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Annette Vallon and the Hero’s Adventure

 

            With the death of her father that coincides with the death of the old order, we see Annette at the edge of a world whose day is done.  She will have to make that transition on her own—from the decadent but pleasant world of her class and of her sheltered youth into the chaotic forming of a new world that has lost all boundaries in its search for new ones.
            She says, “Some tried to change the world.  I only tried to live in it, which became increasingly difficult.” But Annette is a little modest here, for as she “only tries to live in it,” she also tries to help others do the same.  And as she battles the impersonal forces of the modern world as they overtake her own, she uses the weapon of compassion as well as that of courage. 
             The role of one who fights chaotic, cruel, and chthonic forces is traditionally the role of the hero—Odysseus against Polyphemus, the Cyclops; Beowulf against the monster from Hell, Grendel; or Rama, in the ancient Indian epic, against a ten-headed demon that has ravaged the world.  All these heroes battle irrational, valueless forces to establish a society based on reason and order.  And all these heroes are men.  Annette Vallon also fights embodiments of irrational, valueless forces, not to establish a new order, but to deliver compassion, however briefly, in a compassionless world and to treat others as others, not as abstractions, no matter what their class.  Annette “tries to live” in the world with the courage of compassion. 
             For her, that means risking her life to save others—to hide them, to help them escape from prison, to cut their bonds on a sinking barge in a freezing river.  It is a striking aspect of her heroism that she doesn’t act out of duty or from a clear intellectual understanding of what she is doing, but from compulsion, out of her allegiance to the family of humanity. The world is her larger family, and she pits this loyalty even to unknown individuals against the loyalty to impersonal abstractions—the only loyalty that the new order seems to know.
             She is also unwavering in her loyalty to the first real love of her life while keeping a self-sufficiency that renders that love ultimately unnecessary for her well-being.  The hero must stand alone.
             Annette enacts all the traditional aspects of the male hero in legends: in the “hero’s adventure” so brilliantly explained by Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth video series and in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This universal adventure is made up of trials and revelations.  Annette experiences these early on:  in being used by her dance tutor, an embodiment of his decadent world; in realizing her own self-reliance as she saves her father’s life; in coming of age into a world that is no more; in keeping steadfast in her allegiance to love and passion in a society that believes in marriage as a commodity; in finding that love in a foreigner and an outsider, even in his own society, a poet who, like her, has a unique vision of the world; and in willingly putting her life at risk, not for glory, like a male warrior, but because her heart dictates that she can act in no other way.
             Campbell points out another aspect of the hero’s adventure along with trials and revelations: the experience of the “belly of the whale”: the hero’s descent into the dark. Odysseus journeys into the underworld to consult Tiresias; Beowulf dives into the monster-infested waters to fight Grendel’s mother; Rama endures his dark night of the soul when his wife is stolen by the demon.  In her first descent, Annette is alone, lost in the forest that she knew in her youth; now it has taken on a new menace as the world has changed, and she is chased by brigands, makes her way through a dark ravine and almost freezes to death.  She experiences the “belly of the whale” in her imprisonment, where she is befriended awhile by another woman, a mother with her child, then clings to hope and life through a sliver of light from a high, small window.  She descends into the dark into the crypt itself, which before the Revolution was an innocent field of hide and seek for her as a child; now she embarks on a dangerous mission to enter into the mouth of a tomb and go down a narrow passage to free enemies of the state.  On another adventure, after freeing prisoners from the hold of a sinking barge, she is trapped in underwater darkness and only saved from drowning, literally, by the helping hand of her comrade.
             In all her descents into the dark, Annette receives some form of divine aid, another universal aspect of the hero’s adventure, as, for instance, Odysseus, in his most pressing hours, frequently is blessed by Athena’s assistance.  Annette’s supernatural aid is simply the personal saint she was given as a child: Lucette, or light: the star above the dark ravine; the slant of light when she is alone and bereft, imprisoned in the Beauvoir Tower; the name she invokes as she closes her eyes in the cathedral and feels she is in a “dark, luminous space” before she enters the crypt; the name of the boat that rescues the prisoners whom she has freed; and her belief in aid from a higher power manifests in the only words she utters when she emerges from the freezing water of the sunken hold: “Holy Mary.”
             A participant in HarperCollins’ “First Looks Program,” a layperson, not a critic, read the galley and wrote that Annette “shows us what being a hero is all about.”  For me, Annette incarnates William Wordsworth’s lines: “…that best portion of a good man’s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered, acts/  Of kindness and of love.”  But of course, she is a good woman, who, over and over again, risks her life in those “acts of kindness and of love.”  The marquis, as well as the first refugees she helps in Orleans, compares her to Joan of Arc.  The Baron de Tardiff, in his real-life assessment of her exploits, praised her selflessness and asserted that there was no other woman in all of France like her.  The heroism of Annette Vallon is an unassuming victory of the human spirit in an everyday reality of hypocrisy and violence.
             I am glad that she was finally recognized by her nation at her daughter’s wedding and that, at the end of my story, she takes the arm of Jean-Luc and walks toward the remains of his burned chateau, where they envision together for the future, over their vanished world, the glint of Pegasus’s wings. 

 

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