In all of Gothic literature, a certain character has emerged; that of the Byronic Hero. This character is one that emerged in large part due to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” sympathetic version of Satan. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Web site points out that Blake believed Milton to be “subconsciously sympathetic” to Satan, while Percy Shelley “maintained [that] Satan is the moral superior to Milton’s tyrannical God, but he admitted that Satan’s greatness of character is flawed by vengefulness and pride.” Indeed this tragic flaw is what makes the Byronic Hero so accessible to the reader.
Many traits make up the Byronic Hero. They almost certainly must be intelligent, introspective and questioning. They must be constantly looking inward. Milton’s Satan was always caught up in reverie over the predicament he found himself in, at once disturbed by the events he set in motion and willing to carry those events to the natural end.
Certain strength of character must be innate within the Byronic character, whether this is to be their downfall is not necessary, but undoubtedly, the idea of stubbornness comes into play.
The character must be self-assured, quick witted, and sharp. The Byronic hero is not someone easily fooled or swayed; a fool would do so and perhaps lose their life to prove this characteristic.
The Byronic Hero does not need to be inherently evil, but he does have to be capable of many seemingly evil deeds.
The very concept of what evil is capable of doing, can be explored within a Byronic Hero.
The people surrounding him will have at once a fear and strong dislike of him, as Ann Radcliffe’s hero in the “The Italian.” Alternatively, there is “much to be loved and hated, sought and feared,” as Byron’s Hero in “Lara: A Tale.” Their physical features must be memorable, “their eyes so piercing that they seem to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secretthoughts” (Radcliffe, “The Italian”). They should be grandiose, or “towering” as Milton’s Satan is in “Paradise Lost.” Ultimately, the Byronic Hero must be unforgettable.
I am drawn to this character archetype and am mostly empathetic for him. Moreover, I am curious as to what caused his disposition. Why does he brood? Why does he contemplate? Why is he so apart from the rest of humanity? Why can he not overcome his past? And what happened in his past is most intriguing, sometimes more so than what his current situation is, because the character will be driven by his past, either to overcome it or to forget it.
It a most intriguing human aspect of Gothic literature; the piece of the past that comes into play with the actions of the characters.
What happened before we the readers opened to the first page to find ourselves in the midst of some moment firmly rooted in the present that is only happening now because of something that took place before the book began?
The Byronic Hero is to be feared, but not for reasons immediately clear. One has to go beneath the surface of their paradigms in order to understand why one is afraid.
Perhaps many of us have a bit of this character in us, some facet of our psyche which draws us into the shadows, down the corridor of winding stairs into a depth of darkness and obscurity, where nothing but wretched screams emerge from the murkiness below.
This abhorrent and disturbing feature of our humanity rebels against laws and rules and doesn’t reside in us, so much as it is us. There is mutiny in our hearts against a tyrannical society that forces us to build walls to shut out our secretive desires. The threat that looms most large is not the character itself but what the character brings out in us that ends up being baffling and fearful.
I love the Byronic Hero, not because he inspires me to love him but because he challenges me to. I want to be one of the “few persons [that] could support the scrutiny of [the Byronic Hero’s eyes] or even endure to meet them twice” (Radcliffe, “The Italian”).
I could never hate him, but I could hate what he does, not only to those around him but to himself.
The Byronic Hero is a tortured soul.
He is constantly under his own examination, always needing to observe all aspects of his existence under the finely tuned microscope of his own perceptions of life.
He is always looking to tear his own knowledge down, to re-invent himself, or to bring into question his own beliefs.
He will persecute himself and his actions, investigate and explore every nook and cranny of his own mind and never let himself off the hook.
I have found it to be a rare honor to be in the presence of one so introspective, and to be held in that gaze made me swoon.
In the twentieth century, a couple different Byronic Heroes come to mind. “The Crow” for instance, a classic hero that comes back to life to avenge the death of his wife, he is in every way brooding and dark, contemplative and cruel.
Another representative of the Byronic Hero in modern times is Al from the HBO series “Deadwood.” Al is a cunning man, with searing eyes. Those around him fear him for they know he is short of patience with anyone he deems inconsistent or incompetent. He has a dark and shady past, he runs a whorehouse, he drinks whiskey all day, sitting alone in his office thinking, at times talking to the severed head of an Indian chief that he keeps in a box behind his desk. He is one scary person, but somehow beneath the rough exterior lays the heart of a man who is just. He is a brutal killer and at times an unlikely saint.
The same can be said for the vampire Lestat, a character created by Anne Rice. Lestat craves acceptance from humans but he murders them. His companion, Louis, is a withdrawn Byronic Hero as well, hating who he is, yet never moving to end his own existence. Overall, the Byronic Hero is not dead and gone; in fact, he is hardly changed at all in over three hundred years of literature.
Our society gravitates towards this figure. In our culture, this menacing person is someone we love to hate and hate to love. This emotional dichotomy keeps us riveted when this character is on screen, in a book or in our hearts. We love how he makes us feel, how he makes the characters around him feel.
We love how he swaggers, how he glowers, how he towers, how he commands. We love how easy it is for him to break all of the rules, how he spits with contempt in the face of our carefully constructed house of cards, how he can throw the world into chaos with a simple nod of his head.
We also love every time he tears things apart because it tears him apart as well. We adore how he wrestles with his own state of being, his own existential take on his power, how he ruminates, shudders, and throws it off. He does not second-guess himself, no, but he does question his own motives. He is proud, he deserves what he takes, but he is at his core, wanting acceptance.
The Byronic Hero is, if I so dare to say it, vulnerable. He needs something that he will never ask for, that no one will ever give him, and because of that my heart breaks for him.