Mary Awad - Definitions of Heroism: An Attempt to Define the Inexpressible

Definitions of Heroism:

 An Attempt to Define the Inexpressible


Mary Awad

            Throughout a life time, people hear many different definitions of heroism and examples of heroes. In childhood, heroes are either fictional men with supernatural abilities and talents or protectors of reality, such as firefighters and policemen; in adolescence, heroes can be actors, athletes, artists, and teachers; in adulthood, heroes may be activists or reporters, politicians or businessmen. Bonnie Tyler, a popular singer, describes her ideal hero saying “he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight” (“Holding Out for a Hero” 1984). If the definition changes with age and personal preference, what truly makes up a real- life hero? The characterization of a literary hero is somewhat easier to define.  Although the definition is subject to time, place, and situation, many characters that are defined as heroes throughout history have similar traits. Dorothy Norman and Roy Pickett attempt to clearly state this definition in their books The Hero: Myth/Image/Symbol and The Theme of the Hero, respectively.  By using the classic hero from Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus, and a character not usually defined as a hero, Marji from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, this paper will dissect the standards Norman and Pickett use to identify heroes and will determine whether an ancient warrior and a modern, strong-willed child both have the characteristics to be correctly defined as heroes for their time.

In her book The Hero: Myth/Image/Symbol, Dorothy Norman analyzes the roles of heroes throughout ancient history and formulates a loose set of guidelines under which the heroes she researched followed. These are the guidelines her research produced:

…the hero initially personifies the hardihood to undergo the most difficult rites of passage, of initiation into phases equated with the mysterious and frightening unknown;…the ability to survive both the symbolical night and winter, through possessing the fortitude to confront their inevitable rigors. Yet, whatever power is thus attained, there must be development beyond the necessity either to depend upon it, or even willfully to utilize it, once it is within (4-5).

In dealing with the first statement, “…the hero initially personifies the hardihood to undergo the most difficult rites of passage, of initiation into phases equated with the mysterious and frightening unknown”, Marji and Odysseus contain the traits of the first half and second half of the sentence respectively. Marji, as a child growing up, naturally passes through certain rights of passage as she gains knowledge and experience in her lifetime. However, the situation in her country makes creates an extremely difficult environment for her to mature in. She is growing up during the fall of the Shah, the Islamic revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war, which complicates the manner in which she is raised. She lives in a war zone where she survives multiple bombings and acts of violence.  She says the imprisonment and death of her Uncle Anoosh makes her feel “…lost, without any bearings…what could be worse than that?” (71). However, she is able to “undergo the most difficult rites of passage” as a young girl. Odysseus, who is passed the time Marji is in her life, does not have to face the challenges of growing up but endures the “mysterious and frightening unknown” while on his journey. Lost on his voyage home, Odysseus travels from island to island, each containing a creature or foe he has never experienced before. Odysseus describes it as a “voyage fraught with hardship” (Book IX: 43), one in which he meets ferocious beasts and is able to conquer them. Marji and Odysseus both possess heroic characteristics in this sense; they are able to overcome their individual hardships and succeed.

            The second part of Norman’s guidelines require that a hero must have “the ability to survive both the symbolical night and winter, through the possessing the fortitude to confront their inevitable rigors”. Both characters survive their individual nights and winters. Odysseus endures many adversities on his journey, including the death of his crew which effects him so much that simply being reminded of it makes him release “tears of heartbreak” (Book VIII: 597).  Still, he lives through the death and despair of winter and achieves victory when he is returned home to Ithaca. Similarly, Marji is able to overcome the darkness of her childhood. She wears the veil although she “didn’t understand why [she] had to” (3); her school becomes overpowering and comes to hate it; she is restricted in what she can wear and how she can act, but, throughout it all, she keeps her individuality and sense of self, which alone is a victory. Again, it seems, similar to Norman’s first statement, that determination in the face of adversity can be considered a heroic trait.

            “Yet, whatever power is thus attained, there must be development beyond the necessity either to depend upon it, or even willfully to utilize it, once it is within”.  Odysseus openly uses the skills he has mastered during the Trojan War throughout his journey and utilizes them to his advantage. The craftiness which he exhibits in the making of the Trojan Horse is shown multiple times on his quest, particularly when he is fooling the Cyclops. When the Cyclops asks for his name in the cave, Odysseus replies “Nobody—that’s my name” (Book IX: 410) and is able to escape safely with his men without facing the attack of other Cyclopes. Odysseus also harnesses his prowess at a fighter during the war. “Odysseus fought the grimmest fight / he had ever braved but won through the last” (Book VIII: 582-583). His competence as a soldier is seen again in Ithaca where he, with the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Athena, fights off many suitors. Although he is out-numbered, by the end of the battle the suitors are “one and all in blood and dust” (Book XXII: 408).  Odysseus takes the skills he gains throughout his journey and uses them in order to achieve his personal victory. Then what can be said about Marji? At the end of her story, she achieves no victory and gains little skill. Her goal of saving her country is never attained and she is forced to flee in order to survive. But Norman expands on her definition of a hero by claiming: “Even though the heroic quest is never totally realized, the very envisioning of it— like our every attempt to embark upon it— comprises one of man’s most noble acts of imagination and faith” (7). What makes young Marji a hero is not the success of her mission, but her effort to achieve it. She learns about her country’s problems by watching the news and observes her parents as they attempt to work towards change. She, like Odysseus, then takes the skills she learns from watching others and protests on Black Friday where she “shouted from morning till night” (38). By embodying the beliefs of her religion, she attempts to live her life as a prophet and, although her world is full of evil and violence, she says she wants to “[have] the feeling of being someone really, really good” (46). It is extremely unlikely for a young girl to make a difference in times of war and corrupt governments, but it is her good-nature and unshakeable effort that makes her life heroic because “the very envisioning of it… comprises one of man’s most noble acts of imagination and faith”.

In contrast, Roy Pickett, in The Theme of the Hero, has a loose definition of the term hero. He believes it is simply “a unique, major character, male or female, who faces a significant conflict in a literary work” (vii). He does not have a set of standards but has created a set of questions. Through these questions, it can judge if a character is a hero depending on the answers. The first question is “What significant act or acts does a hero perform?” (viii). Odysseus does many significant acts in his life, from “plunder[ing] / the hallowed heights of Troy” (Book I: 2-3) and ultimately securing his side’s victory in the Trojan War to “goug[ing] out [the Cyclops’] eye” (Book IX: 561). But what can be said about little Marji, who has the heart and mind of a hero, as implied by Norman’s guidelines, but has no exploits to her name? Pickett has follow-up questions for the hero without proof of their acts: “Are they physical acts or the internal thoughts of the hero? How much freedom of action does the hero actually have?” (viii). It is here again that we see that a hero does not need fame and success, but must possess drive and action to be considered heroic. Marji may not have the “physical acts”, but she does have the “internal thoughts of a hero”. At the age of ten, she says she wants to be “the justice, love, and wrath of God all in one” (9). Young Marji wants to make the world a better place, and continues trying to change it throughout her adolescence, but the government restricts her and others with the same drive for change. She does not have much “freedom of action” but does act within the law by attending protests and helping her parents. She is a hero because she is trying to save her country even when the country itself is trying to stop her.

“What are the hero’s motives for acting and for selecting certain agencies to attain his goal?” (viii). This is an instance in which Marji outshines Odysseus as a hero. Her motives for acting are completely selfless; she wishes to rid society of all its injustices. She says she wants to be a prophet because “our maid does not eat with us, because my father had a Cadillac, and, above all, because my grandmother’s knees always ached” (6). She is fulfilling the society’s common view of a hero: helping others, making a difference, saving the world, etc. But Odysseus acts out of selfishness. He goes to war in order to attain honor and to be known by the masses and seeks to return home because he misses it. The follow-up questions do not help Odysseus case, but worsen it. “What does he hope to achieve and what does he actually achieve?” (viii). This question can also be used to diminish the reputation of Marji, but she is restricted in her action while Odysseus has the freedom to do whatever he may; therefore, he can be judged more harshly. He hopes to return himself and his crew home as quickly as possible but he does not save a single person in his crew and leaves his family to suffer for almost two decades. He is a hero because he accomplishes many great things and makes amends to his family by returning, but his fundamental motives are not heroic, especially when compared to those of Marji.

After analyzing these two definitions, it is evident that both Odysseus and Marji can be considered heroes. But how can two characters with so many major differences be identified under the same group? Northrop Frye describes in his essay Fictional Modes that there are many different categoriesof heroes.  The second category of Frye holds Odysseus:  “If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being” (Frye 33). Odysseus is above men in degree because of his mastery of weaponry and wit. Athena aides him in being superior to other men because of her influence; however, he is still a human being and naturally on the same level as all men, which is why he is not “a hero of the divine” (Frye 33). Odysseus is not superior in kind, but superior in skill, which is why he fits into a category Frye describes as “the typical hero of romance”. On the other hand, Marji, because she is not superior in any way, is in a separate category than Odysseus. Marji fits into Frye’s fourth category: “If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience” (Frye 34). Marji represents the common people and the trials they must face in order to do the right thing. This is the reason why Marji does not have as many successes and victories as Odysseus. She appeals to a different side of the audience, the human side, and allows them to envision themselves as heroes in their own lives. As the representation of the everyman, Marji does not need spoils to be a hero; all she needs is the mindset and the determination to want to make a change.

By reviewing the information revealed by Norman, Pickett and the commentary of Frye, a concise definition of a hero can be developed. A hero can be anyone: a person of any status and of any gender or background with any sort of skill set. A hero can be a god, a human who is lucky enough to obtain godly powers, or a child who believes in the equal power of all humans.  A hero must act or desire to act in order to achieve a purpose. The act can be grand and depth-defying or it can be small and filled with humility. Both types of acts can hold the same impact. A hero must survive a trauma or persevere through a difficult time and still keep his or her sense of self and dignity. And, most importantly and most stressed by Norman and Pickett, a hero must have the determination, sense of purpose, and willpower to act or attempt to act heroically, no matter the stakes or the numbers against them. Odysseus and Marji are examples of these heroic traits; it is through them that the indefinable can be defined.  They represent the range of people that can be heroes; from warriors to oppressed children, they give the people who read about them hope that they too can be heroes. Pickett says that a heroic story “…depicts the human condition, not as it actually is, judged experientially, but as it might be, given a unity, design and emphasis. And naturally enough, it is the hero, the center of a literary work of art, that puzzles the casual reader most” (vii). The hero is a character that emits hope and displays the victories and vices of humanity. It is through this character that the audience is able to experience the heroic journey and hopefully begin a heroic journey in their own lives as they look to the examples of Odysseus, Marji, and other fictional heroes who personally affected them.


Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. “Fictional Modes”. The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ; Princeton U. Print.

Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox. The Odyssey. New York: Viking, 1996. Print.

Norman, Dorothy. The Hero:Myth/Image/Symbol. Cleveland, OH: World, 1969. Print.

Pickett, Roy G. The Theme of the Hero. Dubuque, IA: W.C. Brown, 1969. Print.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print.

Tyler, Bonnie. “Holding Out for a Hero.” 1985. Song lyrics., 2012.            Web. 6 December 2012.