A World of Speculation

I got to read the book of Jonah at this year’s Holy Saturday services. It’s a short book, maybe a five-minute read, even aloud, and it offers some some great insights into story structure.

The book is in four chapters. There’s little or no ordinary world, and the story opens with the call to adventure.

God tells Jonah to go into Ninevah, “that great city,” and prophesy. Jonah heads for Tarshish (Spain — the end of the world), because he doesn’t want to do it. Now there is a refusal of the call. In fact, in this story, he enters his special world — the ocean voyage — trying to avoid the adventure that’s set out before him, and Act IIA (chapter 1 of the book) is what happens when he does that. (Note to self: if I ever want to have the character spend the first part of Act II trying to escape from the adventure, it can work.)

Well, that attempt to escape doesn’t work, and the sailors end up having to toss Jonah overboard to save their own lives. In chapter 2, he gets swallowed by the “big fish” and has his “belly of the whale” experience.

In hero’s journey and screenplay story structure, the “belly of the whale” is not the climax, but rather the midpoint. It’s a place in the story where there’s a change in context (Larry Brooks) — a plot twist, the arrival of a new bit of information for the characters or the audience. In the belly of the whale, Jonah accepts his mission of going to Ninevah.

In hero’s journey language (see Christopher Vogler’s The Writers Journey), it’s the Ordeal , the place where the character meets death. It might have a near-death experience, a symbolic death, a death of dreams or of ambitions; the audience may be led to believe the character died. This point in Jonah’s story has given the name for this point in the story.

Michael Hauge (Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds) relates the midpoint to the place where the protagonist loses his “identity,” a false self or an incomplete version of the self. In Shrek, for example, Shrek’s identity is the bravado that protects his inner vulnerability. At the midpoint Jonah accepts the fact that he is a prophet with a mission and begins actiing like it.

In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah, “that great city” and persuades the people to repent. The king calls on everybody to fast, including the the cattle, and repent from their wicked ways. Jonah’s mission is successful, and he prevents them from being destroyed.

Jonah spends chapter 4 whining because God didn’t actually destroy Ninevah (injured pride is the issue, it seems). He sits outside the city and asks to die. God makes a plant grow up to shelter him from the heat, and then the next morning the plant dies. Jonah complains again that he’d rather die than live under such conditions, and God replies that here’s Jonah complaining about the death of a plant but not caring about the 120,000 people of Ninevah and (in a concluding line that stands out as both funny and profound) “also much cattle.”

So chapter 3 contains the climax (though without the details that would make for suspenseful reading, in a modern sense), and chapter 4 is his return with the boon. Also in chapter 4, Jonah drifts back into his identity one last time, and God corrects him. The story doesn’t say anything about his return to his home or what he brought with him, but the inclusion of this story in the Scriptures is itself proof of the boon — which apparently includes the information that God loves all peoples and “even much cattle.”

Now, the story of Jonah comes up literally constantly in the hymnography of the Church. Jonah’s song in the belly of the whale is called for at every day’s matins, and the hymnography refers incessantly to Jonah’s “belly of the whale” experience as a parallel for Christ’s death and resurrection.

Rabbit trail: If you want to know where Flannery O’Connor (The Complete Stories and Flannery O’Connor : Collected Works, among others) gets off having such bizarre and unorthodox characters as Christ figures, just take a look at Jonah. But back to the point.

Now, I don’t want to go into, right here, how Christ’s life is the prototype for the hero’s journey, so let me just assert it and go on. But the Scriptures tell a number of hero’s journeys. One is the story of mankind; another is the story of Christ himself. But here’s the thing. For Christ’s story (and maybe for man’s story, too, but I’m not finished thinking about this), the death and resurrection are the midpoint, not the climax. The thing is, we don’t know the climax. Beyond the indications from Scripture, we have only guesses and speculations about the harrowing of sheol, about breaking down the bars of death, about what Christ meant when he told the myrrhbearer not to touch him because he had not ascended to his father, about what the Ascension actually entailed.

But this isn’t about the climax; it’s about Jonah and the belly of the whale, and I’m done talking about that.