From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Byronic hero is an idealized but flawed character exemplified in the life and writings of Lord Byron, characterized by his ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb as being "mad, bad and dangerous to know". The Byronic hero first appears in Byron's semi-autobiographical epic narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-18). The Byronic hero has the following characteristics:
- conflicting emotions, bipolar tendencies, or moodiness
- self-critical and introspective
- struggles with integrity
- a distaste for social institutions and social norms
- being an exile, an outcast, or an outlaw
- a lack of respect for rank and privilege
- a troubled past
- being cynical, demanding, and/or arrogant
- often self-destructive
- troubles with sexual identity
- loner, often rejected from society
The literary predecessors of the Byronic hero in English can be traced back to Milton's interpretation of Lucifer as having a justified complaint against God, and to the villains and tyrants of Gothic fiction.
After Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the Byronic hero made an appearance in many of Byron's other works, including his series of poems on Oriental themes: The Giaour (1813), The Corsair (1814) and Lara (1814); and his closet play Manfred (1817).
Byron's influence was manifested by many authors and artists of the Romantic movement and by writers of Gothic fiction during the 19th century. The Byronic hero provides the title character of Glenarvon (1816), by Byron's erstwhile lover Lady Caroline Lamb, and The Vampyre (1819) by Polidori. Heathcliff from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) and Rochester from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) are other examples. The lead character, Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of the more notorious heroes of this genre.
Scholars have also drawn parallels between the Byronic Hero and the solipsistic heroes of Russian literature. In particular, Alexander Pushkin's famed character, Eugene Onegin echoes many of the attributes seen in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," particularly, Onegin's solitary brooding and disrespect for traditional privilege. The first stages of Pushkin's poetic novel "Onegin" appeared twelve years after Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage', and Byron was of obvious influence ( Vladimir Nabokov argued in his "Commentary to Eugene Onegin" that Pushkin had read Byron during his years in exile just prior to composing "Onegin"). The same character themes continued to influence Russian literature, particularly after Mikhail Lermontov invigorated the Byronic Hero through the character Pechorin in his 1839 novel A Hero of Our Time.
The Byronic hero is also featured in many different contemporary novels, and it is clear that Lord Byron's work continues to influence modern literature as the precursor of a commonly encountered type of anti-hero.