Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the difference between a Romantic hero and a Byronic hero?

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The Byronic hero is a literary figure who has many similarities with the actual figure of Lord Byron himself, who, in a famous quote, was described as being "mad, bad and dangerous to know." A Byronic hero is therefore a brooding man who is at odds with the rest of the world. He is often darkly handsome (or not) and has a secret hidden past that has resulted in part in his decision to separate himself from the present. He has normally travelled the world and become world-weary as a result, finding little satisfaction in life. Women find this kind of figure unbelievably alluring, and in characters such as Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively we see excellent examples of two Byronic heroes. Note how Bronte introduces Mr. Rochester when her heroine first meets him, for example:

He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth; but had not reached middle age; perhaps he might be thirty-five.

Byronic heroes are therefore characters capable of both good and bad deeds, and are shrouded in mystery.

In one sense, the Romantic hero shares many of the elements of a Byronic hero. Byron was a poet in the Romantic literary movement, and a Romantic hero as a concept developed in part thanks to his writing. The one difference perhaps is the element of danger that is present in a Byronic hero. In Heathcliff, for example, there is a real sense in which his antipathy towards man leads him to commit crimes that are truly evil and horrendous, wheras a Romantic hero is less dark and more of a hopeful figure, being seen as the triumph of the individual over societal constraints.

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