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Byronic Hero: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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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.

We also recommend watching Lord Byron: Poems and Biography and Byron's Don Juan: Summary, Quotes and Analysis

Definition

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.

Young Byron

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.

Byron and Byronic Hero

Characteristics

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.

Examples

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.

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