Faith, Trial, and Transformation on 7th Ave.
The Hero’s Journey in The Devil Wears Prada
When we try to use the power of transformation for earthly ends we risk straying into the Dark Side or what is called Black Magic. In Yoga, the mystical branch of Hinduism, gurus warn that with transformational development comes power and with power the temptation to use that power for selfish ends. My first teacher, Richard Rose, called this “exchanging a spiritual breakthrough for a lesser mental amazement.” This risk is real and I have some very humbling examples from my own life when I succumbed to the snares of the Dark Side for a while.
The movie The Devil Wears Prada is based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s quest for transformation. The young heroine, played by Anne Hathaway, represents the seeker. She is a naive and innocent waif (if this were a myth she’d be a virgin), motivated only by her longing for transformation, and, as any seeker can attest, she has lots of trouble trying to explain this motivation to her friends, family, and boyfriend. Her father, for example, can’t understand why a young woman who got into Stanford Law School and turned it down for journalism would throw it all away to be a secretary in the fashion industry when she doesn’t even care about fashion.
Like so many of us, her father is content driven. He wants a tangible goal. His daughter gamely tries to explain that instead she is process driven and only wants the transformational benefits that her new job and teacher afford. Of course her father, her boyfriend, and her friends don’t understand. To them, if you are working in the fashion business, you’re learning fashion. To her, she is learning how to be a complete human being by means of the fashion business, and when she masters herself she can then apply what she’s learned to every facet of her life. Like all seekers she has the faith to go her own way and risks the alienation and possible abandonment that her path might bring. She enters the alchemist’s fiery furnace where the dross of human flesh is transmuted into spiritual gold, and she is willing to pay the price.
Meanwhile, as the title implies, the stakes are high. She has apprenticed herself to a boss played by Meryl Streep who represents the Devil and she is determined to steal the Devil’s secrets without becoming a devil herself. Everything goes well for a while. She encounters the heat that every great teacher produces and refuses to quit. Eventually she makes great strides becoming an entirely different person. She begins to transform... Her power is almost magical as she learns to do what seems impossible to the point of the miraculous.
But little by little, she can’t resist selfishly playing with the power that comes with transformation. She begins a slow slide into the Dark Side that is so subtle she doesn’t notice. Others point it out but she discounts their advice. In this way, she commits the cardinal sin of the Dark Side without which the Dark Side could not exist: self deception. The tension between Good and Evil builds until she encounters the next stage on the hero’s quest: the Great Trial. Like the devil tempting Jesus in the desert, Streep’s character offers her a job representing power beyond her wildest dreams in exchange for her “soul” or principles. She realizes that she must make a decision. It is now or never. She must choose between light and dark and she can no longer hedge her bets. She is forced to look straight into the mirror of life and ask, with all the chips on the table, who am I?
Of course, she chooses the light. She breaks with the Devil and by doing so proves that she has accomplished what every real teacher wants. She has gone beyond the teacher..This is her breakthrough, her Enlightenment.
The final scenes of the movie illustrate the Return or final stage of the Hero’s Journey from the books by Joseph Campbell. First, it is significant that she does not return to her boyfriend. The movie doesn’t fall into the trap of ending with a marriage. She has changed. Her boyfriend has not. Next, she gives all her fancy Paris dresses to the other secretary who was once her rival. This gesture tells us that she is not only renouncing worldly selfishness but that her future path will be one of selfless service to others.
Then she encounters Meryl Streep’s character getting into a limo. And this final encounter implies that the Devil is proud of her and that the teacher has learned something from the student as well. The student has finally outgrown the teacher, and this is what every great teacher wants.
The movie ends with Anne Hathaway’s character walking up the street alone. This is the hero’s return to life. Once again she is heading out into the unknown. In one sense we’ve returned to the beginning of the movie when she first ventured out alone. But she is not the same person. Faith and transformation have made her into someone new. She has died and been reborn and now, according to Joseph Campbell’s template of the hero’s journey, she is returning to life… She is returning to help someone else.
This return to life is best expressed in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
What do I do?
Don’t give up. Stick to your guns and come out the other side a winner.