Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

the Byronic Hero

Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

The Byronic hero is a fictional and cultural character type popular in the Romantic era and beyond. This character may appear in fiction, poetry, or history.

The term derives from the brilliant but scandalous English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824)--pictures below.

contemporary portraits of Byron

Qualities associated with the Byronic Hero:

  • dark, handsome appearance; brilliant but cynical and self-destructive ("broody babe-magnet")

  • "wandering," searching behavior

  • haunted by some secret sin or crime, sometimes hints of forbidden love

  • modern culture hero: appeals to society by standing apart from society, superior yet wounded or unrewarded

fictional examples in American literature: Magua in Last of the Mohicans, Claggart in Billy Budd

Authors in American literature with Byronic qualities: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe were born in Byron's lifetime (1788-1824) and cultivated authorial and fictional personae consistent with the model.

Hawthorne 1809-1864

Poe 1809-1849

Literary Development and Gender Variations:

As with the "fair lady-dark lady" tradition of literature, the dark Byronic hero may be paired with an innocent, unmarked, even angelic male figure. For instance,

  • The "dangerous" Byron was friends with the poet Shelley, who is often pictured as an angelic "Arial."

  • In Last of the Mohicans, the dark, wounded, handsome Huron Magua (left) opposes Uncas (right), the princely "golden boy" of the Algonquians.


  • In Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, Jane must choose between Byronic Rochester and pious St.-John Rivers.

Orson Welles as Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943)

St.-John Rivers in 1997 Jane Eyre

  • In Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte, Cathy chooses between Byronic Heathcliff and nice-boy Edgar Linton.

in Wuthering Heights

Edgar Linton & Catherine
in Wuthering Heights

  • In Gone with the Wind (1936; filmed 1939) by Margaret Mitchell, the heroine Scarlett O'Hara is torn between the Byronic Rhett Butler (left) and nice-boy Ashley Wilkes.

"fair lady-dark lady"

"Byronism" is typically reserved for male characters; a corresponding woman character may fit the dark end of the "fair lady-dark lady" character structure.

Madeleine Stowe as Cora (dark lady)
in Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Jodhi May as Alice (fair lady)
in Last of the Mohicans (1992)

In the 1965 film The Tomb of Ligeia starring Vincent Price,
the same actress (Elizabeth Shepherd) plays both Ligeia (left below) and Rowena (right below).

In American Romantic literature,  the historical author Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), who led a wandering, tragic, romantic life.

Margaret Fuller 1810-1850

Other literary examples of the Byronic hero:

Russian Literature:

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41)
A Hero of Our Own Time (1839, revised 1841)


Alexander Pushkin 1799-1837
Eugene Onegin (1825-32)


The Byronic Hero may be partly anticipated by Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601)

contemporary examples of Byronic hero (most suggested by students):

20th century film & music

James Dean (1931-55)

Sean Connery (b. 1930)

Jim Morrison (1943-71), singer for Doors

Sting (b. 1951)



later 20c-early 21c film & music

Trent Reznor (b. 1965)

Brandon Lee (1965-93)

Layne Staley (1967-2002) of Alice in Chains

 Alan Rickman (b. 1946)

Tupac Shakur (1971-96)

Rufus Sewell
(b. 1967)


recent Byronic nominees

Tom Cruise(?) as Lestat, Interview with a Vampire 

Hugh Jackman (b. 1968) as Wolverine 

Ian Somerhalder (b. 1978), Vampire Diaries 

Heath Ledger (1979-2008) 

Kate Beckinsale (b. 1973), Underworld  

Beckinsale in Van Helsing 

 Aaliyah (1979-2001)

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) 


2013 addition: Jax Teller of Sons of Anarchy: Byronic hero or soulful golden boy?



How does the Byronic hero relate to Romanticism, historically and stylistically?

What is the significance of the Byronic hero as a "culture hero?"

Why does the paradigm, image, or symbol continue to recur and / or evolve?

What's ironical about the significance?


significance: culture hero who is dangerous to the culture for which he is a hero

(classic residue of pop romanticism)