British Gothic Literature 101: The Antihero
The British Gothic Literature 101 series aims to offer an in-depth analysis of the literary conventions recurrently encompassing most British novels written between 1760-1900. It will draw on spiritual insights and psychological themes correlated with the Gothic Psyche to reveal that there is more subtext in Gothic fiction than meets the reading eye. The British Gothic Literature 101 series aspires to pinpoint the defining elements of its genre to provide a vehicle for the reading audience to explore considerations of the darker side of human nature with greater ease. Another reason it will strive to break down the literary tropes is to offer a breeding ground of inspiration to the modern aspiring writers of the genre.
British Gothic Literature 101 will be divided into the following table of contents:
British Gothic Literature 101: The Antihero
British Gothic Literature 101: The Antihero
As the ink spills onto the parchment, a shadowy figure emerges from the pages, captivating the reader with its enigmatic aura and twisted allure. The antihero, a timeless icon of literature, defies the boundaries of traditional heroism and beckons us into a world of moral ambiguity and complexity. In the Gothic genre, the antihero serves as a powerful tool, challenging conventions and subverting expectations to explore the deepest corners of the human experience. Through the darkness and foreboding atmosphere that characterises Gothic literature, one embarks on a journey to trace the evolution of the antihero from its inception to its modern interpretations, unlocking the mysteries and complexities that make this figure a perennial favourite among readers. By delving into the intricacies of the antihero in Gothic literature, a deeper understanding of the human experience is unlocked. As a result, the antihero becomes a figure that captures the imagination and forces readers to confront their deepest fears and desires. In this article, through a journey that spans the genre's inception to its modern manifestations, how the antihero has become a timeless icon is discovered. In analysing the works that have come to define the Gothic canon, this article aspires to uncover the elusive essence of the antihero and the enduring appeal they hold for readers across the ages.
Definition of the Antihero
A paradoxical figure both against and of heroism, the antihero owes its name to the Greek tongue: "antihero" is a compound word formed by combining the prefix "anti-" (meaning against or opposite) and the noun "hero," a defender, a shield (Oxford University Press, n.d.). Yet, though this archetype has long graced the pages of literature, it was not until the early 18th century that the term first arose, marking a new era in portraying the human struggle between light and dark, good and evil. The antihero figure has been a captivating and enigmatic presence in literature for centuries, characterised by their departure from traditional heroic archetypes and their morally ambiguous nature. Carlos Rey Perez (2018), a professor at the University of São Paulo, researched the ethics of the antihero: “the antihero presents more defective than virtuous acts; in his essence, there is no evilness, but he does not care about the means to achieve his goals. Unlike the heroes, antiheroes use their heroic virtues to accomplish selfish feats motivated by immoral feelings” (p. 52). Society usually rejects him because he does not conform to socially accepted premises. Such contestation implies ethics-related questioning. The antihero arises to oppose preset and rooted patterns as an unconditional truth. Their criticism can be set in any social and historic period and context (Perez, 2018).
Figure 1: The Death of Chatterton (Wallis, 1856)
The ability of antiheroes to “turn weakness into strength, fear into a weapon” and “from the shrewdness of his shield” has led to their definition of a "loser-winner" (Mello, 2003, p. 25). They often live in a hostile world, facing persecution and adversity. Still, they always seem to find a way to overcome their mishaps – “persecuted, expelled, grappling with the adversity, he ends up always circumventing his misfortune” (Mello, 2003, p. 28). They are not traditional heroes who embody all that is good and right in the world, but they are not villains either. Instead, they occupy a morally ambiguous space where their actions can be admirable and reprehensible. It has been suggested that the antiheroes are characterised by “disillusionment with and alienation or withdrawal from societal problems; opposition to or rebellion against those problems; or mockery and derision of heroes themselves” (Smith, 1976, pp. 267-281). By avoiding “the traditional heroic qualities” (Smith, 1973, p. 284), antiheroes represent a challenge to the status quo and provide a unique lens through which to explore the complexities of the human experience. Taken together, these definitions paint a rich and nuanced picture of the antihero, revealing them as a complex and multifaceted figure whose presence in literature challenges readers to rethink their assumptions about morality, heroism, and society.
Significance of the Antihero
Notable figures who are often perceived as antiheroes, display traits of both heroes and villains (Lott, 1997, p. 547). These characters engage in morally ambiguous and sometimes unjustifiable actions in order to achieve noble goals. According to professors in the Department of Communication at Baylor University and Florida State University, Shafer & Raney (2012), these characteristics can be embodied in numerous forms across narratives. Sometimes antiheroes are revenge-seeking loners who disobey the rules (West, 2001). Some antiheroes have good intentions but are flawed, while others are criminal but redeemable (Shafer & Raney, 2012). Notwithstanding these variations, antiheroes frequently act in questionable ways, modelling improper behaviour even if for justifiable reasons (Buck, 1986). Nonetheless, while unquestionably misbehaving and (sometimes) for corrupt reasons, antiheroes continue to act as benevolent forces in many narratives (Shafer & Raney, 2012).
Figure 2: Sir Brooke Boothby (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1781)
In Gothic literature, the antihero is often portrayed as an imperfect, lonely, isolated, or outcast figure that has struggled to reintegrate into society. This statement is noteworthy, as it offers a different viewpoint on the protagonist's role. It suggests that, by portraying the protagonist as an antihero, the story gains a unique and innovative perspective that challenges the conventional perception of a hero. The portrayal of the protagonist as antihero subverts and questions traditional storytelling conventions, ultimately leading to a more nuanced and interesting narrative. The concept of antiheroism highlights that heroes do not always possess moral uprightness or courage. Like any other character, protagonists have imperfections and shortcomings (Shafer & Raney, 2012). This recognition allows readers to delve deeper into the protagonist's character arc and development. The story becomes more complex by portraying the protagonist as an antihero, allowing greater exploration of the protagonist's inner struggles and growth. This results in a more profound and multi-dimensional portrayal of the protagonist, enabling readers to connect with them on a more personal level.
Examples of Antiheroism in Gothic Literature
The antihero's birth as a literary convention is shrouded in mystery, for it did not spring forth from a single moment or source; rather, it evolved gradually over time, mirroring the ebb and flow of society's changing perception of the hero. From Falstaff's jests and Faust's folly in Elizabethan times to the sombre and shadowed figures of Victorian literature like those in Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) and Taylor's Confessions of a Thug (1839) the antihero has taken on a variety of forms. Yet, it was the Byronic hero who truly set the stage for the antihero's modern incarnation: a dark, brooding figure who defies traditional heroism with a compelling mix of moral ambiguity and tragic flaw. The Byronic hero is a type of character named after the persona of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Typically characterised by arrogance, intelligence and sophistication, Byronic heroes are educated outcasts, who manage to balance their cynicism and self-destructive disposition with a mysterious magnetism (Palfy, 2016).
Figure 3: Self-portrait with death as a fiddler (Böcklin, 1872)
Amidst the rolling moors of 18th-century Yorkshire, the haunting tale of Wuthering Heights (1847) unfolds. It is the story of Heathcliff, a lonely orphan taken in by the kind-hearted Earnshaw, only to be cast out after a cruel betrayal. But Heathcliff does not succumb to his fate, instead setting out to amass a fortune and return to wreak vengeance upon those who wronged him. In transforming from a helpless waif to a relentless avenger, Heathcliff becomes a symbol of the corrupt and perverse society that created him. With his savage attacks upon Wuthering Heights and its denizens, he unleashes a damning indictment of a heartless world, where the outcast is condemned to suffer. The only solace is in the sweet taste of revenge (Wang & Deng, 2022):
"I want you to be aware that I know you have treated me infernally—infernally! . . . and if you think I can be consoled by sweet words, you are an idiot: and if you fancy I’ll suffer unrevenged, I’ll convince you of the contrary, in a very little while! Meantime, thank you for telling me your sister-in-law’s secret: I swear I’ll make the most of it." (Brontë, 1847, p. 81).
In Emily Brontë's (1818-48) iconic novel, the character of Heathcliff has come to be seen as the epitome of the tormented antihero. His all-consuming fury, jealousy, and bitterness leave a trail of destruction in their wake, bringing ruin not only upon himself but also upon those who dare to love him. In this sense, Heathcliff is often viewed as a quintessential example of the Byronic hero, embodying the dark and brooding qualities that characterise this literary archetype. Beneath his tough exterior lies a man consumed by a fierce passion for love, driving him to great extremes in pursuit of his desires. Heathcliff, who came from a humble background in a materialistic society at the time, was filled with a deep sense of depression and inferiority and was acutely aware of the inequality of treatment brought about by the disparity in status and money (Wang & Deng, 2022). His hatred for Hindley, a member of the upper class, is so great that he can only endure it when he cannot retaliate, but deep down, he has already developed the idea and intention of revenge. Admittedly, the role change from outcast to avenger suggests that he was not born that way, but occurred due to Hindley’s servitude, abuse and the disappointment of love. Faced with an awkward situation, the darker side of his character begins to surface, and he leaves with anger and hatred. He returns a few years later, rich and burning with the fire of revenge, believing from the beginning that he would be happy with the torment of the past as long as he can succeed in his revenge (Wang & Deng, 2022).
Figure 4: Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights (Lady Edna Clarke Hall, c.1910-11)
Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice (1941-2021) is another prime example of the horror and Gothic genre which frequently includes antihero protagonists. In Gothic literature, the main characters are often portrayed as morally ambiguous, exhibiting qualities not typically associated with heroes. These protagonists may appear villainous or have questionable ethics, yet, they often perform heroic deeds in the end. This is a distinct feature of the horror and Gothic genres, which allows for complex characterisations that challenge traditional notions of heroism. Rice's novel follows this pattern by featuring an antihero protagonist and incorporating elements of supernatural beings and romanticism, creating a unique and captivating tale within the genre (Klamer, 1998). Another significant aspect of Interview with the Vampire is the exploration of antiheroism through the protagonist, Louis Du Lac. As a vampire, Louis struggles with his own beliefs about right and wrong, grappling with his identity as a predator and the morality of his actions:
“People who cease to believe in God or goodness although still believe in the devil… Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult” (Rice, 1967, p.67).
This inner turmoil results in Louis's existential crisis, highlighting his character's complexity and depth. Things which may have been subjectively wrong for him as a man once, may now be right as a vampire. For example, taking someone's life is necessary for survival (Klamer, 1998). This moral dilemma ignites an inner battle within him and asks for a redefinition of his values. Questions of the morality of his actions proceed logically to queries into his very essence, as he comes to the realisation that:
"I am to live to the end of the world, and I do not even know what I am!" (Rice, 1967, p. 70).
Unable to find happiness through his mortal conception of morality and the world, he finds himself forced to confront his divided nature in a situation removed from any observation, and thus moral condemnation, by others (Klamer, 1998). Rice's portrayal of Louis as an antihero adds a layer of depth and intrigue to the story, challenging traditional notions of heroism and presenting a more relatable character. Louis narrates his struggle acknowledging the fact of trying to be good while still inherently evil. He acknowledges that one cannot exist without the other, knowing that he must overcome the hurdle of his own vampire nature (Ikawati, 2016).
Figure 5: The Vampire (Delacroix, 1825)
In conclusion, the antihero is a significant and recurring figure in Gothic literature, characterised by troubled souls struggling with inner demons and flaws. This article has tried to shed light on the definition of antiheroism in the Gothic genre by making certain protagonists of reputable novels the focal points of this analysis. Bringing prime examples of the Byronic hero under the spotlight allows one to readily disclose the dreary and forlorn qualities that characterise this literary archetype. Through figures like Heathcliff and Louis Du Lac, antiheroes challenge conventional notions of morality, blurring the line between good and bad. Through their tumultuous stories, readers can see reflections of their own struggles with darkness and the complexities of the human experience. Ultimately, the antihero in Gothic literature serves as a powerful reminder that heroes and villains are not always so easily defined and that the line between them is often blurred.
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Cover image: Knaus, L. (1853). Der Morgen nach der Feier [Oil on canvas]. Pushkin Museum, Moskow. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ludwig_Knaus_-_Der_Morgen_nach_der_Feier_%281853%29.jpg
Figure 1: Wallis, H. (1856). The death of Chatterton [Oil on canvas]. Tate Gallery. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wallis-chatterton-n01685
Figure 2: Joseph Wright of Derby. (1781). Sir Brooke Boothby [Oil on canvas]. Tate Gallery.
Figure 3: Böcklin, A. (1872). Self-portrait with death as a fiddler [Oil painting]. Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Figure 4: Lady Edna Clarke Hall. (c.1910-11). Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe at Wuthering Heights [Ink on paper]. Tate Gallery.
Figure 5: Delacroix, E. (1825). The vampire [Oil painting]. Narrative Painting.