Atypical Protagonists: Six Anti-Heroes From Great Works of Fiction

This essay was written by Chris Ciolli.

Everyone loves a hero. Except when we don’t.

Because let’s face it, sometimes heroes are hard to take. In a less-than-perfect world full of less-than-perfect people where right and wrong exist among so many shades of gray, sometimes traditionally heroic protagonists fall flat, even when they triumph against their “evil” foes.

That’s where anti-heroes come in. With fewer redeeming attributes and more Achilles heels than your typical protagonist, anti-heroes show readers another side of human character, however disagreeable.  Inspiring reactions ranging from sympathy to disgust, literary anti-heroes figure among the world’s most famous literary icons.

Who could forget the emotionally fragile but patently obnoxious Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or creepy but strangely vulnerable Humbert Humbert in Lolita? If nothing else, such characters serve to remind us that it doesn’t take a good guy to go down in history, literary or otherwise.

Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is much lauded as a spunky survivor, and a strong female protagonist by a lot of people who didn’t read the book, or don’t remember her racism, greed or generally thoughtless self-serving antics very well. Let’s face it; she’s exactly the type of ambitious, argumentative and social-ladder-climbing woman that most of us love to hate.

Anything goes to further her ends. Pursuing a married man while married herself, stealing her sister’s intended, anything goes when it serves her purposes.

Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

By far one of the most unlikeable book characters I’ve ever read about, Ignatius J. Reilly is a masterfully written, if hard to stomach anti-hero. He’s intelligent and educated but lazy and unmotivated, a sweaty thirty-year-old who hides from his numerous phobias in his room and takes advantage of his mother’s goodwill.

Ignatius is arrogant and judgmental and if you can’t laugh at his antics, this book is not for you because more often than not he’s too loathsome for words. Cruel, arrogant, and judgmental on a regular basis, Ignatius accepts no responsibility for his actions or personality. There’s always someone or something else to blame.

Disclaimer: Despite the fact that A Confederacy of Dunces is set in my favorite U.S. city (New Orleans) and won a Pulitzer, I was so revolted by Ignatius that I couldn’t even laugh at the scathing satire and comedy of errors that make the book shine for so many other readers.

Grendel in Grendel by John Gardner

In this retelling of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, monster Grendel is the star. Throughout the book, Grendel whines about…. ahem, reflects on the meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, and the power of literature and myth.

Somehow, despite his bad-humor, grouchiness, not to mention murderous and people-eating behavior, Grendel is a sympathetic anti-hero. We feel bad for him. He was raised by monsters, (okay, his mother) but somehow developed the power of speech. Which is all but useless, as his mother is mute and humans want nothing to do with him. Poor, lonely Grendel, on some occasions admiring the humans from afar, and still others killing and eating them.

Gatsby in the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

All that glitters isn’t gold in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, and the book’s namesake, Jay Gatsby is far from admirable, despite his great wealth.  Of course the great majority of Fitzgerald’s cast of flappers and their male companions are varying degrees of despicable.

Jay Gatsby is the dark side of the excess of the Roaring Twenties personified. After making his fortune bootlegging, this anti-hero sets out to spend it on lavish get-togethers to impress a vapid and selfish woman (Daisy Buchanan) who is already married to someone else. Even so, Gatsby remains something of a mystery, and despite his many flaws, is much easier to like than Daisy’s husband Tom, or Daisy herself.

Lázaro in Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous

In this Spanish picaresque classic by an unknown author, Lázaro is born into a poor family and learns to wheel and deal to support himself from a young age.  Banned for a time during the Spanish Inquisition and later allowed to circulate in a censored version, the book describes the title character’s misadventures in the employ of a cast of outwardly respectable but corrupt masters that include a blind man, a priest, a squire and a friar, among others.  In many ways a victim of his circumstances, Lázaro learns the hard way that to survive, he will have to abandon any vestige of honor, scruples or respectability.

Narrator in Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

The female narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters is hard to sympathize with and even harder to trust, no matter how badly her face has been disfigured or how many ridiculous identities she takes on (Daisy St. Patience, really?). Instead of understanding her parents’ grief when they find out her brother died from AIDS, she acts out for attention.  Even after her face is shot off, she plays fast and loose with the lives of others, stealing and taking drugs, setting fire to houses, and doing as she pleases with no regard for the consequences.

Note: I read Invisible Monsters, not the newer Invisible Monsters Remix, which is said to be closer to the author’s original intentions for the book.

As readers, writers, and human beings, we are constantly surrounded by heroes and anti-heroes alike. For few people are purely one or the other. Thankfully most of us are quite the mix, only occasionally embodying either extreme.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marya

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