The anti-hero has been popular in literature for centuries. Characters we love to hate and those characters who are good at heart but turn villain due to circumstances or environment continue to capture our imaginations. Although these characters can be found in every genre, Gothic literature offers a particularly appealing assortment of both male and female anti-heroes.
The dark, melodramatic and often suspenseful atmosphere of Gothic novels is the perfect setting for the exploits of villains, cads and scoundrels. Since these novels are usually romantic, the character is frequently likable and sympathetic to some degree, making for a multidimensional anti-hero.
One of the most popular Gothic novels of all-time, the beloved Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, features Edward Rochester, who appears to be a mild anti-hero early on because of his brutish manner and surly disposition but as the story unfolds, Rochester is driven to immoral and shockingly deceptive behavior. However, when the reader discovers how tortured the character is, as a result of burdens beyond his control, it is easy to sympathize with him and understand his actions. Creating sympathy for an anti-hero is a very effective way to endear the reader to him.
In Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck, there is a male and female anti-hero, each representing a different level of villainy. The clear villain of the story is Nicholas Van Ryn, who is an impressive and romantic figure at the beginning of the book but gradually reveals himself to be truly evil. His second wife, the young and impressionable Miranda, is unwittingly drawn into his world. Although she is, for the most part, a victim herself, and a paragon of virtue compared to Nicholas, Miranda’s ambition and desires often lead her to turn a blind eye to Nicholas’ treachery and to how she is being used to further his schemes.
The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux’s celebrated and much adapted novel about Erik, a disfigured villain secretly living below the Paris Opera House who will go to any lengths to get the woman he loves, is one of the most complex of the Gothic novels featuring anti-heroes. The reader is inspired to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Erik, due to his miserable life and deep need for love. But some of Erik’s deeds are so monstrous that it becomes obvious there are two very different sides to the character: the tender and vulnerable Romeo on one hand and coldblooded murderer on the other. Dividing the character in two, allows the reader to like one side of him while being repulsed by the other side.
It is almost impossible to talk about anti-heroes of Gothic fiction without mentioning Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Although the very conflicted heroine, Cathy, is far from the killers or unscrupulous criminals featured in many such books, her greed and arrogance destroys Heathcliff’s life and her own. The fact that she suffers so greatly and meets with a tragic end makes her naturally sympathetic to readers. The price she pays for her actions utilizes another highly effective technique for dealing with anti-heroes: punishment and repentance.
Anti-heroes can be found in many other well-known Gothic novels; namely, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, and more. Check one out today!