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Byronic Hero

Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series (1997 – 2007), Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (1813) are all examples of Byronic heroes.

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Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series (1997 – 2007), Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (1847) and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (1813) are all examples of Byronic heroes.

Think about these characters quickly. Can you think of any similarities between them? In this article, we will be covering the definition, characteristics and a few examples of the ‘Byronic hero,’ so you know if you’ve spotted a Byronic hero when you’re reading a text.

Byronic hero: definition

The definition of the Byronic hero is as follows:

The Byronic hero is a character archetype that can be defined as a troubled character who is afflicted by the actions he committed in his past.

In comparison to traditional literary heroes who possess great bravery, inherent goodness, honesty, selflessness, etc., Byronic heroes have deep-rooted psychological issues that make them less ‘heroic’. They are presented as outcasts from society. Even though Byronic heroes don’t fit the qualities of a traditional hero, they are seen performing heroic acts, all the while being plagued by emotional obstacles such as self-doubt, violence and impulsive behaviour. Despite their innate heroic abilities, Byronic heroes are oftentimes destroyed by their flaws.

Byronic heroes originated from the writing of English Romantic Poet Lord Byron in the 1800s, in particular from his dramatic poem, ‘Manfred’ (1816).

Byronic Hero Byronic Hero definition StudySmarterFig. 1 - Lord Byron, the creator of the Byronic hero archetype.

Manfred was a gloomy, rebellious character who did things only when it served his interest, to fight against establishments that were oppressive, or fight against an injustice that interested them. He was constantly troubled by a terrible mysterious event in his past that resulted in him revolting against societal norms.

Lord Byron also wrote Byronic heroes in his other epic narrative poems, including ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ (1812), ‘Don Juan’ (1819), ‘The Corsair’ (1814) and ‘The Giaour’ (1813). In his poems, Byron examined the psychology of these so-called heroes and presented it in his poems.

Much of Lord Byron’s writings were autobiographical and his protagonists were said to be similar to his personality and have similar traits to him (hence why the name ‘Byronic hero).’

Byronic heroism was explored greatly during the English Romantic period and didn’t originate only from Lord Byron. Other authors who have used the ‘Byronic hero’ in their novels include Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818) and Charles Dicken in David Copperfield (1849). In television, the Byronic hero traits are explored in characters like Batman and Darth Vader from Star Wars.

A Byronic hero is an important archetype because it allows for the exploration of complex, multi-faceted characters who challenge traditional notions of heroism. Additionally, Byronic heroes often reflect societal anxieties and flaws, making them useful for exploring deeper issues and themes in literature.

Byronic hero: characteristics

Some of the traits of Byronic heroes are below:

Traditional heroic traits

A Byronic Hero possesses many typical heroic qualities, such as being physically attractive, strong, courageous, charming, intelligent, charismatic etc.

They are usually depicted as projecting their heroic qualities for their love interests, in which case, they might be caring, kind, honest and self-sacrificing.

Antagonistic traits

However, Byronic heroes also possess many antagonistic traits. They can be:

  • Arrogant
  • Egoistic
  • Cunning
  • Manipulative
  • Impulsive
  • Violent
  • Narcissistic

These are usually displayed at the beginning of the narrative, before the redemption arc where the character recognises their deep-rooted psychological trauma.

Psychological issues

Even though Byronic heroes possess many villainous characteristics, these are usually attributed to their deep-rooted psychological trauma and emotional distress. This is usually the result of a tragic incident from their past that continues to haunt them and impact their behaviour. As such, Byronic heroes show forms of emotional distress, such as guilt, depression, anxiety, aggression etc.

In Jane Eyre (1847), Mr Rochester is a pessimistic, arrogant man but he is also intelligent and sophisticated. As Jane Eyre and he get closer, Mr Rochester’s cruelty and hostility fade away and he is portrayed as a good gentleman who has been in great distress due to his previous mistakes.

However, Mr Rochester keeps his previous wife Bertha confined in an upstairs room and hides the truth from Jane Eyre. Although his motives are selfish and allow him to fulfil his desires, he cares for Bertha and wishes to save her from being sent to an asylum and keeps it secret to avoid Jane from getting hurt and leaving him. This blend of heroic and villainous qualities is precisely what makes Mr Rochester a Byronic hero.

Anti-hero vs. Byronic hero

Due to the similarities between these two archetypes of heroes, it is easy to mistake a character for one or the other. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that a character can’t be both a Byronic hero and anti-hero, it is useful to look at the differences between the two.

Anti-hero

Anti-heroes are protagonists that usually lack traditional heroic qualities and are instead more antagonistic in nature (they can be greedy, immoral, selfish and dishonest).

An anti-hero typically struggles to differentiate between right and wrong and spends most of the novel working on his morality and overcoming his defects.

Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby (1925) is an example of an anti-hero as his rise to wealth from poverty is a result of his partaking in crime and theft.

Byronic hero

The difference with Byronic heroes is that while they have a moody, ambiguous disposition in their physical appearance, within they hold a lot of deeper emotions, thoughts and feelings. These characters are usually wounded and have many flaws however they already hold strong morals and beliefs, unlike anti-heroes.

Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a Byronic hero as he is an outcast in society but falls in love with Elizabeth who is very much a part of traditional society.

Byronic hero: examples

Byronic heroes are prevalent across literature and film. Here are a few prominent examples.

Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847)

At the onset of the novel, readers are presented with a prideful, wretched version of Heathcliff. Even his wife wonders if he is a human. Heathcliff is troubled by his constant yearning for Catherine, and the way he deals with this is by holding grudges, striving for vengeance and living like an outcast. It is Heathcliff’s passion and emotion that make him a Byronic hero.

Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Mr Darcy is a Byronic hero as he is always isolated from other people due to his shyness, lack of trust in people and arrogance, and he is deeply disturbed due to his past and his secrets. However, Mr Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth despite her family background and values, which don’t fall in line with his values.

It is this human quality of self-destruction and inner conflict and then his breaking through it to accept love and relationships that make Mr Darcy a Byronic hero.

Severus Snape in The Harry Potter Series (1997 - 2007)

From the viewpoint of the protagonist, Harry Potter (and to readers too), Severus Snape seems like a villain. He has a vendetta against Harry from the very moment he enters Hogwarts, and seems to constantly insult and punish Harry and his friends.

Snape’s Byronic qualities are expressed through his dark, moody, mysterious and intelligent disposition. By the end of the novel, readers find out that Snape has been protecting Harry Potter for many years due to his love for Harry’s mother, Lily.

Loki in Infinity War (2018)

As well as having several qualities of a Byronic hero (such as arrogance and brashness), the main quality that makes Loki a Byronic hero is that he is motivated only by self-interest. However, it is apparent that Loki has a tragic history and his acts of evil are a result of his lost identity and moral compass.

Despite his villainous actions, Loki still has a love for his brother Thor and sacrifices the space stone to save Thor.

Other examples:

  • Edward Cullen in Twilight (2005)
  • Stephenie Meyer Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1909)
  • Grendel in 'Beowulf' (700 AD)
  • Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1996)

Byronic hero: quotes

Here are a few quotes that exemplify how characters fall into the archetype of Byronic heroes.

I envy your peace of mind, your clean conscience, your unpolluted memory. Little girl, a memory without blot or contamination must be an exquisite treasure — an inexhaustible source of pure refreshment: is it not? (ch. 14) 1

From this quote, we can see that Mr Rochester has an understanding of what it is like to have ‘peace of mind,’ a ‘clean conscience’ and an ‘unpolluted memory.’ It highlights his qualities as a Byronic hero as it shows that he has only become the way he is now due to a great issue that changed him in the past.

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! (ch. 9) 2

This metaphor that Catherine uses to describe her feelings for Heathcliff symbolises his position as a Byronic hero. On the outside he seems like a rock, hard and callous but yet he is necessary for Catherine’s life. She even states that she is Heathcliff highlighting that despite his appearance, he can touch Catherine’s heart greatly so much so that she cannot live without him.

Your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.” “And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them. (ch. 11) 3

Here, Mr Darcy is not trying to belittle or teach Elizabeth but trying to open her mind. It shows how he is a Byronic hero as, despite the appearance that makes him seem like he hates everyone, he is trying to say that this is not what he feels and that he doesn’t mean to seem this way.

Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears. “After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape. (ch. 33) 4

Up until this moment, Severus Snape has been presented as horrible and cold and yet extremely intelligent. But, when readers find out that although Snape has been treating Harry terribly for the past few years he has taken care of him all this time it presents how he is a Byronic hero.

After losing Lily to James Potter, Harry’s father, Severus is stuck with this past that haunts him daily (that the one he loved has been killed). He targets his frustration over not being able to be with Lily and his sadness about her death by picking on Harry by linking him to his father. Yet, on numerous occasions, he is found taking care of Harry due to his deep love for Lily Potter.

Byronic Hero - Key takeaways

  • The Byronic hero is a character archetype that can be defined as a troubled character who is afflicted by the actions he committed in his past.
  • Byronic heroes originated from the writing of English Romantic Poet Lord Byron in the 1800s in particular from his dramatic poem, ‘Manfred’ (1816).
  • Unlike anti-heroes, Byronic heroes hold a lot of deeper emotions, thoughts and feelings. Although these characters are usually wounded and have many flaws, they already hold strong morals and beliefs.
  • Characteristics of Byronic heroes include:
    • Traditional heroic traits
    • Antagonistic traits
    • Psychological issues
  • Examples of Byronic heroes include:
    • Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre (1847)
    • Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847)
    • Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (1813)
    • Severus Snape in The Harry Potter Series (1997 - 2007)
    • Loki in Infinity War (2018)

1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847).

2. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847).

3. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

4. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007).

Frequently Asked Questions about Byronic Hero

Byronic heroes are named after Lord Byron, an English Romantic Poet. These characters often seem like villains at first and are troubled by a mysterious past. 

Some of the characteristics of a Byronic hero include arrogance, intelligence, cynicism, an attractive appearance and a mysterious past.

Byronic heroes are interesting for having a moody nature and rejecting traditional societal conventions, but also for having heightened emotional intelligence. 

Byronic heroes do not have the qualities of a traditional hero such as bravery, courage and wanting to do good for everyone. They only take action when something interests them and to combat oppressive establishments. 

A Byronic hero is an important archetype because it allows for the exploration of complex, multi-faceted characters who challenge traditional notions of heroism. Additionally, Byronic heroes often reflect societal anxieties and flaws, making them useful for exploring deeper issues and themes in literature. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who of these characters are Byronic heroes?

Which of these are Lord Byron’s poems?

In which circumstances would a Byronic hero take action?

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