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The Problem of Hero and Villain in Literature Essay

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Updated: Nov 30th, 2021

Any story, be it a comedy, a horror movie, or a love story, has a hero who is loved by most of other characters and who attracts the attention of all the readers or viewers. A hero seems to control everything in the movie or the book; he/she easily copes with all the troubles and, as it always happens in all the stories, encounters the biggest trouble at the end. He/she successfully deals with it and receives his portion of praise, as a rule, in the form of a beloved person who seemed never to turn attention to him/her before. Love story is present even in the most bloodthirsty actions for there always has to be something that helps the hero overcome all the obstacles. It is not always that the heroes of the stories are completely positive. How come that the villains can also be attractive for the readers and viewers? There exists a number of examples of the characters who are far from being positive; despite this, however, they are loved by the readers who worry about them when they are in trouble and who wish them to achieve what they are striving to, even though this achievement may be completely non-beneficial for those who surround this anti-hero. As shown by the examples of Prometheus from Prometheus Bound, James Stark from Rebel without a Cause, and Barry from Barry Lyndon, being a hero and a villain is possible for one and the same person; however, there is always a reason why the readers and viewers like the characters who are heroes and villains simultaneously, and, in most of the cases, this reason is compassion.

One of the brightest examples of a character combining the features of a hero and a villain is Prometheus from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bond. Prometheus is an exemplary hero and villain for, unlike those characters who appeal to their readers and viewers due to their natural gift of getting into trouble, Prometheus was driven by much more important goals than personal benefit. By stealing the fire which the Gods have taken away from people, Prometheus knew that he was taking risks, that he would be punished for this, because there was hardly anything that the Gods could not see and leave unpunished. Prometheus showed all his courage when agreeing that he deserved punishment: “And yet – and yet – exactly I foresee / All that shall come to pass; no sharp surprise / Of pain shall overtake; what’s determined / Bear, as I can, I must, knowing the might / Of strong Necessity is unconquerable” (Aeschylus 6). His helping people despite being aware about the punishment makes him a hero; his being courageous enough to face his punishment adds him heroic values and makes him even more appealing for the reader. At the same time, though, Prometheus is a villain. He is a rebel who dared to contradict to the will of Gods, who thought he was smarter and more just as any of them, and who stole the fire from Zeus and then gave it to the mortals, thus, turning into a hero for them. The question is whether after this Prometheus is a hero or a villain. Of course, for people who received fire they were deprived of, he will always remain a hero, whereas for the Gods, and for Zeus in particular, he is a villain who dared to disobey them. In this way, Prometheus Bond presents a character who is a hero and a villain at the same time for he combines the features of a fighter for justice and a rebel.

No less exemplary of a hero and a villain is James Stark from Rebel without a Cause. Even the name of the novel suggests that not everything is right with the protagonist of the story. And, as seen from the beginning of the novel, James Stark is indeed a rebel who disobeys his parents and gets into trouble at school. James is 17 and he is a typical rebellious teenager who cannot stand bullying at school and who at once conflicts with those students who practice bullying. This, to some extent, can be regarded as a positive feature of this character. James has all the characteristics for being considered a perfect hero: he likes justice and, consequently, dislikes those who are unjust (such as Buzz Gunderson and his gang), he is bold enough to display his contempt with regards to them, and he is searching for the meaning of life trying to deal with the generation gap between him and his parents. The latter makes him even more appealing for those viewers who experience the same problems. All these features make James a hero, the one which the youth may wish to imitate. On the other hand, James is a villain and a trouble-maker. The film opens with him being delivered to the police station for walking the streets drunk. At the police station he meets a youngster, Plato, another villain, who has been taken for shooting the puppies. These two become best friends and one day initiate a shooting at the street. The villains are forced to hide from the police and, eventually, one of them, Plato, gets shot by the police officers when trying to escape. This shows that, apart from possessing certain heroic values, such as desire to oppose injustice, James was also a villain and a trouble-maker who, despite this, appealed to the viewers.

Apart from combining the features of a hero and a villain, the characters may develop them in the course of the story, as it was the case with Barry from Barry Lyndon. At the beginning, Barry is depicted as a heroic youngster who challenges John Quin to a duel for taking away his love, Nora Brady, who decides to marry John to relieve financial difficulties of her family. This is the first time when Barry exhibits his heroic values. Later, he joins the British Army and with time he fights in the Seven Years’ War, and, when enlisting in the second army, saves a life of a Prussian captain, Potzdorf, which is also worth the praise. All his wanderings in the search of his place in this world show how much he wanted to be a good person, to find himself, and to lead a normal life. His being brave enough to take part in the war and his saving a life even though of only one person make him a hero. However, at the same time, Barry exhibits the qualities of a villain. For instance, when fighting in the Seven years’ War, he deserts as soon as he gets an opportunity. When the war is over, Barry becomes a gambler who, together with his friends, cheats the nobles; this is where Barry’s heroic characteristics stop existing and he starts gradually turning into a villain. Soon he decides to better himself and to get married, but his villain qualities do not allow him doing this. He seduces a wealthy woman; her husband dies shortly and Barry marries this woman for money. The second part of the film presents Barry as a complete villain; he turns into a cruel and hard-hearted person who conflicts with his stepson, as well as hates his own son; eventually, Barry is left alone and is forced to return to gambling. Therefore, Barry’s character proves that it is possible to be a hero and a villain at the same time; which one a person becomes depends on how the life treats this person.

And finally, there is a reason why the readers and viewers tend to like the characters which possess the qualities of not only heroes, but villains as well. One of the most evident reasons is compassion for these characters because, as a rule, each of them had an unhappy experience in the past. All of the characters discussed above, except Prometheus, perhaps, have gone through a number of difficulties prior to their appearing before the readers or viewers in the role of the heroes. At first glance, James Stark’s being a villain roots in his problems with parents and in the lack of understanding between two different generations. If the movie is considered in more detail, it becomes clear that James’ father does not possess the qualities to bring up a son because he is too spineless. This being the reason, James becomes a villain; this is his response to the outside environment. As far as the character of Barry is concerned, it is evident that his lack of success in his life turned him into a villain. First, he was betrayed by a beloved person who rejected him because of a richer admirer; then he was robbed by a highwayman and, thus, forced to join the army; lastly, when trying to change his life for better, he meets rejection on the part of his wife’s son and has to constantly conflict with him. Therefore, personal problems in the lives of heroes often turn them into villains, as in case with James and Barry; compassion which the readers and the viewers feel to such characters does not allow them condemning these characters for being villains. This is why the audience treats the characters who are both the heroes and the villains with understanding.

Drawing a conclusion, it can be stated that the choice of the favorite character always rests with the readers or viewers. The hero characters are not always perfect; as it has been shown, they can possess characteristics of villains which they easily combine with the heroic ones. The examples of Prometheus, James Star, and Barry prove that it is possible for a hero and a villain to be the same person. Some of them had a mixture of these qualities at once, while the others developed them throughout their stories. Despite being villains, not only heroes, these characters still appeal to the audience mostly because their negative features emerged because of their unhappy past experiences, which causes compassion in the audience.

Work Cited

Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004

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