The Heroic Fugitive
as Epic Archetype

Ginny Rowland: "A man of many cities. Don't you ever get lonely? Unhappy? Lost?”
Richard Kimble: “Quite often. It’s the human condition, isn’t it?”
                                             —The Fugitive, "Glass Tightrope"

     I grew up in the 1960’s, and wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, so I missed a whole generation of popular culture. I’d never even heard of shows like The Fugitive. They say if you skip a stage of development, you’ll have to make up for it later, so I guess this is my time to compensate for a childhood spent reading at the expense of watching TV. Browsing in the library this summer, I found The Fugitive (1963-67) on DVD. From the first episode I could appreciate this archetypal quest narrative of a hero on the run, an innocent wrongly accused—the persecuted exile, friendless fugitive, prince disguised as pauper (doctor as migrant worker/ bartender/ laborer, etc.) He is the convicted murderer who saves lives; the wanted felon who does good.

     A hero on the lam, often in disguise, is embedded in our literature, our culture and our psyche. We see it in movies like Good Will Hunting, about a savant disguised as a porter, and his reluctant journey of self-discovery. (A character in Dante’s Inferno is Goodwill, who stands at a gate before the "straight and narrow way" to the Celestial City.) In the 1947 film Dark Passage, Humphrey Bogart, as Vincent Parry ("prevailing deflector"), has escaped prison, having been framed for murder (cf. Shawshank Redemption), and with his new face hides out with Lauren Bacall. Many of these tales are road trips of self-discovery or transformation, but The Fugitive is slightly different, for, as Professor Stanley Fish points out in his recent Flight of the Fugitive, wherever Kimble is, he is at home in himself, the eye of the storm. Only he does not change; it is the people he stumbles upon who are transformed by his influence, and then he moves on.

     The appeal of the hero in hiding, the hero on the run, the existential wayfarer, lies in a perhaps universal, if not consciously acknowledged intimation of being interrupted, misunderstood, waylaid, or hounded. Sometimes we may feel like a case of mistaken identity to others and an imposter to ourselves. (Who am I?) And, if we yearn to discover who we really are, we become both persecuted and persecutor—Dr. Richard Kimble and Lt. Philip Gerard wrapped into one. Above all, the hero-quest depicts a spiritual journey disguised as an adventure tale, and the hero can be a superman or an everyman, stand-ins for you and me. But while the character may be interpreted as a kind of "everyman," he is not ordinary, for few ordinary people behave with such unfailing flexibility and selflessness, are so evolved, are so determined to be utterly free. Richard Kimble is simple in the sense that he is not neurotic, and extraordinary because he lacks the pride or contempt of the avowed maverick.

     An ancient paradigm for the nimble Kimble, whose pantheon of nemeses are Lt. Gerard, a host of paranoid newspaper-reading citizens, and constabularies nationwide, may be Ulysses, whose own adversaries are Neptune and assorted monsters who “would not let him get home.” In Book V, staggering with exhaustion, far from home, Ulysses wonders if his flight will ever end. Tonight, if he sleeps near the river, he might freeze to death. If he chooses the woods, he risks being eaten by an animal. Opting for the woods, he buries himself in a pile of dead leaves, falls asleep and forgets “all memories of his sorrows.” In the morning the picaresque ordeal resumes, and will not cease until his return home.

     Similarly, in the opening lines of The Aeneid, the hero is designated a fugitive driven on by Fate. (Each episode of The Fugitive begins: "But in that darkness, Fate moves its huge hand.") Aeneas's chief adversary is “cruel Juno,” who, like Gerard, is determined to thwart her prey by any means. Joseph Conrad writes in his story, "Amy Foster," about the shipwreck of the main character: "It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger helpless, incomprehensible, and of a mysterious origin, in some obscure corner of the earth. Yet amongst all the adventurers shipwrecked in all the wild parts of the world, there is not one...that ever had to suffer a fate so simply tragic as...the most innocent of adventurers cast out by the sea...." [Quoted in Said, Edward, "Reflections on Exile"].

     It is not surprising that fate is constantly cited in Moby-Dick, e.g.: "... the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—" (Ch.1); ...those stage managers, the Fates (Ch. 1); "their fear of Ahab was greater than their fear of Fate" (Ch. 124); "The hand of Fate ..." (Ch. 134); "I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman..." (Conclusion). And in this soliloquy by Ahab:

     ...we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? (Ch. 132)

     The author of The Divine Comedy was fated to lead an epic life. Dante Alighieri was "a penniless exile convicted of a felony, separated under pain of death from home, family and friends; his life seemed to have been cut off in the middle" (Archibald T. MacAllister, intro. to Ciardi trans., Signet, 2001). His hero is Kimble’s age, 35, and the Inferno begins with perhaps the most famous midlife crisis in literature: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost.” The hero is exhausted, alone, frightened: “My weary frame / After short pause recomforted, again / I journey'd on over that lonely steep…” He has a long way to go. (In The Fugitive, comely Beatrice-types pop up regularly to lead Kimble out of danger.)

     The theme of urgent flight appears in Jane Eyre. In Ch. 23, a manipulative Rochester tells Jane: “It is always the way of events in this life… no sooner have you got settled in a pleasant resting-place, than a voice calls out to you to rise and move on, for the hour of repose is expired.” However, the great escape—from Rochester’s deception and a bigamous marriage—occurs in Jane’s wild exodus across the moors, during which she undergoes epic tests of hardship, danger, spiritual suffering. Saved by St. John Rivers, she will not disclose her identity to him: “Anxious as ever to avoid discovery, I had before resolved to assume an alias.” As Jane Elliott, she begins a new life, having severed, for the present, contact with her past.

     The novel’s strange ending concerns the fate of St. John, a rigid perfectionist incapable of romantic love, the opposite of the passionate Rochester. When St. John proposes to Jane merely to make her a fellow missionary, again she flees, making the allegorical return-journey, back to Rochester, who, meanwhile, has gone through his own trial by fire; though wounded and blind he is now her moral equal, and worthy of a prompt union. A decade of marital bliss is dispatched in a few words—“My tale draws to its close: one word respecting my experience of married life, and one brief glance at the fortunes of those whose names have most frequently recurred in this narrative, and I have done”—as if to affirm that the unfinished, unsettled, unbound life is the one to chronicle; that “happily ever after” signifies The End of the tale. After sound and fury, the rest (the remainder; a repose; or death) is silence. Refer to the final episode of The Fugitive. (It is significant that Melville ends Moby-Dick with Ishmael bobbing on a coffin, floating on the margin of the shipwreck, in the middle of the sea—about to be rescued, but still in medias res. However, the chase is over; the white whale has escaped Ahab’s harpoon, if not his death-grip, and is free.)

     At the very end of Jane Eyre, St. John has written from India. Mrs. Rochester, secure in her long-desired fate, in a revised account of his character, beams, “A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers.” He has become more interesting, and his redemptive move from dogmatism and domination has edged him toward heroic stature. Here, on the last page, Bronte ends the novel with a mention of hero and adversary in The Pilgrim’s Progress, certainly one of the greatest quest-narratives ever penned.

     The Fugitive has countless literary and popular road-trip parallels—the exodus of Moses and the exiles of Oedipus, Adam and Eve, Cain, Philip Nolan in "The Man Without a Country"; Plato’s philosopher-ruler leaving the Cave; in the East, the tradition of the wandering sadhu, the renunciant who on his constant quest after Truth never stays in one place. Kimble is like the maverick cowboy, too, thinking on his feet, improvising, constantly changing, elusive, never pinned down. The Lone Ranger stays masked and anonymous from one adventure to the next. Kimble is like Shane who, at the end of Jack Schaefer’s novel, slips invisibly away: “He’s gone…He’s gone, alone and unfollowed as he wanted it. Out of the valley and no one knows where.”

     The journey quest is the business of action heroes and adventure tales. In Star Wars, George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s study of the hero quest in cross-cultural mythologies, which all say pretty much the same things. Accounts of the life of Jesus (except for the unknown years of wandering), until his crucifixion at age 33, depict the most mysterious and misunderstood person in story or history, a hero on levels both religious and secular. Perhaps the faithful who retrace his final steps, along the Stations of the Cross, may have been prompted, consciously or not, to enact or initiate their own inner journey-quest. The hero is a paradigm on which to base one's most intimate identity. The story of the great journey, in any permutation, for those who resonate to it on any level, can serve as a map to life and as a pointer to authentic inner being in the long and arduous process of getting home—which is code for self-discovery after all.

     To sum up, Dr. Kimble is an archetypal hero on a quest (to find the one-armed man; to get home; to reclaim his name, etc.) that involves picaresque ordeals and one moral test after another, which of course he always passes. He symbolizes a quintessentially spiritual state— that of being in the world but not of it—paradoxically fettered and free.

                                                                                           —September, 2010