The antihero or antiheroine is a leading character in a film, book or play who lacks some or all of the traditional heroic qualities, such as altruism, idealism, courage, nobility, fortitude, and moral goodness.
Whereas the classical hero is larger than life, antiheroes are typically inferior to the reader in intelligence, dynamism or social purpose - giving rise to what Robbe-Grillet called “these heroes without naturalness as without identity”.
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 sporting antihero is typically not a team player; challenges officialdom; sets financial gain over club loyalty; yet still acquires a large fan following, by way of his or her actualisation of the rebel archetype.
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- Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1971) p. 34
- Quoted in E. D. Ermath, Sequel to History (1992) p. 71
- Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818)
- The Giaour (1813)
- "Literary Terms and Definitions B". Web.cn.edu. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
- George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 197
- George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 197-8
- "Literary Terms and Definitions A". Web.cn.edu. Retrieved 2013-10-03.
- M. Halliwell, American Culture on the 1950s (2007) p. 60
- George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 199-200
- George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 201-7
- J. E. Barnhart ed., Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Talent (2005) p. 181
- G. Brereton, A Short History of French Literature (1954) p. 254-5
- M/ Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2000) p. 294-5
- A. Edelson, Everybody is Sitting on the Curb (1996) p. 18
- I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 27
- A. Edelson, Everybody is Sitting on the Curb (1996) p. 1
- M/ Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2000) p. 295
- T. Delaney/T. Madigan, The Sociology of Sports (2009) p. 72 and p. 284
- R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1994) p. 202-3
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- Simmons, David (2008). The Anti-Hero in the American Novel: From Heller to Vonnegut. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-60323-8.