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Literature of the Victorian epoch was marked by a close intertwining of romance and realism. It also exhibits other features, such as a strong sense of morality, fusion of imagination and emotion, focus on social unrest, and the accessibility of literary works for common people. Within the Victorian period, a great number of outstanding writers and poets were established, such as Mathew Arnold, the Bronte sisters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and others. These authors played an important role in shaping our modern literary taste. One literary figure that had a great influence on the Victorian epoch was the Byronic hero. Lord Byron created the Byronic hero and then later the Bronte sisters gave this type of character a rebirth in their literature. This influence will be explored in two of the Bronte sisters’ works: Wuthering Heights and Jayne Eyre.
Created in the early nineteenth century, the Byronic hero which became possibly the most striking feature of Victorian literature. The main character Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost was Byron’s main fascination. Satan is the true hero of the story, yet he is portrayed as a rebel. Other inspirations of Byron’s Byronic hero were the protagonists of gothic novels as well as Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a highly controversial figure. These inspirations helped assist Byron to develop one of the most eminent literary types of all times. The term Byronic hero is defined by Atara Stein as follows:
The Byronic hero is an outlaw and outsider who defines his own moral code, often defying oppressive institutional authority, and is able to do so because of his superhuman or supernatural powers, his self-sufficiency and independence, and his egotistical sense of his own superiority. He essentially defines and creates himself, like Wordsworth’s “unfathered vapour”, embodying the ultimate development of the individual. He is a loner who often displays a quick temper or a brooding angst, or both, and he lacks the ability to relate to others (8).
Byron had created a unique character that is seen as a protagonist but also at the same time a very unstable character, known as the Byronic hero.
The Byronic hero is usually distinguished by a certain set of qualities or character traits, which separate him from other dominant character types. These traits include isolation from society, rebellious nature, moodiness, arrogance and self-confidence, cynicism, self-destruction, sophistication and intellect, social and sexual dominance, self-criticism, introspection, and magnetic charisma. Through these traits the Byronic hero is established.
The Byronic hero is an outcast, wanderer or recluse who, due to external circumstances or inner struggle, is separated from society. Emily Bronte’s character Heathcliff is a perfect example of an outcast in the beginning of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff shows flawed characteristics which make the reader believe he is a misfit. He does not speak, he growls; and he does not smile, he grins. Heathcliff is an orphan, who has been cast out from his prior family. When Mr. Earnshaw takes Heathcliff in, his status is deemed less of an outcast, but then Mr. Earnshaw dies and his son Hindley treats Heathcliff like a servant. Hindley banishes Heathcliff to the servant’s quarters. “He drove him from their company to the servants, deprived him of the instructions of the curate, and insisted that he should labour out of doors instead, compelling him to do so as hard as any other lad on the farm” (E. Bronte 49). This passage supports the thought that Heathcliff is an outcast from normal life. This leaves Heathcliff to become a wanderer; he searches for time with Catherine, but due to external forces such as Hindley, he has a hard time not being an outcast. The Byronic hero is usually tormented by his past. However, Heathcliff’s past transgressions can be redeemed by his love for Catherine, who can bring out the best in him. This combination of positive and negative traits produces an effect desired by readers as they then can recognize themselves in the Byronic hero, yet view him as an ideal. Heathcliff is outcast from Catherine due to external traits helping him posses characteristics to be a Byronic hero.
Lord George Gordon Byron was endowed with the qualities of an unpredictable and controversial persona, thus leading people to wonder if the Byronic hero was modeled after him. Critics concur that Byron had a passionate manner and thirst for adventure. He was also a wanderer and pleasure seeker, traveling to Switzerland, Italy, Constantinople and Greece, looking for relief in new places. Lord Byron was involved in an affair with his half-sister Augusta and was known to be a notorious womanizer. However, some researchers write, “during at least three periods of his life, homosexual interests predominated over his numerous heterosexual involvements”(Crompton). All of Byron’s relationships must have given him a sense of guilt that found its outlet in his famous works because “Byron wrote a significant number of poems in this genre based on his feelings for younger boys at Harrow school”(Crompton). Although Byron was always surrounded by people, he was seen as a lonely man who brooded over his past and indulged in self-criticism, and he behaved in a reckless manner which got him in all sorts of trouble. Some of his friends abandoned him, as public opinion was more important for them than friendship with an imprudent writer. Broken ties with people whom he had known for years resulted in the feeling of alienation, which Byron shared with his heroes. But Byron always had to take into consideration the public’s taste and make the hero appealing to his admirers; this is why the Byronic hero changed over time. But Byron still pushed the limits with the public’s acceptance of villainous, unsympathetic, and selfish characters. Although not identical, Byron and the Byronic hero display many similarities; the line between the creator and creation is very thin.
Atara Stein maintains that the most appealing quality of the Byronic hero is “the defiance of institutional authority” (10). This quality can be respected by most individuals because rebels are always viewed as powerful people whether they are respected or not. In the case of a Byronic hero, he is always viewed as a powerful being although at the same time he is sometimes respected and sometimes frowned upon. However, for the Byronic hero his internal morals are more important than the external morals imposed by society. Having a tough exterior keeps the Byronic hero viewed differently by society while his internal code is not often seen by others, only by himself. Stein observes one significant distinction between the Byronic hero of the nineteenth century and his late twentieth century counterpart, stating that “the contemporary Byronic hero is much more likely to take on a successful leadership role in the battle against oppression” (10). Stein also quotes various researchers to back up her claim that Byron wished to please the audience, especially female readers, providing them with “a fantasy image of desire” (11). She emphasizes two possible levels of reading Byron. On the first level, we experience the inner turmoil of the main character, putting ourselves in his shoes and seeing the world through his eyes. On the second level, we distance from the characters, viewing them with implied irony. Heathcliff can be seen as an example of these two possible levels. With reference to Stein’s first level, Healthcliff can be viewed as an independent character that we can relate to at times because he does go through turmoil. The readers can put themselves in his shoes. Although Healthcliff can be seen as a humble man he does dictate ruthlessness. According to Stein’s second level the readers distance themselves from Heathcliff because his internal dilemmas turn into external problems which help readers realize he may deserve what he is getting. Although Heathcliff is a rebel, we view him differently than he views himself-more through his external attributes than through his actual internal traits, which only the rebel himself knows. Stein believes the quality of a rebel is an appealing quality of the Byronic hero.
The Bronte sisters admired Byron’s personality and his characters and felt compelled to respond to him in their works, which are considered to be literary masterpieces. For example Lord Byron in The Bride of Abydos and in Manfred “explored not so much as morbid perversion, but rather as a narcissistic attraction between a male character and his female alter ego” (Ceron). The Bronte sisters’ “reading of Byron (The Bride of Abydos) privileges this dark side of the literary myth, and their main focus is on the mysterious identity and gothic aspects of the Byronic hero” (Ceron). Although Romanticism was a dominant literary movement during the Victorian period, at the time the Bronte sisters were writing it was dying out. The Bronte sisters not only revived Romanticism, but also refreshed it with the Byronic hero. Charlotte was fascinated with the dark side of the Byronic hero. This fascination inspired her to develop the complex character of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre (1847).
As a manifestation of the Byronic hero, Rochester’s life is under a veil of mystery, and his secret past and ambiguous present add suspense to the story Wuthering Heights. Rochester is depicted as a relentless man who cannot settle down at Thornfield and is constantly on the move. He is always in the sulks and finds difficulty in communicating with the outside world. Even though Edward Rochester does not have a particularly handsome appearance and lacks courteousness, he wins Jane’s heart:
My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm grim mouth, – all energy, decision, will, – were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me, – they took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his (C. Bronte 331).
Rochester was not withstanding his higher financial and social status in comparison with Jane’s, for all women were seen as inferior and subordinate to men in the Victorian epoch. However, on the intellectual level Edward and Jane were equals. This is especially vivid in the scene where Jane hears Rochester’s voice at an enormous distance and runs to save him from misery. The reciprocal telepathy between them reiterates the gothic cliché of superhuman capacities of two superior minds. However, Rochester deserves moral blame, for he conceals his marriage to Bertha Mason and is thus morally inferior to Jane. Charlotte Bronte’s character Rochester possesses many characteristics of the Byronic hero; not only is he a protagonist, but he is flawed.
In fact, it is Rochester’s troubled past that shapes his ambiguous and imperfect present. He recounts his misfortune of being tricked into marrying a mad woman whom he did not even love. Later, he learns of the web of lies weaved by the bride’s family and his own, but he is tied by a tight nuptial knot. “The honeymoon was over, I learned my mistake; she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum. [â€¦]. My father and my brother Rowland knew all this; but they thought only of the thirty thousand pounds, and joined in the plot against me” (C. Bronte 583-584). As a result, Rochester develops a sense of distrust and avoids human contact, earning himself a reputation as a social outcast, which again is a trait of Byronic heroes. His whole life is cloaked in mystery that is revealed to the reader in the course of the narration. He could marry a well-to-do and beautiful lady like Blanche Ingram, but prefers poor and plain Jane because of her intelligence. He has confessed that he became a wanderer and abandoned his wife because he intended to find “a good and intelligent woman” (C. Bronte 592). Like a true Byronic hero, he hits the road and faces hardships. He is far from being perfect, and his imperfections make him an appealing character. Through the depiction of good and bad qualities, Charlotte Bronte reveals the dynamics of her hero, who can be different depending on the circumstances. At the beginning of the novel, Rochester is presented as a harsh, hard-to-deal-with and terse man. However, as the story unfolds, we observe a passionate and affectionate side of Rochester. He completely disregards his social rank and, contrary to social expectation, falls in love with Jane. In chapter 23 Rochester says, “You-poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are-I entreat to accept me as a husband”(C. Bronte 485), which shows lack of caring for rank which is another trait of a Byronic hero. On the one hand he loves Jane, and on the other he is bound by conjugal ties to Bertha Mason. The constant internal contradictions are another common trait of the Byronic hero. However, Rochester has some qualities that are not inherent in the Byronic hero: He does not lack courage when it comes to saving the lives of others, and he is willing to sacrifice himself.
In Rochester, Charlotte Bronte intended to portray a conventional man who has several flaws that make him down-to-earth and appealing to a female audience. “Charlotte’s reading of the Byronic hero is much more framed within the conventions of the realistic novel” (Ceron). This is why he can be viewed as more down-to-earth. In my opinion, Rochester is a border case between a traditional and Byronic hero, for he shares qualities of both. At the end of the novel, the good in him wins, which is celebrated in the happy ending. In Charlotte’s unique interpretation of the Byronic hero, she wanted to emphasize the possibility of taming him into a loving and faithful husband with the help of an attentive and every bit as caring a woman as Jane, thus portraying Rochester as severely flawed but at the same time very humanistic.
Emily Bronte’s interpretation of the Byronic hero differs substantially from Charlotte’s. “An anti-hero, like Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, surrenders his life to life-destroying values” (Rick). He is sinister and violent, demonic, cold and aloof, handsome and passionate. All these traits have established him as “a romantic hero, and therefore, an individualist” (Rick), and he is the kind of hero always admired by women – brooding, obsessed, and extremely mysterious. Isabella considers Heathcliff to be a hero, but he soon shatters her illusions, accusing her of “picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character and acting on the false impressions she cherished” (E. Bronte 241). Isabella seems to be oblivious to the harsh reality. Heathcliff openly states that he will abuse her, but she succumbs to her own delusions. She hopes that her love will evoke deep and warm affection that is always attributed to the Byronic hero. Despite his fiendish nature and violence, Heathcliff is still viewed as a romantic hero, which accounts for his passionate love for Catherine.
At the beginning of the novel, Heathcliff is called “gipsy”, “wicked boy”, and “imp of Satan”, which are hints about his unruly character and rebellious behavior. Mr. Earnshaw says about the boy, “It’s as dark almost as if it came from the devil” (E. Bronte 57). The society of the Victorian period was racially prejudiced, and the boy felt their hostile and sometimes contemptuous treatment. The Byronic hero is a rebel. Heathcliff is against class distinctions, and this opposition had a major influence on his life and relationships with Catherine. In Victorian England, people were fascinated with gypsies, whose traveling lifestyle and sinister appearance put fear in people’s hearts. But despite Mr. Earnshaw’s remark, Heathcliff’s descent is not traced and his physical beauty is undeniable.
He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom my master seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though stern for grace (E. Bronte 151-152).
Heathcliff struggles for dominance and control over the Wuthering Heights and Grange, but his financial and social status as well as ethnic background put obstacles in the way of possessing things he wishes. Heathcliff is shown as a beast at times, committing violent acts and uttering threats. However, his emotional complexity goes beyond reactions and motivations that underlie his deeds. He resorts to violence as a means to express the depth of his love and hate. Catherine is the only person with whom he can be good and caring, but he treats others as nastily as possible, evoking feelings of fear and hatred.
Heathcliff’s love for Catherine is more like obsession or addiction, and he is tormented by his feelings that are unfulfilled in actual relationships with her. He fits the description provided by Deborah Lutz: “The definition of the Byronic hero is the tormented melancholy failure who nears success and then fails and experiences the eternal loss, the repetition of the impossibility of bliss” (52). His insatiable passion consumes him, and he rejoices at the prospect of being reunited with her in death. Through his unswerving devotion to the beloved woman, Heathcliff can be redeemed.
His pain is self-destructive and palpable, commanding sympathy on the part of the readers. As the story progresses to the end, Heathcliff gradually descends into madness. “He muttered detached words also; the only one I could catch was the name of Catherine, coupled with some wild term of endearment or suffering; and spoken as one would speak to a person present; low and earnest, and wrung from the depth of his soul” (E. Bronte 530-531). Heathcliff remains aloof till the very end of his life, which is the very nature of the Byronic hero.
It is impossible not to notice striking similarities between Charlotte Bronte’s Rochester and Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. Both protagonists share the qualities usually attributed to the Byronic hero, such as moodiness, higher emotional and intellectual capacities, and a lack of heroic virtues. However, it would be erroneous to claim that they fully fit the Byronic hero paradigm. Their characters, attitudes to others, and past experiences constitute a major distinction between the two protagonists and define the degree of deviation from a typical Byronic hero. Heathcliff shares more traits with the Byronic hero than Rochester. The latter is portrayed as a romantic hero with an insinuation of wickedness. It should be mentioned that during the Victorian period men exercised power over the fairer sex and the Bronte sisters expressed their doubts as to the masculine superiority and dominance, skillfully developing male characters with self-destructive qualities. However, one of the common themes that appealed to the Victorian audience was overcoming limitations of the social situation. In Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, the protagonists leave their homes and return wealthy and respected gentlemen. The Bronte sisters proposed Heathcliff and Rochester to be very similar to each other, both possessing traits of the Byronic hero.
Despite some similarities, the characters differ in many ways. First of all, Rochester and Heathcliff differ in physical appearance, as the former is viewed as unattractive, and the latter could hardly be called handsome by the Victorian standards of beauty. Still they are regarded to be sexually appealing and manipulative, well aware of their charismatic personalities and popularity with women. The men have different ethnic backgrounds, and for Heathcliff the color of his skin is one of the main problems why he cannot marry Catherine and acquire wealth. Secondly, the characters differ in the way they treat others. Rochester is cold and terse, but he never abuses people he lives with. Heathcliff, on the contrary, can resort to violence, harming others and displaying no mercy to the near and dear. Thirdly, love for good women has a polar effect on the protagonists. For Rochester, Jane’s love is like a remedy for his tormented soul; it is able to heal his past wounds and make him a virtuous man. For Heathcliff, Catherine’s affection is a poison that ruins his mind and body, causing his death. Although very similar in some characteristics, Heathcliff and Rochester differ in others.
The Bronte sisters displayed somewhat different views of the Byronic hero. Emily Bronte’s primary emphasis is on the “dark side of the literary myth, and her main focus is on the mysterious identity and Gothic aspects of the Byronic hero” (Ceron). Emily’s Wuthering Heights demonstrates the full adoption of the Byronic hero, egoistic by nature and thus untamable. Charlotte explores the seductive and redemptive sides of her character, believing in his transformation. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre presents an interpretation of the Byronic hero that becomes acceptable due to redemption. The Byronic hero, being diverse, gives the Bronte sisters options to focus on different aspects of his character.
Byron provided modern literature with a type of character that evolved through time and “pervaded our collective unconsciousness and captured our imaginations” (Stein 9). The evolution of this character helped shape the Bronte sisters’ writing, creating an influential style, as seen in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The Byronic hero is a unique phenomenon in literature that is “larger than life”. He first appeared in Byron’s works and changed in the course of time in order to conform to the public tastes. The image of the Byronic hero, although endowed with a number of dark qualities, has never lost its popularity. It is usually ascribed such traits as rebelliousness against rules, laws, and conventions prevailing in society, isolation, moodiness, passionate nature, arrogance, charisma and pangs of remorse. All these traits can be found in male characters developed by the Bronte sisters. Emily and Charlotte were influenced by Byron’s life and death, and started their writing careers under his shadow. Byron’s works, as well as his reputation, were evaluated and revised in Victorian times. The Bronte sisters showed a considerable influence of Byronism on their writings. They demonstrated that the characteristics of the Byronic hero could be in line with the gothic and sentimental. Emily demonstrates full-scale adoption of the Byronic character, while Charlotte is somewhere between admiring and loathing it. Heathcliff and Rochester are widely recognized as classic examples of the Byronic hero-a type of character that still stirs the imagination and feelings of readers.
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