Ulysses Everett McGill is not the sort of character we typically think of as a hero. Over the course of the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, he repeatedly commits acts of larceny, even stealing from people who are helping him.He lies freely when it suits his purposes.He has few qualms about inventing a story about buried treasure to manipulate his companions for his own purposes, even though he knows it will significantly extend their prison sentences.In general, he is almost completely amoral.Likewise, his physical achievements are not particularly heroic; he manages to lose every fight he gets into in the movie.Perhaps the only trait he shares with some of the heroes of legend is his extreme narcissism.He is obsessed with maintaining his perfect hair. At one point he considers sneaking into a burning building to save a can of pomade.
McGill is an excellent example of what, in literature, is termed and antihero. An antihero is “a protagonist whose character and goals are antithetical to traditional heroism” (Antihero). As unheroic as he is in character, he still functions as a hero because of the structure of the movie itself. O Brother Where Art Thou, it turns out, is a classic example of a hero story.
In the 20th century Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about what makes a hero and about the common structural elements of hero stories. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he presents an outline for what he calls the “monomyth”, a sort of fundamental common structure for all stories about heroes:
It is obvious that O Brother Where Art Thou fits this pattern. From the point when they break jail, McGill and his companions travel in a world that is superficially similar to the real world of depression-era Mississippi, yet more vivid and fantastical in all respects. It is a world of powerful characters where music has power. The supernatural, if never shown overtly, seems to lurk just off camera at all times. Eventually, having defeated the forces of evil McGill returns to the everyday world where he is raised to a position of power as the governor’s adviser.
In Campbell’s book he identifies a number of episodes which are common to many hero myths. A number of them occur in the movie. Soon after receiving the call to adventure, the three men are almost recaptured but are rescued by the Blind Seer who proceeds to prophecy about their coming adventure. This character, often male and usually elderly, is a common feature in the monomyth who appears at this stage to offer guidance (69-72). In many several stories he appears as a boatman. In this movie a railroad handcar serves a similar role to convey McGill and his companions away from the every-day world and into a fantastic hero world.
As the characters pass down what Campbell called “the road of trials” (97) they encounter other familiar scenarios. Big Dan Teague, for instance, is similar to the entities in many myths known as “threshold guardians” (77). In many stories the guardian is some kind of ogre or giant. In the original Odyssey it was the giant man-eating cyclops Polyphemus. The sirens are also familiar characters. In fact, Campbell devotes a chapter to “Woman as Temptress” (120), a subject on which McGill himself expounds later in the movie. Nearly every hero risks the being diverted from his quest by female wiles. When McGill’s encounter with Pete Hogswallup (who both he and the audience believe is dead) parallels many hero myths in which the hero travels to the underworld to commune with a dead comrade.
After the three main characters rescue their friend Tommy from the Ku Klux Klan, the stage is set for their “atonement with the father” (126) which is represented by receiving a pardon from the governor. In more traditional mythology the “father” would be an important god, often the hero’s literal father. For poor southerners, the governor might as well be a god. The governor then elevates them to his “brain trust”, analogous to what Campbell calls the apotheosis (149), wherein the hero attains godlike powers. One more trial remains, however, before McGill can reunite with “the goddess” (109), a female principal represented by his wife Penney.
Penney requires that McGill travel to the family homestead and retrieve her ring. It is here that they encounter Sheriff Cooley. Every hero has a malevolent supernatural enemy. In the original Odyssey the role was played by the sea god, Poseidon, who was enraged at his son Polyphemus’ blinding (Odyssey). The implacable Sheriff, with his dark glasses and fierce bloodhound, is as terrifying and unstoppable as any Hellenistic deity. He is a supernatural force of retribution. It is only when McGill calls on supernatural aid that he and his comrades are rescued by the flood in a trope that Campbell calls “rescue from without” (Campbell 207). Floods are themselves powerful and widespread mythic symbols found in the stories of many cultures.
The rescue by the flood marks the return to the mundane world. McGill is quick to explain it away to natural causes. Having escaped he soon returns to normalcy. Our last view of him shows him interacting with his six children and demanding wife. The hero’s journey is over and things have become ordinary again.