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Rumors of a Hero

Louise Dean. Founder, author and Director of The Novelry.
Louise Dean
March 31, 2019
March 31, 2019

The mystique of the elusive hero-figure is one of Louise Dean’s favourite forms. It’s a ‘bystander’ narrative, often first-person, concerning a mysterious acquaintance, replete with puzzled admiration, with rumours as clues on the trail of charisma. It’s a paeon to the allure of ‘personality’.

The story of a big character told by someone seemingly inconsequential, this is a youthful form, an age-defying treatment. After all, it’s a youthful idea that personality can succeed.  

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity of the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald on Jay Gatsby

There are some beautiful variations in which apparent admiration is tempered by disapproval or disappointment. From the pioneer of the form – Ford Madox Ford in The Good Soldier – through to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, let’s take a look.

Rumors of a hero in The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier (1915) is narrated by John Dowell, half of one of the couples whose dissolving relationships form the subject of the novel. Dowell tells the story of those dissolutions and the deaths of three characters and the madness of a fourth, in a rambling, non-chronological fashion.

The novel opens with the famous line, ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’

Dowell explains that, for nine years, he and his wife Florence, their friend Captain Edward Ashburnham (the ‘good soldier’ of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora had an ostensibly normal friendship while Edward and Florence sought treatment for their heart ailments at a spa in Germany.

Nothing in the relationships or in the characters is as it first seems:

  • Florence’s heart ailment is a fiction she perpetrated on John to ensure that he did not seek intimacy from her as it would seemingly be too stressful for her heart, and to keep him out of her bedroom at night so that she could continue her affair with a French artist named Jimmy.
  • Edward and Leonora have an imbalanced marriage broken by his constant infidelities (both of body and heart) and Leonora’s attempts to control Edward’s affairs (both financial and romantic).
  • Dowell is an innocent and is coming to realise how much he has been fooled, as Florence and Edward had an affair under his nose for nine years without John knowing until Florence was dead.

The irony is that the focal point – the rumoured hero – is not a good egg at all.

Rumors of a hero in The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair (1951) is a first-person narrative. It is explicit from the outset that this is a love/hate story. The narrator is in love with Catherine, but she eludes him. She is married, and it’s the Second World War, but she is also unworldly and develops mystical beliefs and sincere devotions to which her cynical, burnt-out lover, Bendrix, is immune.

I couldn’t have thought of her more. Even vacancy was crowded with her.
―Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Rumors of a hero in Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal (What Was She Thinking? in the USA) is a 2003 novel by Zoë Heller. It is about a female teacher at a London comprehensive school who begins an affair with an underage pupil.

The novel is narrated by Barbara, a veteran history teacher at a comprehensive school in London, a lonely, unmarried woman in her early sixties. When Bathsheba ‘Sheba’ Hart is hired as an art teacher, Barbara feels that they might become close friends. Sheba’s flimsy allure is detailed with increasing cynicism by Barbara. When Sheba’s life begins to fall apart, Barbara thrives on the mess of it, and Sheba comes increasingly to rely upon her.

Qualities these heroes share

In this blog, we looked in some detail at The Great Gatsby, which remains the strongest archetype of the form – quite literally. Nick Carraway hears ‘rumours’ of his ‘heroic’ neighbour, Jay Gatsby, and is drawn into Gatsby’s orbit. But Nick’s fascination with Gatsby (and in turn Gatsby’s fascination with Nick’s cousin Daisy) surely sours.

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Often these novels begin with suggestions of the hero or heroine’s charmed existence.

But that’s not all they have in common. The slightly out-of-focus subject of these novels is:

  • Unconventional
  • Gender defying
  • Socially defiant
  • Attentive
  • Distinctly glamorous in looks and mode of dress
  • Evasive
  • Sorrowful
  • Private

These heroes rarely transform

If a novel is a moral journey, then the novel does not quite belong to the rumoured hero or heroine. They are beyond the realm of life’s tedious lessons, the humbling that awaits the rest of us, and they ‘disappear’ or die before they get old.

The real subject of the novel is the narrator, and their flaw, the willingness to suspend one’s own journey and be entertained as a way of treading water. The plot of the novel implicates them as the guilty party in the sense we of the modern age are all guilty of ‘watching’.

The narrator is watchful, always observing

In The Lives of Others (2006), a film with a screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Stasi officer Gerd Weisel is under orders to watch, and listen to ‘the lives of others.’

But as his admiration for the playwright Georg Dreyman grows, he becomes infected by his hero’s ability to love another, and this is how he gathers is something he is missing this ability from in his own life.

Watching, observing, and comparing is a huge part of the ‘rumours of a hero’ treatment.

These heroes are not like us

The ‘heroes’ in these works are at a remove from reality, due to their magical qualities, gifts or innocence which separates them from the narrator through whose eyes we see them. The heroes do not endure or persist or age. That is not their purpose, they are ephemeral, a mirage.

I told you: you can make yourself love anybody.
―Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The affectionate, indulgent – or slightly envious – quality of this hero worship, close to voyeurism, is a symptom of abrogation of the true hero’s duty: to make a difference by making things better.

So the hero’s journey in these novels is to move from watching to acting, which may simply be walking away, not being there, becoming other. All stories are interested in heroes who dissociate from the spectating morass.

In this form, we begin with something worth watching, untenably lovely, and false. It is hard to drag our eyes from the sight of another human being’s degradation or failure, but that is what the hero must do.

The narrators of these books walk away with a distaste for their former activities, and those who joined them to watch the show. The form does not seem to offer a happy ending.

A disquieting loneliness came into my life, but it induced no hunger for friends of longer acquaintance: they seemed now like a salt-free, sugarless diet.
―Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
―F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
...what is romance, but a mutual pact of delusion? When the pact ends, there’s nothing left.
―Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal
I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone.
―Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

These novels are some of the hero novels for our online creative writing courses. The hero novels are chosen for their virtues as novels that teach story structure from the inside out. We ask writers to choose one for their writing journey, to keep faith with during the ninety days of writing and read nightly even just for a few minutes. On the first reading, you’ll absorb the structure which we teach in the lessons, on further readings you’ll notice techniques in the prose. Keeping faith with one novel mirrors the daily hour’s writing of keeping faith with your own, and helps you keep your writing nice and steadily paced. While we ask you to remain faithful to your hero novel during the ninety days of writing, we do permit afternoon liaisons with other books!

Choose the novel which best suits what you love to read and want to write to keep you safe while you create.

Someone writing in a notebook
Louise Dean. Founder, author and Director of The Novelry.
Louise Dean

Award-winning Booker Prize listed author.

Members of The Novelry team