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Byronic Hero: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

  • 0:01 Definition
  • 2:26 Characteristics
  • 3:14 Examples
  • 5:09 Why Is This Important?
  • 6:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Fleming
The literary archetype of the Byronic hero, first developed by the 19th-century English poet Lord Byron, is one of the most potent and relevant character archetypes in Western literature, art, and entertainment.

Definition

Young Byron

The archetype, or character type, of the Byronic hero was first developed by the famous 19th-century English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Most literary scholars and historians consider the first literary Byronic hero to be Byron's Childe Harold, the protagonist of Byron's epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. However, many literary scholars and historians also point to Lord Byron himself as the first truly Byronic hero, for he exemplified throughout his life the characteristics of the sort of literary hero he would make famous in his writing.

A Byronic hero can be conceptualized as an extreme variation of the Romantic hero archetype. Traditional Romantic heroes tend to be defined by their rejection or questioning of standard social conventions and norms of behavior, their alienation from larger society, their focus on the self as the center of existence, and their ability to inspire others to commit acts of good and kindness. Romantic heroes are not idealized heroes, but imperfect and often flawed individuals who, despite their sometimes less than savory personalities, often behave in a heroic manner.

According to many literary critics and biographers, Lord Byron developed the archetype of the Byronic hero in response to his boredom with traditional and Romantic heroic literary characters. Byron, according critics and biographers, wanted to introduce a heroic archetype that would be not only more appealing to readers but also more psychologically realistic.

The archetype of the Byronic hero is similar in many respects to the figure of the traditional Romantic hero. Both Romantic and Byronic heroes tend to rebel against conventional modes of behavior and thought and possess personalities that are not traditionally heroic. However, Byronic heroes usually have a greater degree of psychological and emotional complexity than traditional Romantic heroes.

Byronic heroes are marked not only by their outright rejection of traditional heroic virtues and values but also their remarkable intelligence and cunning, strong feelings of affection and hatred, impulsiveness, strong sensual desires, moodiness, cynicism, dark humor, and morbid sensibilities.

Byronic heroes also tend to appear larger than life, and dress and style themselves in elaborate costumes for the purpose of making themselves as different from others as possible.

Byron and Byronic Hero

Characteristics

Byronic heroes tend to be characterized as being:

  • Intelligent
  • Cunning
  • Ruthless
  • Arrogant
  • Depressive
  • Violent
  • Self-aware
  • Emotionally and intellectually tortured
  • Traumatized
  • Highly emotional
  • Manipulative
  • Self-serving
  • Spiritually doubtful
  • Often reckless or suicidal
  • Prone to bursts of anger
  • Decidedly prone to substance abuse
  • Dedicated to pursuing matters of justice over matters of legality
  • Given to self-destructive impulses
  • Seductive and sexually-appealing

Byronic heroes also tend to only seem loyal to themselves and their core beliefs and values. While they often act on behalf of greater goods, they will rarely acknowledge doing so.

Examples

The archetype of the Byronic hero has remained popular and relevant throughout Western literature and entertainment since the early 19th century.

In 19th-century Western literature, there are countless examples of Byronic heroes, including the protagonists of nearly all of Byron's epic poems, particularly Manfred, Don Juan, and The Corsair. Other examples of Byronic Heroes from 19th-century Western literature include Heathcliff from Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights, Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, Claude Frollo from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

There are also countless examples of Byronic heroes in 20th-century Western literature, including the Phantom from Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera, Jake Barnes from Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, Ian Fleming's James Bond character, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby from his novel The Great Gatsby. All of these Byronic heroes are marked by a dark sensibility, cynicism, arrogance, high intelligence, and a refusal to outright obey authority.

We can even find countless examples of Byronic heroes in contemporary popular culture, including Dr. Gregory House from the TV show House, Han Solo from the Star Wars movies, Sherlock Holmes (as depicted in various films and television shows), and many other television, film, and comic book heroes. These sorts of heroes tend not to embody typical heroic traits and attitudes but actually subvert them. Contemporary Byronic heroes are often larger-than-life figures who accomplish seemingly impossible actions but remain grounded in self-doubt and self-awareness. Byronic heroes tend to be vulnerable, imperfect heroes who we, as readers and viewers, can more easily identify with than traditional, epic heroes who might seem unrealistic and dull.

Why Is This Important?

Think about some of the most popular and interesting characters in not just literature but also film and television. Do you ever notice how often we find ourselves interested in and intrigued by heroes who are imperfect, tortured, and arrogant, sometimes more so than heroes who are presented as being perfect and idealized?

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