The Humanity Test

“You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”Dune, Frank Herbert

A young boy is led into a room, where a powerful old crone awaits. She commands him to put his hand inside a box, saying that if he removes it she’ll inject him with a lethal poison. He complies. The boy’s hand burns inside, but he keeps the hand inside, because the pinprick at his throat would kill him if he removes it. Finally, the agony stops. He pulls out his hand. . .

And it’s perfectly fine.

The “humanity test,” where Paul is forced to submit to induced pain under threat of death, shouldn’t be read as an allegory for torture. It’s easy to interpret this scene from Dune as sadistic, or a cruel trick played by the Bene Gesserit on a young, naive Paul Atreides. But the pain is temporary and fleeting; the agony comes from one’s imagination. The humanity test’s power is only mental.

It’s a great narrative device. Writers must put their characters in situations they will do anything to avoid, or else they won’t change. The humanity test at the beginning of Dune is the entire book in microcosm, as Paul Atreides is pushed further and further outside his comfort zone, transforming him from a contemplative young duke’s son to a blood-soaked, fanatical galactic emperor. “Fear is the mind-killer,” he recites. “I must not fear.”

Not all humanity tests create dark characters. Luke faces one in The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda tells him to enter the cave, a “domain of evil,” where his character will be tested. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s own humanity test is her (temporary) death at the hands of the Master, where she confronts her own mortality and comes to terms with it.

Mind you, there is real torture in the world. People do get hurt, and emotional trauma shouldn’t be dismissed. No living person should be forced into a literal pain box, like poor Paul. In fiction, however, characters should always be pushed outside their comfort zone, just as far as it benefits the story. It can be as simple and non-violent as Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. If anything, the humanity test shouldn’t involve real pain at all, but rather be a situation or uncomfortable truth that a character must face in order to change.

In high school, I took Latin, and between my freshman and sophomore years I had assigned reading for that class. Like most students, I didn’t do it for almost the entire summer, until I had a week left before school started again, and I would face the wrath of Mrs. Crossno if I didn’t get it done. So I did the summer assignments. I didn’t do them well, and I didn’t retain much, but I learned something from the experience. Life is full of such humanity tests.