Becoming the Hero of Our Own Life

Freddie Bartholomew as David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield  (1935)        

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” writes narrator David Copperfield at the beginning of the great Charles Dickens novel.  But why the uncertainty?  Can’t we just decide to be the hero of our own lives?

I had this discussion with my novelist friend Rachel Kranz yesterday.  It was in response to my posts two weeks ago about my ailing friend Alan Paskow, whom I called an Odysseus  for his courageous battle with his cancer and who countered that he felt more like Holden Caulfield.  Rachel insisted that, while we can’t vouch for how our novel will end, we can imagine ourselves as any hero we like. 

But making that decision may not be easy.  She noted that we can get trapped in destructive narratives about ourselves.  She mentioned the one offered up by T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, who imagines himself as a Polonius:


No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous,

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Earlier in the poem, Prufrock even imagines himself being snickered at by death as he makes his exit:

I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

Rachel wondered why Prufrock can’t, indeed, think of himself as Hamlet.  Why can’t he just assert the role and then strive to live up to it?  She reminded me that, in my own greatest moment of crisis—when my oldest son died—I chose to think of myself as Beowulf.

I have written here  and here how I interpret Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel’s mother as a battle with grief.  I may not have mentioned, however, that I came to this conclusion just weeks after Justin died.  I had returned to writing my book on Beowulf and other literary classics—it gave me something to do in that summer where I stumbled from day to day—and I sudden had a sense that I was reading my own story in Beowulf’s descent into the lake where the monstrous mother lives.

The reading moment was immensely powerful because I felt, for the first time, that I was not just thrashing around in pain.  I felt rather that my grief had, or could have, a shape to it.  I thought of myself as a hero descending into dark places, and I experienced a kind of consolation that, if I was engaged in an epic quest, then there was a possibility of emerging from those depths.  It was the first time that I started imagining having a future again.

From then on, whenever my anguish got intense, I would think myself as a hero enduring trials.  It helped make the process bearable.

I must admit that this was not the only narrative that presented itself.  There were moments when, filled with immense self-pity, I saw myself as Tennyson’s infant crying for the light in In Memoriam:

Behold, we know not anything; 
I can but trust that good shall fall 
At last–far off–at last, to all, 
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I? 
An infant crying in the night: 
An infant crying for the light: 
And with no language but a cry. 

While this image soothed, however, it did not sustain. It articulated my hurt, which was good, but it did not give me anything to build on. Perhaps imagining alternative narratives for ourselves takes courage.  Literature may offer us healing frameworks, but to embrace them we must call on our inner hero.

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