grasp, Saleem recovers his son and returns to Bombay, the place of his youth. In Bombay Raju locates his former ayah and second mother, Mary Pereira. Saleem relieves Mary of her duty as pickle factory manager and settles into his new life. It may seem anticlimactic to have the hero return to a life of pickle making, but for Saleem this is a period of relaxation. He furiously tried to record his life-history only to discover that “the future cannot be preserved in a jar; one jar must remain empty…” (Rushdie, 532). This is the “gift” that every hero receives; for Saleem that gift is the realization that the life and legend of the Midnight’s Children will live on in his son and on and on for generations. Despite the fact that Saleem believes his “dream of saving the country was a thing of mirrors and smoke; insubstantial, the maunderings of a fool” (Rushdie, 517) he does not think that Aadam and his fellow second generation children will fall victim to the foolish dreams of their parents. In this way, Saleem ends his story with a hint of hope that generations to come may triumph over the weaknesses of their birthright.
Raju too faces a return to the known world, but it seems as if his return comes before his atonement. It is not until the very end of the novel that “for the first time [Raju] was learning the thrill of full application, outside money and love; for the first time he was doing a think in which he was not personally interested” (Narayan, 212). Thus for the first time in his existence Raju is not acting selfishly. Returning to the free world, Raju still harbors resentment for people who do waste his time or bother him. But as time goes by, Raju becomes more and more aware that his role of a swami does not merely affect him, but it also affects the minds, souls and spirits of the people around him. By doing something that genuinely affects people, Raju allows himself to open up to the idea of helping others and contributing to a community. For this reason, it is possible that perhaps this revelation is both Raju’s atonement as well as his gift. On the other hand, Narayan ends the novel on a rather ambiguous note; it is unclear whether or not Raju dies at the end. If not, then perhaps his gift is still waiting for him later in his life. Perhaps the rain that soaks the earth as a result of his faith will act as a reward for his challenges, his transformation, and his contribution to the lives of the villagers.
Ultimately, it seems as though the Hero’s Journey can be applied to almost any novel, which is perhaps what Campbell was aiming for. Campbell acknowledges the vastness of the world and in this broad spectrum of life, the possibility for ambiguity and multiple definitions of hero. While the term “hero” may be applied to the protagonist of a story, the deeper meaning of the word, when applied to a novel, can enrich the story’s meaning. When faced with trials and tribulations, human beings are ultimately fallible. However, the ability to overcome defeat and to rise above internal and external battles is a quality that lies within each person. Everyone has the capability to be a hero, it simply depends on whether or not they are willing to change and grow through that experience. In both Midnight’s Children and The Guide, the protagonists are able to overpower their demons and to face the world with a new perspective, and thus can be classified as heroes.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Bollingen Foundation Inc., 1949
Kiley, Anne. English 358/Religious Studies 313 – Papers 1 and 2 (2003)
Narayan, R.K. The Guide. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1988.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York, Penguin Books Ltd., 1991.