Every story is a rite of passage

One of the classes I’m in to finish up my career at Northwestern is a Religion in Human Experience course. I was expecting this to be a dull class, but we’ve actually talked about ideas that relate easily back to fiction. For example, while studying the story of Buddha (who left his very worldly life to find spiritual meaning) we discussed Arnold van Gennep’s analysis on rites of passage. He says that in every rite of passage, there are three steps: separation/withdrawal, transition, and reincorporation.

Normally, we think of rites of passage as being reserved for special times in our lives, and for most people, the phrase conjures “traditional” images of tribes sending their sixteen-year-olds off into the woods. But what struck me in the discussion is that every basic story is a rite of passage. Even stories that don’t have anything to do with aging, with starting a new time of your life, or with passing a structured test. The conventional narrative is itself a rite of passage for the  characters.

It starts with

1. Separation

The protagonist has been muddling along happily until suddenly, something happens to change the status quo. Now the protagonist is separated from what they held dear, usually their happiness, but it could also be their family, their job, their possessions. The separation doesn’t have to be physical either. All that matters is that the status quo is disrupted, which means the protagonist has lost something; now their main goal is to reclaim it.

Example: Let’s use Jane Eyre as an example. The story starts when the physical status quo is changed because Jane is sent to school. However, for our purposes, Jane’s status quo was disrupted when her uncle died. No longer was she being raised in a happy home by someone who loved her; as soon as he died, she was separated physically from a loving family, emotionally from anyone who loved her, and psychologically from the idea that she was worth love. She spends the rest of the book trying to find that.

2. Transition

This is the bulk of the story. The protagonist undergoes a series of ordeals in order to return to the status quo they so long for.

Example: Jane spends the rest of the novel searching for happiness and a place to belong. At first, her experience at school with friends and as a teacher make her think she has found it, but as soon as her favorite teacher leaves, she realizes she is unhappy. Then she thinks she has found it with Mr. Rochester, but when she finds out she has been deceived, she thinks it has all been untrue. She looks for happiness as a hardworking school teacher; then she thinks she might find it simply by doing everything she can to please St. John. It is only because of these ordeals that she can finally return to Mr. Rochester knowing he is truly what will make her happy.

3. Reincorporation

This is the resolution. Finally, the protagonist has figured out how to have that elusive happiness, and so they can be reincorporated into society, into the lives of their friends, or even into their own lives.

Example: Jane returns to what she has been seeking all along: happiness. Along the way, she was physically and emotionally separated from it because of the loss of her parents, because of the poor conditions of her home and school, because of Mr. Rochester’s duplicity, because of trying to hard to please St. John. Now that she has overcome all these ordeals, she can return to Mr. Rochester and also to her happiness, and we have a happy ending.

PS If you like Jane Eyre and want more of her, check out this series in which she stars as an amateur sleuth!

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