The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Essays and Criticism

Michael Chabon

An Archetypical Hero Journey

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, is a sweeping tale of grand proportions that uses some of the bold, over-the-top stylistic devices of comic books, such as archetypes. Critics have noted that Joe Kavalier, although quiet and hardworking, is also suave, competent, talented, and indestructible. Joe’s uncanny abilities are not overstated to the point of magic realism, but he is as supernatural and heroic as the characters he illustrates for his comic books. The work of Joseph Campbell, an expert in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion, was heavily influenced by psychologist Carl Jung. Campbell’s seminal text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), provides the following outline for the journey of the archetypical hero, a hero just like Joe Kavalier.

The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Supernatural Aid
The Crossing of the First Threshold
The Belly of the Whale or Rebirth

The Road of Trials
The Meeting with the Goddess or the Attainment
of Knowledge
Woman as the Temptress or Fear of Failure
Atonement with the Father
Apotheosis or Glorification
The Ultimate Boon

The Refusal of Return
The Magic Flight
Rescue from Without
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Master of the Two Worlds, Supernatural and
Freedom to Live

The first part of Joe’s journey is simply getting out the door, that is, departure. Joe’s call to adventure is the encroaching Nazi presence in Czechoslovakia and his family’s decision to send him to his aunt in the United States. Joe’s mother sells her favorite emerald to help pay for Joe to leave. Saying good-bye at the train station, Joe blithely refuses the call with his foolish stoicism when faced with the heartbreak of his family who weep while he is impatient to leave. This is a refusal because Joe’s attention is on the enjoyment of travel rather than the seriousness of his family’s situation. When the authorities send him back to Prague, Joe cannot pretend he is having fun anymore. He goes to his former mentor, the retired performing escapist Bernhard Kornblum, for help. Kornblum, here and throughout Chabon’s novel, is Joe’s supernatural aid. Ever after, Joe has dream-like visions of Kornblum whenever he needs guidance.

The guardian of the first threshold is the Golem. (Golem is a creature from Jewish legend, created by Rabbi ben Loeb to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution.) With Kornblum’s aid, Joe passes this threshold by finding the Golem and preparing it for their passage to Lithuania. Joe enters the proverbial belly of the whale, a place of rebirth, when he hides inside the Golem’s casket and travels toward freedom. Emerging safe in Lithuania nearly two days later, Joe is reborn from the Golem’s dusty chamber. He can never return to the home he once knew because it no longer exists. Literally speaking, Joe’s family has been forced by the Nazis to move from their comfortable apartment. Figuratively, Joe is not a boy anymore. He has successfully completed the first part of his journey, and he is now a man, although still young.

The next stage is initiation. On the road of trials, Joe encounters many tests as well as helpers. In this part of his story, Joe successfully creates and establishes the Escapist, with the help of Sammy and against those who would hinder, redirect, or hold them back, i.e., Anapol, Ashkenazy, and Deasey. He survives...

(The entire section is 1496 words.)

Barbara Lane Interviews Michael Chabon

(Novels for Students)

[Barbara Lane:] Talk a little bit about the story of the golem, which is central to this novel.

[Michael Chabon:] The...

(The entire section is 3448 words.)

Review by Tom Deignan

(Novels for Students)

It’s not hard to imagine the great works of American literature as comic books. Think of Huck and Jim diving into the Mississippi, in a...

(The entire section is 3236 words.)

Comics and Jewish Immigrants

(Novels for Students)

Michael Chabon’s Comic Book Americans and the Golem of Prague
Near the end of Everything is Illuminated,...

(The entire section is 4241 words.)