Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous To Know

Joanne blogged last Tuesday on Lord Byron and the evolution of vampires in fiction and presented me with the perfect opportunity to follow up with a topic I've been meaning to write for a while -- the Byronic hero. If you've read Joanne's post (you have, right? Why on earth haven't you?), you've already got a good sense of the sort of characters we're dealing with, and you probably already know 'hero' isn't really a good word for it.

The Byronic hero refers to both Lord Byron's own character and those in many of his works. It is a character both idealized and deeply flawed, a precursor to the sort of characters we would call anti-heroes, although often lacking the requisite 'heroic' element. These are heroes in the older sense of the word, whose actions are immortalized because they are larger than life, rather than because they are morally good.

Some of the most well-known Byronic heroes include Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff, Jane Eyre's Rochester, and the titular Count of Monte Cristo, but these heroes have been around long before Byron's time. Milton's Satan of Paradise Lost seems a perfect fit for the Byronic hero mold alongside his usual tragic hero mantle.

So what makes a Byronic hero unique from antiheroes, tragic heroes, and all their lot? While there's no hard and fast formula, several trends quickly emerge.

* Contempt for the world
* Intense, conflicting emotion
* Loner or outcast status
* Troubled past
* High intellect
* Arrogance
* Cynicism
* Dark and wild appearance
* Self-destructive

There are many others, and of course many minor traits that spin off of these when you put them together (arrogance and contempt for the world breed a tendency to use people, for example), but these traits are always present in a true Byronic hero. They are desperately tortured and appealing, but they are not good people. They torment, they manipulate, they abuse...they keep madwomen locked in the attic, but ever with a sophisticated bearing.

As the Devil himself is ever the gentleman, Byronic heroes are cultured and refined, but with a wild, elemental fury restrained beneath the surface. In Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean described Heathcliff upon his return after three years absence: "a half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire ... but his manner was dignified."

It's no wonder, then, that Byronic heroes occur so often in Gothic fiction, blending wild Romantic settings with tormented lineages and hidden secrets. Likewise, with the constant conflict of greater-than-human emotional toil, tight restraint, and infernal ferocity, it's no surprise this hero type has become nigh supernatural. After Heathcliff digs up his beloved Cathy from the grave and dances with her corpse by moonlight, it's not so great a stretch to find similar characters rising from their own graves. Still, it's the traits that make the Byronic hero, not the possible fangs or hunger for blood.

With such grand beyond the norm expectations, it's no wonder film adaptations of Byronic heroes often have so much trouble casting appropriate actors to portray iconic roles such as Heathcliff. It's simply not possibly to condense all the facets of such a primal force into a walking, talking human. They become more than they are, more than even Lord Byron, with his considerable biography (complete with exile) could ever truly embody all at once. The stuff of crackling narrative.


Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

You’ve presented a very thoughtful post. In addition to what you’ve written, I also see Byron as a little more like Casanova and Don Juan with an insatiable sexual appetite and a poetic willingness to use women as somehow a God given right.

As I look at your list of Byronic heroic characteristics, it makes me wonder: What’s wrong with women? (This is just a rhetorical question not an accusation.)

All your characteristics except ‘high intellect’ are negative. Do you think any man would be attracted to a woman with these same characteristics?

Men are simple. They are naturally attracted to women who seem sexy and who look like they will make good mothers. (Read, curvaceous). This makes perfect biological sense.

But women, who knows?


What say you?


Karyn Good said...

Very interesting post, Hayley. It's got my mind grinding away. I can't help but think the Byronic hero sounds like a villian's love story. The other side of the coin kind of idea. That probably doesn't make any sense!

I have Wuthering Heights around here somewhere but have never managed to finish reading it. I don't think I got very far. I certainly didn't get to the part where he digs up her corpse! Obviously, I'm not familiar with much of the whole story, but every once in a while I think I should dig it out and dust it off and give it a try again. Will have to think about that ...

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,

As I look at your list of Byronic heroic characteristics, it makes me wonder: What’s wrong with women?

I chuckled when I read Vince's comment. But he certainly has a point. Women are attracted to these flawed characters, believing that somehow their love can "fix" them. Bryonic heroes may be romantic to read about but I'm sure in real life, they'd be hell to live with!


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, you raise an interesting point in that I was tempted to mention the prospect of female Byronic heroes and whether they would be as appealing. I figured it'd get away from the topic though.

One thing I will say though, I specifically left out two traits I found on other lists, sexual appeal and romantic involvements, from my collection of Byronic traits. I don't believe they are necessary parts of the hero, but I believe they come as an extension of those traits. It's not that Byronic heroes need washboard abs or something, it's that their demeanour makes them appealing.

As for the why.. well, I think that's a pretty individual answer. Personally I've never been one for the idea of 'fixing' a character. Half the appeal of Byronic characters is that they're tortured, they can't be fixed. Heathcliff takes the prize for me over Rochester, etc, because he doesn't get over it. His love dies, he's stuck with that, he makes everyone's life hell as he agonizes over it until he dies as well. No fixing, no healing by the love of a good woman. Love made them both mad :)

A lot of it though, honestly, comes down to being The One Woman (go dig back a month or so into my archives on Eventide Unmasked, I blogged about this). Not necessarily being able to fix it, just being special, the only woman they want. For Heathcliff that's Catherine.

As for the other side of the hero issue, men being attracted to women like this... you're not listing a single personality or intellectual trait in what men want. Sure, I'll accept the biological part, but it's not really an even comparison, since the Byronic hero has nothing to do with the physical (aside from looking wild). Now, as for whether such women would be as appealing, I can't answer for men, but I gotta say I'd love em. Heathcliff and Catherine are one in the same, which she says herself at one point in the novel, and if that woman doesn't exhibit every one of those traits (except less in the way of terrible past), then no one fits the Byronic mold. I think the problem is the double standard.. men are independent and strong when they act like that, women are just bitches, so when people try to adapt Wuthering Heights for film, they focus on Heathcliff and fail to convey Catherine properly... they don't get how strong and central she is, and just see her as a manipulating female who wants both men. Whether or not men would be attracted to female Byronic characters... I'll leave that for you to decide, whether or not you've read Wuthering Heights. Since romance isn't my focus, I'm not so concerned with the appeal as with the prospect of the character type succeeding regardless of gender, in the face of so many cultural expectations of how men and women should act.

I think I've rambled long enough. Perhaps the rest will make it into a blog post at some point.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, I think that's one of the big reasons I love Byronic heroes, they're really not good guys at all. It's more that the people they're doing things to may be even worse, so half the time we're cheering for them and half the time we're appalled at their cruelty, and all the while watching how it's all so torturous for them (without that modern, watered down angst of recent 'tortured' characters). It's like watching a train wreck and getting caught up in it. Terribly captivating, fascinating, and capital-R Romantic to experience such intensity of living... but dunno if we'd really want to go home with them at the end of the day.

Wuthering Heights is one of my all-time favourites, so it winds up as my main example a lot, but I suppose I could turn and draw from The Count of Monte Cristo too. If I ever find a worthy adaptation of Wuthering Heights, maybe that will get you into the story a little better :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hah, well said Jana. They're the sort of characters that just captivate with the sheer size of their actions, anguish, spite, contempt, and passion, but it's beyond what anyone could truly survive being exposed to. No wonder things so often end horribly! There's a line in one of Byron's poems to that extent, if I can find it... ah, here it is:

Her faults were mine - her virtues were her own -
I lov'd her, and destroy'd her!

Janet said...

Great post, and some great comments, too. I've enjoyed reading them.

I like a tortured hero - but he has to have some redeeming qualities. I love Jana's response!

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

Your post and all these other posts have been very helpful for the project I am working on.

You wrote:

“Whether or not men would be attracted to female Byronic characters... I'll leave that for you to decide…”

Please, for a moment, think of yourself as a man and look at this list of Byronic characteristics:

* Contempt for the world
* Intense, conflicting emotion
* Loner or outcast status
* Troubled past
* High intellect
* Arrogance
* Cynicism
* Dark and wild appearance
* Self-destructive

Would you actually want a woman with these personality traits to be the mother of your children? Other than ‘high intellect’ the other characteristics are all negative. In reality, a woman with the above characteristics would be considered a high maintenance ‘mess’. This is the kind of woman a man naturally wants to avoid. Indeed, avoiding a woman like this would have survival value for the man’s chances of having children and would thus have survival value for the species as a whole.

In my study of romance heroes, I have found that the characteristics women seek in a hero (in romance novels) all have survival value. Women like what is good for women and the species. Men are even more so in liking what is good for them and the species.

My observations would be ideal except for the Byronic hero. Why would women be attracted to ‘heroes’ who offer the opposite of survival value? This goes for vampires, werewolves, and other beasts.

I think your post has finally helped me come up with a theory.

Being attracted to the Byronic hero has no survival value as far as selecting a mate. However, the attraction to a flawed individual has a very high survival value when it comes to mothering. A woman who has a natural desire to take care of sick or injured children is a very important contributor to the continuation of the species. I think it is this ‘mothering instinct’ that makes the Byronic hero so attractive to women.

Men, as hunters and warriors, do not have a strong ‘mothering instinct’ and as such have no feelings of attraction towards a female with Byronic characteristics.

Do you think this interpretation has value when considered from the female POV?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Now this is one discussion I would have loved to get in on but between kids home this week, flat tires and problems with my wip, nothing is working out. Anyway...

Vince, you sound just like the philosopher you are. LOL And you're right - it doesn't make sense does it? Women say they want sensitive, caring men and yet they drool over boorish, silent creatures like these.

And to answer your final question Vince about women wanting to mother Byronic heroes, I'm thinking it would be more like women wanting to 'change' them, no? Like women say they want the strong, silent type but then want to change him to open up and share his feelings?

Oh - not me! I've never liked Wuthering Heights or any of these Byronic heroes that are mentioned here.

And Hayley, thank you for giving them a name because I've never considered them a hero and yet had no group to place them in.

Excellent post, Hayley. I salute you.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Vince, finally finding some time in my travels to reply again. I'm splitting my comment into two, since I didn't want to trim it short to satisfy the character count.

You've got a really interesting thesis there, and you're right, in terms of romance heroes it matches up pretty neatly except for the Byronic jerks. I may not be the best person to ask, because I'm not a romance writer or reader so I don't pursue and enjoy reading about a Byronic hero for the same reasons many of the Chicks' readers would. I'll give you my personal thoughts though.

While I acknowledge that an amount of attraction certainly can come from the prospect of changing someone and 'healing them' (the Love of a Good Woman trope), that doesn't apply for me personally, and I know many other people who wouldn't fall into that category. I feel it's a bit reductive to try to lump all the myriad reasons a person might be drawn to a character type (parenting, culture, rebellion, appeal of one trait -- high intellect -- to the point of ignoring the others). Personally I've always disliked the theory that women want to change to care for bad boys, rebels, Byronic heroes, etc, because the very act of changing them would remove what makes them appealing in the first place. There's more going on than just that.

With the Byronic hero, I would suggest a large part of it is cultural -- being to relate to someone who stands apart from 'proper' society and sees its flaws and drawing on Romantic (as opposed to romantic) ideals that go along with that, like being two souls standing against the whole world. I blogged a bit about this whole thing at the end of last year, those posts may or may not elaborate things a little better for you (here and here). People who feel content with the accepts norms of society, such as the double standard you pointed to in terms of male vs. female attractiveness, might not find as much appeal from such an outsider character.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

As far as men being attracted to those traits in women, I agree that none of those traits are good for basic biological needs for reproduction and parenting, but you're also working under the assumption that those are the only needs that drive people. Again, you can't overlook the myriad cultural influences going on. Sure, arrogant, contemptuous men and women may not make great parents, but they can be exciting, unique, captivating (Byronic heroes are larger than life, after all). Likewise men can just as easily be attracted to people who hold themselves outside the norms of society, attracted to high intellect, etc. I never said all those traits I listed were considered good things, just that they are common traits among that type of literary figure. There are plenty of passionately tragic female figures in literature with dark, wild features (and probably flashing eyes), strong, arrogant intelligence, contempt for the norms of society, and a troubled past. They won't be nice, meek, pleasant people, but that doesn't mean they aren't desirable, just perhaps not desirable to you. Men and women alike choose very unlikely people to get involved with, such as partners who meet physically desirable requirements but utterly lack all good personality traits, so to say that men in general wouldn't like female characters like this seems very limiting. Likewise, you say that women liking men like this doesn't make sense, so why are you expecting it to make sense if men like women like this? I hope that all makes sense, I know it's a bit back and forth.

Personally, I enjoy Byronic heroes because they are characters, not because they are romance figures. Yes, a torrid, desperate, passionate, doomed romance like that of Catherine and Heathcliff is immensely captivating, but I'm also not wanting to take him home to momma. What I enjoy is witnessing that depth of terrible passion in two other characters, the same as the lives of those who seem 'bigger' than us captivate us. Byronic heroes are badass, to be simplistic about it. They don't hold to anyone's authority, they do as they please, they don't buy into what's considered 'proper' in society of the time, and they live life on a level of intensity that would overwhelm most people (and occasionally does kill them). That's an incredibly captivating and engaging character. That's good storytelling. And I mean this including male and female characters alike.

All that being said, I'm speaking for a more broad view of characterization, as the Byronic hero appears in all sorts of literature (and film, etc). A lot of my favourite Byronic heroes don't wind up in the "Love of a good woman fixes the broken man" resolution, and that's what I like about them. In the romance genre, perhaps the Byronic heroes always get healed and become decent, procreating human beings, rather than remaining flawed and tortured individuals. They wouldn't be the sort of Byronic characters I really enjoy, but they'd probably prove your theory pretty nicely, since it would all still push toward the heterosexual union and continuation of the species. At least that's what I found in the Harlequins I studied.

Still though, it doesn't necessarily apply to all women. Just (and this is only possibly, depending what you find in romances) what readers of a certain genre want, and probably not even all of them. I think you can certainly argue a thesis like that, as long as the language of it is specific to the group involved and not making a broad generalization about women as a whole -- or men and what they're attracted to, for that matter.