What Makes The Dude a Perfect Protagonist?
The Dude from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski is one of the most popular characters in film history. From his distinct fashion sense to his affinity for cuss words, The Dude has carved his own niche in pop culture that’s completely unique to himself and himself only. Although he’s a fun character to quote and reference, The Dude is so much more than a stoner caricature. Just like many of the Coens’ creations, The Dude is a brilliant and layered character with far more under the surface than one would initially infer. Yet, even among the Coens’ stacked lineup of fantastic characters, The Dude sticks out, he’s a totally different beast. He’s a character that fundamentally betrays the classical narrative structure, but he succeeds despite that.
To understand why The Dude is such an obtuse character, we must first understand what a classical protagonist must be. In order for a narrative to succeed, there must be change. Whether that change is positive or negative isn’t important, what matters is that the ending of the story is different from how it started. To create a story with meaning the character or characters at the heart of the story need to have changed. Without change then all the events of the narrative were for nothing, the story is incomplete. Regarding a protagonist, this journey of change is propelled by conscious and unconscious desires. Conscious desires are conscious and deliberate decisions that the character makes in the story. An example of a conscious desire would be the main duo in Booksmart looking for a party. Their surface level conflict is to find this party, and perhaps have a few drinks or hookups along the way. Parallel to the conscious desires is the unconscious desire. The unconscious desire is the larger arc a character undergoes. It’s often a primal need deep within the character that propels all the character’s conscious desires. To bring it back to Booksmart, the journey to the party is telling of a deeper inner desire. The girls want to be accepted by their peers, something they had never truly experienced. The primal need for love and acceptance is the real journey of Booksmart, not something as simple as a party. In short, no matter how sprawling, intricate, experimental, or audacious your narrative may be, the protagonist must achieve or fail their goal. Throughout your narrative, the protagonist must change, and that change must be fueled by their unconscious desire.
Enter, The Dude.
The story of The Big Lebowski is one that invites change. A large cast of characters, an intricate crime plot, shocking emotional moments, all swirling around one character. The story could be considered an example of neo-noir storytelling, the twists and turns are very reminiscent of films like Chinatown or The Long Goodbye. These films are defined by placing a morally grey character in a situation that allows for the yin and yang of the character’s psyche to duke it out. The unconscious desire of these characters is provoked by the twisting conspiracy unfolding in the story. It makes for a double layered narrative in which the conscious crime narrative weaves in and out of the unconscious desires. The Big Lebowski opens a lot for a driving unconscious desire to grow and progress. So, in The Big Lebowski, what does The Dude do? How does his personal journey move through the plot? After all the dust settles, how did The Dude change?
Well, he didn’t.
Somehow after events that would shake many to the core, The Dude remains unfazed. He’s identical to how he started. His experiences were valid, we saw them happen, but there was no seismic shift that altered The Dude as a character. His arc was essentially a flat line, any ups and downs were so inconsequential that he always ends up breaking even by the end of the scene. Yet, The Dude succeeds, and he succeeds because he doesn’t have to.
The Dude represents something far deeper than a simple stoner dude. While the stoner stereotypes of general confusion and apathy are certainly defining characteristics of The Dude, they play into something far deeper than recreational drugs. The Dude is the embodiment of unadulterated neutrality. Purity, not purely evil nor purely good, but pure, nonetheless. Nothing he does is reprehensible or admirable, even though they sometimes sway to either side. He’ll steal a rug from a billionaire, but he’ll help said billionaire recover his lost wife, he’s always twisting around a moral even ground and eventually settling dead center. In a classical narrative, it would be commonplace to have a character grow from that neutrality. Having a character grow from apathetic to in-tune with life is a common trope seen in dozens of fantastic films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Mary and Max. The opposite is also seen, a positive character beat down until he's completely unfeeling, such as in Full Metal Jacket. But The Big Lebowski is the only film I’ve seen to maintain that apathy, and comment on how it may be a good thing.
The neo-noir story structure of the film permits it to have a much larger and more intricate plot than most other films. The quirky characters and intense narrative twists are more plentiful than the average film, which creates an atmosphere built on pressure. Like many noirs before it, the narrative builds up pressure to explode in a climax, that explosion raining hellfire upon the protagonist. This usually results in a crack in the protagonist that will either redeem or condemn him. But like I said, The Dude retains his neutrality. Despite the death of a friend, a child on the way, and German nihilists blowing up his car, The Dude ends the film bowling, as he always does. The classical narrative arc and the neo noir structure rejected in favor of starting as we began.
What The Dude is essentially telling us is to graciously accept existence. People around him like Walter, Jeffrey Lebowski, and Maude are caught up in something. These things vary from the war in Vietnam, finances, and high-brow art, but each one consumes the character and defines their life. The Dude is defined by his lack of attachment. Nothing can push him to change because nothing means enough to him to fundamentally alter who he is. His way of life, White Russians, bowling, Creedence Clearwater tapes, is what defines him, but even those things may come and go. These minutiae of life are both everything to him and nothing to him. He’s able to float through life grabbing on to what he wants for the time then moving on as though nothing happened. Hence why earth-shattering events leave him unfazed. If he has himself, he can keep going. Case I point, The Dude continuing to use his car despite the shattered windshield, if it works then it’s good enough for him. He doesn’t seek to solve his problems nor seek answers to others.
He's a character who works in direct contradiction to so many other protagonists. He has no unconscious desire; nothing is pushing towards an end goal other than the fact that it’s there. Rather than himself and his inner desires pushing the narrative, the narrative just coalesces around him despite his indifference. The plot is pushing him along rather than them working in tandem. He doesn’t insist on remaining the way that he is, he simply does. It’s almost as though he’s surviving rather than living, but that instead makes his life so much richer. His bizarre lack of kineticism makes him fascinating. We watch thinking, “oh no, this time he’ll change” but he never does. We say we want to see him change, but deep down we want him to remain as he is since he’s living life fuller than any one of us could.
To remain untethered is impossible in our modern world, and The Dude plays into the fantasy of being able to. The mirth and muck around him beg for him to morally flip into light or dark, but he doesn’t budge. The inclusion of nihilists in the film also challenges The Dude’s way of life. To them, nothing matters, and it in turn makes them morally evil. To The Dude, nothing matters, but he’s content, not evil or righteous, just content. The Coens crafted a character who resists their narrative, and in turn makes the film more impactful. Each event holds more significance as we’re amazed at how The Dude keeps going, and the Dude remains compelling in his resistance to change.
The Dude is not an emotional character, but he’s fascinating, nonetheless. The Coens tapped into the human desire for tranquility by creating a perpetually stoned bowler. The iconic line at the end of the film explains this better than all my writing possibly can. The Dude abides. And just like Sam Elliot’s narrator, we take comfort in that. A character who will not, cannot, be changed by the world. As society progresses and things get even more worrisome and volatile, the existence of a character, out there, takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners, becomes a far more comforting idea than we ever would have thought. I return to The Big Lebowski time and time again for many reasons. Sometimes to laugh, sometimes to think, and often just to revisit the sublime character that is The Dude, a character who defies every writing tradition in the book and comes out as the best one yet written.