Creating an Antihero: Christopher Marlowe’s “Faustus”

Seeing that in a work of fiction, be it a movie or a book, everyone usually roots for the positive protagonist, creating an anti-hero and placing him or her directly in the middle of the plot might seem to be a risky idea due to the possible low demand for the described story. However, as several film and book plots have shown, the described fear is completely ungrounded since general audiences typically show sympathy and even extend their amicability to the characters that are portrayed as anti-social anti-heroes. “Faustus” is one of the better-known examples of the outlined phenomenon. Although Dr. Faustus clearly bears the signs of an anti-hero, with his willingness to sell his soul for the possibility of ever-lasting knowledge, he still retains a significant amount of likeability throughout the book.

When viewed from a traditional angle of character structure and development, Faustus does not seem to contain a wide range of conventional anti-hero characteristics. Namely, even though he is placed at the forefront of the story and is not painted in particularly flattering colors, he is depicted in a very sympathetic way. However, the specified desire for learning and the need to embrace every bit of knowledge that the humankind has ever discovered has underlying selfish motives: “for vain pleasure of twenty-four years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity” (Marlowe). Indeed, as Faustus confesses to himself and the reader, he is not going to use the newly gained gargantuan knowledge and incredibly nuanced insight for the greater good of the humankind. Quite the contrary, Faustus admits that his desire to learn more is rooted in the sense of self-gratification and rejection of those willing to help him: “Talk not of me, but save yourselves, and depart” (Marlowe). Therefore, the presence of selfishness and a rather great sense of self-importance do not ruin the impression of a sympathetic character, thus giving Faustus a relatable personality and allowing him to reach the status of an anti-hero.

The concept of an anti-hero is often conflated with that one of a villain, yet they are quite different from each other. Namely, while the villain is typically created as a force against which the leading character is expected to fight, the concept of an anti-hero exists on its own (Oliver 171). For example, in Faustus, the titular character could have been sent on any kind of a journey, which would not necessarily have featured Mephistopheles. However, given his role in the play, Mephistopheles would not have become a self-sufficient character without Faustus. In other words, villains are usually interwoven with the plot, whereas characters navigate it (Oliver 173). Therefore, there is a clear and distinctive line between a villain and an anti-hero, no matter how many similarities the two character types may have in terms of personality.

Therefore, the main function of a villain in the story is to serve as the antagonistic force that the leading character is expected to face at some point. However, anti-heroes are at the center of the plot, navigating it rather than being a part of the novel’s roadmap, as villains typically do. However, the distinction between the two types of characters can also be traced at other points of story making. Namely, the evil strategies that anti-heroes and villains devise are quite different from one another. As seen in “Faustus,” the leading character creates a plan that allows him to wiggle his way out of the deal with Mephistopheles. In turn, the latter takes an active role in plotting his evil plans, directly luring Faustus into the trap.

As a result, in contrast to anti-heroes, villains typically lose in most stories. “Faustus” is a remarkable exception to this paradigm since the leading character fails to save his soul, allowing Mephistopheles to take him to hell: “Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!/I’ll burn my books! – Ah, Mephistophilis!” (Marlowe). Therefore, being portrayed as sympathetic and relatable, an anti-hero does not necessarily succeed, yet redemption is a crucial part of this character’s development (Oliver 191). Moreover, the strategies that an anti-hero uses to reach these goals could be seen as morally reprehensible, yet are never beyond the opportunity of making the character seem redeemable. In other words, the evil plots of anti-heroes are never sinister enough to make them irredeemable or entirely unlikable. The described distinction does not mean that villains can be a one-dimensional foil for the lading characters; quite the contrary, creating a compelling villain is crucial for a captivating story. However, the role of a villain should not overshadow that one of the main character, as “Faustus” shows. Therefore, even though Mephistopheles remains an interesting character that does not merely represent a foil for Faustus, it is the titular character that remains in the limelight.

Despite being the focus of the book, Dr. Faustus is a textbook definition of an anti-hero since his motivations and personality are rooted in the characteristics that are traditionally frowned upon by society. Namely, Dr. Faustus’ egocentrism is what gets him entangled into a desperate situation in the first place. The fact that Faustus makes a deal with the devil cements him as a profoundly flawed protagonist, contrasting the specified qualities with those of traditional heroes, such as selflessness and sympathy for others. Driven by his selfish need to gain knowledge at all costs. Therefore, Faustus should be considered a classic example of an anti-hero.

Works Cited

Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus. Project Gutenberg, 1604. Web.

Oliver, Mary Beth, et al. “A Penchant for the Immoral: Implications of Parasocial Interaction, Perceived Complicity, and Identification on Liking of Anti-Heroes.” Human Communication Research, vol. 45, no. 2, 2019, pp. 169-201.

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