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Revisionist Western films commonly feature antiheroes as lead characters whose actions are morally ambiguous. Clint Eastwood, pictured here in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), portrayed the archetypal antihero called the "Man with No Name" in the Spaghetti Western Dollars Trilogy.
Revisionist Western films commonly feature antiheroes as lead characters whose actions are morally ambiguous. Clint Eastwood, pictured here in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), portrayed the archetypal antihero called the "Man with No Name" in the Spaghetti Western Dollars Trilogy.

An antihero or antiheroine is a main character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage and morality.[1][2][3][4][5] Although antiheroes may sometimes perform actions that are morally correct, it is not always for the right reasons, often acting primarily out of self-interest or in ways that defy conventional ethical codes.[6]

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Literary critic Northrop Frye once observed that in our primitive days, our literary heroes were -- well, nearly gods, and as civilization advanced, they came down the mountain of the gods, so to speak, and became more human, more flawed, less heroic. From the divine heroes like Hercules, down the mountain below the miraculous but mortal heroes such as Beowulf, the great leaders such as King Arthur, and the great but flawed heroes like Macbeth or Othello. Below even the unlikely but eventual heroes such as Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or Hiccup, until we reach the bottom and meet the anti-hero. Contrary to the sound, the anti-hero is not the villain, not the antagonist. The anti-hero is actually the main character in some contemporary works of literature. Guy Montag in "Fahrenheit 451," Winston Smith in "1984," who unwittingly ends up challenging those in power -- that is, those who abuse their power to brainwash the populace to believe that the ills of society have been eliminated. Ideally, those who challenge the establishment should be wise, confident, brave, physically strong, with a type of charisma that inpires followers. The anti-hero, however, at best demonstrates a few underdeveloped traits, at worst, is totally inept. The story of the anti-hero usually unfolds something like this. The anti-hero initially conforms, ignorantly accepting the established views, a typical, unquestioning, brainwashed member of society. The anti-hero struggles to conform, all the while starting to object, perhaps finding other outsiders with whom to voice his questions, and naïvely, unwisely, sharing those questions with an authority figure. The anti-hero openly challenges society, and tries to fight against the lies and tactics used to oppress the populace. This step, for the anti-hero, is seldom a matter of brave, wise and heroic opposition. Maybe the anti-hero fights and succeeds in destroying the oppressive government, with a lot of impossible luck. Perhaps he or she runs away, escapes to fight another day. All too often though, the anti-hero is killed, or brainwashed to return to conformity with the masses. No heroic triumph here, no brave individual standing up against impersonal institutions of a modern world, inspiring others to fight, or resourcefully outwitting and outgunning the massive army of the evil empire. Our storytelling ancestors calmed our fears of powerlessness by giving us Hercules and other heroes strong enough to fight off the demons and monsters that we suspected haunted the night beyond our campfires. But eventually, we realized the monsters did not lie out there, they reside inside of us. Beowulf's greatest enemy was mortality. Othello's, jealousy. Hiccup, self-doubt. And in the tales of the ineffectual anti-hero, in the stories of Guy Montag and Winston Smith, lie the warnings of contemporary storytellers playing on very primitive fears: that we are not strong enough to defeat the monsters. Only this time, not the monsters chased away by the campfire, but the very monsters who built the campfire in the first place.



U.S. writer Jack Kerouac and other figures of the "Beat Generation" created reflective, critical protagonists who influenced the antiheroes of many later works.
U.S. writer Jack Kerouac and other figures of the "Beat Generation" created reflective, critical protagonists who influenced the antiheroes of many later works.

An early antihero is Homer's Thersites.[7]:197–198 The concept has also been identified in classical Greek drama,[8] Roman satire, and Renaissance literature[7]:197–198 such as Don Quixote[8][9] and the picaresque rogue.[10]

The term antihero was first used as early as 1714,[5] emerging in works such as Rameau's Nephew in the 18th century,[7]:199–200 and is also used more broadly to cover Byronic heroes as well.[11]

Literary Romanticism in the 19th century helped popularize new forms of the antihero,[12][13] such as the Gothic double.[14] The antihero eventually became an established form of social criticism, a phenomenon often associated with the unnamed protagonist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.[7]:201–207 The antihero emerged as a foil to the traditional hero archetype, a process that Northrop Frye called the fictional "center of gravity".[15] This movement indicated a literary change in heroic ethos from feudal aristocrat to urban democrat, as was the shift from epic to ironic narratives.[15]

Huckleberry Finn (1884) has been called "the first antihero in the American nursery".[16]

The antihero became prominent in early 20th century existentialist works such as Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915),[17] Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée (1938) (French for Nausea),[18] and Albert Camus' L'Étranger (1942) (French for The Stranger).[19] The protagonist in these works is an indecisive central character who drifts through his life and is marked by ennui, angst, and alienation.[20][ISBN missing]

The antihero entered American literature in the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s was portrayed as an alienated figure, unable to communicate.[21]:294–295 The American antihero of the 1950s and 1960s (as seen in the works of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, et al.) was typically more proactive than his French counterpart, with characters such as Kerouac's Dean Moriarty famously taking to the road to vanquish his ennui.[22]:18 The British version of the antihero emerged in the works of the "angry young men" of the 1950s.[8][23] The collective protests of Sixties counterculture saw the solitary antihero gradually eclipsed from fictional prominence,[22]:1 though not without subsequent revivals in literary and cinematic form.[21]:295

The antihero also plays a prominent role in films noir such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Night and the City (1950),[24] in gangster films such as The Godfather (1972),[25] and in Western films, especially the Revisionist Western and Spaghetti Western.[citation needed] Lead figures in these westerns are often morally ambiguous,[citation needed] such as the "Man with No Name", portrayed by Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "antihero". American Heritage Dictionary. 9 January 2013. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  2. ^ "anti-hero". Macmillan Dictionary. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  3. ^ "Antiheroine". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 31 August 2012. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  4. ^ "anti-hero". Lexico Dictionaries. Retrieved 20 June 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Antihero". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 31 August 2012. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  6. ^ Laham, Nicholas (2009). Currents of Comedy on the American Screen: How Film and Television Deliver Different Laughs for Changing Times. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. p. 51. ISBN 9780786442645.
  7. ^ a b c d Steiner, George (2013). Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism. New York: Open Road. ISBN 9781480411913.
  8. ^ a b c "antihero". Encyclopædia Britannica. 14 February 2013. Retrieved 9 August 2014.
  9. ^ Wheeler, L. Lip. "Literary Terms and Definitions A". Dr. Wheeler's Website. Carson-Newman University. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  10. ^ Halliwell, Martin (2007). American Culture in the 1950s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 60. ISBN 9780748618859.
  11. ^ Wheeler, L. Lip. "Literary Terms and Definitions B". Dr. Wheeler's Website. Carson-Newman University. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
  12. ^ Alsen, Eberhard (2014). The New Romanticism: A Collection of Critical Essays. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. p. 72. ISBN 9781317776000. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  13. ^ Simmons, David (2008). The Anti-Hero in the American Novel: From Joseph Heller to Kurt Vonnegut (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 5. ISBN 9780230612525. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  14. ^ Lutz, Deborah (2006). The Dangerous Lover: Gothic Villains, Byronism, and the Nineteenth-century Seduction Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. p. 82. ISBN 9780814210345. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  15. ^ a b Frye, Northrop (2002). Anatomy of Criticism. London: Penguin. p. 34. ISBN 9780141187099.
  16. ^ Hearn, Michael Patrick (2001). The Annotated Huckleberry Finn: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1st ed.). New York: Norton. p. xvci. ISBN 0393020398.
  17. ^ Barnhart, Joe E. (2005). Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Talent. Lanham: University Press of America. p. 151. ISBN 9780761830979.
  18. ^ Asong, Linus T. (2012). Psychological Constructs and the Craft of African Fiction of Yesteryears: Six Studies. Mankon: Langaa Research & Publishing CIG. p. 76. ISBN 9789956727667.
  19. ^ Gargett, Graham (2004). Heroism and Passion in Literature: Studies in Honour of Moya Longstaffe. Amsterdam: Rodopi. p. 198. ISBN 9789042016927.
  20. ^ Brereton, Geoffery (1968). A Short History of French Literature. Penguin Books. pp. 254–255.
  21. ^ a b Hardt, Michael; Weeks, Kathi (2000). The Jameson Reader (Reprint ed.). Oxford, UK ; Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell. ISBN 9780631202707.
  22. ^ a b Edelstein, Alan (1996). Everybody is Sitting on the Curb: How and why America's Heroes Disappeared. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. ISBN 9780275953645.
  23. ^ Ousby, Ian (1996). The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780521436274.
  24. ^ Eggert, Brian (30 August 2015). "Night and the City". Deep Focus Review. Retrieved 20 June 2018.
  25. ^ Brinton, Sadie (September 2008). "Classic Ten – Greatest Anti-Heroes". AMC. Retrieved 11 September 2016.

Further reading

  • Simmons, David (2008). The Anti-Hero in the American Novel: From Heller to Vonnegut. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0230603238.

External links

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