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The Odyssey of Desmond Hume

on Mon, 03/08/2010 - 00:00

The ABC drama Lost paid homage to numerous science fiction staples of the past during many of its episodes, including Star Wars and Back to the Future, but the series also peppered numerous storylines with references to other classic works from the philosophical and spiritual realms as well. The character arc of Desmond Hume, meanwhile, coincided with a mythic persona from Greek mythology, Odysseus (also known as Ulysses), and likewise mirrored the “Hero’s Journey” that American writer Joseph Campbell proposed in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Odyssey by Homer tells the story of Odysseus’ 10-year journey following the battle of Troy to return home to his wife, facing numerous trials along the way. The name of his wife was the same as Desmond Hume’s great love, Penelope. While Odysseus had to deal with shipwrecks, a Cyclops, the witch-goddess Circe, conversations with dead people and both the Scylla and Charybdis, Desmond had his fair share of obstacles to overcome as well. He was also shipwrecked, for instance, and while Odysseus spent seven years of captivity on the island Ogygia at the hands of the sea nymph Calypso, Desmond served a similar three-year sentence on Lost Island pushing a button every 108 minutes.

The structure of The Odyssey follows what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey,” a fundamental format that all myths have followed throughout time. As outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the journey commences when the hero is called to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events. There are then numerous tasks and trials that the hero must face, sometimes alone and other times with assistance. Ultimately the hero encounters a greater challenge and if victorious, is given a gift of some kind that leads to self-knowledge. At that point the hero decides to return home to his original world but encounters additional obstacles along the way before he finally arrives.

The Odyssey of Desmond Hume follows Joseph Campbell’s formula in much the same way as Homer’s Odyssey. During a one-man sailing race around the world, Desmond’s boat enters a fierce storm that leads to him being shipwrecked on the island of Lost, an unusual world of strange powers if ever there was one. The event not only sets Desmond on his journey but also coincides with Campbell’s assessment that “the hero (often) simply falls or plunders into it.” The major task he then faces is no less than “saving the world” by pressing a button in the Swan Hatch for three years. It may not be Herculean in nature, but is a tedious trial nonetheless.

Joseph Campbell goes on to say that “the call is often announced to the hero by another character who acts as a herald.” While Kelvin Inman, Desmond’s colleague in the hatch, could be thought of as the herald, Eloise Hawking also fits the criteria. In the episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” Desmond is transported backwards through time and meets the elderly woman at a jewelry store. While he is determined to alter the future he has already lived, Ms. Hawking informs him that pushing the button is his destiny as well as the only great thing he will ever truly accomplish.

Kelvin, on the other hand, is more notably the “protective figure who provides special tools” to the hero that Campbell likewise mentions in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Although the former American intelligence operative ultimately proves to not be very “protective,” Kelvin still provided Desmond with the key needed to implode the hatch, dissipating the electro-magnetic energy and eliminating the need for the button in the process. When Desmond uses the key at the end of the second season of Lost, he passes through what Joseph Campbell referred to as the “first threshold” and enters “the belly of the whale.” Both terms refer to an unfamiliar world that results in a rebirth for the hero. In Desmond’s case, he entered a world where he suddenly has flashes of the future.

Despite fitting the model of a hero, however, flashbacks from various episodes of Lost portray Desmond Hume as a coward. In “Catch-22,” for instance, he leaves the woman to whom he is engaged standing at the altar and joins the monastery instead. In regards to Penelope, her father repeatedly tells Desmond that he isn’t good enough for his daughter. Desmond in turn deserts her as well when he enlists in the army. An unspecified event then occurs that leads to his dishonorable discharge, again inferring that Desmond is a coward. Penny is still willing to take him back, but Desmond instead becomes determined to prove his self-worth and thus enters the one-man sailing race around the world that results in his crash on Lost Island.

While Odysseus had to overcome a number of trials over a 10-year period to get back to his beloved Penelope, the true obstacle preventing Desmond from being with his Penelope is himself. While he continually discusses the need to regain his honor, the truth of the matter is that Desmond simply appears “lost” in the world-at-large. Flashbacks show him failing at being both a monk and a soldier, and he tells Jack Shephard at one point that he “was almost a doctor once.” It isn’t until destiny intervenes in his life—trapping him on an island for three years—and he completes the “Hero’s Journey” that Desmond finally realizes the importance of his love for Penny.

Desmond David Hume takes his name from the philosopher David Hume, who was likewise Scottish and heavily influenced by the philosopher John Locke. In regards to one of the central themes that Lost often debates, whether we have a free will and thus make our own choices or that everything is already pre-destined in regards to our lives, David Hume was on the pre-destined side of the argument—we may think we have a free will and make our own decisions, but when we look back at those decisions, we discover that they were instead inevitable.

Desmond Hume, however, is not a believer in his namesake’s philosophy. In the episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” Eloise Hawking allows a man wearing red tennis shoes to die even though she could have prevented his death. It wouldn’t have mattered, she explains, because the universe has a way of “course correcting” itself and the man would have ultimately died in a different fashion. “You don’t do it because you choose to,” she then tells Desmond in regards to his eventual pushing of the button. “You do it because you’re supposed to.” Once on the island, however, Desmond experiences future flashes of Charlie Pace dying and attempts to defy the universe by continually saving Charlie’s life despite the apparent inevitability of the event.

Brother Campbell at the monastery had a picture of himself with Eloise Hawking on his desk. At the end of “Catch-22,” Campbell is also the one who introduces Desmond to Penelope, thus placing Desmond on the path that leads him to Lost Island and where he is “supposed” to be. This suggests that outside forces have long played a role in Desmond’s life despite his belief that he has a choice in such matters, making Desmond Hume the very personification of his namesake’s philosophy regarding determinism.

The character of Desmond Hume first appeared on Lost at the beginning of season two and wasn’t seen again until that year’s two-hour finale. Not only did he return for the episode but was also given the flashbacks for the installment. “Live Together, Die Alone” in effect changed the scope of Lost—suddenly the series wasn’t just about an island but was transformed into an epic love story as well. While the majority of Desmond Hume’s life may have indeed been outside of his control, in the end he needed the personal Odyssey of being “lost” in order to finally find the happiness that had been in front of him all along.

Anthony Letizia (March 8, 2010)

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