Byronic Hero: Definition, Characteristics & Examples
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.
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 heroes 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 Byron Hero in response to his boredom with traditional heroic 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 which are not traditionally heroic. However, Byronic heroes are marked by 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 as being larger than life and dress and style themselves in elaborate costumes for the purpose of marking themselves as being different from others.
Byronic heroes tend to be characterized as being intelligent, cunning, ruthless. arrogant, depressive, prone to violence, self-aware, emotionally and intellectually tortured, traumatized, highly emotional, manipulative, self-serving, spiritually doubtful, often reckless or suicidal, prone to bursts of anger, as well as decidedly prone to substance abuse, dedicated to perusing matters of justice over matters of legality, self-destructive impulses, and seductive and sexually appealing. Byronic Heroes tend to feel loyalty, seemingly, only to themselves and their core beliefs and values. While they often act on behalf of greater goods, they will rarely acknowledge doing such.
The archetype of the Byronic hero has remained popular and pertinent 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 Nortre Dame', and Captain Ahab from Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick'.
There are 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.
The archetype of the Byronic hero has remained popular throughout Western culture since the early 19th century. We can find countless examples of modern day Byronic Heroes in contemporary popular culture, including: Dr. Gregory House (from the TV show 'House'), Han Solo (from the 'Star Wars' movies), Sherlock Holmes (from various films and television shows), and countless 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 both larger than life figures who accomplish seemingly impossible actions, but also 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, arrogant and imperfect, sometimes more so than heroes who are presented as being perfect and idealized? A perfect example are the film, television and comic book heroes Superman and Batman. Superman is often depicted as being a perfect hero. He is, both physically and emotionally, essentially indestructible and incorruptible. He almost always does the 'right' thing without any consideration for his own well being. Batman, who can be understood as a Byronic hero, is quite different. Batman is highly intelligent, cynical, self-destructive, haunted, traumatized, and tends to rebel against authority. Batman, then, can be understood as a perfect example of a modern day Byronic Hero.
A number of 20th century rock & roll musicians have also embraced the ideas and styles of Byronic Heroism, both in terms of their rebellious, sexually charged, self-destructive personalities and their general physical appearances. Examples include Jim Morrison, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix, Miles Davis, Sting and David Bowie, all of whom consciously adopted their attitudes, styles and ideas from the archetype of the Byronic Hero.
Ace Your Next Test & Improve your Grades
As a member, you'll get unlimited access to over 5,000+ video lessons in Math, English, Science, History, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed. Learn More
Search Our Courses
Education Portal Video Lessons
- More affordable than tutoring
- All major high school and college subjects
- Unlimited access to all 8,500+ video Lessons
- Study on your own schedule