Modern Tragic Heroes

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Modern Tragic Heroes

Is redemption possible?

Protagonists in modern novels are often deeply flawed. Similar to the Greek tragic heroes of old, these modern heroes are undone by aspects of their personality, such as a propensity to live in the past or a desire for immortality.

All of the main characters in this list have failed. The questions are whether and how they can redeem themselves.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Geoffrey Firmin is a British diplomat in a small Mexican town whose past and inner demons fuel his tragic addiction to alcohol.  This is a challenging but rewarding read. The reader views the colorful setting of a small, mountainous Mexican town through the lens of a haunted, inebriated ex-pat with a poetic sensibility. Other narrators contribute to the narrative and help to clarify the story but don’t dispel the feeling of confusion and disassociation that Firmin imparts.

The film adaptation, starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset, was nominated for two Oscars.

If you’re in the mood for another classic, beautifully-written literary work that chronicles the decline of a brilliant, decadent ex-pat, check out Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom can’t reconcile the memories of his glory days as a high school basketball star with his life as a married man selling kitchen gadgets. In his struggle to find wholeness, Rabbit alienates himself from friends and family.  What is he looking for and does he find it? Featuring John Updike’s unmistakable prose.

If you enjoy Rabbit, Run, you’re in luck, as it’s the first in a quadrilogy that follows Rabbit over the years. To see what happens to Rabbit, check out The Rabbit Novels (Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.)

The Natural by Bernard Malamud
The story of Roy Hobbs, who wanted to be the greatest baseball player there ever was, but whose real challenge is to contend with his own flaws and appetites. Rich with allegory and classic baseball culture, The Natural is a great read for anyone who has tried to understand the relationship between their hero’s on- and off-the-field struggles.

If you’re in the mood for a more uplifting version of the story, try Hollywood’s version, starring Robert Redford and Kim Bassinger.

For another book about a less-than-perfect baseball star, check out You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner.

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Lots of flawed, tragic characters in this dark, lyrical novel, loosely based on true events and people. John Clare, a minor English nature poet who suffers from a mental illness that threatens to loosen his tenuous grasp on reality, is at a sanitarium under the care of Matthew Allen, a man whose business interests threaten to divert his focus from those under his care.

The poetry in the book is as evident in the fantasy and misadventure of the asylum inhabitants as in the machinations of failed fin de siecle industrial manufacture.

If you’re in the mood for another tragic novel set in the Victorian era, check out Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

Ironweed by William Kennedy
A series of poor life choices and bad luck have left Francis Phelan destitute on the streets of Depression-era Albany. Has he passed the point of no return? 

Speaking of his compatriots, Phelan says, “...the only brotherhood they belonged to was the one that asked that enduring question: How do I get through the next twenty minutes? They feared drys, cops, jailers, bosses, moralists, crazies, truth-tellers, and one another. They loved storytellers, liars, whores, fighters, singers, collie dogs that wagged their tails, and generous bandits. Rudy, thought Francis: he's just a bum, but who ain't?” (William Kennedy, Ironweed)

For a film about men trying to escape the pull of homelessness and addiction, check out the 1956 film On the Bowery, directed by Lionel Rogosin.

If you enjoy Ironweed, check out some of the other novels in William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle: Roscoe, The Flaming Corsage, Very Old Bones, Quinn’s Book and Legs.