A Heroine’s Dystopian Journey: Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth in Caragh M. O’Brien’s Young Adult Birthmarked Trilogy (2010)

Myriam Magro, School of English, University of Sheffield

A single mythological structure underlines all stories repeated throughout human history, across all cultures. Humans create myths through narration to understand themselves in relation to the world they live in. In his famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) uses the term monomyth to describe how a particular set of stories or myths are not specific to one culture or time period, but instead encompass commonalities shared around the world, from ancient history to the present day.[1] The monomyth reflects a hero on an adventurous journey, moving in a similar cycle or rite of passage, defined as ‘separation [departure] – initiation – return’.[2] The hero moves from a familiar to an unknown world, wins a decisive victory, and returns from this mysterious adventure with a gift to bestow on his society.[3] The hero’s journey, therefore, manifests a particular culture’s tensions in terms of the content presented within the hero’s story. In the Birthmarked trilogy, Caragh O’Brien reflects Campbell’s monomyth in her plot as she represents her female protagonist going through a standard hero’s journey with some deviations, serving as a critique of gender and social issues.

Set within a post-apocalyptic dystopian world, O’Brien’s trilogy consists of the novels Birthmarked, Prized, and Promised. Throughout the trilogy, O’Brien features a heroine, Gaia Stone, a sixteen-year-old midwife, whose adventurous journey takes the form of Campbell’s typical hero’s journey as she moves from her familiar, impoverished home of Wharfton to the Enclave and Sylum, and back to Wharfton. On her return she bestows a gift to her society that changes its way of life. Although some scholarly works have focused on other dystopian novels in relation to Campbell’s monomyth, they have tended to analyse either the characters’ conflicts or the characteristics of the novel as a genre and the ways it corresponds to the structure of the monomyth. These include Clive William’s ‘The Hero’s Journey: A Mudmap for Change’ (2017) and Marc Alexander’s ‘Rhetorical Structure and Reader Manipulation in Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”’ (2009).

At present, there are no studies that discuss O’Brien’s trilogy and its interactions with Campbell’s monomyth. In this study I compare the plot structure and hero’s journey originally outlined by Campbell in relation to O’Brien’s trilogy, tracing similarities and deviations, with a focus on the implications these deviations have for the representation of the heroine’s journey in light of the patriarchal nature of Campbell’s monomyth. Since each of O’Brien’s books represents one particular stage in Campbell’s model, I will analyse Campbell’s three stages chronologically, starting with the ‘Departure’ stage in Birthmarked, followed by the ‘Initiation’ stage in Prized, and finally the ‘Return’ stage in Promised.

Campbell describes the hero’s journey in three main stages, and further splits each of these stages into seventeen steps, which is the standard path projected for heroes to fulfil their journeys. ‘Departure’ covers the hero leaving his familiar surroundings to venture into the unknown and includes five steps: ‘The Call to Adventure’, ‘Refusal of the Call’, ‘Supernatural Aid’, ’The Crossing of the First Threshold’, and ‘The Belly of the Whale’.[4] ‘Initiation’ begins with the hero in the unknown world, where he is exposed to a series of trials until he overcomes the main obstacle and reaches his goal. This stage consists of six subsections: ‘The Road of Trials’, ‘The Meeting with the Goddess’, ‘Woman as the Temptress’, ‘Atonement with the Father’, ‘Apotheosis’, and ‘The Ultimate Boon’.[5] Finally, in the third stage, ‘Return’, the hero returns to the ordinary world with the power and knowledge acquired during initiation. This stage consists of six steps: ‘Refusal of the Return’, ‘The Magic Flight’, ‘Rescue from Without’, ‘The Crossing of the Return Threshold’, ‘Master of the Two Worlds’, and ‘Freedom to Live’.[6]

O’Brien’s heroine, Gaia, follows a similar mythological heroic path to that outlined by Campbell as she moves through the three stages of ‘Departure’, ‘Initiation’ and ‘Return’, embracing the characteristics of a hero. When Bill Moyers, executive editor of the documentary series The Power of Myth,[7] interviewed Campbell and asked why there are so many stories of heroes in mythology, Campbell responded:

Well, because that’s worth writing about. I mean even in popular novel writing, you see, these [sic] the main character is the hero or heroine, that is someone who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero properly is someone who has given life to something bigger than himself or other than himself’.[8]

In O’Brien’s trilogy, Gaia fits this reasoning well, in terms of the description of what defines a hero. She dedicates her life to improving the living conditions of her community. She also has unique powers that make her different from others. Thus, Gaia’s characteristics fit Campbell’s description of a hero perfectly. However, the fact that O’Brien represents a female rather than a male hero provides a deviation from Campbell’s classic monomyth.

While Campbell suggests that ‘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’,[9] this is not the case. The language and gender dynamics that Campbell uses in his description of the hero’s ‘Initiation’ stage are distinctively male. As feminist theorists Pearson and Pope point out, even though Campbell initially declares that the hero can be of either gender, he contradicts this statement by proceeding to discuss ‘the heroic pattern as male and to define the female characters as goddesses, temptresses and earth mothers’.[10] For example, at the heart of the Initiation’ stage, Campbell explains that the ‘mystical marriage of the hero with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero is knower and master’.[11] It is clear that here, Campbell is referring to a male hero who gains an assertive position over a woman.

This can also be seen in Campbell’s description of ‘Woman as the Temptress’, where he defaults to the vantage point of the male hero. When introducing the ‘Initiation’ stage, Campbell begins by looking at the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld as an example of what he calls ‘The Road of Trials’. He discusses the agony and despair she goes through in her descent, and how she was able to overcome her ordeals. He explains the rest of this stage by looking at the Christian stories of Saints Bernard, Peter, and Anthony, and their battles with women who lure them into temptation. O’Brien deviates from Campbell’s standard heroic path through her depiction of a female heroine, which ultimately leads to further modifications of Campbell’s path to suit O’Brien’s storyline. Despite such deviations, however, O’Brien also reflects similarities in terms of Gaia’s personal traits. For Campbell, the hero is ‘someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself’.[12] O’Brien represents Gaia as a young heroine full of courage, strength, and honour, who risks her life to achieve justice for people in her society. O’Brien also shows similarities with Campbell’s pattern of the heroic journey in terms of her plot structure, as she follows many of Campbell’s seventeen steps.

Departure: ‘The Call to Adventure’

Campbell’s first step, designated as ‘The Call to Adventure’, signifies the moment when the hero moves away from a state of personal alienation as they acquire new insights. According to Campbell, the call is received when something is taken away from the hero, causing them to leave ‘on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a going and a returning’.[13] Campbell’s first step is represented in the first few pages of Birthmarked, which opens with Gaia as a happy teenager carrying out her midwifery duties, unaware of how the ‘Protectorate’, the leader of  the totalitarian government of the Enclave, subjugates its people. She has also not yet understood that the Enclave’s request to be given the first three babies born each month in her home town of Wharfton is not a privilege for the families or the babies, but rather a cruel act because of the Enclave’s issues with infertility. In addition, Gaia does not understand why the Enclave is a more advanced community, while Wharfton suffers from a lack of education, food, and water, due to restrictions imposed by the Protectorate.

Gaia’s lack of awareness changes when her parents go missing. On her way home one night Gaia meets Old Meg, who explains that Gaia’s parents have been taken away by guards from the Enclave because they were keeping a hidden record of the babies sent to the Enclave and their birthparents, which was considered a threat to the Enclave’s institutional system.[14] Old Meg also advises Gaia to leave Wharfton for her own safety and seek refuge in the Wasteland. Following this exchange, Gaia becomes anxious and starts to question the laws and the power of the Enclave over Wharfton. As Campbell explains, ‘The Call to Adventure’ typically begins with the hero’s search for answers, explaining how this situation ‘summon[s] the hero and transfer[s] his spiritual centre of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown’.[15] In light of Campbell’s description, Gaia, after the call, feels an urge to leave her home and cross to the Enclave to look for her parents, a place that is both unknown and prohibited to her as a resident of Wharfton.

Departure: ‘Refusal of the Call’

At first, due to her insecurity, Gaia refuses to heed the call, and as a result she starts feeling trapped and bored. Her negative emotions can be seen as reflecting Campbell’s second step ‘The Refusal of the Call’. Campbell explains that the hero’s ‘[r]efusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved’.[16] This negativity is expressed through the unhappiness, boredom and exhaustion Gaia feels after she refuses the call. In Birthmarked, O’Brien captures this sentiment well in her description of Gaia’s desperate state:

Under a bright noon sun, she [Gaia] carried the third May baby toward the gate of the Enclave, and this time Gaia felt no pride, no residual thrill from the birthing she had just midwifed. She felt only exhaustion, and the perpetual dread that gnawed at the back of her mind. […]. In the three weeks since her parents had been gone, Gaia had had no news […] Her initial terror had grown so enormous and her loneliness so acute that she’d been afraid she would go mad with the simple, desperate need to have her parents back […] Only her work had kept her going, and by day she’d learned to school her helpless panic into a needling, exhausting numbness. Her nights were riddled with nightmares.[17]

It is this emptiness inside Gaia that finally induces her to accept the call. Assisted by her loyal friend Derek, Gaia decides to go in secret into the Enclave.

Departure: ‘Supernatural Aid’

Derek’s assistance reflects the third step of Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey, ‘Supernatural Aid’. Campbell explains that the assistance offered to the hero takes:

‘the form of a mentor in order for the hero to get past certain obstacles. They give amulets and talismans (advice) to him so he possesses insight into what their duties entail and how to conquer them. The mentor stands by the hero’s side at the beginning, because he needs to protect his ultimate destiny’.[18]

Thus, Derek becomes Gaia’s guardian as he assists with her journey. As her guide, Derek gives Gaia advice and insight into the Enclave. He advises her to wear a red dress in order to conceal herself and pass as a servant. He also gives her tips about using the obelisk in the town square as a landmark whenever she gets lost and tells her to look for Mace Jackson’s bakery whenever she finds herself in trouble.[19] Derek is therefore more than a simple helper; instead, he serves as a symbol of protection for the hero. As Campbell  explains:

‘what such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny’ that ‘supports the present and stands in the future as well as in the past (is omega as well as alpha); that though omnipotence may seem to be endangered by the threshold passages and life awakenings, protective power is always and ever present within the sanctuary of the heart and even immanent within, or just behind, the unfamiliar features of the world’.[20]

In this process, Derek becomes Gaia’s mentor.

Departure: ‘The Crossing of the First Threshold’ and ‘The Belly of the Whale’

With Derek’s aid, Gaia is able to cross into the unknown world of the Enclave, but this move also brings fear and danger to her life. This moment corresponds to Campbell’s fourth step, which is ‘Crossing the First Threshold’. Campbell explains how the hero’s crossing takes the form of a ‘passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; (sic) the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades’.[21] Gaia is represented as crossing this passage between the known and unknown dimensions when she physically goes inside the Enclave. For Gaia, this is a defining moment in her life, and in relation to Campbell’s schema, her transition brings fear and danger, but her competence and courage give her the strength to survive. When Gaia finds herself inside the Enclave she feels afraid of being caught by the guards, but her courageous nature makes her venture forward with ‘a thrill of promise and hope’ as she looks for her parents and her two older brothers, who were sent to the Enclave as babies.[22] However, her adventure brings her difficulties.

When Gaia crosses into the Enclave she feels trapped inside a cruel and unjust world and needs to find inner strength to survive the ordeal. This part of Gaia’s journey relates to Campbell’s fifth step, ‘The Belly of the Whale’. Campbell explains how at this point, ‘the hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died. […] Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again’.[23] Thus, Gaia’s entrance into the Enclave symbolises a process of inner transformation as she goes through a series of challenges that make her mature. This instant in O’Brien’s novel also marks the beginning of Campbell’s second part of the hero’s journey, the’ ‘Initiation’ stage.

Initiation: ‘The Road of Trials’

The ‘Initiation’ stage starts with the seventh step, ‘The Road of Trials’. This seventh step refers to a series of ordeals that the hero goes through as part of their journey. According to Campbell:

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. […] The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region.[24]

In terms of Campbell’s explanation, O’Brien depicts this step by showing Gaia going through a series of ordeals, which she is able to overcome through assistance from her ‘secret agents. Her first trial is on her first day inside the Enclave, when she is caught by a guard while carrying out an illegal act against the state. The incident takes place when Gaia witnesses the execution of a pregnant woman and her husband and decides to steal their bodies. Pretending to be a relative, she persuades the guard in charge of the corpses to wheel them on a cart to a back-street under the pretence that Gaia will watch the corpses until her uncle comes to bury them.[25] When the guard leaves her, Gaia performs a caesarean delivery on the woman’s corpse and saves the child. However, just after the delivery she is caught by the guard and taken to prison.

Gaia’s second trial takes place during her imprisonment, when she starts to suffer from deep anxiety and sadness. Her sorrows deepen when she learns from fellow prisoners that her father has been killed by the guards, and her mother charged with conspiracy against the state and sentenced to death. As a result, Gaia starts to lose faith in her quest.[26] However, she is able to regain her strength when she develops a close friendship with Captain Leon Gray, adopted as a child by the Protectorate, and suffering from a dysfunctional relationship with his father. Leon’s friendship helps Gaia to rebuild her confidence. It also helps her to gain new knowledge about the laws of the Enclave, making her understand and appreciate the values of justice, freedom, and individuality. In fact, aware of the injustices that the Enclave has inflicted upon her and the other people of Wharfton, Gaia makes it her mission to save her people by bringing justice back into their lives. After a few weeks in prison a prison guard helps Gaia to escape. In accordance with Campbell, O’Brien shows that Gaia receives assistance through her ordeals from various agents.

After Gaia’s escape from prison she faces her third ordeal, which she is also able to overcome when she is offered a place to stay at the house of Mace Jackson, Derek’s secret agent.  During her stay, Gaia locates her mother in prison and tries to save her.  However, her mother is heavily pregnant and is unable to escape, and dies is prison giving birth. Gaia assists her mother’s labour and then escapes from the prison tower and later from the Enclave with her baby sister.

O’Brien’s Prized, the second book in the trilogy, opens with Gaia and her baby sister arriving in the Wasteland, where they are rescued by Peter Chardo, the village guard of Sylum, who takes them on his horse to meet the Matrarc. This moment in the novel represents the eighth step of Campbell’s heroic journey, when the hero meets ‘the Female Goddess’. For Campbell, this encounter is highly significant, as it enlightens the hero’s path and serves as the ‘final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love’.[27] Campbell, who was highly influenced by Jungian psychology, considers the figure of the mother goddess as an archetypal mother with a dual nature, having both a terrible and a benevolent persona.[28] O’Brien depicts this dual persona through the figure of the Matrarc, which, although it is spelled slightly differently, has connotations of matriarch, implying the figure of a powerful mother and leader. Also interesting is O’Brien’s choice of the name Gaia, which is a Greek word meaning ‘earth’. The encounter between Gaia, the earthly figure, and the Matrarc, the powerful mother and leader of Sylum, further strengthens the similarities between Campbell’s monomyth and O’Brien’s storyline in terms of the encounter between the hero and the goddess.

In line with the dual aspect of the mother goddess, O’Brien first presents the Matrarc as a cruel person. In her first encounter with Gaia, the Matrarc takes Maya away, blaming Gaia for not nourishing her baby sister properly. She then locks Gaia up in a lodge for carrying out an abortion without her permission      and tells her that her ‘version of right is too far outside the bounds of what’s acceptable’ in Sylum.[29] Furthermore, when Leon arrives in Sylum after his brutal escape from the Enclave, the Matrarc does not allow Gaia to visit him.[30] In contrast, the Matrarc exhibits her benevolent nature when she praises Gaia for her midwifery skills and for having a strong personality. It can be said that Gaia’s virtuous nature finally wins over the Matrarc.

Initiation: ‘Apotheosis’ and ‘The Ultimate Boon’

The benevolent side of the Matrarc comes out in another exchange when she explains to Gaia that the former Matrarc of Sylum was Gaia’s grandmother, and that, like her, Gaia’s mission is to save society. This exchange is important because it shows that the Matrarc has identified Gaia’s mission, and that Gaia has passed the Matrarc’s final test as a heroine. Through her meeting with the Matrarc, Gaia becomes aware that she is mentally and physically prepared to move on to the most difficult part of the journey. This point of realisation can be compared to Campbell’s ‘Apotheosis’ step. It is the moment when a greater understanding is achieved by the hero, which leads to his achievement of ‘The Ultimate Boon’, or gift. In Gaia’s case, she achieves her boon after the Matrarc dies from complications during childbirth. As the Matrarc’s close and trusted friend, Gaia is invited by Dominic, the Matrarc’s husband, to become the new Matrarc of Sylum. When Gaia’s accepts Dominic’s invitation, she is shown to have achieved the goal of her journey as she has now gained a leadership position that gives her the power to help others achieve justice and freedom in their lives.

So far, it can be said that O’Brien’s plot structure has many similarities with Campbell’s heroic journey. However, some deviations can also be seen, such as the skipping of two steps in the ‘Initiation’ stage: ‘Woman as the Temptress’ and ‘Atonement with the Father’. These deviations have strong gender implications. Although O’Brien represents Gaia going through a series of ordeals, she never shows her as straying from her mission due to sexual temptation. This is a significant contrast with Campbell’s model, in which the hero is presented as temporarily abandoning his quest when he finds himself lured by a woman. Unlike Campbell’s hero, O’Brien portrays a heroine who is in control of her sexual feelings, so much so that even when she falls in love with Leon, she remains focused on her mission. In doing this, O’Brien deconstructs the gender stereotyping found within Campbell’s model by portraying a heroine who is strong and assertive rather than weak and submissive to men, or else a seductress. Further, O’Brien challenges Campbell’s model by skipping the ‘Atonement with the Father’ step. If this is read from a traditional psychoanalytical viewpoint, the fact that Gaia is not depicted as needing to resolve a conflictual relationship with a father figure to reach her maturity can be considered as departing from patriarchal psychoanalytical discourses, in which reconciliation with the father is important for the successful personal growth of an individual.

Return: ‘Rescue from Without’

Following these omissions in the ‘Initiation’ stage, O’Brien continues to follow Campbell’s stages by depicting Gaia’s return to Wharfton, which corresponds with the ‘Return’ stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey. As Campbell explains:

When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the Monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom.[31]

The bestowing of Gaia’s gift to the people is presented in O’Brien final novel, Promised. This third novel opens with Gaia’s arrival in Wharfton one year after her departure to the Wasteland. Interestingly, O’Brien portrays Gaia’s arrival in Wharfton without going through the ‘Refusal of the Return’ and ‘The Magical Flight’ steps, which Campbell describes as the first steps of the ‘Return’ stage. Instead, O’Brien skips these steps and moves directly to Campbell’s next step, ‘Rescue from Without’. In doing this, O’Brien relegates the supernatural and comic effects generally produced by the two omitted steps to focus on the heroine’s determination.

Indeed, when Gaia returns to Wharfton, accompanied by the people of Sylum who are seeking refuge from the harsh environmental conditions of Sylum, she does not try to escape her responsibilities. Campbell explains that such behaviour is enacted by the hero when his return is resented by supernatural powers. He further describes how ‘the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical pursuit. This flight may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasions’.[32] In contrast to Campbell’s description, O’Brien depicts Gaia carrying out serious negotiations with the Protectorate about the changes that need to take place for the people of the Enclave, Wharfton, and New Sylum.

For example, Gaia wants the Protectorate to provide more water for people living outside the wall. In her exchanges with the Protectorate, she tries to negotiate better treatment for her people, explaining that ‘for too many years, the people of Wharfton had suffered the domination of the Enclave, and New Sylum had faced a bitter welcome’.[33] Gaia also tries to come up with solutions, indicating to the Protectorate that she is aware of the Enclave’s problems with haemophilia and infertility, and explaining that this is ‘a direct result of inbreeding’.[34] Gaia believes that if the Protectorate encourages the people of the Enclave, Wharfton, and New Sylum to get to know each other and intermarry, this will solve the Enclave’s problems and at the same time bring about harmony between the three communities.[35]

The Protectorate, however, rejects Gaia’s ideas and arrests her. While she is under arrest, Gaia’s DNA is tested, and the doctors find that she carries the rare anti-haemophilia gene. Without her consent, the Protectorate gives orders for her ovaries to be removed, as he believes that this rare gene is the only solution for the Enclave to solve its issues of infertility and haemophilia. For the Protectorate, if Gaia’s eggs are transformed into blastocysts and implanted into mothers who want healthy children, more children will be born and the population will grow.[36] The operation is carried out on Gaia without her consent, and when she wakes from the procedure, she feels physically weak and in need of assistance. This incident in O’Brien’s narrative reflects to some extent the step that Campbell describes as ‘Rescue from Without’.  This is when the hero, after being wounded by a tragic experience, needs to be rescued. In O’Brien’s narrative, however, Gaia is not rescued by anyone. Instead, it is her own resilience that serves as a form of rescue, as it enables her to run from the operating room. This aspect of O’Brien’s narrative can again be seen to challenge the patriarchal view of the damsel in distress by providing a positive role model for young women; one who is not in need of a traditional male hero to save her because she is able to take care of herself.[37]

Athough she is in pain from her surgery, Gaia manages to escape from prison. As she runs to safety she finds herself in the middle of a rebellion, as during her operation the people of Wharfton and New Sylum have joined forces and rebelled against the Enclave. Using explosives to bring the wall down, some people from the three communities lose their lives. However, in the midst of this confusion, Gaia uses her leadership power and is able to gain the attention of the crowd in the Enclave’s square, where she delivers a speech. In her speech, Gaia shares her experiences, calling for the Protectorate to stand down in order for new and more democratic leaders to be elected.[38] The crowd agrees with Gaia, and the Protectorate is stripped of his power. Within a few days of this incident, Gaia has ‘teams trying to re-establish basic services of medical care, water and electricity at the same time that others were drafting a new charter that granted equal rights to everyone’.[39]

Return: ‘The Crossing of the Return Threshold’ and ‘Master of the Two Worlds’

Gaia’s actions can be seen as reflecting Campbell’s fifteenth step, ‘The Crossing of the Return Threshold’, which signifies the moment when the hero brings change to people’s lives, as he moves back to his ordinary way of life. In light of Campbell’s journey, Gaia’s return to her ordinary life is portrayed towards the end of Promised. In the final chapter, Gaia is shown living happily with Leon and Maya in Wharfton, just a few weeks after the rebellion. The three are portrayed as walking peacefully towards the Enclave. The scene implies that Gaia feels comfortable with her accomplishments, and that she has been able to achieve a balance between her inner and outer worlds. This shift reflects the penultimate step of the heroic journey, which Campbell calls the ‘Master of Two Worlds’, where the hero is presented as having succeeded in the creation of a new world, while he returns to his old world as a different and mature person. Indeed, Gaia is portrayed as a unique person who can cross back and forth between the two worlds while living in Wharfton.

Return: ‘Freedom to Live’

Gaia’s mastery of her position brings her heroic journey to an end, corresponding with Campbell’s final step, ‘Freedom to Live’. According to Campbell, this is the moment when the hero is happy and has no fears about the future, or regrets about the past. This sense of enlightenment signals the fulfilment of the hero’s journey. This mood is captured well by O’Brien in the final paragraph of her trilogy, where she describes Gaia as:

‘filled with a contagious, generous happiness that encompassed everyone and everything, from the piano melody […] to the bright angles of the shade umbrellas. Behind her, a wall was crumbling, and down the hill, beyond the swallows that dove and banked, the expanse of the unlake (sic) shimmered with distant blue’.[40]

It is clear here that Gaia is happy living the present moment because she has been able to resolve her conflicts with society, while creating a new and more humane society for others.

This transition in Gaia’s life from one of fear to one of happiness depicts a shift from a cruel to a humane world, which suggests the representation of a dystopian world in O’Brien’s novel. Throughout the novel, O’Brien portrays Gaia’s world as characterised by inequality, illusions and misconceptions, serving as a critique to contemporary social forces. O’Brien’s purpose for doing so becomes evident when considering Gregory Claeys’s explanation of dystopian utility:

‘Dystopia’ is often used interchangeably with ‘anti-utopia’ or ‘negative utopia’, by contrast to utopia […] (good place), to describe a fictional portrayal of a society in which evil, or negative social and political developments, have the upper hand, or as a satire of utopian aspirations which attempt to show up their fallacies.[41] 

In light of Claeys’s explanation, O’Brien’s Birthmarked trilogy employs a dystopian vision of the heroine’s journey. O’Brien depicts Gaia’s conflict as a result of the negative social and political developments initiated by the Protectorate and imposed on on the people of Wharfton. This subjection leads Gaia to follow her call to adventure to free herself and her people from injustice. In doing so, O’Brien’s trilogy appears to reflect Campbell’s assertion that the need for change comes from within the individual rather than from a collective institution.[42] It is Gaia’s awareness as an individual that makes her understand that change needs to take place in her society.

In addition, O’Brien’s depiction of dystopia comes through the Enclave’s unethical political and scientific pursuits, which have caused their issues with infertility, haemophilia, and inbreeding. Since all these issues are presented by O’Brien within a post-apocalyptic society, they serve as a cautionary tale for the contemporary young reader, prompting them to question certain social and political practices in today’s world. In her trilogy, O’Brien seems to suggest the need for humanity to return to its roots and consider certain measures taken by dictatorial governments which may eventually cause harm to their citizens. When O’Brien’s heroine is read in the context of Campbell’s monomyth, O’Brien also offers a holistic lesson in the need for people to connect with fellow humans and fight against tyrannical governments. The implication here is that misguided scientific and political judgements that breach ethical principles could lead to the annihilation of humanity.

Reading O’Brien’s Birthmarked trilogy in relation to Campbell’s monomyth shows a female protagonist who goes through a typical hero’s journey, but with some deviations. These are features of plot structure and largely relate to gender and social dynamics. Although Gaia’s heroic characteristics perfectly reflect Campbell’s description, as she dedicates her life to improving the living conditions of the people in her community and she has unique powers that make her different from others, the fact that a female rather than a male hero is represented provides a significant deviation from Campbell’s monomyth in terms of gender dynamics, reinforced by O’Brien’s omission of the ‘Woman as the Temptress’ and ‘Atonement with the Father’ steps of Campbell’s schema. O’Brien also deviates from Campbell’s original model by omitting two more steps in the ‘Return’ stage: ‘The Refusal of the Return’ and ‘The Magic Flight’. In doing this, she relegates the supernatural and comic effects generally created by these steps to present a storyline that is more direct and in line with contemporary worldviews, and which does not delineate supernatural or magical effects that may alienate the reader from the overall purpose of the narrative.

On the other hand, there are also similarities with Campbell’s model in the way the three novels are structured in a cyclical pattern, with the heroine departing from and returning to Wharfton. The trilogy reflects a sequence in which each novel represents one rite of passage, starting with ‘Departure’ in Birthmarked, followed by ‘Initiation’ in Prized, and finally ‘Return’ in Promised. Overall, O’Brien’s heroine’s dystopian journey, read through the lens of Campbell’s monomyth, implies the need for people to build deeper connections with each other in order to challenge the tyrannical governments whose scientific and political pursuits may destroy the world in the near future.



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Claeys, Gregory, ‘The Origins of Dystopia: Wells, Huxley and Orwell’, in The Cambridge Companion to Utopia, ed. by Gregory Claeys (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 107-132

Jung, C. G., The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1980 [anon],], Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, 1988, [accessed 3 February 2018].

Available form: https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-1-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-hero%E2%80%99s-adventure-audio

O’Brien, Caragh M., O’Brien, Birthmarkded, (New York, Roaring Brook Press, 2010),

– –Prized (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2011)

– –Promised,  (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012)

Pearson, C. and K. Pope, The Female Hero in American and British Literature (New York: Bowker, 1981)

Saunders, Lynn M., ‘Girls Who Do Things: The Protagonist of Robin McKinley’s Fantasy Fiction’, Alan Review, 24 (1996), 38-42

Sisk, David W., Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1997)



[1] Monomyth is derived from two Greek root words: mono means one, and mythos is a story that has become synonymous with the ‘hero’s journey’.

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Oxford: Princeton University Press: 2004), p. 28.

[3] Campbell, p. 28.

[4] Ibid, p. 34

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., pp. 34-35.

[7] The documentary series was originally broadcast on the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1988, and consisted of a series of six one-hour interviews of Campbell by journalist Bill Moyers, entitled Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. A companion book for the series, The Power of Myth, was also released in 1988.

[8] Moyers Homepage [online], Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, 1988 [cited 3 February 2018]. Available form: <https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-1-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-hero%E2%80%99s-adventure-audio/&gt;

[9] Campbell,  p. 111.

[10] C. Pearson and K. Pope, The Female Hero in American and British Literature (New York: Bowker, 1981), p. 4.

[11] Campbell,  p. 111.

[12] Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, 1988 [Accessed 3 February 2018]. Available form: <https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-1-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-hero%E2%80%99s-adventure-audio/&gt;

[13] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 123.

[14] Caragh M. O’Brien, Birthmarked (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2010), p. 9.

[15] Campbell,  p. 53.

[16] Ibid., p. 54.

[17] O’Brien, Birthmarked, p. 28.

[18] Campbell, p. 66.

[19] O’Brien, Birthmarked, p. 61.

[20] Campbell, p. 66.

[21] Campbell, p. 76.

[22] O’Brien, Birthmarked, p. 62.

[23] Campbell, pp. 83-84.

[24] Campbell., p. 89.

[25] O’Brien, Birthmarked, pp. 73-74.

[26] O’Brien, Birthmarked, ., p. 114.

[27] Campbell, p. 109.

[28] Ibid., p. 102.

[29] Caragh M. O’Brien, Prized (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2011), p. 95.

[30] Ibid., p. 293.

[31] Campbell, p. 179.

[32] Campbell., p. 182.

[33] Caragh M. O’Brien, Promised (New York, Roaring Brook Press, 2012), p. 240.

[34] Ibid., p. 76.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p. 216.

[37] Lynn M. Saunders, ‘Girls Who Do Things: The Protagonist of Robin McKinley’s Fantasy Fiction’,

Alan Review, 24 (1996), 38-42 (p. 42).

[38] O’Brien, Promised, p. 265.

[39] Ibid., p. 279.

[40] O’Brien, Promised,  p. 293.

[41] Gregory Claeys, ‘The Origins of Dystopia: Wells, Huxley and Orwell’, in The Cambridge Companion to Utopia, ed. by Gregory Claeys (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 107-132 (p. 107).

[42] Campbell, p. 111.

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