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"It is ironic that Cervantes's Don Quixote is described as the first novel (an extended work of prose fiction, written in "vulgar Latin", i.e. the people's language), the first modern novel (and the first psychological novel) due to its focus on the psychological evolution of a single character (an antihero) as well as the first postmodern novel (due of its use of self-reflexivity in the second volume)." --Sholem Stein

"In the broadest sense, this history follows the fortunes of the anti-hero in literature. More narrowly, it is a study of realism, for it investigates the role enacted in literary art by the observation of low-life."--The Literature of Roguery (1907) by Frank Wadleigh Chandler

Lazarillo de Tormes (1808-12) by Francisco de Goya "Before the blind man could withdraw his long nose that was choking Lazarillo, his "stomach revolted and discharged the stolen goods in his face, so that his nose and that hastily chewed sausage left (Lazarillo's) mouth at the same time".
Lazarillo de Tormes (1808-12) by Francisco de Goya
"Before the blind man could withdraw his long nose that was choking Lazarillo, his "stomach revolted and discharged the stolen goods in his face, so that his nose and that hastily chewed sausage left (Lazarillo's) mouth at the same time".

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In literature and film, an anti-hero has widely come to mean a fictional character who has some characteristics that are antithetical to those of the traditional hero.



There is no definitive moment when the antihero came into existence as a literary trope. The antihero has evolved over time, changing as society's conceptions of the hero changed, from the Elizabethan times of Faust and William Shakespeare's Falstaff, to the darker-themed Victorian literature of the 19th century, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera or as a timid, passive, indecisive man that contrasts sharply with other Greek heroes to Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug. The Byronic hero also sets a literary precedent for the modern concept of antiheroism.


The anti-heroic type can be traced back at least as far as Homer's Thersites; and has also been identified in classical Greek drama, as well as in Roman satire and Renaissance literature, as with Don Quixote or the picaresque rogue.

However such figures mainly served as foils to the hero, or the heroic genre, and it was only gradually that the antihero came to the fore in their own right, following the process whereby what Northrop Frye calls the fictional "center of gravity" slowly descended from feudal aristocrat to urban democrat, and literature shifted accordingly from the epic to the ironic.

The actual term antihero is first dated to 1714; and the later eighteenth century saw a fine example of the type in Rameau's Nephew, though here the protagonist still remains placed in dialogue with a normative representative of the authorial position.

Nineteenth century Romanticism, with its social critique, saw the antihero becoming still more prominent, often in the form of the Gothic double, until the main character of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground brought the figure into full and independent flower.


Building on Dostoevsky, the first half of the twentieth century saw the heyday of the antihero, first in figures like Kafka's K, and then in the writings of the French existentialists, as in Camus's L'Étranger (1942) or Sartre's La Nausée (1938) with their rootless, indecisive central characters drifting through their own lives.

A decade or so later, the antihero reached American literature, to dominate till the mid-Sixties as a lonely alienated figure, unable to communicate - if typically more pro-active than his French counterpart - within the works of Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer and many more. The British equivalent appeared in the works of the so-called Angry young men of the fifties.

The collective protests of Sixties counterculture saw the solitary antihero gradually eclipsed from fictional prominence, though not without subsequent revivals in literary or cinematic form.

Contemporary literature

In modern times, heroes have enjoyed an increased moral complexity. Mid-20th century playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard showcased anti-heroic protagonists recognizable by their lack of identity and determination. Pulp fiction and noir detective stories of the mid-20th century saw characters such as Sam Spade, who lacked the glorious appeal of previous heroic figures, become popular. Influenced by the pulps, early comic books featured anti-heroic characters such as Batman (whose shadowy nature contrasted with their openly "heroic" peers like Superman) and Sub-Mariner (who would just as soon conquer humanity as try to save it).Marvel's most prolific anti-hero is perhaps The Punisher, who is more than willing to kill those who he views as deserving of death. Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns" showcased a wandering vigilante (the "Man with No Name" played by Clint Eastwood) whose gruff demeanor clashed with other heroic characteristics.

Many modern antiheroes possess, or even encapsulate, the postmodern rejection of traditional values symptomatic of Modernist literature in general, as well as the disillusion felt after World War II and the Nuclear Age. It has been argued that the continuing popularity of the antihero in modern literature and popular culture may be based on the recognition that a person is fraught with human frailties, unlike the archetypes of the white-hatted cowboy and the noble warrior, and is therefore more accessible to readers and viewers. This popularity may also be symptomatic of the rejection by the avant-garde of traditional values after the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s.

In the postmodern era, traditionally defined heroic qualities, akin to the classic "knight in shining armor" type, have given way to the "gritty truth" of life, and authority in general is being questioned. The brooding vigilante or "noble criminal" archetype seen in characters like Batman is slowly becoming part of the popular conception of heroic valor rather than being characteristics that are deemed un-heroic.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Antihero" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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