Characters we love to hate

Sam Millward surveys the rise of the antihero as a problematic but compelling character

There is not a child in Britain who did not, at some point in their early schooling, have to produce a composition on ‘their hero’. However, indulging its endless propensity for subversion, literature has produced a steady stream of individuals who take great pride in making the man in shining armour dismount.

His place is not to be taken by someone of a different gender, however; the antihero in modern literature is almost exclusively male. Whether indicative of a recurrent privileging of masculine traits or the often absurd response to women’s literary innovation, it is impossible to ignore the gender bias inherent in these figures.

Despite appearing most prominently in films and television, the antihero is not confined to cinemas. He may also be found perturbing readers from behind dust jackets. From Huck Finn, to the vampires in Twilight, the protagonist who resists unequivocal classification is a prominent one in literature.

These figures are often detached, at times quite consciously, from conventional tropes. Flitting between established roles, antiheroes afford a reader a great deal of liberation. We lose our totalising power to either elevate or disdain complex characters. When reading Portnoy’s Complaint, I feel no great obligation to embrace the kind of moral purity preached by Jean Val Jean.

In fact, Portnoy’s grotesque obsession with his own genitals is quite emancipating. Phillip Roth’s protagonist, found alien in both his religion and sexual proclivity, is obsessed with his own relief to the point of transferring it to the reader. Reading of a character who seems to understand our natural debasement and imperfection was a true relief for me.

Whilst it is all well and good to say the antihero is a closer reflection of man and therefore more relatable, it seems amiss to ignore the changing view of the individual, in both society and culture. As modernity seeps in, we are increasingly comfortable with wandering from established tradition and accepting an unstable view of ourselves. Both modernist literature and existentialist philosophy promote the cause of and highlight the presence of the decentred individual.

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Just as the heroes of old were held as examples to follow, it could be said that modern writers bear their insecurity aloft. The antihero is as much an expression of uncertainty and an indictment of increased comfort in straying from convention, as it is a truer reflection of our flaws. It would be blasphemous to discuss the antihero without mentioning the king of outlaw wordsmiths, Hunter S. Thompson. A scholar on the issue, the gonzo editor-in-chief spent his days mapping the intricacies of real and literary protagonists, who were almost always disturbing and distressed individuals.

It is worth mentioning also that any form of salvation offered in his writing came with strongly narcissistic overtones of Messianism and a full expectation of sexual or narcotic compensation. Thompson professed in The Rum Diary, a heady novel heavy with the stench of debauchery, that he was ‘a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser’, learning lessons he ‘never doubted it was worth knowing’. This view of the antihero as the figure vested in both experience and individuality is a key one. Be it Hells Angels, a journalist in Havana or a Samoan accountant on a psychedelic run to Vegas, Thompson’s protagonists invariably capture the essence of what it means to be a figure both central and entirely deplorable.

These characters say and do what we cannot, expressing both base desire and the furious intentions we so often conceal. The antihero embodies both the newfound image of instability and insecurity, and the timeless desire to unbridle suppressed desires. Ginsberg’s long poems and Burrough’s Naked Lunch were met with many accusations of obscenity, and yet both have endured, due to the relevance of their nonconventional protagonists and narrative voice. Even as they call up the most obscene from within us all, antiheroes never fully depart from a narcissistic view of themselves as the true heroes of the story. They produce a literature so jarringly reflective that we may catch our own eye and shudder.

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