I have for your enjoyment 5 (More) Literary Heroes—Who are Jerks!
Before we start: looking over this particular group, I see that I’ve gone heavy on the gender crimes. So may I simply throw in that I’m aware I’m judging from an anachronistic (21st century) female perspective? Now we can all move on and take pleasure in loathing these jerks. Here you are:
1. Randle Patrick McMurphy, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.
McMurphy is such a great American character. He stands up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. He rebels, in a cool way. He’s funny. He’s interesting. But (leaving aside the sexism thing), he does try to strangle Nurse Ratched to death. So.
2. Alex, from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
This entry turns the premise on its head. I don’t need to explain why Alex is a jerk. (Please don’t make me.) Instead, I have to claim that Alex is the hero.
A Clockwork Orange is a seriously complex book—much more complex than fans of the Kubrick adaptation realize. Alex is a victim of his upbringing, his society, and his government. While being a victim does not excuse victimizing others and its consequences, the setting is dystopic in the extreme. Alex is an anti-hero, a message Burgess is trying to communicate about the complexities of victimization.
Alex’s growth, the last chapter of the book (not followed in Kubrick’s adaptation), and Alex’s rather admirable love of Beethoven will always leave me uncomfortably mixed in my feelings toward the controversial protagonist.
3. Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Let’s state the obvious. Scarlett O’Hara is beautiful, clever, resourceful, and a survivor. She is also spoiled, selfish, immature, and manipulative. She is constitutionally incapable of not flirting with any given (white) male—particularly if said male is technically unobtainable, such as, say, about to be married. I agree with Rhett:
Dear Scarlett! You aren’t helpless. Anyone as selfish and determined as you are is never helpless. God help the Yankees if they should get you.
4. James Bond, from Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.
Ask anyone to describe James Bond. Two descriptions will continually pop up: he’s an amazing secret agent. And he’s a womanizer. For a long time I believed that the movies had played up this last trait—you know, Hollywood and all that—but then I read the first James Bond book, Casino Royale. Here’s an actual quote from the book that made James Bond:
These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to me?
Despite fascinating apologetics from readers like this one, the wider context (in this case, his perception that Vesper erred) doesn’t make Bond less of a jerk.
5. Theseus, from Hesiod, Plutarch, Ovid, etc.
I could rename this “most males of ancient Greek or Roman mythology.” I’ll also acknowledge that I’m cheating a bit and placing tales of myths in the category of literature. But among all the ancient heroes who treat their loves abominably (and there are many: Jason, Odysseus, Aeneas…), Theseus is the one I love to hate the most.
We all know the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Different versions of the story grant various amounts of credit to Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, for Theseus’s survival and success. But most accounts agree on the basics: Theseus goes to his presumed death in the labyrinth, only to (spoiler?) kill the Minotaur and find his way out through the aid of Ariadne. He escapes Crete, taking Ariadne along with him—only to abandon her on a deserted island on the trip back home.
Yet Theseus is definitely the hero of this story: he’s the founder of Athens. Some versions of the story claim divine intervention (via Athena or Dionysus) for the reason Theseus deserts Ariadne. But I’m sticking to the more popular story, partially because some of my favorite ancient works (Catullus 64, Ovid’s Heroides) stick to the abandonment-because-he’s-a-jerk storyline. Abandoning on a deserted island the woman responsible for saving your life? Really?
Click here for my first list of Literary Heroes Who are Jerks. Are there any good ones I’ve missed?