Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Makings of a Hero

   Throughout history there have been heroes and heroines.  These people are traditionally endowed with some super human power or ability and serve as a role model for members of a particular culture.  The ancient Greeks, for example, had Hercules as a hero.  Hercules was half god and half man and was known as the strongest man who ever lived. 
   The hero is an ancient archetype of human culture. He provides the physical and moral courage which sets the standard for leadership in a society. His experience often illustrates the spiritual life of a culture. His life path establishes the most important rituals of a civilization and serves as a great motivator for others. King Arthur is a familiar prototype of the hero, and Luke Skywalker is a derivative of King Arthur. The hero exists in every culture in every country in every time of humanity. He follows an easily identifiable pattern with definite characteristics. He may not always have all of the characteristics, but he or she will have most of them.

The life pattern of the hero

1.   The hero is usually a foster child, separated from his natural parents.

2.   The hero experiences an early restlessness in this environment, long before he learns of his true parentage.

3.   The hero must undergo a separation from his foster parents and the familiar environment he knew as a child.

4.   The hero finds a wise man (mentor) who will teach him secret skills and knowledge and usually reveals his true parentage to him. The mentor often presents the hero with special gifts or weapons.

5.   The hero must set out on a quest, a journey of danger and adventure, with a definite goal in mind.

6.   As he sets out on the journey, he must pass by a threshold guardian and defeat its obstacles or difficulties by wit, strength, or the special gifts or weapons provided by the mentor.

7.   The hero must undergo an initiation process to prove himself worthy and/or to enter manhood. The initiation often includes many trials and tests, battles with monsters, rescuing of damsels, and seizure of treasure. Often he must endure an ordeal of blood and confront death, danger, and/or self-knowledge (tribulations). Sometimes these dangers are psychological or spiritual; in such situations he must withstand temptations and develop self-discipline and courage. Even love can be an adventure for him.

8.   The hero usually must undergo a descent into a netherworld or hellish place. Typically his visit will last three or seven days.

9.   The quest of the hero is for a gift such as the Holy Grail which promised healing to an ailing king and country or self-knowledge in the form of a vision or words which reveal deep mysteries of life or the self. The hero brings the boon back to his people, who may or may not receive and understand the boon. The benefits of the gift are available to the people, but their lack of the hero's journey prevents them from having enough wisdom to receive the blessing.

10. The hero's journey causes a transformation in him; he is never the same again. He feels separated from his people. Although he may be honored or made ruler over his people, he will always be psychologically marked by his experience and distant from ordinary men. He will always have wisdom of the heart that belongs to him alone.1

   This model of the hero was present even throughout the twentieth century. Characters such as Superman or Captain America would qualify as heroes based upon the definition given above.  These heroes were considered positive role models for children.  They would defend the weak and powerless against “the forces of evil”.  It was always clear to those who followed the adventures of these action heroes who the good guys were and who were the villains. 

   However, beginning in the early nineteenth century the “anti-hero” was created. This concept begin with George Gordon Byron, commonly known as Lord Byron, (1788-1824), an English poet.  In 1812, Lord Byron was involved in a scandalous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who was married, and subsequently ended the affair while having a relationship with another woman at the same time. Lady Caroline referred to Lord Byron as someone who was, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” 2 and this became definition of the anti-hero, also known as the Byronic hero.  The Byronic hero first appears in Byron's semi-autobiographical epic narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–1818).

   Scholars have also drawn parallels between the Byronic hero and the solipsist 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 Eugene 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 Eugene Onegin). The same character themes continued to influence Russian literature, particularly after Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) invigorated the Byronic hero through the character Grigoriy Aleksandrovich Pechorin in his 1839 novel A Hero of Our Time.  This novel is considered to be the first Russian novel and Lermontov had a profound impact on the lives of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov (1860-1904), and others.

      Pechorin is the embodiment of the Byronic hero. Byron’s works were of international repute and Lermontov mentions his name several times throughout the novel. According to the Byronic tradition, Pechorin is a character of contradiction. He is both sensitive and cynical. He is possessed of extreme arrogance, yet has a deep insight into his own character and epitomizes the melancholy of the romantic hero who broods on the futility of existence and the certainty of death. Pechorin’s whole philosophy concerning existence is oriented towards the nihilistic, creating in him somewhat of a distanced, alienated personality.* The name Pechorin is drawn from the Pechora River, in the far north, as a homage to Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, named after the Onega River.3

    Pechorin treats women as an incentive for endless conquests and does not consider them worthy of any particular respect. He considers women such as Princess Mary to be little more than pawns in his games of romantic conquest, which, in effect, holds no meaning in his listless pursuit of pleasure. This is shown in his comment on Princess Mary: “I often wonder why I’m trying so hard to win the love of a girl I have no desire to seduce and whom I’d never marry.”

   The only contradiction in Pechorin’s attitude to women is his genuine feelings for Vera, who loves him despite, and perhaps due to, all his faults. At the end of “Princess Mary” one is presented with a moment of hope as Pechorin gallops after Vera. The reader almost assumes that a meaning to his existence may be attained and that Pechorin can finally realize that true feelings are possible. Yet a lifetime of superficiality and cynicism cannot be so easily eradicated and when fate intervenes and Pechorin’s horse collapses, he undertakes no further effort to reach his one hope of redemption: “I saw how futile and senseless it was to pursue lost happiness. What more did I want? To see her again? For what reason?”

    Pechorin's last adventure shows the events that explain his upcoming fall into depression and retreat from society, resulting in his self-predicted death. The narrator is Maxim Maximytch who is telling the story of a beautiful Circassian princess 'Bela', whom Pechorin abducted from her family and claimed as his own. Maxim describes Pechorin's exemplary persistence to convince Bela to sexually give herself to him, in which she, in time, reciprocates. After living with Bela for some time, Pechorin starts explicating his need for freedom, which Bela starts noticing, fearing he might leave her. Though Bela is completely devoted to Pechorin, she says she's not his slave, rather the daughter of a prince, also showing the intention of leaving if he 'doesn't love her'. Maxim's sympathy for Bela makes him question Pechorin's intentions. Pechorin admits he loves her and is ready to die for her, but 'he has a restless fancy and insatiable heart, and that his life is emptier day by day'. He thinks his only remedy is to travel, to keep his spirit alive.

   However, Pechorin's behavior soon changes after Bela is kidnapped by his enemy Kazbich and is mortally wounded. After two days of suffering in delirium, Bela spoke of her inner fears and her feelings for Pechorin, who listened without once leaving her side. After her death, Pechorin becomes physically ill, loses weight and becomes unsociable. After meeting with Maxim again, he acts coldly and antisocial, exhibiting signs of a deep depression and disinterest in interaction. He soon dies on his way back from Persia, admitting beforehand that he is sure to never return.

    Pechorin described his own personality as self-destructive, admitting he does not understand his own purpose in the world of men. His boredom with life and feelings of emptiness forces him to indulge in all possible pleasures and experiences, which soon cause the downfall of those who are closest to him. He starts to realize this with Vera and Grushnitsky, while the tragedy with Bela soon leads to his complete emotional collapse.

    His crushed spirit after this and his duel with Grushnitsky can be interpreted that he is not the detached character that he makes himself out to be. Rather, it shows that he suffers from his actions. Yet many of his actions are described by Pechorin himself and appear to the reader to be arbitrary. Yet this is strange as Pechorin's intelligence is very high (typical of a Byronic hero). Pechorin's explanation as to why his actions are arbitrary can be found in the last chapter where he speculates about fate. He sees his arbitrary behavior not as being a subconscious reflex to past moments in his life but rather as fate. Pechorin grows dissatisfied with his life as each of his arbitrary actions lead him through more emotional suffering which he represses from the view of others.3

      It has been very common in Western culture that the hero would always wear a white hat and the villain would wear a black hat in films so that the audience was able to determine immediate which person was the hero.  It is very easy to tell the hero from the villain when one is wearing a white hat; however, what about someone like Grigoriy Pechorin? 

      He seems to fit the profile of the Byronic hero.  He is a man who is finding his way in life and chose a path for himself which made it difficult for him to get close to others.  He would not have qualified as the ideal husband figure, but, in his own way, he truly did love Bela.  This became obvious when he stayed with us up until the moment of her death and underwent a major transformation following her death. 

     The Byronic hero exhibits most, if not all, of the following traits: arrogant, cunning and able to adapt, cynical, disrespectful of rank and privilege, emotionally conflicted or moody, has a distaste for social institutions and norms, has a troubled past or suffering from an unnamed crime, intelligent and perceptive, jaded, world-weary, mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, seductive and sexually attractive, self-critical and introspective, self-destructive, socially and sexually dominant, sophisticated and educated, struggling with integrity, and treated as an exile, outcast, or outlaw.4

      Based upon this description, Pechorin would be a classic Byronic hero.  He was not “the man in the white hat” or the superhero, but he was a hero in his own way.  Struggling with the inner demons that tormented him and not giving up, but continuing to live his life as best he could was a sign of heroic virtue.  The truth is that the heroic figures we encounter in our lives are more like Grigoriy Pechorin than Captain America.

                                                  End Notes

1)    Robert C. Covel “Heroes: A Humanities Approach” (accessed 9/1/11)

2)    Jonathan David Gross Byron: The Erotic Liberal (MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001),  p. 148

3)    Murray, Christopher (2004). Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850 (NY: Taylor & Francis, 2004), p. 498


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