Antihero

Antihero

[an-tee-heer-oh, an-tahy-]
In fiction, an antihero is a protagonist whose character and goals are antithetical to classical heroism.

The term dates to 1714.

History

There is no definitive moment when the antihero came into existence as a literary trope. Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica portrays Jason as a timid, passive, indecisive man that contrasts sharply with other Greek heroes. The antihero has evolved over time, changing as society's conceptions of the hero changed, from the Elizabethan times of Christopher Marlowe's Faust and William Shakespeare's Falstaff, to the darker-themed Victorian literature of the 19th century, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera or Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug. The Byronic hero also sets a literary precedent for the modern concept of the antihero.

Contemporary literature

In modern times, heroes have enjoyed an increased moral complexity. Mid-20th century playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard showcased anti-heroic protagonists recognizable by their lack of identity and determination. Pulp fiction and noir detective stories of the mid-20th century saw characters such as Sam Spade, who lacked the glorious appeal of previous heroic figures, become popular. Influenced by the pulps, early comic books featured anti-heroic characters such as Batman (whose shadowy nature contrasted with their openly "heroic" peers like Superman) and Sub-Mariner (who would just as soon conquer humanity as try to save it). Marvel's most prolific anti-hero is perhaps The Punisher, who is more than willing to kill those who he views as deserving of death. Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns" showcased a wandering vigilante (the "Man with No Name" played by Clint Eastwood) whose gruff demeanor clashed with other heroic characteristics.

Many modern antiheroes possess, or even encapsulate, the postmodern rejection of traditional values symptomatic of Modernist literature in general, as well as the disillusion felt after World War II and the Nuclear Age. It has been argued that the continuing popularity of the antihero in modern literature and popular culture may be based on the recognition that a person is fraught with human frailties, unlike the archetypes of the white-hatted cowboy and the noble warrior, and is therefore more accessible to readers and viewers. This popularity may also be symptomatic of the rejection by the avant-garde of traditional values after the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s. In the postmodern era, traditionally defined heroic qualities, akin to the classic "knight in shining armor" type, have given way to the "gritty truth" of life, and authority in general is being questioned. The brooding vigilante or "noble criminal" archetype seen in characters like Batman is slowly becoming part of the popular conception of heroic valor rather than being characteristics that are deemed un-heroic.

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