A ‘Byronic’ Hero is moody, rebellious and haunted by his past. His hair is typically jet-black, while his eyes brood over his surroundings. Named after Lord Byron, the Byronic Hero is a staple in Romanticism, as well as literature in general. In this post, you will discover what a byronic hero is, and specific key examples.
What Is A Byronic Hero?
A ‘Byronic Hero’ is marred by gloom, melancholy, history. Because of this, the Byronic Hero is often moody and acts unapproachable. Many characters avoid the Byronic Hero or Villain because of this. These Byronic characters are underpinned by cynicism and dread for tomorrow.
Contrast the ‘Byronic’ hero with other modes of heroism. Many of our pop culture heroes- Mr. Darcy (Pride & Prejudice), Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) and King Arthur (Arthurian legends) are more idealistic, even-tempered and approachable. In many ways, the Byronic hero is a necessary addition to literature. We can’t expect men, nor any woman, to always have sunny personalities, likeable natures and optimism. We’re human! The Byronic Hero explores the cracks present in all of humanity, the impact of history and psychology / society.
Who Was Lord Byron?
Lord Byron was an English politican and poet. During his time, he supported Greek independence (he famously appealed to ideals of Western Civilization against the Ottoman Empire, and is now considered a hero in Greece) and rights for Catholics. He travelled alot, particularly Italy (in the not-so-gloomy places of Venice and Ravenna!). His poetry is also excellent: Don Juan is well-read today.
My passions were developed very early – so early, that few would believe me – if I were to state the period – and the facts which accompanied it. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts – having anticipated life.Lord Byron
Lord Byron’s personal writings show a melancholic man who struggled to understand his sexuality, women and the world around him. He is characterised as sensitive, proud and sentimental: three defining factors for any Byronic Hero.
What About ‘Byronic Villains’?
Although the Byronic Hero doesn’t appear ‘traditionally’ heroic, he may lack the characteristics of a villain. But Byronic Villains exist. A fantastic example is Claude Frollo from Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Frollo is much older than Quasimodo (the protagonist) and Esmeralda, the woman he lusts over. His days are spent reading alchemical books, and he isolates himself from society.
Great Romantic and Gothic fiction blurs the lines between Byronic Heroes and Byronic Villains. Sometimes, it’s good to keep the reader uncertain. This was a strength in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series: Severus Snape is a magnetic character for this reason.
Is Their A Female Version Of The Byronic Hero?
A common complaint about Byronic heroes and villains is how masculine they are. All the Byronic characters mentioned are men. This makes some sense, as Lord Byron was male. Although I can’t come up with a female Byronic hero, there are plenty of fictional women who possess Byronic characteristics. A great example is Cersei Lannister (as a villain) from A Song Of Ice And Fire.
She’s bitter and cold, motivated by past hurts. What’s also great about Cersei is her complexity. But she isn’t a Byronic hero, because she lacks any sentimentality. Whereas a Byronic character is obviously shaped from the past, it’s less clear (from the outset) with Cersei.
Personally, I have little problem with a lack of female Byronic heroes. However, I always encourage complex characterisation and well-thought out character motivations.
Examples of Byronic Heroes & Villains
Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
Oh, is there a character more haunted, more melodramatic, more tragic than Heathcliff? Twisted by the past, present and future, Heathcliff is the most famous example of a Byronic character. Regardless of what scene he is in, Heathcliff quickly steals the attention. Most modern audiences cast Heathcliff as a villain, which is understandable. But while reading Wuthering Heights, I had such an intense reaction towards Heathcliff. That’s a sign of a great character.
Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre)
In many ways, Mr. Rochester is a much softer Byronic hero (in comparison to Heathcliff). While not perfect, he is not as extreme as Heathcliff. Although Mr. Rochester is certainly secretive (at times) and withdrawn, he is a classical example of the Byronic hero. Those who analyse Jane Eyre will note Mr. Rochester’s positive and negative aspects. Such opposites make him a dynamic character of Romantic literature.
Severus Snape (Harry Potter)
Snape is an enigma of a character. He’s clearly the best character in Harry Potter, and thanks to J.K Rowling’s use of Romantic and Victorian ideals, Snape feels real, as if there are men like him. Tormented from his past, like any good Byronic character, the reader can’t stop focusing on Snape. He’s also a controversial character in the Harry Potter fandom: people are quick to cast him into categories of ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ Yet part of Snape’s success as a character is how such categories are questioned. You may not like everyone Snape does, but you certainly can’t hate every action, either.
Who are your favourite byronic heroes? Comment below!