The Byronic Hero and Gothic Literature

The Byronic hero originated in the poetry of Lord Byron (1788-1824). In poems such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Corsair, and most notably in his masterpiece, Don Juan. Byron’s protagonists are typically morally ambiguous, isolated, brooding, and overly passionate. Byron’s heroes remain unchanged throughout the course of his poems but are affected by their relationships with women and the circumstances of their time. After Byron, in the Victorian era of literature, characteristics of this Byronic stereotype continued to appear in works by other authors, including two examples in Gothic novels published in 1847: Rochester, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Both Rochester and Heathcliff harbor the Byronic characteristics of secrecy and unfulfilled desires. Rochester is infatuated with Jane but cannot act on his desires for her since he is already married, while Heathcliff is rejected by Catherine when she refuses to marry him. Struggles with power and its relation to the institution of marriage also characterized Byron’s deployment of his heroes. Another similarity that Heathcliff and Rochester share with Byron’s heroes is that we can simultaneously gain enjoyment by reading about their exploits and be repelled by their actions. The resulting moral ambiguity is a key feature shared by Byron and Gothic literature.