Writing on the anti-hero

Writing on the Anti-Hero

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Suffer you pathetic fool!

Where would literature be without the anti-hero? That fractured and tormented soul who seemingly wallows in his/her own ineptitude, never overcoming malevolent forces we know will crush them in the end. Whether it’s Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, or John Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the anti-hero’s struggle fulfils a vital role. Writing on the anti-hero isn’t about villains or accidental heroes but a canvas to paint what is broken in the world.

There are two kinds of anti-hero: your Winston Smith’s and your John Yossarian’s.

Big Brother

The anti-hero is a device to leverage the plight of the vulnerable and weak so as to highlight some injustice in the world. A character the reader can empathise with and champion, and more so, a lesson the writer wants you to understand. In the case of Winston Smith, he is your typical worker, there is nothing extraordinary about him. He lives a mundane life. Has a mundane job. If he ever did wear underwear over his pants and fly around in a red cape, the story of oppression from thought crime and omnipresent Big Brother, couldn’t be examined in any great detail.

…have an ordinary man crushed under oppression and your perspective is to look up at survival from the gutter, not flying above it.

If Smith has any strength it comes from him knowing he will be found out and likely killed. Do we call that courage or madness? More so submission. His crime goes beyond unsanctioned love. It is the act of thinking for himself, of some other hope than what the great bureaucracy provides. What fool runs towards trouble when all he need do is step aside to avoid it? And why does Smith’s fallacy matter anyway?

The anti-hero makes us question
The anti-hero makes us question

Orwell’s message isn’t that Big Brother will take over. It is the destruction of thought from complicit compliance, by keeping us frightened, busy and distracted so as to not question authority, that allows Big Brother to take over.

The Insanity of War

In the case of Capt. John Yossarian, his role is to highlight the absurd nature of war. Paranoid everyone is trying to kill him, either by the enemy shooting at him, or his superiors forcing him to fight so as to increase his chances of being killed (he is a bombardier, so his chances of being killed in action is very high). Yossarian repeatedly claims insanity and fakes illness so he can go home.

Having fulfilled his service requirements, the squadron’s quota increases with every successful mission. The more successful his squadron has, the more his superiors look good, so the more missions he has to fly before he can go home.

And here’s the catch-22 part: you don’t have to fly missions if you’re crazy, and you have to be crazy to fly. But you have to apply to be excused, and by asking not to fly you are not crazy, so you have to fly.

See! Superman hasn’t got time for that kind of nonsense.


Also published on Medium.

  • Some interesting thoughts, certainly gave me food for thought.