menu Menu

The Nature and Redemption of the Anti-Hero

A Literary Analysis of the Anti-Hero Trope

What makes a hero? In literature a hero (or heroine) is defined as ‘The principle male and female characters in a work of literature’ and ‘In criticism the terms carry no connotations of virtuousness or honour.’[1] Yet any reader’s natural moral code should reject antagonistic protagonists just as easily as they cast judgement in reality. This is where the antihero comes into play, a character that can either be defined as a novelistic ‘everyman’ or as a redeemable villain. [2] Literature provides an opportunity to enjoy a character or situation we would abhor in reality. This could be because of the affective disposition theory (ADT) that Daniel Shafer and Arthur Raney purpose in their study. [3] There, they claim that the more exposed we are to the antihero story schema the more we can ‘come to understand that, despite their morally questionable actions, antiheroes serve as the protagonist seeking to overcome some enemy – and our liking and expectations develop accordingly.’ [4] It is important to note that these antihero narratives always include ‘moral disengagement information’ – cues that prompt the reader to ‘take off the default lens of moral scrutiny and put on one of moral permissiveness and justification.’ [5]

These cues come in a variety of forms. Their purpose is to ‘guide information processing by providing justification for a character’s immoral behaviour.’[6] How a character redeems himself, then, is crucial to their likability, and by extent the successfulness of the novel. These cues are incorporated into the antihero’s persona in order to appeal to the reader before moral judgement can repel them. If the reader can ‘separate the antihero’s morally questionable actions from their feelings towards him’ then violence and even his reasoning can be overlooked. [7] Imagine if the narrator in Fight Club didn’t exist, and Tyler’s fanaticism was the only lens we had to see the world through? [8] With no one to root for, no sense of the hero or the villain, there is no conflict, only a degrading spiral of violence. There are a myriad of means that can justify an antihero, even characters that conclude themselves to be a conduit of God, like Nick Corey in Pop. 1280, who manipulates and kills others as the opportunity arises. [9] There is always an enemy, and the antihero is always sympathetic enough to like, and therefore side with.

Nick Corey can be described as a specious with a consistent, fallacious moral code. He is a very convincing liar and uses his words as a weapon more effective than physical force. He is not, however, a hypocrite. In one study, it was decided that ‘authenticity, or being true to self, is often regarded as a facet of integrity.’[10] Corey is truthful to the readers, which forgives him for his constant subterfuge of those around him. His simple vernacular is juxtaposed by moments where his true nature comes to light, described by Peter Jonason as indicative of Machiavellianism, which he describes as being a ‘manipulative, self-serving social strategy with three main components: cynicism, manipulativeness, and a view that the ends justify the means.’ [11] By analysing his actions alone, he is a natural strategist who wants for very little and will only act when the situation will not resolve itself.

For every immoral act he commits, whether it’s murder, defamation, or manipulation, there are always moral disengagement cues surrounding it. Before we understand his true nature, for instance, we are told that Corey ‘had it made, and it looked like [he] would go on having it made’. [12] His content in both his job and his life are the first facts that we know about him. Corey’s lack of work ethic as a sheriff is due to the fact that the townspeople don’t want him to be a good sheriff, that ‘Maybe they think they do, but they don’t. All they want is for [Nick] to give ‘em some excuse to vote for [him] again.’ [13] His manipulative, sociopathic tendencies are further counterbalanced with his politeness – shown in his refusal to ever talk down or even refute another person’s opinion – in how he is ‘always willing to help people’ and how he dislikes speaking ill of the dead. [14] He is set up as someone who is ‘spineless’, ‘cowardly’, and most of all, ‘stupid’. [15] All in all, the townspeople see him as a joke. Yet he never rates Corey from them is his ability to recognize this failure in humanity. His cynicism and the witch-hunts that are displayed create a villain for Corey to contest against, and are the basis for his god-complex.

It takes him the course of Pop. 1280 in order to come to the conclusion that he’s ‘the Saviour himself, Christ on the Cross, come right to Potts County, because God knows I was needed here, an’ I’m goin’ around doing kindly deeds – so that people will know they got nothing to fear’. [16] This conclusion is built up throughout the novel, starting with his father. Everything he does that is morally wrong in society is justified as being either a by-product of the human condition and excused because, as he believes, he ‘never held no malice towards no one, never a speck of hatred. Or if [he] ever felt sort of a teensy twinge of dislike, it hadn’t been the motivatin’ factor in whatever [he’d] done.’ [17] He is blameless in what he assumes is just him putting ‘temptation in front of people’ because ‘it don’t mean they got to pick it up.’[18] Who he is at the end of the novel concurs with his building thesis, and that he is, regardless of his crimes, just doing his job. That he has been doing ‘what [he’s] supposed to do, you know, to punish the heck out of people for bein’ people. To coax ‘em into revealin’ theirselves an’ then kick the crap out of ‘em.’[19] Every action he takes is justified to some end; he takes care in order to appeal to the reader’s sensibilities by making himself into a hero against the corrupt. He brings everyone around him to a lower level than he is and emerges heroic in his efforts to shepherd those in his county. All of this is combined with his genuinely good traits and the automatic sympathy that is evoked by everyone underestimating him. The villain in Pop. 1280 is not Nick Corey, it is everyone, himself included, but as he is the only one who can see this truth he is the only one who, theoretically, has the right to control it. Even further, as he points out, there are ‘downright hideous things in the world’, to the point where ‘something like murder [doesn’t] seem at all bad by comparison.’[20]

Fight Club, however, has a different redemption strategy: it opens with the climax. By doing this Palahniuk casts the role of villain and hero and assures the readers of the protagonist’s final stance. He therefore redeems the narrator of transgressions he had committed before that point. The narrator, before Tyler, can be defined as a man who broke under the pressure of a life he hated and who found meaning in the liberation from societal ideal that induces ‘a spiritual depression’ and the narrator’s insomnia.[21] The anger and violence that occurs in the novel is justified by this society; it is a revolution that, as Burgess theorises, offers a different, dynamic utopia that heralds the body and imperfection over self-improvement. [22] The solace the narrator, Tyler, and every member in fight club find in violence is strictly connected to masculine identity.[23] The violence is a means to fight ‘everything you hate in life’ and, coupled with the consensually of the fights themselves, Palahniuk gives his readers enough disengagement cues to condone the radical behaviour of the narrator and, to an extent, Tyler as well. [24]

In order to understand the narrator’s nature Tyler’s must be analysed as well. Despite the fact that the narrator insists on Tyler being a separate being, they are, inevitably, the same person. The narrator loves ‘everything about Tyler Durden; his courage and his smarts. His nerve, Tyler is funny and forceful and independent and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler is capable and free, and I am not.’ [25] Though the narrator defines himself as the antithesis to Tyler, he is still, technically, Tyler, and therefore faced with the same issue of escalation. While at first ‘it used to be enough that when [he] came home angry and knowing that [his] life wasn’t toeing [his] five-year plan, [he] could clean [his] condominium or detail [his] car.’ [26] When that is no longer enough he escalates to the next fix; first support clubs, then Tyler, then fight club and finally Project Mayhem. A particularly memorable incident was when, as the narrator states that he ‘was in the mood to destroy something beautiful’. [27] The fight that results from this urge is brutal. Project Mayhem, even, was created because ‘You can build up a tolerance to fighting, and maybe [he] needed to move on to something bigger.’ [28] Because Project Mayhem was created in conjunction with the narrator’s sentiments of: ‘I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I’d never have’ and ‘I wanted the whole world to hit bottom’ his redemption had to emerge as total rebellion. [29] That being said, this revolt only occurs after Tyler ‘dumped’ him, even though he had finally reached a stage in the novel where his sentiments closely aligned with Tyler’s. [30] Project Mayhem’s activities are a complete mystery to the narrator, and this has to be because, despite what the narrator says, there is a part of him that abhors the damage, violence, and overall warfare the Project Mayhem inflicts. His ignorance allows Project Mayhem to continue without the negative impact towards his likability.

Tyler is everything that the narrator wants to be, and yet following the revelation of Tyler’s true identity Tyler threatens the narrator by saying ‘if you fuck with me, if you chain yourself to the bed at night or take big doses of sleeping pills, then we’ll be enemies.’ [31] The only reason this warning would be necessary is because the narrator had already decided on this course of action. Everything Tyler knows, after all, is what the narrator knows. This moment marks the turn that brings the narrator on his final path of redemption despite showing monstrous brutality earlier, to the point where Tyler’s words were ‘coming out of [his] mouth’ and the admission that he ‘used to be such a nice person’. [32] He could have continued on this pattern; he could have completely assimilated into Tyler and been everything he wanted to be, but he didn’t. Instead he embraces his own personality, as ‘Tyler Durden is a separate personality [he’s] created, and now [Tyler’s] threatening to take over [his] real life.’ [33] As Project Mayhem’s consequences worsen, so too does the narrator’s call to action. This fight against self is crucial to the narrator’s redemption, as Tyler represents everything he wants to be and enacts every ideology the narrator has. The dilemma, then, boils down to a sense of moral responsibility.

His final means of redemption is to shoot himself and, as it is implied, destroy Tyler and reclaim himself as a complete individual. He is not awarded perfection; Project Mayhem members are still out there, but without their leader their efforts are, presumably, halted for the time being. To the readers the narrator is a hero who fought against the anarchy of Project Mayhem, though admittedly mostly for the sake of Marla Singer. To the members of fight club and Project Mayhem, the narrator is ‘Tyler Durden the Great and Powerful. God and Father.’ [34] The narrator’s sacrifice proves his ability to fight against anarchy he does believe in against a leader he loves, all for the sake of Marla and those Project Mayhem hurt. In contrast, Nick Corey fights with his ideals and is empowered by his belief in being an instrument of God. In each novel the society these protagonist’s live in is considered the enemy; the narrator of Fight Club first fights against it, finding his own personal utopia in fight club and an uncontrollable anarchy in Project Mayhem. Likewise Nick Corey, even with manipulation, continually proves that human nature is ugly and violent in itself. Both of these heroes fight against the society they are in by embracing masculine violence. Their actions are legitimised by their viewpoint of the world, and proven throughout the course of each respective novel. Nick Corey defines himself only at the end of the novel, firmly believing himself to be the saviour and protector of the people of Potts County. The narrator in Fight Club defines himself first in contrast with Tyler, and then again when fighting against Tyler and his true desires. They redeem themselves by either betraying their original ideals or by negating their actions as necessary against something worse. Their natures are both inherently violent and display characteristics from the Dark Triad. In order for both of these characters to be redeemed morally as well as in the graces of their readers their author’s utilize a system of moral disengagement cues that range from dialogue, narration, reasoning, and contrasts in order to justify their actions and desires.

Footnotes

[1] J. A. Cudden, ‘Hero and Heroine’, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Third Edition (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1991) p. 406.

[2] Shadi Neimneh, ‘The Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal’ Mosaic: A journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature, 46.4 (Mosaic, 2013) p. 76.

[3] Daniel M. Shafer and Arthur A. Raney, “Exploring How We Enjoy Antihero Narratives”, Journal of Communication, 26 (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012) pp. 1028-1046.

[4] Ibid., p. 1031.

[5] Ibid,. p. 1038.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 1034.

[8] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (London: Random House, 1996)

[9] Jim Thompson, ‘Pop. 1280’, Black Box Thrillers, (Cambridge: Zomba Books, 1983)

[10] Barry R Schlenker, Michael F Weigold and Kristine A Schlenker ‘What Makes a Hero? The Impact of Integrity on Admiration and Interpersonal Judgment’, Journal of Personality, 76.2 (Blackwell Publishing, 2008) p.335.

[11] Peter K. Jonason, et al. ‘The Antihero In Popular Culture: Life History Theory And The Dark Triad Personality Traits’ Review Of General Psychology 16.2 (2012) <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pdh&AN=2012-14766-011&site=ehost-live> [accessed 1 Apr. 2015].

[12] Thompson, p. 365.

[13] Ibid., p. 402.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 367.

[16] Ibid., p. 471.

[17] Ibid., p. 476.

[18] Ibid., p. 487.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p.482.

[21] Palahniuk, p.149.

[22] Olivia, Burgess, ‘Revolutionary Bodies in Chuck Palhniuk’s Fight Club’, Utopian Studies, 23.1 (Penn State University Press, 2012) p. 263.

[23] Middleton, Peter, ‘Idealised Self Images’, The Inward Gaze – Masculinity & Subjectivity in Modern Culture (London : Routledge, 1992) p. 25

[24] Palahniuk, p. 167.

[25] Ibid., p. 174.

[26] Ibid., p. 49.

[27] Ibid., p. 122.

[28] Ibid., p. 123.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 134.

[31] Ibid., p. 168.

[32] Ibid., p. 98.

[33] Ibid., p. 173.

[34] Ibid., p. 199.

Bibliography

Andersson, Kierstin, ‘Constructing Young Masculinity: A case study of heroic discourse on violence’, Discourse & Society (London: SAGE Publications, 2008), pp. 139-161

Burgess, Olivia, ‘Revolutionary Bodies in Chuck Palhniuk’s Fight Club’, Utopian Studies, 23.1 (Penn State University Press, 2012) pp.263-280

Cudden, J. A., ‘Hero and Heroine’, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Third Edition (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1991) p. 406.

Jonason, Peter K., et al. ‘The Antihero In Popular Culture: Life History Theory And The Dark Triad Personality Traits’ Review Of General Psychology 16.2 (2012) <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pdh&AN=2012-14766-011&site=ehost-live> [accessed 1 Apr. 2015].

Middleton, Peter, ‘Idealised Self Images’, The Inward Gaze – Masculinity & Subjectivity in Modern Culture (London : Routledge, 1992)

Neimneh , Shadi, ‘The Anti-Hero in Modernist Fiction: From Irony to Cultural Renewal’ Mosaic: A journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature, 46.4 (Mosaic, 2013) pp. 75-90

Palahniuk, Chuck, Fight Club (London: Random House, 1996)

Schlenker, Barry R, Michael F Weigold and Kristine A Schlenker ‘What Makes a Hero? The Impact of Integrity on Admiration and Interpersonal Judgment’, Journal of Personality, 76.2 (Blackwell Publishing, 2008) pp. 323-355

Shafer, Daniel M. and Arthur A. Raney, “Exploring How We Enjoy Antihero Narratives”, Journal of Communication, 26 (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012) pp. 1028-1046

Thompson, Jim, ‘Pop. 1280’, Black Box Thrillers, (Cambridge: Zomba Books, 1983)

academic anti-hero debate English


Previous Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cancel Post Comment

keyboard_arrow_up