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An antihero is a character type in literature , which is also often used in films and comics . While the dramatic main character (the protagonist ) of a story invites identification with their superior character, intellectual or moral strength, with the antihero it is precisely a weakness that appears sympathetic.

Antiheroes break with the possibility of escapism , where the reader can project their dreams onto the main character of being just as strong, beautiful, brave or clever as the hero of the story. On the other hand , antiheroes are usually the more complex, deeper and more precisely drawn characters , as injuries and weaknesses of a character can also be depicted here.


The antihero is an expression of the modern subject in all its social ambivalences and antitheses; its existence is based on its ambivalences (social contradictions). These social contradictions culminate on the threshold of modernity, from which emerges the antihero, who can no longer find answers and solutions to the ontological challenges of the modern, secularized world, and who as a hero is characterized by his sensitive helplessness. He is also characterized by his humanity, which can also turn into (self-) destructive hatred and unpredictable anger. The result is a figure "who lacks all heroic and active character traits, shows no initiative and faces the events helplessly and incapable of action, with strict passivity or resignation and boredom."

In addition, an antihero often provokes identification among his generation colleagues. His “heroism” is expressed in the fact that he ridicules the social honesty and love of order, against which he nevertheless actively does not or cannot do anything. Because, on the one hand, because of his bourgeois origin, his parents and / or friends, he is part of this society himself, and on the other hand (precisely because of this) this society appears to be an overpowering and irrepressible opponent. Thus, a sometimes comedic-satirical, sometimes tragicomic part can be found throughout the depiction of an antihero. Because of his inevitable failure, he is on the one hand a tragic figure. On the other hand, the humorous side shows itself primarily through the unmasking exposure of the contrast with the virtue that society demands as a matter of course and the actual, namely imperfect, downright human character of the antihero, who has no interest at all in being so virtuous and thus conforming as society demands it implicitly, if not explicitly. It is characterized by nonconformity and a critical attitude, which in turn can be reversed if this gradually changes to conformity (keyword: "Che Guevara cult"); He is thus (besides his humanity) above all originality. This in turn enables him to recognize falsehood and pretense in other people. He has a critical education; H. an opinion of his own that he has formed for himself and all by himself.

Often the characteristics of the antihero are:

  • Isolation and loneliness (being an outsider)
  • Passivity and boredom (as opposed to active intervention / action)
  • a critical attitude towards society
  • Melancholy / resignation
  • constant failure and loss, which can be seen in the impossible realization of dreams or ideals

In the various works with antiheroes there are also other characteristics or interpretations of this type of figure, so that this list cannot be universally valid.

Relationship hero - antihero

An antihero can be a protagonist as well as a secondary character in a story, but never an antagonist (see below). An antihero is not to be confused with a villain. The prefix “anti-” does not refer to the word “hero”, but to the non-existent heroic qualities. It is precisely these weaknesses that make the antihero likeable and offer the reader identification potential.

The main difference between antihero and hero is that the antihero, in contrast to the hero, is doomed to failure and therefore his story has to do without a happy ending. He can only become a winner or victor at the end of the story if the antihero is not the protagonist; in this case the protagonist is always the hero, the antihero just the secondary character.

One must not confuse protagonist - antagonist with hero - antihero. It is actually the case that an antihero has no direct identifiable “real” hero as an actual opponent; this would at most be presented so exaggeratedly good and virtuous that it would in turn appear repulsive and would be identified as a counterpart. An antihero as a protagonist is and remains the real hero of the story, he just doesn't behave like a virtuous hero, even wants to take action against these so-called virtues by society, which always run the risk of losing humanity. So an antihero is never the antagonist of a story.


In the literature, characteristics of the antihero begin to crystallize with the adventure or picaresque novels of Don Quixote and Simplicissimus. Before that, however, in Middle High German, the picaresque novels about Till Eulenspiegel anticipate a few characteristics of the antihero.

Towards the end of the 18th century, when certain tendencies such as gradual secularization and technical, medical, philosophical and political (USA, French Revolution) progress culminated, the reaction of the formerly early bourgeois subject to the social and political stipulations and restrictions, which in turn was called Reaction to the domestic and foreign policy challenges of the time. This creates a dialectic that drives one another. State, society and the individual enter into a relationship that harbors inevitable conflicts when attempting consensus and cooperation between the parties. With, for example, Werther von Goethe or Anton Reiser von Karl Philipp Moritz, the antihero, raptured by civil circumstances and the social conventions of the decisive powers, develops. The preoccupation with psychology , at that time empirical psychology , and generally with the doctrine of man, anthropology , which “discovers” man as an autonomous individual, leads to a new type of hero figure. The resulting insights from these sciences play an important role in shaping the “new” (anti) hero who is misunderstood, isolated, unaccepted and distant from society due to his psychological disposition. Sharp social criticism always resonates in the portrayal of an antihero; the antihero even emerged from the intention to express criticism of society or general civilization.

The antihero develops from the formerly in his striving as an exemplary figure of the virtuous hero to the rather un virtuous protagonist (in the bourgeois sense) who rebels against the supposed virtues and exposes their hypocrisy. In spite of his “unrighteousness” he can be considered a hero, since he is characterized by more subtle virtues by rebelling against the purely economic and social usefulness of man in the modernizing world. The former emancipation of the bourgeoisie in the 18th century is now being emancipated again, because emancipation was often based on the circumstances and methods (e.g. education) of the nobility. It conformed to the conditions of the early bourgeoisie and was essentially not critical of them. It was also based on state and economic standards. The ideals under which the citizens stood up for their emancipation became victims of bourgeois economic thinking. When the liberal state system emerged in the 18th century, it was not yet recognized how critical the intervention of the state and civil society in the autonomy of the individual should be. Thus, the only virtue that distinguishes him is humanity and the knowledge of the intrinsic worth of man and it alone makes him the real hero, who is of course only part of the anti-hero.

The antihero has been "since the 19th century in the narrower sense the hero of the novel ( Gontscharow : Oblomov ) or the hero of the drama ( Georg Büchner : Leonce and Lena ) who was depicted as incapable of action in the context of boredom through hyperpsychologization ." this type of hero [note: the heroically acting heroically] is increasingly the passive hero of the bourgeois novel and drama, to whom something happens, who lets something happen to him. ”This form of the passive and paralyzed, losing and melancholy antihero is dragging on by romance ( the Sandman by ETA Hoffmann) and also in Kleist in the Michael Kohlhaas , on the pre-March (Büchner's Woyzeck ) and the literary epoch of bourgeois realism ( green Henry by Gottfried Keller ) to Robert Musil's pupil Torless and Hans Giebenrath in Under the wheel of Hermann Hesse .

The expression of the antihero is accordingly to be sought in the bourgeois revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, a time in which the Enlightenment (and the subsequent emancipation from it) shed light on people and saw people no longer as a means to an end , but rather recognizes him for his own sake as lovable and recognizes him in his own way as perfected by nature - or not, because human weaknesses that an antihero has for the most part do not find social acceptance.

In more modern literature, Gerhart Hauptmann's railway keeper Thiel , in the novelistic study of the same name, Der brave Soldat Schwejk by Jaroslav Hašek or the pacifist character Hauptmann Bluntschli from George Bernard Shaw's play Heroes, are considered antiheroes.

For modern American literature, for example, Holden Caulfield, the main character of the youth novel The Catcher in the Rye , published in the 1950s, should be mentioned as an antihero. He is not vigorously active, enthusiastic and constructive, but passive, negative and destructive, as society inhibits his activity.


Masking and the use of a pseudonym are characteristics of an antihero. The functions of the two, e.g. B. with a superhero, are based on the protection against two archenemies. Firstly, he needs the illusion of a fighter for justice and thus protection from society, which as a whole could not deal sensibly with his humanity and incognito. Second, it would be fatal for a superhero if a villain found out his human identity. In comics and films about superheroes, the antihero has been established from the start. The most popular superheroes are only in the role of their alter ego heroes, but in real life they are consistently antiheroes; z. B. the brilliant but rather fearful scientist Bruce Banner ( Hulk ); a clumsy nerd like Peter Parker ( Spider-Man ); the exception to be mentioned here is Superman , in whom Clark Kent is the alter ego and the hero figure (a former inhabitant of the planet Krypton ) is the original person. In the end, a superhero is again a person who contrasts sharply with his alter ego.


Early anti-heroes in film can be found in the film noir area . Following this, James Dean with his melancholy-rebellious, destructive attitude, is decisive in ... because they don't know what they are doing , the antihero of modernity for the cinematic area. Modern anti-heroes in film can mainly be seen in the action and thriller area. In Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon , the main character shows at least dubious character traits, while the serious criminal Alex from A Clockwork Orange is the extreme of an antihero. The characters Dirty Harry and "the blonde" from Two Glorious Scoundrels played by Clint Eastwood are included, as well as Mad Max , as well as Charlie from Maybe Better Tomorrow . More recent examples are popular Memento of Christopher Nolan and Batman films . The main character in Snatch - Pigs and Diamonds by Guy Ritchie also shows the typical characteristics of an antihero, as does the main characters in Pulp Fiction .

See also

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Gero von Wilpert: Subject dictionary of literature . 8th edition. Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-520-23108-5 , pp. 33 .
  2. a b D *: Antihero. In: Metzler Literature Lexicon. Terms and definitions. Stuttgart: Metzler 1990, p. 17.