Bad Boys, Bad Boys: The Persistent Presence of the Byronic Hero
An enigmatic anti-hero who acts without a clear meaning. The tragic soul who fights for neither good nor evil. The leather-clad bad boy who plays by his own rules. The Byronic hero has become a timeless figure in literature, film and other forms of pop culture phenomena. What is it about these characters that keeps them ever present in the modern zeitgeist and keeps us so passionately drawn to them?
The Byronic hero got his start in the works of Lord Byron, most famously in “Manfred,” dating back to the 1800s. Manfred, the first anti-hero, was brooding, defiant, and fought for no cause other than his own. He was constantly tormented by a tragic and mysterious past that fueled his revolt against society and its norms.
Many of Byron’s works were notably thought to be somewhat autobiographical and many of his heroes were said to be partly modeled after the author himself, adopting many of his qualities, which is what earned them moniker “Byronic” heroes. This mysterious protagonist/villain has since popped up in numerous forms, including the Twilight saga’s Edward Cullen, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy’s Christian Grey, and even the Harry Potter series’ Severus Snape.
So, how do you know when you have a Byronic hero on your hands? What makes them different from all other heroes/superheroes? Your everyday hero, let’s say Superman for example, are pretty cut and dry and easy to pinpoint. They act in a straightforward manner and clearly on the side of good. Superman fights for justice; he takes the bad guys down to protect the city of Metropolis and everyone that he holds dear. Byronic heroes also fight against injustice, but usually those done to them. They follow no strict code of ethics and often appear quite selfish. They are sometimes, as dear old Snape was, suspected to be the villain at first glance. Sometimes, they’re battle may be more internal, making it even harder to determine where these characters loyalties lie. Christian Grey was in a constant struggle against the demons of his past that threatened to destroy his future. It’s something about this seemingly villainous, potentially selfish, and nearly understandable an unpredictable nature that continues leave the ladies breathless.
It’s no surprise why this character type remains in the spotlight. Grey is dark and brooding with a hint of romance thrown into the mix, making him unbearably seductive, while Cullen’s air of danger and mystery strikes many as alluring. Even Snape possesses a je ne sais quoi that gets the fangirls, well, fangirling. But while these, and several other Byronic heroes, often prove to be good guys, they still reel the female readers in with their dastardly ways. This can easily give the impression that a little danger makes a man more interesting and that they shouldn’t think twice about becoming romantically involved with someone of such an intense nature. But, especially in the era of #metoo, it is important to know where to draw the line. Women must be able to determine where the allure ends and the real danger begins.
Many believe that from the time this character was created and beyond, he has been cemented in the public eye as the ideal version of a man, one who sacrifices warmth and emotion for strength and dominance; aloof, yet strong and protective. These common depictions have conditioned readers/viewers to see the Byronic hero as the perfect, desirable man. Their mystery and unpredictability always keeps us on our toes, repeatedly drawing us back in to see what they will do next. We are simply hooked on their overwhelming masculinity.
But today fans are beginning to realize that, like a Transformer, there is more to the Byronic hero than meets the eye. The deeper cause of our undeniable attraction lies far beneath the hero’s flawlessly attractive surface. These one dimensional characters are much deeper than they appear. Many of the Byronic heroes of the past and today possess one defining characteristic that captures the attention: a relatable humanity.
Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester comes across as cynical and arrogant while at the same time sophisticated and intelligent. After Jane, our heroine, thaws his icy heart, his cruel facade melts away and we are introduced to kind and passionate gentleman haunted by his past mistakes. In true Byronic hero fashion, Rochester has some skeletons in his closet, or in this case, a Bertha in his attic. Sorry Jane, but Mr. Rochester already has a Mrs., a veritable loony that he keeps hidden away in the depths of his tremendous mansion. Rochester imprisons one woman and lies to another all for the sake of love and protection. He spares Bertha the misery of an asylum by keeping her confined in her own home and spares Jane emotional turmoil by hiding the truth ( well, for awhile at least).
The musical specter from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is a marvelous example of one who deviates from the expected norm of the Byronic hero. Mystery: check. Charisma: check. Striking good looks: yeah, not so much. Come on, we all know what’s under that mask. Unlike Christian Grey, who’s sexy and he knows it, the Phantom possesses a great amount of insecurity. His facial deformity causes him to turn away from the “garish light of day” and indirectly pursue the songstress who has captured his heart from the safety of the shadows.
If it is too soon to bring him into this after Infinity War, then I apologize, but we must consider Loki. Geekdom’s favorite bad boy is cocky, brash, and only has the best interests of numero uno at heart. But his many acts of villainy stem from a lack of identity. Being an adopted son, Loki endeavors to understand his true self and seeks to inherit power and a kingdom in his own right. But as his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows more prevalent, we begin to see that more of his bad choices are made for the sake of those that he holds dear, the most recent example being his sacrifice of the space stone to Thanos in order to save his brother, Thor.
Finally, we have a Byronic hero who is commonly overlooked, The Outsiders’ Dallas “Dally” Winston. Dally is depicted as the baddest of the bad, the toughest Greaser to ever start a rumble. He’s selfish, he’s dark, he’s rude, crude, and an all around nasty dude. Though he’s loyal to his gang of misfits, he seems to only care about helping himself. More than that, he’s seems to just not care at all. It takes the death of one of their own for readers to see who Dally truly is. After Johnny’s death, Dallas does the last thing that his fellow Greasers ever expected him to do: he gets himself killed on purpose. As Ponyboy observed, “I knew he would be dead, because Dally Winston wanted to be dead and he always got what he wanted.” Dally portrayed himself as the roughest, most uncaring individual to hide the fact that he cares a little too much.
So what do a wealthy Englishman, a musical burn victim, a Norse god, and a hoodlum have in common? They are are all incredibly flawed individuals. Many readers and movie goers are indeed attracted to the Byronic hero’s physical perfection, but also harbor a deep connection to their emotional imperfection. These are not perfect superheroes or powerful gods (other than Loki) who possess inhuman strength and abilities, these are tragically flawed human beings. And it is that relatable sense of humanity that audiences can understand. It is not the Byronic hero’s heroism that continues to pull us in, it is their deeply rooted humanity. We know and understand their fear, their insecurities, their love.
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