Categories: Themes in Literature

Literary Heroism

Hero Definition

The word hero is commonly applied to many different types of people performing wildly varying acts. For instance, extraordinary acts of physical strength and courage, such as saving a stranger from a burning house or standing up to an armed assailant, are feats we would typically label heroic. Physical courage is not the only component of heroism, however. Those who exhibit moral courage, such as people who put their own lives or reputations at stake to do or say what is right, rather than what is merely popular, are also called heroes. Heroes can also be those close friends or loved ones whom we admire and treat as role models, calling such a person “my hero.” We routinely use the term for our popular and talented sports figures as well, whether or not their behavior off the playing field can be considered heroic.

We even use it to refer to people who are inspirations to others, inspirations that do not necessarily hinge on physical strength or moral superiority. With all of these varied uses, clearly explaining the allure of heroism as a literary theme is difficult. Compounding that difficulty is the fact that in literary studies, the term hero is used to refer to the central character of a work. John Dryden first used the term this way in 1697, and it is still commonly accepted as a synonym for protagonist, even when the protagonist does nothing particularly heroic. We have long used the word heroic to refer to acts that are special or extraordinary. The exploits of professional athletes, the life-saving missions of soldiers and firefighters, the bravery of whistleblowers, and even the lives of fictional characters in our most cherished works of literature seem, in our minds, to certify them as “heroes.” Getting at the heart of what qualifies behavior as heroic may explain why Dryden’s arguable misuse of the term has had such staying power. The word hero is of Greek origin, and in Greek mythology it referred to those who were favored by the gods or had “godlike” qualities. The Oxford English Dictionary describes heroes as “men of super human strength, courage, or ability.” The emphasis here is on super, an adjective that suggests heroism goes beyond what human beings are expected to do.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermensch(superman) theory

Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the übermensch (sometimes translated as “superman”) speaks to this concept of going beyond human ability. Nietzsche, a 19th-century German philosopher, wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) that in the modern world, God, or the concept of God, had ceased to give life meaning. This void, he wrote, could be filled by the übermensch, a superior, transcendent human being who would give new meaning to life. All could seek to reach this status, thus creating a world in which all were motivated by a love of the present world and the present time. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1840, would agree that the heroism must be lifeaffirming, although he would not agree that religion had ceased to give life meaning. In fact, in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, he wrote that “all religions stand upon” the worship of heroes, and that Jesus Christ could be considered the “greatest of all heroes” (249). Carlyle goes on to set up criteria for what makes a hero or a heroic action: He says a hero must conquer fear, otherwise he is acting as but a “slave and coward” (268). Further, he must be earnest and sincere and have a vision that penetrates beyond what the average eye might see (281, 325). Finally, he must be an inspiration to others, someone who can “light the way” (347). As Carlyle was one of the first to write on the subject seriously, many of his criteria have lasted and are reinforced by theorists of the present day.

Joseph Campbell, who has written some of the best-known works on mythology and heroism, echoes Carlyle when he says: “The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his [or her] personal and local limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms” (30). In other words, heroes begin life as normal people, but through some extraordinary gift, they are able to begin on and succeed at the journey upon which they will prove their heroism. Carlyle and Campbell both stress that human beings need heroes—that our response to them satisfies a basic human impulse. We need, apparently, the inspiration and motivation derived from believing there are heroes in the world to whose example we may aspire. The psychologist Miriam F. Polster, writing in 1992 about female heroes, compiled a roster of qualities culled from qualities ascribed to heroes over time. Recalling Nietzsche’s übermensch, she notes that they are “motivated by a profound respect for human life,” that their vision of what is possible goes beyond that of others, that they possess great courage, and that they are not motivated by public opinion (22). She cites as one of her examples Antigone, from Sophocles’ play Antigone, who at great personal risk to herself buries the body of her brother Polynices against the wishes of her uncle, the king. Antigone is a hero here because her driving motivation is respect for her brother’s life. She knows she must honor this life, even in death.

Crane’s treatment of heroism

Polster goes on to note that hero and heroism are words that have long been associated with men because of the popular focus on physical courage and strength. Indeed, the word first appeared in Homer’s The Iliad, when the name was given to all those who had participated in the Trojan Wars and about whom a story could be told. But, as Carlyle and Campbell both stress, possessing great moral courage is just as rare and should be honored with as much fervor. For example, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane displays more moral courage than anyone in the novel, standing by her friend Charlotte Temple, standing up to her evil Aunt Reed, refusing to marry St. John Rivers because she is not in love with him, and returning to the injured Mr. Rochester. Jane’s efforts are consistently heroic because they affirm life, they are selfless, and they inspire others to good. In contrast, Henry Fleming’s actions in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage are not so consistent. Fleeing his first battle, Fleming acts only out of fear. However, when he returns to battle a changed man, Crane seems to suggest that he is still acting out of fear. He is now motivated by his desire not to be seen as a coward. Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War novels Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried, has asserted that men have killed and died “because they were afraid not to.”

This is exactly the point of Crane’s treatment of heroism: that it is complicated, is hard to discern, and can carry with it a great deal of ambiguity. Henry Fleming is a soldier, and physical acts of courage such as those displayed in war have long been the province of heroism. But what of ordinary people, those whose daily lives do not place them in typically “heroic” situation? Can these people exhibit heroism as well? For example, in John Updike’s “A&P,” Sammy, the supermarket cashier who tells the story, abruptly quits his job when his manager is disrespectful to three teenaged girls who enter the store. In the grand scheme of things, this action might not seem noteworthy. But in the world of the A&P, it certainly is. To return to some of the criteria discussed above, Sammy has respect for life and respect for the present in that he does not want to simply carry on as though nothing has happened. He wants to acknowledge the girls’ worth as human beings and not simply see them as “sheep” like the other people in the store. Also, Sammy has vision. He does not want the A&P to be his life; he is thinking of the future and how he can contribute toward it in a more meaningful way than he would standing behind the cash register.

Heroic behavior can also come from those whom we might not see as typically “good” people. Sometimes, the term antihero is used for these characters. In John Gay’s The Begg ar’s Opera, Macheath is a thief and a murderer. He “marries” several women under false pretenses and exhibits little regard for the laws of the city. However, Macheath is arguably a hero because the system within which he operates is so corrupt and bereft of compassion itself that the audience actually roots for him to beat that system. He has his own moral code, and he sticks by it. Looked at from this perspective, one can easily see how Macheath’s daring actions might be seen as heroic. There is quite a leap from a character such as Macheath to a character such as Sammy the checker. And again, there is another great leap from Sammy to characters such as Jane Eyre and Antigone. However, all of these characters exhibit behavior that is inspirational, courageous, and extraordinary, and in doing so all of them exemplify the theme of heroism.

See also Achebe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart; Allende, Isabel: House of the Spirits, The; Atwood, Margaret: Handmaid’s Tale, The; Behn, Aphra: Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave; Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: Hound of the Baskervilles, The; Conrad, Joseph: Lord Jim; Dickens, Charles: Tale of Two Cities, A; Douglass, Frederick: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones; Heller, Joseph: Catch-22; Hersey, John: Hiroshima; Homer: Odyssey, The; Hinton S. E.: Outsiders, The; Kesey, Ken: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Lewis, C. S.: Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The; Malamud, Bernard: Natural, The; McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove; Orwell, George: Nineteen Eighty-Four; Rand, Ayn: Anthem; Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Stevenson, Robert Louis: Treasure Island; Synge, John Millington: Playboy of the Western World, The; Tolkien, J. R. R.: Hobbit, The; Lord of the Rings, The; Virgil: Aeneid, The.

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