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Giving Milton's Lucifer a run for his money
June 20, 2011 4:19 PM   Subscribe

What are some literary and critical sources-- traditional canon and alternative/media-- for anti-heroes in literature? Special emphasis on characters that seem relevant to the figures of Lucifer and Dionysus, as well as the opposites in philosophy of Heaven and Hell. Special love for the Romantics and the Byronic hero.

I'm doing the second quarter of a two-quarter Independent Study (and/or Senior Thesis project) this summer and I've already covered The Iliad and Paradise Lost, and they're currently at my center of study. I've also included The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Byron's Manfred, Goethe's Faustus, and considered The Aeneid. I'm planning to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Wuthering Heights and Dracula. I'm considering Melville and some of Shakespeare's plays, but I feel I've read the one that applies the most (The Tempest). I've already read Dante, Antigone and the Oedipus plays by Sophocles and Frankenstein (all of which seem relevant but a bit tangential). The connection to Dionysos is in contrast, and also because I'm writing a novella that utilizes these themes that's about Dionysos. I'm also interested in connections to a figure like Prometheus, and am considering reading Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and Aeschylus' play.

I'm open to stuff like graphic novels but I dunno if they fit into my main focus-- it's more of a peripheral citation. I do think characters like Magneto and Noir movie/detective fiction heroes fit in pretty well. I'd prefer to find some roots or echoes in canon heroic literature. I'm considering reading more stereotypically epic hero sagas (anything from Beowulf to Irish Celtic myths), but think that's also tangential. There's lots of stuff that has anti-heroes on the sidelines, but I'd like to find nontraditional tragic/doomed characters that are fairy foregrounded. Achilles was there mainly as a foundation text in structure compared to Paradise Lost.

Stuff that's about heroes but twisted in some way would work too. I'm just looking to get a wider sweep than I'd get looking for things I am already aware of or interested in.
posted by reenka to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Go with your Russians! There's the antichrist himself in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, the Grand Inquisitor getting into ideas about God in Brothers Karamazov but great antiheroes: Stavrogin in Dostoyevsky's Possessed is a pretty classic and canonical tragic, doomed antihero.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:31 PM on June 20, 2011


Fielding's Jonathan Wild? Very much in dialogue with the classical epic; it doesn't take the standard Romantic view of the antihero, but might provide a useful point of contrast for that very reason.

Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair could be interesting along similar lines-- both are somewhat more morally realistic treatments of the energetic, ambitious and entertaining protagonist who does reprehensible things.
posted by Bardolph at 4:33 PM on June 20, 2011


Leopold Bloom (Ulysses), Humbert Humbert (Lolita).
posted by DarlingBri at 4:50 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know you are a little iffy about graphic novels, but Batman, and specifically in The Dark Knight, is pretty much THE anti-hero in my mind.

I'll think about this some more and drop by with other recommendations if I come up with any.
posted by chatongriffes at 4:52 PM on June 20, 2011


Mikhail Bakhtin has a book about Rabelais. Rabelais and His World. Lots of Dionysian stuff in there.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 4:52 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is Jean Valjean an antihero?
posted by maryr at 5:02 PM on June 20, 2011


Patti Smith: "In 'Break It Up,' Tom Verlaine and I wrote of a dream in which Jim Morrison, bound like Prometheus, suddenly broke free." Seems to me more like a losing-virginity-in-a-car ballad, but I suppose metaphorically speaking they're pretty much the same thing. And, hey, speaking of Jim Morrison: Light My Fire.

Jung would have a field day.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:02 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


For something particularly relevant to Lucifer, how about Steven Brust's To Reign in Hell, a modern retelling of the revolt from one of the better authors of contemporary fantasy?

I've always thought of Gully Foyle from Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination as the definitive SF anti-hero, and the SF genre is full of 'em.
posted by N-stoff at 5:05 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I recently read an excellent novel called "Sway" that deals with almost exactly this, in the forms of the Rolling Stones in their "sympathy for the devil" period, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and the Manson family. Really good.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:18 PM on June 20, 2011


"I know you are a little iffy about graphic novels, but Batman, and specifically in The Dark Knight, is pretty much THE anti-hero in my mind. "

Nope. John Constantine.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:26 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In terms of Joyce, I'd consider Stephen Dedalus an antihero in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man more strongly than Bloom in Ulysses (Bloom is more of an Everyman protagonist, to me).
posted by scody at 5:32 PM on June 20, 2011


Jean Valjean is a saint. The novel is his hagiography.

Now that I'm commenting... Independent People by Halldór Laxness is about a man who subsumes everything to his desire to be free and independent. He's very much an antihero and it's not much of a stretch to connect him to the Miltonic Lucifer.
posted by Kattullus at 5:35 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm doing the second quarter of a two-quarter Independent Study (and/or Senior Thesis project) this summer and I've already covered The Iliad and Paradise Lost, and they're currently at my center of study. I've also included The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Byron's Manfred, Goethe's Faustus, and considered The Aeneid.

You're sorely lacking The Odyssey. Odysseus is the classic antihero.

For a run-down of the basics, you should probably skim tvtrope's article on Antiheroes (warning: tvtropes).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:38 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about Maldoror?
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:38 PM on June 20, 2011


Clint Eastwood as Munny, the repentant former gunslinger who returns to his old ways in Unforgiven is a great example of a more modern take on the anti-hero.
posted by misha at 5:38 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The best quote from Unforgiven pretty much solidifies him as an anti-hero, too.
posted by misha at 5:43 PM on June 20, 2011


As a critical source, Northrop Frye's essay on Byron leaps to mind. You're on target with Prometheus Unbound too--Shelley explicitly compared Prometheus with Milton's Satan.

Incidentally, it sounds like you're all over the place on this. That's fine, but I'd expect a question from your advisor about how well you support the connections between everything.

I can think of at least one work that tried to pull together a ton of unrelated things to make a statement about a sort of anti-hero: Colin Wilson's The Outsider. Hot stuff 50 years ago, but a little flaky in retrospect.

Similarly flaky (but fun, well-known, related) works that try to make something emblematic out of Dionysus include Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:49 PM on June 20, 2011


I don't consider Bloom or Dedalus an anti-hero. Bloom's more of the mock-heroic.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:53 PM on June 20, 2011


You're sorely lacking The Odyssey. Odysseus is the classic antihero.

I came here to say the same thing. Compared to the idealized heroes that surrounded, Odysseus was a right bastard, relying more on trickery than on brute strength or stellar good looks.

From more recent literature, the character of Turin from Tolkien's The Silmarillion is something of anti-hero, and you can go into the Finnish Kalevala for his source material.
posted by jquinby at 6:26 PM on June 20, 2011


I don't know if this is exactly what you're looking for, but Steerpike and Titus Groan in the Gormenghast novels are two different types of anti-hero.
posted by muddgirl at 6:37 PM on June 20, 2011


From graphic novels, Batman and John Constantine have both been mentioned, but not Watchmen's Rorschach? I vote for Rorschach.
posted by jeffmshaw at 7:29 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


You might also consider Gilgamesh, who some think of as Western literature's first anti-hero. Enkidu is offered as a sort-of counterpoint to Gilgamesh, so that might fit in with your project as well.
posted by jeffmshaw at 7:36 PM on June 20, 2011


Grendel by John Gardener. (You'll have to read Beowulf first, of course.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:21 PM on June 20, 2011


J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (actally, a lot of his stuff works)

Anything by Flannery O'Connor

Darkly Dreaming Dexter (the showtime series Dexter is based on this book series)

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Hope those are what you're looking for...
posted by guster4lovers at 8:22 PM on June 20, 2011


Wyndham Lewis' The Human Age. Satan appears in person
posted by TheRaven at 12:17 AM on June 21, 2011


I found it a long, dull read, but Melmoth the Wanderer fits your bill.
posted by misteraitch at 3:53 AM on June 21, 2011


There must be some critical stuff but I can't think of any. But if you are after more examples there's Steerforth in David Copperfield or Flashman in his own series (originally in Tom Brown's Schooldays). If you're interested in women characters too there's Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. The last two are the main protagonists in their respective books and Steerforth is definitely foregrounded.
posted by paduasoy at 5:55 AM on June 21, 2011


Bugger, messed up html, sorry. Will end em now in case it carries across.
posted by paduasoy at 5:56 AM on June 21, 2011


I thought of the Dexter books too, but the female characters in the one I read were so one-dimensional that it ruined the plot for me.

I like Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Merteuil defies a lot of social customs that have gone out of fashion. You could argue that in the end of the novel she's punished by God.
posted by Net Prophet at 6:24 AM on June 21, 2011


I can't believe no one's mentioned dreamy, doomed Jay Gatsby!

I strongly urge you check out Neil Gaiman's classic, finished comic series The Sandman [TVTropes links ahoy!]. It features numerous antiheroic figures (including Lucifer!), foremost being the protagonist Morpheus/Dream, who epitomizes Byronic angst heroism and hair.
posted by nicebookrack at 2:17 PM on June 21, 2011


[WARNING TVTROPES LINKS EVERYWHERE]
If you're pinging Batman as an antihero, you've gotta specify which/when Batman you mean, i.e. Adam West/The Brave & the Bold's "To the Batcave, Robin old chum!" chipper Batman has as much legitimate basis in bat-canon as Frank Miller/Christian Bale's Grimdark Knight. (NO, SERIOUSLY.) Which is what makes Bats interesting! But not so good as an antihero example without running all over the Sliding Scale, so you're likely better off with The Question, John Constantine, or (definitely) Rorschach as mentioned above.

U.S. superhero comics have been a little too in love with antiheroes for long enough that you can trip over all the examples you need. A few more standouts off the top of my head: The Punisher, probably the most recognizable modern example; Sleeper & Incognito by Ed Brubaker, heavily noir-influenced inverted versions of the same story (the "hero" living undercover beside the enemy); and Deadpool, who took a weird route from Grim 90s Antihero to comedic trickster/antihero-as-loser (not doomed like Oedipus, doomed like Wile E. Coyote).
posted by nicebookrack at 2:24 PM on June 21, 2011


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