The “hero’s journey” (a term coined by American writer, Joseph Campbell) is a common theme in global mythology. Here, in a line from Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is the hero’s journey summarized:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
This all-encompassing event in a person’s life happens in a series of defined stages: Departure, Initiation and Return. Each stage is then marked with various steps, the full list of which (with descriptions) can be read here. In The Big Lebowski, the Dude’s journey follows this pattern. And interestingly, certain key steps of the adventure are heralded each time the Dude imbibes his favorite drink, the White Russian (or as he refers to it—the Caucasian).
Take, for example, the first instance of the Dude drinking a White Russian. He’s doing a Tai Chi maneuver on his newly-acquired Oriental rug liberated from the mansion of wealthy paraplegic, the “Big” Lebowksi. In this scene he receives a message on his answering machine from Mr. Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt, who wants to speak with him concerning an “important matter.” The “matter” of course turns out to be the Big Lebowski’s request that the Dude act as bag man to pay Mr. Lebowski’s wife, Bunny’s kidnapping ransom. This is the first step in the Departure stage of his hero’s journey, named “The Call to Adventure.” Until this point the Dude is seen drinking only beer with his friends and teammates at the bowling alley. After his call to adventure, he is swept off on his quest—and on his run of White Russians.
The film does not follow the usual progressive order of Campbell’s steps, but his “Road of Trials” beings when the Dude accepts the briefcase of money and heads off with Walter to make the drop. The next Caucasian is imbibed during his encounter with Maude, Mr. Lebowski’s daughter, after the flubbed money drop. This is his “Meeting with the Goddess,” which foretells of an important step to come.
He is served his next White Russian back at the bowling alley after the Nihilists threaten to “cut off his Johnson.” In this scene his “Supernatural Aid” appears in the form of The Stranger. The fourth White Russian comes when the Dude visits Maude again. In this scene he tells Maude he’s quitting the search for the missing ransom money, effectively his “Refusal of the Call.”
We then see the Dude partaking of a beer in his car, which he uses to extinguish the dropped roach burning his crotch. This beer is an interruption of his White Russian journey and indicates his resignation from the quest and an attempt to return to his normal ordinary world. But then he discovers Larry’s homework stuffed in the crack of the driver’s seat and resumes his adventure.
The fifth and sixth White Russians are imbibed at porn producer Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu beach house, whereupon the Dude makes a deal to get a finder’s fee for returning the money owed by Bunny Leobowski. These cocktails are particularly potent and the Dude is left running in a psychedelic haze down the highway before being arrested. A continuation of his “Road of Trials.”
The seventh and final White Russian is consumed with Maude post-coitus, a classic instance of “Woman as the Temptress.” Right after he makes the drink, he learns she wants to have a child from their tryst in bed. She also tells him that the only money her father has access to is in a trust. At which point the Dude figures out the whole scheme: how the Big Lebowski saw Bunny’s kidnapping as a way to skim money from the trust by giving a fake payoff to kidnappers whom he hoped would kill his wife—all the while keeping the real ransom to himself. This marks the Dude’s “Ultimate Boon,” with the final cocktail signifying the forthcoming Return. In the Dude’s next scene he and Walter confront the Big Lebowski, effectively “Atoning with the Father” and bringing an end to the Initiation.
The White Russians then go quietly into the night and the Dude is back to beers (or, “oat soda”) at the bowling alley. The last scene shows him buying a couple of cold ones at the bar before returning to the lanes. The Dude has returned to the Ordinary World. Has he changed? Or has he failed in his quest to get a rug that tied his room together—therefore, also failing to experience inner change in himself and change in his life? It seems he’s all right with the world and its changing season, his last words being, “The Dude abides.” But we are left to imagine there may be more White Russian journeys to come…