The antihero[1] or antiheroine[2] is a leading character in a film, book or play who lacks the traditional heroic qualities[3][4] such as idealism,[5] courage,[5] nobility,[6] fortitude,[7] moral goodness,[8] and altruism.

Whereas the classical hero is larger than life, antiheroes are typically inferior to the reader in intelligence, dynamism or social purpose,[9] giving rise to what Robbe-Grillet called “these heroes without naturalness as without identity”.[10]

The term is also sometimes used more broadly to cover Byronic heroes as well.[11]



The antiheroic type can be traced back at least as far as Homer's Thersites;[12] and has also been identified in classical Greek drama, as well as in Roman satire and Renaissance literature,[13] as with Don Quixote[14] or the picaresque rogue.[15]

Such figures mainly served as foils to the hero, or the heroic genre, and it was only gradually that the concept of an antihero came to the fore in its own right, (a process that Northrop Frye called the fictional "center of gravity", slowly descending from feudal aristocrat to urban democrat), and literature shifted accordingly from the epic to the ironic.[9]

The term antihero is first dated to 1714;[16] and the later eighteenth century saw an example of the type in Rameau's Nephew,[17] though here the protagonist still remained placed in dialogue with a normative representative of the authorial position.

Nineteenth century Romanticism, with its social critique, saw the antihero becoming still more prominent, often in the form of the Gothic double, until the main character of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground brought the figure into full and independent flower.[18]


Building on Dostoevsky, the first half of the twentieth century saw the heyday of the antihero, first in figures like Kafka's K, and then in the writings of the French existentialists,[19] as in Camus's L'Étranger (1942) or Sartre's La Nausée (1938) with their rootless, indecisive central characters drifting through their own lives.[20]

A decade or so later, the antihero entered American literature, to dominate till the mid-Sixties as a lonely alienated figure, unable to communicate[21] - if typically more pro-active than his French counterpart - within the works of Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer and many more.[22] The British equivalent appeared in the works of the so-called Angry young men of the fifties.[23]

The collective protests of Sixties counterculture saw the solitary antihero gradually eclipsed from fictional prominence,[24] though not without subsequent revivals in literary or cinematic form.[25]

Sporting antiheroes

The sporting antihero is typically not a team player; challenges officialdom; sets financial gain over club loyalty; yet still acquires a large fan following,[26] by way of his or her actualisation of the rebel archetype.[27]


  1. "Antihero - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  2. "Antiheroine - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  3. "anti-hero: definition of anti-hero in Oxford dictionary (British & World English)". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  4. Gioia, Dana (editor). "Definition of antihero | Collins American English Dictionary". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 "American Heritage Dictionary Entry: antihero". 2013-01-09. Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  6. "Antihero | Define Antihero at". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  7. "Gale - Free Resources - Glossary - Home". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  8. "anti-hero - definition of anti-hero by Macmillan Dictionary". Retrieved 2013-10-04. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1971) p. 34
  10. Quoted in E. D. Ermath, Sequel to History (1992) p. 71
  11. "Literary Terms and Definitions B". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  12. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 197
  13. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 197-8
  14. "Literary Terms and Definitions A". Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  15. M. Halliwell, American Culture on the 1950s (2007) p. 60
  16. "Antihero - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2014-02-21. 
  17. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 199-200
  18. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1967) p. 201-7
  19. J. E. Barnhart ed., Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Talent (2005) p. 181
  20. G. Brereton, A Short History of French Literature (1954) p. 254-5
  21. M/ Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2000) p. 294-5
  22. A. Edelson, Everybody is Sitting on the Curb (1996) p. 18
  23. I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 27
  24. A. Edelson, Everybody is Sitting on the Curb (1996) p. 1
  25. M/ Hardt/K. Weeks eds., The Jameson Reader (2000) p. 295
  26. T. Delaney/T. Madigan, The Sociology of Sports (2009) p. 72 and p. 284
  27. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1994) p. 202-3

Further reading

  • Simmons, David (2008). The Anti-Hero in the American Novel: From Heller to Vonnegut. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-60323-8. 

External links

Antihero (literature) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Character Analysis

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