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.