Sometimes when I read a classic I’m surprised how different the book can be from my earlier second-hand knowledge of it. This is especially true in cases where the protagonist turns out not to be as purely good and heroic as his/her reputation led you to believe. Before reading Twain, for example, you know that Tom is rather mischievous. But after reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, you have a realization. Tom is a total jerk!
So here’s a list of 5 Literary Heroes–who are also complete jerks. They may be the protagonists of their story, but that doesn’t mean you have to like them.
1. Tom Sawyer, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
Tom Sawyer popularized the American stereotype of the “good bad boy.” He skips school, he lies, he steals, he cheats. Worse, when he meets up with Huck and supposedly decides to help free Jim from slavery, it turns out Tom is aware the whole time that Jim had already been freed—but he simply wanted to play out the adventure of trying to “rescue” Jim.
Despite all this, Tom Sawyer is still beloved because he knows how to break the rules. He loves to break the rules, but in the end he is kind-hearted. And when they think he’s gone, his friends and family realize just how much he means to them.
2. Heathcliff and Catherine, from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
These two take pleasure in destroying each other and everyone around them. Catherine is arrogant and selfish:
How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.
Heathcliff is raging and violent. Of Catherine’s husband he says,
The moment her regard ceased, I could have torn his heart out, and drunk his blood!
Despite all this, Catherine and Heathcliff remain the heroes because, after all, it is their love story. Burning hearts today still find beauty and inspiration in quotes like,
If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.
3. Achilles, from the Iliad by Homer.
The very first word of the Iliad, μῆνις, is the word for rage. Achilles’ rage. It is certainly the one defining word for the man. His temper causes him, among other things, to desecrate Hector’s body—Hector, the only truly good guy in the book (by, ahem, modern standards). In a world of violence and blood-hardened warriors, Achilles is feared by all.
On the other hand, Achilles is a fascinating and charismatic character. While difficult to control, he was the ultimate weapon of the Greeks—let him loose in battle and carnage ensues. One might even say that he is heroic just by virtue of being half god. At the very least, the Greek gods could certainly get away with abominations unacceptable in humans. (I’m looking at you, Zeus. And you, Athena. Oh, and you, Aphrodite. Ok, well, all of you.)
4. Holden Caulfield, from Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
This kid. I think I can sum up everything I want to say about him in the opening lines of the book:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
He’s a brat. He’s arrogant. He’s rude. He whines. A lot. He thinks everyone besides him is phony.
But these opening lines are also what make him the hero. Holy wow, is that great writing. Capturing the voice of young angst is an impressive feat, and doing it so beautifully actually makes you begin to identify with the kid a bit.
5. Ignatius J. Reilly, from Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
Confederacy of Dunces is famous for its humor. For those of you who haven’t read it, the humor is based in two main types: fart jokes, and Ignatius being a tremendously rude blowhard. To demonstrate, a line that induces both laughter and nausea:
I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.
Nevertheless, one feels rather bad for Ignatius. He doesn’t really have any friends. He can’t hold a job. Don’t get me started on his mother. In the end, the reader does want everything to work out for our hero, despite his quixotic view of reality.
Five more Literary Jerks can be found here!