Defiance as the Core of Literary Heroism
Definitions of heroism tend toward vagueness, although usually mentioning the terms bravery
and courage. A literary hero--if not a mythical figure of mighty prowess and often divine
lineage--is considered a person exhibiting these traits. Yet this definition, perforce, requires
one to ask: bravery and courage against what? One can be seen as heroic when involving oneself in
the rescue of another, or when sacrificing for the good of many, or during bravery in battle, but
it must be defiance that lies at the core of heroism. A rescue is not heroic unless the hero
defies a threat from which he or she rescues the victim; e.g., a burning building, or a dangerous
creature, or a perilous country. Sacrificing oneself for the good of many is often seen as heroic,
and indeed takes courage, but it might be better argued that this is compassion, or altruism. A
warrior is not heroic unless he or she must defy imminent death or an overwhelming enemy, for
simply to surpass all others in battle without defiance is but tyranny.
Moreover, it is not merely defiance which defines heroism, but defiance against that which is
oppressive, evil or destructive and yet is stronger than the hero. Often in literature and in
life, this takes the form of authority. Authority in itself is not necessarily an iniquitous
concept, so this forces another question, since the tale of personal heroics is one of ethical
conflict: how is the authority wrong? It may be argued that defiance of authority is "not a
conflict between preference and principle, and not even a conflict between different specific
principles, but rather a conflict between two different types of ethics"
(Hogan 131). Speculating fully upon this
abstraction is outside the scope of this paper, since it becomes a balance of whether the desires
of the masses outweigh the desires of those who rule them. However, authority in life and
literature so often comes into conflict with its subjects and uses might to enforce its will, and
this is a fundamental part of heroic conflict. For the purposes of this definition, then, when
authority places its own petty desires above the well-being of those under its domain and uses
oppressive tactics to do so, the rejection of it--and the tribulations ensuing from such
This is a staple of literature, in that "only persons who had wrought or suffered in some
extraordinary way and had thereby significantly enlarged the scope of humanity are dealt with as
heroes" (Hadas and Smith 10). Suffering endured
as a result of defiance of wrongful authority is wide in scope, as is the authority itself; in
the oldest stories the authority takes the form of gods, while later and modern authority may be
a king or the State, but in any case "heroic narratives are bound up with variable political
structures" (Hogan 121) and authoritarian-ruler figures retain a similarity even while the
resulting hardships vary. Against these figures the defiant hero is "protecting one's group‹nation,
religion, family, etc. This is an ethics of defiance and bravery [or] martyrdom, for one's country
or one's faith," a behavior that is "imagined as a defiance of those who are threatening--more
numerous, hostile, powerful" (Hogan 132). As the hero is punished or has vengeance inflicted upon
him or her for noncompliance, the retention of defiant behavior defines the heroic quality.
Well-established literature supports this, with characters that may not have been considered
sympathetically in the context of the time of writing, but which fit this theme of
heroism-as-defiance: they reject authority they see as wrong, and suffer for it. The source of the
tyranny being rejected can be the mortal head of state, such as Creon in Sophocles's
Antigone, the immortal head of the gods as in Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, or the
ultimate incarnation of divine authority as portrayed by Milton in Paradise Lost. Each
authoritarian source revenges himself upon the defiant hero--Antigone, Prometheus, Satan--for
disobeying a direct order or for refusing to bow down, and each assumes his own justification
for the rightness of the punishment. In Prometheus Bound, Zeus commands Prometheus to be
forever shackled to a cliff for daring to give knowledge to mankind. There is no ambiguity of
morality here; Zeus considers his will inviolable simply because it is his will. In Antigone,
Creon (so he believes) adopts a position of ethical correctness by giving proper burial to the
defender of the city, but to leave the city's attacker to lie unburied; to give any proper burial
to the attacker incurs a death sentence. As both the defender and the attacker are brothers of
Antigone, she defies his order and buries the body of her disgraced brother. Argument ensues over
the source of true law: Creon states that his, the law of Man and State, is to be followed, while
Antigone follows what she sees as divine tradition. In this tale the source of morals and ethics
is hazy: is it the unspoken traditions of the gods or the arbitrary laws of men? The ethical goal
of the tragedy seems to portray stubborn authority as doomed to failure, since after Antigone's
death Creon also loses his wife and son, throwing Antigone's defiance into a heroic spotlight.
In Paradise Lost, Satan rebels against God because the latter has set a leader over all
others to be obeyed and worshipped as himself; God as creator assumes the mantle of absolute moral
source, and hurls Satan and his rebellious cohorts down to Hell for eternity. He then secretly
abets Satan's successful attempts to return and continue his assault on Heaven and Eden. Each of
these sources of authority uses force or torment to accomplish his means instead of convincing
the hero (or the reader) of his real or perceived moral high ground, and therefore falls under the
definition of wrongful authority or tyranny. The subjects of their punishments hence become
In literary works, as in life, defiance is often preceded or accompanied by words of dissent,
which either provoke the source of tyranny into deadly response or are uttered within the confines
of the hero's punishment. Prometheus resists the most powerful being in the Greek pantheon--and
does so with the confident belief that the power in charge is wrong. He might be freed by sharing
his knowledge of Zeus's future downfall, but refuses to relate it: "Nor shall I cower under his
fierce threats, or tell this secret, / Until he free me from these brutal bonds / And consent to
compensate me for his outrage" (Aeschylus, Prometheus
173-5). This refusal to obey is a characteristic applauded within the mythos, since
"[a]mong the Greeks not obedience but independence, which of necessity must often rebel against
obedience, was the criterion for distinction" (Hadas and Smith 13). Antigone also displays this
culturally commendable bravado, although unlike Prometheus, she has nothing to wield over Creon.
She is brave without the knowledge of retribution, and merely mortal; no gods appear in her story.
Her defiance is purely cerebral, but spirited nonetheless. In Seven Against Thebes she hurls
the threat of death issued by the new king back in the herald's face; she will keep to the laws of
gods and her attachment to family. In this sense Antigone may be one of the first literary rebels
to reject a non-palpable rulership concept such as government:
And I reply to your 'authority' in Thebes:
If no one else will join with me in burying him,
Then I will bury him, and chance what danger may
Result from burying my own brother. Nor am I
Ashamed to disobey thus and defy the State: (1026-1030)
She is condemned by Creon, and realizes that neither gods nor men will help her, yet she does not
compromise; she stands vocally defiant in the face of certain death by the State. In Paradise
Lost, Satan's words are stronger yet, and he is punished twofold: for rebelling against the
state of Heaven and also for the same "crime" as Prometheus: giving knowledge to the human race.
His initial words upon discovering his situation (bound to a lake of fire in the depths of Hell
in Book 1) are rebellion itself, claiming an "unconquerable Will" possessing "immortal hate, /
And courage never to submit or yield" (1.106-8),
and a fiery proclamation never to capitulate to Heavenly demands for docility: "Glory never shall
his wrath or might / Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace / With suppliant knee, and deify his
power" (1.110-12). Milton's Satan, of course, provides us with the maxim of preferring to rule in
Hell rather than serve in Heaven, being "all the more impressive for his suppression of despair
and for his refusal to admit spiritual defeat [...] We hear open defiance of heaven rather than
complaints of heaven's desertion" (Steadman 290).
As substantiated in these three works, the hero begins or continues his or her defiance by
proclaiming to the reader the intent to contravene the power in command.
Punishment or other negative consequence of course ensues. It would not qualify as heroic narrative
if the authority being defied forgave the hero's noncompliance, or changed its mind because it had
not previously considered how others felt. It is a natural part of the prototypical heroic arc
that the protagonist must suffer at the hands of the object of his or her dissent, that the
"hierarchical principles of authority [...] tend to win in heroic tragi-comedies" (Hogan 130).
Zeus must punish Prometheus, Creon must have Antigone killed, and the Lord must throw Satan down
to Hell and condemn him; without risk of consequence there is no true defiance, and heroism is
harder to delineate. Rare is the story that manages to balance both sides of the conflict in an
equal ethical light, and rare also are the real-life situations where the authority that clashes
with the masses or the individual is considered ethically equivalent.
A hero, of course, can speak words of rebellion, but there must also be an acceptance--if not a
fearlessness--of that pain or death that results from such heroism. As stated, without such risk,
defiance is empty, and the courage evinced by the protagonist is amplified by the acceptance of
that risk. The possibility of death lends the greatest weight to the hero's choices; indeed,
Hadas and Smith note that "[i]ndependence cannot be more emphatically asserted than by voluntary
submission to death" (15). In any case, heroic literary works will often culminate in pain or
death because of the conflict between the hero and the wrongful authority, a "sort of negative
post-script to the achievement of the heroic goal" (Hogan 121). The three illustrative works
referenced so far continue to apply; even the Chorus notices Prometheus's refusal to surrender
to his plight: "You are defiant, Prometheus, and your spirit, / In spite of all your pain, yields
not an inch" (Aeschylus, Prometheus 176-7). He is immortal, and death is not an end for him,
but he faces endless torment, which is arguably worse. Antigone is not--but welcomes her death at
the hands of the State, alone and solely responsible for her defiance against Creon, announcing
that "even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory" and calling it "an outrage sacred to
the gods" (86-89). This may appear to be a self-centered stance, since Antigone rejects her
sister's offer to share her fate or even to keep her actions quiet, and lead one to wonder if she
is obsessed with her own glory and vanity. Even if she is concerned with the level of glory she
will obtain, Joseph Campbell would argue that "[t]his moment itself is no vanity, it is a triumph,
a delight. This accent on the culmination of perfection in our moments of triumph is very Greek"
(Power of Myth 135). Notwithstanding her reasons
for it, her defiance and her acceptance of her punishment mark her for this definition of heroism.
Satan, too, directly faces his tribulations repeatedly even while his mortality is not at risk
(nor yet fully understood as a concept); he loses his battle against the forces of Heaven, is
placed in a prison of eternal woe, and returns again and again to persevere in his rebellion, all
because he would be "Free, and to none accountable, preferring / Hard liberty before the easy
yoke / Of servile Pomp" (2.255-7). Writer William Hazlitt said that Satan's "punishment was the
greatest; but [...] his fortitude was as great as his sufferings. His strength of mind was
matchless as his strength of body" (qtd. in Steadman
258). Heroism is defined when the protagonist faces and accepts death, and/or willingly
endures suffering through strength of will, spirit or body.
Such acceptance of lethal risk may be masked under a guise of patriotism or faith or adherence to
one's ethical code, as in Antigone's embracing of her fate by Creon's decree to serve what she
sees as a greater good, or observance of a greater law. As Hadas and Smith state, "[w]hen the
death serves the spiritual welfare of the generality [...] we approach the genus of martyrdom
that is an important factor," and in this example, Antigone "invites death in the service of
religion" (15). Creon believes his rules benefit the many, but she argues that neither the many
nor the gods in which they believe support Creon's view. Prometheus chooses to prevent "the
human race from being ground / To dust, from total death" (236-7), and his reasons seem only to
be "guided by goodwill" (446); the ethical code that drove him to defiance against tyranny serves
the masses (in his case, the human masses). Of these examples, Prometheus seems to serve in the
most altruistic manner. Milton's Satan would not claim an altruistic reason for his actions, but
he seems a firm believer in at least a semblance of democracy; seeing God as a near-equal, not a
maker or master, he will not accept the concept of the one ruling over the many. He will defy, not
deify, the source of authority, and while all his fellows may not be equal, he sees them at least
equally free. He listens to others' voices in council and the plans of his peers are carried out
by volunteers. His subsequent actions to tempt Adam and Eve away from naive servility are in
keeping with his desire to bring others to his point of view; he may wish to taint innocence, but
he prefers agreement with his view over mere vandalism. Yet, even in these examples, is the reason
as important as the defiance itself? Must the defiance against authority serve a purpose or have
an impact? Prometheus brings mankind out of simplicity, Satan brings mankind both upward into
knowledge and downward into mortality, but Antigone affects few outside of the royal family of
Thebes. Such stories still maintain emotional appeal, however, so the hero's rejection of unjust
authority even when utterly alone, with no allies, and even no ultimate change in outcome, must
be the salient factor in the heroic narrative. A lack of impact or change in the situation is still
applicable--since after all it is expected that the hero will lose his or her conflict. Heroism
would not be considered so poignant and so rare a quality if it easily succeeded at every
The question of what dictates rightness when two unequal forces are opposed has already been
discussed, and this definition assumes the side of the weaker, defiant hero. While Alfred
Schlesinger notes that "the hero of a Greek tragedy usually operates on the moral frontier, where
the rules are yet to be defined, or even to be discovered"
(164), this definition is obligated to presume
that the well-being of the many must outweigh the personal desires of the few, and that heroic
defiance is most profound when authority uses wrongful means to achieve or maintain those desires.
As before, it is a comparison of two ethical values--but a value is agreeable when it can be
supported. If one's will is carried out by force against others who cannot defend against it, that
is almost universally seen as wrong, and a key element against which to rebel in heroic narratives.
Satan speaks against this "might makes right" model in Paradise Lost, against one "Whom
reason hath equall'd, force hath made supreme / Above his equals" (1.247-9). In Prometheus
Bound, Zeus cannot outreason the titan who caters to humans, so applies his inimitable power
for purposes of vengeful spite. In keeping with a callous, needless decree, Creon finds himself
arguing against Antigone, his own son Haemon, his aged seer Tiresias, the Chorus, and even a
sentry who sums up his king's view with the complaint: "Oh it's terrible when the one who does
the judging / judges things all wrong" (366-7)--and in the end he still applies the force of the
State before being forced to deal with the grief that results from it. The choruses and narrators
of stories may vary in their apparent support of the heroes--Prometheus has wholehearted sympathy
from the Daughters of Oceanus, the old men in Thebes are slow to come around to Antigone's
viewpoint, and Milton presents God as unjust and manipulating while at the same time spitting
uncomplimentary adjectives for Satan's behavior--but none of the choruses or narrators seem to
support might as the rightful approach.
These everlasting examples of literary heroism encompass a rejection of unjust authority, an
acceptance of the consequences of that rejection, and willingness to face suffering, death or
loss in the pursuit of an ideal. Defiance, then, lies at the core of what heroism is, the one
aspect of heroism that must needs rely on a mental concept or ideal, a conscious choice to act.
In refusing to submit to authority when it is unjust, in risking their lives and souls against
destructive forces stronger than they, characters take on the role of hero. Whether it be for
personal ethics or to protect others, defiance defines heroism. It, in the form of political
dissent or social activism, is also one of the few forms of heroism left to the modern human.
Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Trans. Philip Vellacott. Prometheus Bound and Other
Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1961.
---. Seven Against Thebes. Trans. Philip Vellacott. Prometheus Bound and Other
Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1961.
Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Hadas, Moses, and Morton Smith. Heroes and Gods: Spiritual Biographies in Antiquity.
New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Hogan, Patrick Colm. "The Epilogue of Suffering: Heroism, Empathy, Ethics." SubStance
30.1&2 (2001): 119-143.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained. Ed.
Christopher Ricks. 1968. New York: Penguin Group, 2001.
Schlesinger, Alfred C. "Tragedy and the Moral Frontier." Transactions and Proceedings of the
American Philological Association 84 (1953): 164-175.
Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles. The Three Theban Plays. New York:
Penguin Classics, 1984.
Steadman, John M. "The Idea of Satan as the Hero of Paradise Lost." Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society 120.4 (1976): 253-294.
David Elsensohn, December 2006
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