Term of Art: Anti-Hero

A ‘non-hero’ or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic deeds, who was dashing, strong, brave and resourceful. It is a little doubtful whether such heroes have ever existed in any quantity in fiction except in some romances (q.v.) and in the cheaper kind of romantic novelette (q.v.). However, there have been many instances of fictional heroes who have displayed noble qualities and virtuous attributes. The anti-hero is the man who is given the vocation of failure.

The anti-hero—a type who is incompetent, unlucky, tactless, clumsy, cack-handed, stupid, buffoonish—is of ancient lineage and is to be found, for instance, in the Greek new comedy (q.v.). An early and outstanding example in European literature is the endearing figure of the eponymous knight of Don Quixote(1605-1615). But perhaps the first anti-heor who fits the modern image is Hylas, in d’Urfe’s very successful Astree (1627). Another notable instance is Tristram Shandy in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760-1767). On can find isolated representatives in European from the 18thcentury onwards, for example Hasek’s Schweik in The Good Soldier Schweik (1920-23). A case could be argued that Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is a kind of anti-hero. Charles Lumley in John Wain’s Hurry on Down (1953) is another. When Kingsley Amis created Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (1954) the post-war anti-hero type was established, and the anti-hero Jimmy Porter of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1957) produced a succession of personalities of the same kind. Other examples are Sebastien in J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955). Herzog in Bellow’s Herzog (1964), and Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 (1961). The principal male characters in several of Graham Greene’s novels are also anti-heroes.”

Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992

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