Clerks: Mapping Dante’s Journey
Dante Hicks was a most tragic hero! Maybe at least the most relatable hero, if you are me anyway. No matter what your opinion he is of course the hero of his own particular journey and of course the hero in Kevin Smith’s 1994 films, Clerks and Clerks II. (Say what you will about Kevin Smith he knows how to name a sequel). This rant however is not about sequels or even about Kevin Smith, it’s about Dante Hicks, and his journey.
It has been said that there are only seven stories told in infinite ways. While I do not know if that is true, Clerks is a great example of this maxim. Clerks is easily a retelling of the rebirth story, although interestingly was originally intended as the tragedy (but more on that later.) The rebirth is the telling of the tragedy where our hero is redeemed at the end. Clerks may have worked best as tragedy as the movie truly encompasses the stages discussed in Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (2014). Booker’s stages of tragedy are made out within the film except the death of the hero. Our hero first gets fascinated by the concept of reuniting with his ex. Next our hero gets determined to win back his lost love; this is referred to as the dream stage within this stage we may see our hero begin to do morally questionable things in order to achieve his goal. We see Dante throughout the film slip through the frustration and nightmare stages as he discovers that his ex-girlfriend is in fact engaged and had cheated on him multiple times. Finally destruction: in the original cut Dante is gunned down before he is able to close the store ultimately completing his own tragedy. The final cut however ends with our hero simply realizing that he has already found the perfect girl for him and coming to some serious realization about his own life and future. This takes our story from tragedy to rebirth in which our hero is redeemed.
No matter a viewer’s opinion on which of the seven basic plots Clerks falls within, or if in fact you believe that all stories must fall within seven plots at all; It can clearly be established all stories have the same basic elements of the hero’s journey or monomyth (Joseph Campbell, Hero of a Thousand Faces, 1949), and Clerks is no exception.
Dante’s journey, like all journeys start at the beginning: that is to say, in their ordinary world. For Dante that is at home in bed. It could even be considered that his ordinary world consists of his day off. Essentially it’s imperative that our hero is comfortable and at home at this stage in the journey, and that the viewer can see that this place is different to the world of adventure our hero, Dante, will face.
Next for Dante is the hero’s call to adventure. For Dante his call to adventure comes from someone (presumably his boss) who asks him to come into work on his day off. This element in the film does not require much explanation as Kevin Smith, whether consciously or unconsciously, slaps the viewer in the face with our hero’s call by making it a literal call in the guise of a telephone. Dante's phone call is the equivalent to Tolkien's ring, if it had started to buzz or vibrate when Bilbo left it with Frodo. In any event no matter the form the call to adventure is one and the same.
Refusal of the call is the next element on the journey. This goes hand in hand with the call itself as Dante, like all heroes, is reluctant to take the call to adventure. Like the previous stage this is a literal refusal of the literal call to adventure. Its important here that our hero Dante goes to work (answers the call) against his better judgement. All heroes will be reluctant to go on their journeys. Luke refused to go with Obi wan, Peter refused to follow Ray to the library, and Dante didn't want to go into work on his day off. The reasons for the reluctance to go are reflections of the character itself.
The next stage of Dante’s journey is meeting the mentor. This can be harder to establish especially when you are not watching or reading mythology or other classic tales. The mentor’s job is to prepare our hero for his adventure. He can only go so far with the hero, but gives the hero some form of gift, physical or not, to prepare him for the ordeal ahead. Our mentor is Randall Graves, Dante’s co-worker and friend. Randall plays the role of comedic mentor. He is there to give his own warped views of love and life and give the hero courage to face the challenges ahead. As is common with this type of mentor, and in Dante’s case specifically, the mentor’s advice while serving the purpose on the journey is rarely good. Dante is now ready to cross the first threshold.
As stated above this story is, at heart, a tragedy. His first threshold is his commitment to winning back his ex-girlfriend. This is the first ordeal that each hero will face before they realize they are worthy of this task before them.
Dante will now meet tests and enemies. For Dante, his test’s allies and enemies come in the form of customers and acquaintances who come to the quick stop to buy items and drop bits of wisdom or doom on Dante’s day. Some of these people are sages who offer valuable advice, others will test Dante’s resolve giving him information he may wish he didn't know. These enemies will test Dante and make him prove his worth before he can cross the thresholds ahead. For those that need more help here try and think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The bridge-keeper was a literal guardian who served the same purpose as most of Dante's customer, which was to test him as worthy of the ordeal ahead.
Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
- Bridge Keeper Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975
The approach of second threshold will be every hero’s seventh stage. This happens for Dante when his ex, Caitlin Bree returns and he decides that he is going to leave his girlfriend and recommit to a relationship with his ex.
The ordeal has to be Dante’s bleakest moment. For Dante this is moments after he reunites with his long last love. To recap for those who do not know, Caitlin excuses herself to use the bathroom. She comes back hinting to Dante that she really enjoyed what they just did in the bathroom. It quickly becomes evident that Caitlin had inadvertently had sex with someone who had died while using the bathroom earlier in the day. The news of this information sends her into shock. She is taken away in an ambulance and it seems that Dante has lost Caitlin for good.
The reward is a moment of clarity for Dante. He realizes the grass is not greener on the other side. This comes for Dante after his talk with Jay & Silent Bob who convinces him to appreciate the girl that truly loves him.
“There’s a million fine looking women in the world but they don't all bring you lasagne at work, they just cheat on you.” - Kevin Smith as Silent Bob, Clerks, 1994
Almost instantly after hearing these words is the moment when Dante realizes he loves Veronica.
The road back is just after Dante’s meeting with Jay & Silent Bob. He has now realized that he wants, he has his reward and is ready to return to his ordinary world. On the way back he meets with Veronica who dumps him after being informed of the day’s events by Randall.
This event leads directly into the resurrection. The resurrection is the moment of Dante’s second ordeal, which is the physical and emotional fight between Dante and Randall. Both our hero and mentor share some truths with each other which culminates in a new Dante. Dante now fully appreciates what he has, and what he has lost.
Before the film can end, our hero must figuratively return with elixir (his reward). Because Dante’s reward is completely metaphysical, it is what he returns to his ordinary world with. Dante returns to his world with his knowledge of his love for Veronica. It is clear he will attempt to win her back.
The mapping of the heroes journey gives me an even greater interest in a movie, and a greater appreciation of the depth of the artist's characters. I have always loved Clerks , but looking at the film through the map his hero must travel makes it an even more enjoyable event.