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Anti-Heroes in Literature

by Tiffany

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Anti-Heroes in Film and Literature

It was Aristotle who first described the elements of a tragic hero in the classical Greek tragedy plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides 2500 years ago.

Then, Shakespeare created his own type of tragedy plays, with their own distinct tragic heroes - Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear. They had similar principles which Aristotle first outlined.

There's a new kind of hero in town - the anti-hero. We're not sure when the anti-hero came about; its definition depends on the relative time period.

Defining the Anti-Hero

The definition of an anti-hero can be subjective. He is usually the protagonist or a key character. Generally, an anti-hero will have the following qualities:


  • it is clear that he has human frailties; he has flaws

  • he is more accessible to readers because he is more "gritty"

  • he is often disillusioned with society, or increasingly becomes so

  • he often seeks for redemption or revenge for his own satisfaction, and sometimes for the greater good of society

  • unlike the classical tragic hero, he doesn't always think about what the right, moral thing to do - he often thinks about what's right for him

  • he is often misunderstood by others in his society

  • he could perhaps be called a noble criminal or a vigilante

  • qualities normally belonging to villains - such as amorality, greed and violent tendencies - are tempered with more human, identifiable and even noble traits

  • their noble motives are pursued by breaking the law; a.k.a. "the ends justify the means"

  • increased moral complexity and rejection of traditional values

Examples of the Anti-Hero

Character: Dexter Morgan
Novel(s): Darkly Dreaming Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter is one of my favourite antiheroes. He's a forensic blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, but by night he's a serial killer who murders criminals or other immoral people. These novels have been turned into a TV series.

When he was 3, he watched his mother's murder and since then has been numb to violence. He is driven to kill by an inner voice whom he calls "The Dark Passenger".



Character: Roland Deschain
Novel(s): The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

Roland Deschain of Gilead comes from a long line of gunslingers and belongs to a knightly order. These series of books were inspired by the poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning. The character is a resemblance of a character in a Clint Eastwood western.

Roland's mission is to find the Dark Tower, a building which is said to be the starting point of all universes.



Character: Stephen Dedalus
Novel(s): A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the author James Joyce. Stephen Dedalus represents Joyce's alter ego. He is also an important character in Joyce's other novel, Ulysses.

Stephen is originally a sensitive, thoughtful boy. As he grows up, he struggles with nationality, religion, morality and his family. He decides to reject all these social bonds and live freely as an artist instead. He transitions from an innocent sheltered boy to an independent individual.


"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."



Character: Gollum
Novel(s): Lord of the Rings series J. R. R. Tolkien

Whether or not Gollum can be considered an anti-hero is a matter of opinion. He doesn't really have any redeeming or useful qualities. He's a swamp creature who serves as a warning to those who seek the ring.

Gollum is a reminder of what Frodo could end up being. Sometimes he appears as a faithful servant - but ultimately values the ring more than anything else. He is not pure evil like Sauron, though - rather, he is pure weakness. He is the victim of the ring and is destroyed by it.

Character: Jay Gatsby
Novel(s): The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jay Gatsby is a young man who grew up in poverty. He became famously wealthy through illegal means: organized crime, distributing prohibited alcohol and trading in stolen securities.

His re-invention of himself eventually shows that he is a innocent, idealistic young man. His ideals of wealth and of his love, Daisy, are bound to disappoint because they could never live up to his dreams.



Character: Victor Frankenstein
Novel(s): Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Victor is the scientist who creates the Frankenstein creature out of human corpse bits. As a young man, he loved reading about science and creating life. After playing God and creating his monster, however, he is unable to deal with his arrogant endeavors.



Character: Tyler Durden and the Narrator of the novel
Novel(s): Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

This book has been made into a movie. The anonymous narrator is the anti-hero who hates his consumerist life and the state of masculinity in American culture. He creates an underground fighting club. Spoiler Alert: Later we realize that his best friend, Tyler Durden, is a figment of his imagination and Tyler is actually him.



Character: Raoul Duke
Novel(s): Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Raoul Duke is the protagonist and anti-hero of the novel. He is a unique individual and an eccentric, hedonistic man. He is almost always in a constant altered state of mind - whether it is from marijuana, cocaine or alcohol. This character was an alter ego of Thompson, who used the character to talk about himself.



Character: V
Comic Book: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

"V" is an anarchist - a freedom fighter and a vigilante who breaks the rules, believing that the "ends justify the means". He lives in a dystopian future that takes place in Britain. He can be considered both the protagonist and antagonist - readers decide whether or not he is a hero fighting for a cause, or if he is simply insane.



Character: Batman
Comic Book: Batman by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Batman fights the war on crime using his intellect and technology. His real identity is actually Bruce Wayne, a wealthy philanthropist. These two opposing personalities serve as juxtapositions to each other. He fights crime on his own terms, rather than going about it through the formal legal system.

There you have it! Do you have any more examples of anti-heroes?

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13 Comments
    conor123
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    conor123Thu, 01 Dec 2011 15:05:09 -0000

    I consider Scott Pilgrim as an anto hero as I've noticed though some readers/viewers may symathise for him due to his seeming somewhat socially inept it isn't to be ignored that he is a very slfish charatcer: he doesn't seem intent on helping any other charatcer in the narrative of the film or comic book than himself and at one point is even unfaithful to his girlfriend

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    sunamu
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    nauduri suryanarayana murtyTue, 06 Oct 2009 20:55:10 -0000

    This is an excellent article.

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyMon, 02 Feb 2009 06:03:39 -0000

    @ash28 - You're right! I can't believe we never brought Robin Hood up! He's probably one of the most classic examples of the anti-hero!

    @Yorrick - Wow…yes, people would probably want to identify with Hamlet rather than Dorian Gray. Dorian's downfall was due more to his vanity and I'm not sure what redeemable qualities we could extract from him. Hamlet definitely acted upon motivations outside of his own selfishness.

    What other resemblances did you see between Sybil Vane and Ophelia?

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    ash28
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    Ashwath KumarSun, 01 Feb 2009 17:40:12 -0000

    I don't know how come all of you have failed to mention Robin Hood as an example!! Doesn't he seem to be a prominent anti hero??

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    eronaay
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    Aaron NeeseSat, 31 Jan 2009 20:21:29 -0000

    Do you think Gatsby would better fall under the categories of a Byronic hero rather than a tragic hero? Gatsby is living in his own little world; trying to get Daisy back, and turn back the hands of time and act like the past 5 years, since he left Daisy, never happened.

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanySat, 31 Jan 2009 22:53:13 -0000

    Good point..I think the characteristics of a Byronic hero would definitely apply to Gatsby. This is probably a more modern, romantic interpretation of the tragic hero. The Byronic hero has been said to be a precursor to today's anti-hero, so Gatsby can fall under both categories of the anti-hero and the Byronic hero. Thank you for bringing this up!

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyTue, 23 Dec 2008 03:39:23 -0000

    Oooh, I loved Wuthering Heights! I would definitely agree that Heathcliff could be an anti-hero. I mean, in essence, he's a bad guy that we can actually sympathize with. He's immoral and full of revenge, yet he does this because of his immortal love for Catherine (if I remember the novel correctly).

    Another anti-hero that sticks out in my mind is Leon from the film The Professional, but I guess that's heading out of literature territory. He was a great character, though - I don't know if I would even consider him an anti-hero because he seemed so gentle and kind despite the fact that he was a hitman.

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    DannyArcher
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    Soham GangulyMon, 22 Dec 2008 16:10:49 -0000

    By that rationale , would Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights would be a tragic hero rather than an anti-hero?

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyFri, 19 Dec 2008 06:11:12 -0000

    I think the notion of an anti-hero is someone whose intentions are good but their means of going about it aren't considered moral or ethical by societal standards, so their downfall could be considered their "means" of doing something. As for a tragic hero, I think they are moral people and their downfall is a slip or failure in their character.

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    Yorrick
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    SamiFri, 02 Jan 2009 14:28:46 -0000

    I disagree, I think, but it's more likely I'm mixing the two up. An anti-hero can have selfish intentions, such as Gatsby, and their means can be unethical as well. Some anti-heroes are more complex than others, I guess. He penetrated social barriers, yet would his motives make his intentions selfish? For example, he was not fighting racism for the good of mankind.

    What about Dorian Gray? That character does not come to mind when I think of the word "heroic" but here it where it gets more complicated. He is an anti-hero I believe.

    Is Hamlet not an anti-hero?

    This lesson is so interesting!!

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    oLahav
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    Oren LahavThu, 18 Dec 2008 17:21:52 -0000

    Maybe I'm totally off, but I always looked at it as if Tragic heroes go down a straight parabolic path- they go up a bit, then crash down (in terms of plot, they start off well and eventually end in death or worse). Anti-heroes go through an upside down parabola- first down, then up. So tragic heroes and anti heroes are distinct categories. Although of course everything is wide open for interpretations, that's what literature is all about.

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    Gianna25
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    Gianna ArnoldsWed, 17 Dec 2008 14:25:18 -0000

    I'm not too sure but I think Macbeth is quite an anti-hero.

    His redeeming qualities are shown only at the beginning through the reports of others and in the end when he valiantly takes of Macduff even when he knows the witches have betrayed him.

    So are Hamlet and Othello.

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyTue, 16 Dec 2008 23:08:37 -0000

    Right! Actually I was going to include Holden Caulfield, but for some reason I forgot about him. I will add him later :)

    I think you analyze Gollum on a deeper perspective, he does serve as a warning as the consequences for what can happen (although he doesn't warn people outright). I'll take a look at Heart of Darkness. Yossarian from Catch-22 is actually a good one too. I tried to avoid Shakespeare in this lesson, but maybe I should make mention of them. Possible candidates include Macbeth, Shylock, Hamlet and Iago - but they could also be considered tragic heroes as well. I'm not really sure how to distinguish the more modern tragic hero with the anti-hero. Or maybe there are the same thing?

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    avicster
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    Avichal ChaturvediTue, 16 Dec 2008 19:50:40 -0000

    Great lesson, all excellent examples.

    As for more examples, if I say Holden Caulfield, are you guys gonna go "not again" and come all the way here to beat me up? If not, then I wanna say Holden Caulfield :)

    Also Col Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a very intriguing character. Some may think of him as an outright villain, but he's not that black and white. The protagonist of the book has grey shades too.

    Btw, isn't there room for a Shakespearean character here?

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    oLahav
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    Oren LahavTue, 16 Dec 2008 18:18:24 -0000

    Interesting! Anti heroes are a lot more fun than regular ones. They just have a contrast that makes them more real.

    I don't really think Gollum was a swamp creatue that warned people of seeking the ring… and I didn't remember Gatsby achieving his wealth through illegal means (even though I read that book a long time ago, maybe I forgot that point). The other ones are pretty well done though. I'm a big fan of V and Batman!

    Now I feel like reading Fight Club… by the way, you should warn people of that spoiler.

    Good lesson though.

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