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
* Dark and wild appearance
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.