The Byronic Hero: My Kind of Character

Scene from The Count of Monte Cristo.

Scene from The Count of Monte Cristo.

Currently, I am in the throes of reading Alexander Dumas ‘ masterpiece The Count of Monte Cristo.  Normally, I make a point to read as many books as possible despite my sluggish reading pace.  But this novel has been different.  It’s taken me weeks to get through these 1000+ pages because, 50 pages into this story I started slowing down, savoring each and every sentence.  I haven’t been so spellbound to a story since I finished Wuthering Heights last winter, and I think I know why.

People who read a lot might find they can identify with this concept; the idea that we readers have character types we are attracted to, characters who enchant, delight, and mesmerize us more than the others in a particular novel.   For me, I subconsciously categorize  books in this way — based on character types.  I’ve noticed a trend in some of my favorite works of English literature:  the brooding, Byronic, sometimes satanical hero.

Typically this protagonist was one that emerged in 19th-century romantic literature and has roots in the poetry of Lord Byron.  The Byronic hero has transcended time and emerged in modern literature as well, though is depicted more as an anti-hero in these more recent works ( an example of this might be the Phantom from Phantom of  the Opera).  But in 19th-century romantic literature, the Byronic protagonist was the hero, not the anti-hero.  The archetype was usually male and embodied these character traits:

  • arrogant
  • cunning
  • cynical
  • intelligent
  • perceptive
  • domineering
  • tormented by their past
  • vengeful
  • mysterious
  • charismatic
  • emotionally conflicted

The British historian and essayist Lord Macaulay summarized the Byronic hero perfectly:

“… man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”.  — Critical & Historical Essays Volume 2 by Thomas Babington Macaulay

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester in a recent film depiction of Jane Eyre.

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester in a recent film depiction of Jane Eyre.

I am drawn to the Byronic hero because of these multifarious character description.  For those who have read the Count of Monte Cristo, the Byronic hero is in the title.   The more I read, the more I come to realize how he is a character of infinite dimensions.  Just when he shows a friend the ultimate hospitality and generosity, he secretly reveals a vengeful, convoluted plan that will eventually disgrace and ruin them.  Just when his mannerisms seem too gentle to hurt a fly, he declares he will duel one of his compatriots to the death.  Just when I believe he is too intelligent to possess any weaknesses, he succumbs to a woman’s maternal pleas.   He is both terrible and terrific at once, and he is what makes this story so compelling and formidable.

The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t the only example of a Byronic hero I’ve come across.  Wuthering Heights, another favorite novel of mine, has its own Byronic hero — Heathcliff.   Cruel to his subordinates and obstinate to most other characters, he loved Catherine enough to let her marry another, while he let himself deteriorate with the agony of not being by her side.  From Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester is another perfect example of the Byronic hero.   Though in love with Jane, he is too tormented by his past sins and dishonesty to be with her.  Only after the fire at his estate are his sins eradicated and he is able to atone for them to be happy.

Not everyone might be attracted to the intense personality of the Byronic hero.   Though it’s the character I remember the most, the one I carry away with me when the story is over.  Perhaps the Byronic hero is a reason why I believe there’s nothing more absorbing or worthwhile than writing.

 

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Bilbo_in_Rivendell_-_The_Hobbit

I wish to make an ANNOUNCEMENT. He spoke this last word so loudly and suddenly that everyone sat up who still could. I regret to announce that — though, as I said, eleventy-one years is far too short a time to spend among you — this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!

–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

My preparations to leave the country have prompted me to think about departures in general.  Saying goodbye, whether it be to life or loved ones or friends, is a crucial moment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Heck, even to material items.  As part of my preparations I sold my car today, my beloved 1995 Honda Civic.  I didn’t realize how attached I was to that hunk of scrap metal until it was driving away without me.   For a moment, I was resentful of the fact I had to sell it; I didn’t want to make the sacrifice.  I was consumed by that emotional, angry brooding people experience when life seems ‘unfair.’

Sacrifice at times is a necessary evil.  Human beings don’t like giving up the people or physical items which make us comfortable.  Perhaps the best example of this is when an elderly man or woman loses their spouse, their partner in everything, the person who has been at their side for years and who made life seem possible to endure.  Death is the most harrowing goodbye humans have to deal with, whether if it is a parent, spouse, child, or friend.  We don’t want to deal with it and sometimes we avoid it, a decision that can lead to regret and remorse later on.

Before I get too dismal, the purpose of this post was to discuss how goodbyes can be carried out in such a way that doesn’t make parting so distressing.  Goodbyes can be tactful, eloquent, and even memorable.  A great example to follow (in our everyday lives and for us writers) is in literature.   Here are some of my favorite closing lines from authors who knew how to said ‘adieu’ in ways that were maudlin  without being cheesy, and definitive to the point of lacking any precariousness.

Best Literary Endings

“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

“For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.” — Arthur C. Clark, 2001: A Space Odyssey

“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”  –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.  –Albert Camus, The Stranger

“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.  – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”  – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

If I don’t want to post to go on forever, I’m going to stop here.  If you have a favorite literary farewell, I’d love to hear it.

My 5 Favorite Fiction Novels…So Far

This past week I got sidetracked from my book reviewing schedule.  For several weeks now, I had been simultaneously reading Wuthering Heights along with whatever book I was supposed to be reading for a review.  While I enjoy reading new authors’ books, I always like to be reading one of the classics.  TIME Magazine has a great list of the 100  Best Novels of All Time; there’s also a site called thegreatestbooks.org I reference when perusing for the next ‘essential’ book.

There’s no way I will get through all of TIME’s 100 novels in my lifetime, and I don’t mean to.  Wuthering Heights had always been on my British lit list of must-reads, and this past week the story pulled me in.  After finishing it last night, I became inspired to make a list of my 10 favorite books of all time.  Well, so far.  Keep in mind I’m 25 now, and if I’ve left out one of your favorites, it’s very possible I haven’t gotten to it yet!

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë6185

I can only say I can’t believe I hadn’t read this sooner.  I always believed Pride & Prejudice was the quintessential love story, and yes, I am very fond of Jane Austen.  Wuthering Heights however is about a love so maddening, so powerful, it’s stronger than death.  I do not comprehend the distasteful reviews of this book on Goodreads.  Yes, the character Heathcliff is at times unlikable but I’m assuming these readers didn’t really ‘get’ this story.

2.  A Secret History by Donna Tartt29044

This is a fascinating tale about a group of rich students at an New England college.  This elite group is not only unapproachable because of their over-priveleged snob status, but also because they are knowledgable worldly Greek scholars.  When a new student is invited into the group, he uncovers the real reason these five students tend to keep to themselves.  Ancient rituals, murder, and scandal ensues.

3.  The Razor’s Edge by William Somerset Maugham31196

The fact that The Razor’s Edge is number three here is irrelevant; this is still my all-time favorite story ever since I read it freshman year of high school.  I don’t know if it’s Maugham’s prose, or the enchanting characters, or the fact that setting himself in the story as the narrator, or if all three of these aspects of the novel together make it so endearing and uniquely diverting.  The Razor’s edge is an illustrious work of writing without needing to be action-packed; I think that’s why I love it so much.

4.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald4671

This is NOT on my list because the move is soon to be released (and I love the idea of Leo as Gatsby).  Typically, I am drawn to any book set in the 1920’s Jazz Age, because I think I would have loved to live in New York during that time.  And gone to one of Gatsby’s Long Island parties.  Fitgzerald is also one my favorites; This Side of Paradise, Franny & Zooey, etc.

5.  The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien34

I am a Tolkien-ite, and though I love everything he has written related to Lord of The Rings (even the Silmarillion, the Appendices) the first book in the trilogy is my favorite.  I’m not sure why — perhaps because it’s the beginning of Frodo’s journey, and the only book in which the Fellowship is unbroken.  Maybe I just want to live in the Shire.  (That’s probably true, but unrelated to my preference for this book over the other two).

If I had to make a top 10 list, these would be the other 5:

6.  Candide by Voltaire

7.  The Odyssey by Homer

8.  A Room with A View by E. M. Forster

9.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

10.  The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Are any of these your favorites?  What other books should I include on my must-read list?