Definition of Antihero
An antihero is a main character in a story who lacks the typical heroic qualities of bravery, courage, morality, and the special ability and desire to achieve for the greater good. The antihero is thus still the protagonist of the narrative, yet is a foil to the traditional hero archetype.
The word antihero comes from Greek, where the prefix “anti” means “against” and the word “hero” means a “protector or defender.”
Difference Between Antihero and Antagonist
Though they may sound similar, the definition of antihero is very different from the definition of antagonist. The antagonist is always a character who has opposing goals from the protagonist. Even if the antagonist is not a bad character in and of themselves, he or she will put up obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. The antagonist, in fact, may be a heroic character such as a police officer who opposes the actions of the protagonist. An antihero, on the other hand, is always the protagonist in the story. Even if the audience does not agree with her or her actions, the audience is supposed to understand the antihero’s motivations and sympathize with this character.
Common Examples of Antihero
There are many famous recent examples of antiheroes in film and television. Here is a short list; you can probably think of many more:
- Taylor Durden from “Fight Club”
- Captain Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean”
- Don Draper from “Mad Men”
- Gregory House from “House”
- Walter White from “Breaking Bad”
- Michael Scott from “The Office”
- Hannah Horvath from “Girls”
Significance of Antihero in Literature
There have been antihero examples all the way back to Ancient Greek drama, though the term “antihero” was first used in the early 1700s. The rise of popularity in using antiheroes as the protagonist of a story parallels the rise of literary realism, in which authors attempted to portray life as it really is instead of in an idealized way. Literary realism as a genre became popular in the mid-1800s and remained so for many decades. Along with the faithful representation of reality displayed in this style, so too were characters more flawed and more realistic. The trend of antihero as protagonist has remained popular throughout the world even as authors have moved into subsequent literary movements. It is sometimes easier for an audience to relate to an antihero because they are imperfect human beings.
Examples of Antihero in Literature
HAMLET: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Hamlet’s most famous speech from William Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy indicates his status as an antihero. The central drama from the play is that Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, has killed Hamlet’s father, married Hamlet’s mother, and assumed the throne of Denmark. Hamlet wants to enact revenge on Claudius, but is too contemplative and cautious to act at first. He is also plagued with thoughts of suicide and of the after-life, as we can tell from the above quote. When Hamlet finally does act, he does so rashly and erratically, and fails to achieve what he means to do though bravery or with noble intentions.
It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat, pulled out to the Tuolomee, and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.
I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Jay Gatsby is one of the most famous examples of antihero in literature. He wants to see himself as a hero, and early on in his life he renames himself Gatsby rather than his given name, Gatz. As the narrator Nick Carraway indicates above, Gatsby did not connect himself to his unsuccessful parents. He is a character who dreams of rising above his station due to greed. Even though he does many unsavory things in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, the audience continues to have sympathy for Gatsby because through it all he tries so hard to have everyone like him.
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
(The Stranger by Albert Camus)
The main character in Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger is a French Algerian man named Meursault. His chief characteristic is one of indifference, shocking indifference at times. The novel opens with the above lines, showing Meursault’s seeming indifference even to his own mother’s death. Later in the novel when Meursault murders another man this emotional indifference will ultimately lead to his downfall.
In the depths of her soul, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she kept scanning the solitude of her life with anxious eyes, straining to sight some far-off white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know how it would come to her, what wind would bring it to her, to what shores it would carry her, whether it would be a launch or a towering three-decker, laden with sorrow or filled to the gunwales with bliss. But every morning when she awoke she expected it to arrive that day; she listened to every sound, periodically leapt to her feet with a start and was surprised when she saw it had not come; then, at sundown, sadder than ever, she longed for the next day.
(Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert)
Emma Bovary is the protagonist from Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and she is plagued by the ordinariness of her own life. As Flaubert writes in the above passage, Emma desperately longs for something to happen, but has none of the gumption or courage to make anything happen for herself. Instead, she waits for her life passively.
Test Your Knowledge of Antihero
1. Which of the following statements is the best antihero definition?
A. A character who works in opposition to the protagonist.
B. A main character who displays a lack of typically heroic qualities.
C. A villain who always acts in antisocial ways.
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2. Which of the following characters from William Shakespeare’s Othello is an example of antihero?
A. Othello—The main character, a man who intends to be brave in all areas of his life, yet trusts the wrong person and kills his beloved
B. Iago—The villain and one who misleads Othello
C. Desdemona—Othello’s wife who is innocent throughout the entire play
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3. Which of the following quotes from Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger is the best example of how Meursault is an antihero?
She said, “If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.” She was right. There was no way out.
I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.
As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
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