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The Hero Myth in “Groundhog Day”

Hero myths and familiar character types, also known as archetypes, are embedded almost everywhere in our world, and Broadway’s new musical, Groundhog Day, is no exception. While Groundhog Day features the basic structure of the hero myth as well as common archetypes, its incorporation of these elements is unusual because the characters, excluding Phil Connors, do not experience life in a linear sequence. Nevertheless, the musical includes these elements to create a strong appeal to its audience by reinforcing the notion that personal change is possible and that everyone can have a positive impact on the lives of others, messages that contemporary culture wants to believe and of which they seek evidence.

Though some elements are out of order, Groundhog Day contains several elements of the hero myth. The story begins with the literal awakening of the hero figure–arrogant, dissatisfied Phil Connors–in the small, seemingly mundane town of Punxsutawney. The hero receives his heroic “call”—a literal phone call informing him of his weatherman duties—after waking up to another February 2 in Punxsutawney. Consistent with the hero myth, Connors wants to reject the call, but feels he has no other choice.

After experiencing multiple Groundhog Days in a row, Connors still wonders why this is his challenge. Sinking to a low point, as heroes do, he faces several “death experiences,” but in his case they are futile attempts by his own hands. Hopeless for the future, Connors laments his situation to Rita, who, following the hero myth, mentors him, singing that she would “bring joy to other people’s lives,” “learn piano” and “make a lot of friends” if she were in his situation. Connors follows her advice, signaling the start of his transformation and triggering the lead-up to the climax wherein Connors attempts to live a truly good day based on the foresight and abilities he has acquired.

As Connors makes his great attempt, he faces a battle against time and against himself: he must be perfectly precise, unselfish, and undistracted. As he concludes the evening dancing with Rita, Connors remarks that he has achieved his challenge to live a good day, and indeed he has, for when he wakes it is finally February 3.

But to be a hero myth, Connors must evidence his personal transformation. The culminating moment of his transformation is when he awakes on February 3 and, finally free to leave Punxsutawney, he instead stays to enjoy the day with Rita, demonstrating that he finally believes unselfish sacrifice for others, rather than selfish pursuit, brings real joy.

In addition to elements of the hero myth, Groundhog Day contains archetypes as well, one of which is the “good mother,” an older woman who imparts wisdom and tangible help. Phil encounters this archetype in the piano teacher, who tells him that repetition leads to perfection. This advice, of course, becomes his motto as he strives to perfect his actions each day. While she does not impart an object to Connors, the piano teacher does impart the skill of piano playing, which he uses in his quest of the “perfect day” to raise money at a benefit concert.

Another archetype is the shadow figure, played by Nancy. As a shadow figure, Nancy neither opposes nor directly helps Connors, but rather, through her song “Playing Nancy,” helps to promote the idea that women should be valued for who they are as individuals and not merely as “just collateral in someone else’s battle.” Nancy effectively indicts Connors in her song, setting the stage for his transformation.

Connors himself is also an archetype: self-centered and apathetic, he is a narcissist needing reform. His transformation is aided by Rita, who is both a mentor and also the love interest (won only after the hero conquers his challenge).

The incorporation of the hero myth and several archetypes helps to explain the musical’s appeal in two main ways. First, Connors’ moral transformation through the hero myth strikes a chord with the audience in a society fighting for feminist ideals but often dominated by lust, self-aggrandizement, and personal achievement. The archetypes also appeal to the audience members in a social media-inspired culture dominated by self-obsession and independence, reminding them  that they can act as mentors and friends to the people around them. Both messages remind us of our humanity and our deeply-held values and ideals, making Groundhog Day first a popular film, and now a Tony-nominated Broadway production.

2 thoughts on “The Hero Myth in “Groundhog Day”

  1. “Phil? Phil Connors? Is that you? Don’t tell me you don’t remember me, because I sure as HECKFIRE remember you.” Ned Ryerson is the archetypal Cerberus, guardian of the river Styx and keeper of the gates of Hades. Before Phil can begin doing good things each day, he must navigate past Ned, who has the potential each day to derail Phil’s intentions to improve and do good. Once Phil can get past Ned, and the river Hades each day (represented by the mud puddle), Phil can move on with his day and finish his hero’s journey. Great article!

  2. Whenever my life seems to cycle through the same routines, day after day, I am reminded that I can improve the day and break the cycle by helping others. I love Phil’s inspiring transformation which is an archetype for each of us who are trying to lose ourselves in the service of others. Very insightful and articulate article!

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