Bollywood’s arguably best read actress Sonam Kapoor finds Rebecca “lovely”, and has a soft spot for Jane Austen novels. However, it’s her top choice that wins our heart – Heathcliff and Catherine from Wuthering Heights, even though it’s a “so-not-happy love story!”
We couldn’t agree more. Who could resist Heathcliff, the tortured romantic hero of this Emily Brontë novel, whose all-consuming passion destroys him and those around him? The very name – Heathcliff, suggestive of the bleak, lonely Yorkshire moors… Even though Heathcliff eventually grows into a bitter, haunted man we prefer focusing on his youthful love for Catherine Earnshaw. His orphaned childhood, his revenge, his ambiguous position in society, combined with his complicated yet mesmerising personality make him more hero less villain despite the darkness which consumes him.
What is it with heroes who are part-villain that makes them so irresistible? Experts believe it might have to do with the fact that their moral complexity finds an answering echo in ourselves. They might be flawed but that very human quality has us rooting for them, hoping they find redemption minus too much pain.
Let’s face it, the anti-hero, who rebels against societal rules, is a whole lot more compelling than a goody-two-shoes who walks a straight line. Didn’t we cheer for Rhett Butler, oozing a heady combination of sophistication, wit, courage and tenderness in Gone With the Wind, when he gave it right back to the temperamental Scarlett O’Hara? His “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” won every heart, and was also voted the number one movie line of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005. Needless to add, we had already swooned when he had declared, “I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” Oh my!
Who among us did not thrill to Howard Roark’s measured yet absolutely impassioned declaration of love to Dominique as he utters, “I love you, Dominique. As selfishly as the fact that I exist. As selfishly as my lungs breathe air. I breathe for my own necessity, for the fuel of my body, for my survival. I’ve given you, not my sacrifice or my pity, but my ego and my naked need. This is the only way I can want you to love me.” Ayn Rand’s Roark, the idealistic young architect of The Fountainhead, perfectly embodied the high idealistic preference of struggling in obscurity to compromising on artistic and personal vision.
In addition to turning our brains to mush, anti-heroes ever so often send a quiver of pride down our spine. Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables did it as he struggled for 19 years to lead a normal life after serving a prison sentence. His crime? That he stole bread to feed his sister’s children during a time of economic depression.
We are as much entranced by the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, who plumbs the crime-ridden world of late-Victorian London, as we are by his Bohemian habits, his occasional use of addictive drugs, his abhorrence of casual company and his high estimation of Irene Adler, the woman who “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex”.
In a similar vein, we ache for Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as he struggles with whether and how to avenge the murder of his father and his own loss of sanity. By the end of the tragedy, he has caused the deaths of his uncle Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, two acquaintances of his from the University of Wittenberg – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, besides being indirectly involved in the deaths of his beloved Ophelia (drowning) and his mother Gertrude (poisoned by Claudius by mistake). Yet not once does the archetypal tragic hero lose our sympathy.
Even when they don’t entirely win our sympathy, they liberate us as they reject societal constraints and expectations. And there is no charm in seeing them fall… No one rejoiced to see Fagin, the twisted terrifying yet strangely gentle man in Mark Twain’s Oliver Twist imprisoned at the end. And honestly, we forgave Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter for being a cannibalistic serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, simply because he had exquisite taste, adored beauty and was well-read to boot. Oh well, make that ‘almost forgave…’!