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Revisionist Western films commonly feature antiheroes as lead characters whose actions are morally ambiguous. Clint Eastwood, pictured here in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), portrayed the archetypal antihero called the "Man with No Name" in the Italian Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns.

An antihero (sometimes spelled as anti-hero)[1] or anti-heroine is a main character in a narrative (in literature, film, TV, etc.) who may lack some conventional heroic qualities and attributes, such as idealism, courage, and morality.[1] Although antiheroes may sometimes perform actions that most of the audience considers morally correct, their reasons for doing so may not align with the audience's morality.[2]

Antihero is a literary term that can be understood as standing in opposition to the traditional hero, i.e., one with high social status, well liked by the general populace. Past the surface, scholars have additional requirements for the antihero. Some scholars[who?] refer to the "Racinian" antihero, who is defined by several factors. The first is that the antihero is doomed to fail before their adventure begins. The second constitutes the blame of that failure on everyone but themselves. Thirdly, they offer a critique of social morals and reality.[3] To other scholars, an antihero is inherently a hero from a specific point of view, and a villain from another.[4] This idea is further backed by the addition of character alignments, which are commonly displayed by role-playing games.[5]

Typically, an antihero is the focal point of conflict in a story, whether as the protagonist or as the antagonistic force.[6] This is due to the antihero's engagement in the conflict, typically of their own will, rather than a specific calling to serve the greater good. As such, the antihero focuses on their personal motives first and foremost, with everything else secondary.[7]


U.S. writer Jack Kerouac and other figures of the "Beat Generation" created reflective, critical protagonists who influenced the antiheroes of many later works.

An early antihero is Homer's Thersites.[8] The concept has also been identified in classical Greek drama,[9] Roman satire, and Renaissance literature[8] such as Don Quixote[9][10] and the picaresque rogue.[11]

The term antihero was first used as early as 1714,[12] emerging in works such as Rameau's Nephew in the 18th century,[8] and is also used more broadly to cover Byronic heroes as well, created by the English poet Lord Byron.[13]

Literary Romanticism in the 19th century helped popularize new forms of the antihero,[14][15] such as the Gothic double.[16] The antihero eventually became an established form of social criticism, a phenomenon often associated with the unnamed protagonist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.[8] The antihero emerged as a foil to the traditional hero archetype, a process that Northrop Frye called the fictional "center of gravity".[17] This movement indicated a literary change in heroic ethos from feudal aristocrat to urban democrat, as was the shift from epic to ironic narratives.[17]

Huckleberry Finn (1884) has been called "the first antihero in the American nursery".[18] Charlotte Mullen of Somerville and Ross's The Real Charlotte (1894) has been described as an anti-heroine.[19][20][21]

The antihero became prominent in early 20th century existentialist works such as Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915),[22] Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938),[23] and Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942).[24] The protagonist in these works is an indecisive central character who drifts through his life and is marked by boredom, angst, and alienation.[25]

The antihero entered American literature in the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s as an alienated figure, unable to communicate.[26] The American antihero of the 1950s and 1960s was typically more proactive than his French counterpart.[27] The British version of the antihero emerged in the works of the "angry young men" of the 1950s.[9][28] The collective protests of Sixties counterculture saw the solitary antihero gradually eclipsed from fictional prominence,[27] though not without subsequent revivals in literary and cinematic form.[26]

During the Golden Age of Television from the 2000s and into the present time, antiheroes such as Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, Gregory House, Walter White, Don Draper, Marty Byrde, Nucky Thompson and Jax Teller became prominent in the most popular and critically acclaimed TV shows.[29][30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Anti-Hero". Lexico. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 6 August 2020. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  2. ^ Laham, Nicholas (2009). Currents of Comedy on the American Screen: How Film and Television Deliver Different Laughs for Changing Times. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. p. 51. ISBN 9780786442645.
  3. ^ Kennedy, Theresa Varney (2014). "'No Exit' in Racine's Phèdre: The Making of the Anti-Hero". The French Review. 88 (1): 165–178. doi:10.1353/tfr.2014.0114. ISSN 2329-7131. S2CID 256361158.
  4. ^ Klapp, Orrin E. (September 1948). "The Creation of Popular Heroes". American Journal of Sociology. 54 (2): 135–141. doi:10.1086/220292. ISSN 0002-9602. S2CID 143440315.
  5. ^ Waskul, Dennis; Lust, Matt (August 2004). "Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing". Symbolic Interaction. 27 (3): 333–356. doi:10.1525/si.2004.27.3.333. ISSN 0195-6086.
  6. ^ Petersen, Michael Bang (2019). "An Age of Chaos?". RSA Journal. 165 (3 (5579)): 44–47. ISSN 0958-0433. JSTOR 26907483.
  7. ^ Klapp, Orrin E. (1948). "The Creation of Popular Heroes". American Journal of Sociology. 54 (2): 135–141. doi:10.1086/220292. ISSN 0002-9602. JSTOR 2771362. S2CID 143440315.
  8. ^ a b c d Steiner, George (2013). Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism. New York: Open Road. pp. 197–207. ISBN 9781480411913.
  9. ^ a b c "antihero". Encyclopædia Britannica. 14 February 2013. Retrieved 9 August 2014.
  10. ^ Wheeler, L. Lip. "Literary Terms and Definitions A". Dr. Wheeler's Website. Carson-Newman University. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  11. ^ Halliwell, Martin (2007). American Culture in the 1950s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 60. ISBN 9780748618859.
  12. ^ "Antihero". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 31 August 2012. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  13. ^ Wheeler, L. Lip. "Literary Terms and Definitions B". Dr. Wheeler's Website. Carson-Newman University. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
  14. ^ Alsen, Eberhard (2014). The New Romanticism: A Collection of Critical Essays. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis. p. 72. ISBN 9781317776000. Retrieved 20 April 2015 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ Simmons, David (2008). The Anti-Hero in the American Novel: From Joseph Heller to Kurt Vonnegut (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 5. ISBN 9780230612525. Retrieved 20 April 2015 – via Google Books.
  16. ^ Lutz, Deborah (2006). The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. p. 82. ISBN 9780814210345. Retrieved 20 April 2015 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ a b Frye, Northrop (2002). Anatomy of Criticism. London: Penguin. p. 34. ISBN 9780141187099.
  18. ^ Hearn, Michael Patrick (2001). The Annotated Huckleberry Finn: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. xvci. ISBN 0393020398.
  19. ^ Ehnenn, Jill R. (2008). Women's Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture. Ashgate Publishing. p. 159. ISBN 9780754652946. Retrieved 7 April 2020 – via Google Books.
  20. ^ Cooke, Rachel (27 February 2011). "The 10 best Neglected literary classics – in pictures". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 April 2020.
  21. ^ Woodcock, George (1 April 1983). Twentieth Century Fiction. Macmillan Publishers Ltd. p. 628. ISBN 9781349170661. Retrieved 7 April 2020 – via Google Books.
  22. ^ Barnhart, Joe E. (2005). Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Talent. Lanham: University Press of America. p. 151. ISBN 9780761830979.
  23. ^ Asong, Linus T. (2012). Psychological Constructs and the Craft of African Fiction of Yesteryears: Six Studies. Mankon: Langaa Research & Publishing CIG. p. 76. ISBN 9789956727667 – via Google Books.
  24. ^ Gargett, Graham (2004). Heroism and Passion in Literature: Studies in Honour of Moya Longstaffe. Amsterdam: Rodopi. p. 198. ISBN 9789042016927 – via Google Books.
  25. ^ Brereton, Geoffrey (1968). A Short History of French Literature. Penguin Books. pp. 254–255.
  26. ^ a b Hardt, Michael; Weeks, Kathi (2000). The Jameson Reader (Reprint ed.). Oxford, UK ; Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell. pp. 294–295. ISBN 9780631202707.
  27. ^ a b Edelstein, Alan (1996). Everybody is Sitting on the Curb: How and why America's Heroes Disappeared. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. pp. 1, 18. ISBN 9780275953645.
  28. ^ Ousby, Ian (1996). The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780521436274.
  29. ^ Reese, Hope (11 July 2013). "Why Is the Golden Age of TV So Dark?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 31 October 2021. A new book explains the link between the rise of antihero protaganists and the unprecedented abundance of great TV (and what Dick Cheney has to do with it).
  30. ^ Faithfull, E. (2021). How House brought the "savant anti-hero" into the mainstream and changed TV dramas. www.nine.com.au. https://www.nine.com.au/entertainment/latest/house-savant-anti-hero-medical-drama-9now/0e030210-8bfe-424f-b687-f2e36e6f0694
  31. ^ Pruner, A. (n.d.). Hear us out: Gregory House was TV's last great doctor. https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/hear-us-out-gregory-house-was-tvs-last-great-doctor/

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