5 (More) Literary Heroes–Who are Jerks!

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.

 

Cuckoo

 

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.

 

ClockworkA 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.

 

Gone with the Wind first printing

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.

 

Casino RoyaleAsk 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.

 

Theseus

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?

 

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. plainswalkerhu@hotmail.com says:

    James Bond was really only a jerk in Casino Royale, in the other ones there are much worse terms for what he is…

  2. Dallas Jacobs says:

    How about “From Here to Eternity” and its main character, Prew. His full name, if I remember correctly, was Robett E. Lee Prewitt, always choosing for conflict and trouble because he was a true conumdrum, a contradiction wrapped in an enigma, all the way to his final choice at the wrong end of a gun.

  3. This will come as a surprise to anybody who only saw the movie… hell, it came as a surprise to me… but I finally got around to reading the book and discovered that Roy Hobbs in Malamud’s The Natural is, well, a jerk. He consistently makes the wrong decisions, is stunningly shallow about everything in his life except trying to be the best there ever was. He’s mean, vindicative, unable to control any of his appetites, a most unlikeable protagonist. I’m not sure if my opinion is influenced by the fact that I saw the movie first, leaving me to anticipate some level of redemption that never really comes in the book. Suffice to say, the character was ‘sweetened’ for the movie almost as much as the Hollywood ending it was given.

    BTW, I’ve seen two reports about Malamud’s reaction upon seeing the movie late in his life. Both strike me as intentionally, if not ironic, at least ‘open to interpreation. In Philip Davis’s “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life” he was quoted as saying he “finally quite enjoyed the film — as long as he could sit there in the dark, he said. With its optimistic ending, it was not his book, he emphasized, but he hoped they would turn it into a musical before too long.” The other, reportedly responding to his daughter’s question of what he thought immediately after seeing it the first time, was ‘At last, I’m an American writer.’

    1. Thanks for this input! I didn’t realize this.

  4. To be fair, McMurphy tried to strangle Nurse Ratched after she pushed Billy Bibbit to commit suicide. I’d have probably tried to strangle her, too.

    1. Justin Goss says:

      I was going to make this point. He would have strangled a man, too.

    2. Not saying Nurse Ratched was a saint. Just saying that attempted homicide qualifies someone as a jerk. 🙂

      1. Stu Burns says:

        Considering how many protagonists in literary history commit homicide of some stripe, I’m not sure I agree with you here. Is David a jerk for killing Goliath? Is Philip Marlowe a jerk for killing Lash Canino? Is Tom Joad a jerk for killing a strikebreaker? Big Nurse is a sadistic villain who has an entire apparatus of power at her disposal. As noted above, she bullies Billy into suicide and, eventually, has McMurphy lobotomized. I would not call him a jerk for trying to kill her.

        1. I understand your perspective, but I’m sticking to my guns here. Just because many protagonists in literary history commit homicide doesn’t make it right. Notably your examples involve, for the most part, extenuating circumstances (warfare, self defense). And while she does have McMurphy lobotomized, notably this happens after his attempt on her life. If you’d like to argue his actions are in self defense, one could offer that she herself was acting much more immediately in self defense, quite legitimately fearing for her own life.

          This is, of course, leaving her bullying of Billy (and other terrible actions) to the side–I didn’t say she wasn’t a horrible person herself. I think they are both jerks…to say the least.

          While I’m having a bit of fun in this post, mainly I’m also hoping to spur a little more thought about the moral actions of people we lionize. The world isn’t so black and white.

  5. plainswalkerhu@hotmail.com says:

    I’m not sure if you’d call him a jerk, but Sherlock Holmes is kind of a jerk to…everyone, but he usually redeems himself with his fascinating exposition and insight. I, for one, would be willing to pardon his rude behavior if he were to explain things in his manner to me.

    1. Yes! Sherlock Holmes is a great one! He doesn’t know how to socialize. He’s quite the jerk, in a more traditional way.

      1. Ken Bellanca says:

        Oh no, not Holmes! I agree he does not gladly suffer fools. But his elegeant ripostes rise far above jerkdom. See his withering reply to the insufferable King of Bohemia re: Irene Adler…

        1. I suppose it depends on how you define a jerk. If you’re a lot more intelligent than most of the people around you, are you a jerk for not “suffering” the “fools”? Do you think Holmes doesn’t look down on people of lower intelligence than him? I’d argue that (1) he does, and (2) that makes him a jerk.

          Not that I can’t appreciate a good zinger. I just think that a zinger can be amazing and simultaneously jerky. (cf. Capote on Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”)

          And not that I don’t love Holmes, too. One can still love another despite, or even because of, their faults.

          1. Ken Bellanca says:

            Rebecca, at least we agree that one’s opinion pretty much depends upon how one defines a jerk. Good start! When I say Holmes does not gladly suffer fools I refer to the many really mean, self-important snobs with whom he must contend due to his profession. It is not a function of intelligence at all. After all almost everyone with whom he is in contact, with the possible exception of his brother Mycroft, suffers when compared to his intellect and great powers of deduction. As he frequently demonstrates he is exceedingly kind and solicitous to young ladies in distress, not to mention Watson and Mrs. Hudson. I think he might well have a soft spot for kitty cats too.
            BTW, I am in complete agreement with you and Capote regarding Kerouac. I agree that Capote was a world class jerk, as well. I do love Holmes and choose to overlook or accept what some might consider his faults, including the infamous 7% solution. Insert winking, smiley face here — I’m too old for emoticons…

            1. An acceptable compromise, Ken.

              1. Ken Bellanca says:

                An acceptable anything is sometimes the best of all worlds, Rebecca…

  6. Justin Goss says:

    Robert Jordan. For Whom the Bells Tolls. He joined the republic to boost his own ego as a fighter of fascism. The fact that he regrets his decision (because he realizes the republics cause is not his), yet continues to fight and kill makes him a causeless jerk.

  7. Adam Weisman says:

    The Bond character has evolved with the times. While he is still always on the prowl so-to-speak, more and more his character depends on his female “partner”, who is always equal to the task (and then some). And, let’s not forget that “M” was a woman for several movies. I am not so sure that 007 of the “Dr. No” era would have put up with that, but it is 51 years later. Alex and McMurphy never got a sequel (which may be a good thing).

  8. Steve Pavlis says:

    While I appreciate Burgess’ sentiment, the ideology behind Alex’s abrupt about-face in the last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, I don’t think he executed it very well at all, and agree with many that say that the last chapter is very inconsistent with the rest of the book. I much prefer Kubrick’s ending, which doesn’t change the morality play at all in my opinion, just knocks Alex off of anyone’s hero list.

    1. Thanks for this input! I see where you are coming from. However I think if I had read the book without the last chapter, I probably would have missed the whole point of the text. I’d rather he execute that poorly and communicate his message than not execute it at all.

  9. Hester Sturrock says:

    Having asflk’lkl’lklk’l’klklkl’kkl Cukoos Nest – Having worked in severeal mental health institutions, frankly I side with McMurphy. Nurse Ratchett was a complete bitch and tried to strip all her patients of their humanity as well as their maleness.On the other hand, I applaud anyone who works in mental health institutions who can keep their own sanity.

    1. It seems there are a number of comments trending your way, Hester. While I don’t disagree that Nurse Ratched was a completely terrible person, attempted homicide still qualifies McMurphy to me as a jerk!

  10. Pete says:

    Rebecca,
    Love your blog. Quick question re: 5 more literary heroes who are jerks. You said of Scarlett O “She is constitutionally incapable of flirting with any given (white) male—particularly if said male is technically unobtainable, such as, say, about to be married.” Didn’t you mean incapable of NOT flirting?

    1. Pete, thanks! Yes, totally meant that. Clearly I have no editor, and clearly I need one. Changed. And appreciated.

  11. Eric says:

    Rebecca,
    I just came across your blog recently, and I was inspired by these lists, so I went and thought about them for a while. Decided on a short list of my own. Forgive me if they’re too obvious.

    Winston Smith from 1984. Among other things, he shows utter disdain for Julia’s limited ideas of rebellion and hedonism while continuing to sleep with her. So much for the afterglow.

    Edmond Dantes from the Count of Monte Cristo. Devoting his life and fortune to destroying those responsible for stealing his youth, I think, qualifies him as being a jerk.

    While it’s hard to find a “hero” in a Dostoevsky novel, their guilt/search for redemption and the fact that they want to be heroes in their own way sort of makes them heroes as far as Dostoevsky is concerned.

    Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. When a book opens with the “hero” contemplating murder, you know he’s going to be a bit…flawed.

    Nikolai Stavrogin from The Demons. Especially the unabridged edition, where the “hero”…well, proves he’s a jerk.

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