The Rascal as Hero

EVER since those far-off days when pious Greeks sang praise to Hermes, godly cattle-thief, and the beautiful Shahryar bought her life night by night with judiciously doled accounts of Ali Baba and his shrewd little accomplice, the adroit and interesting scoundrel has been adding his spice to literature. And if Mr. Fiske is right in his theory that human evolution differs from that of the lower orders merely in its multiplicity of means, — so that while an antelope must be swift, a man may be many things and still live long in the land, — if this is true, then the resourceful rogue certainly has a priori proof of existence. Or shall we rather say that the consideration paid him furnishes a remarkable instance of Mr. Fiske’s principle ?

To follow the heroic rascal through all the stages of his long and checkered career would be a task for the specialist accurately versed in literary genres and tendencies. But it will perhaps add interest to a cursory survey of the characteristic marks of the fraternity if we stop to notice the novel suggestion regarding its development, offered by Mr. Frank W. Chandler in his Romances of Roguery,1 Part I. of which has recently been published. This detailed study of the Spanish picaro shows him rascal to the core. He is hard of heart, light of hand, and glib of tongue, and “in his time plays many parts, ” with one intent — to dupe a foolish world. And yet he is, as Mr. Chandler aptly names him, the “anti-hero.” In roguery as a high art he has no interest; his ruling motive is avarice, wit is his sharpest weapon, and his daily bread and servant’s livery his highest aims. But as he is rascal par excellence, so he throws the light of a logical contrary upon the term hero, and thus, “an episode in the history of the novel, ” the rogue romance marks, so Mr. Chandler would have us believe, a distinct and necessary step in the forward progress of the heroic type it was created to satirize. Just how explicit Part II. of the Romances will render this obvious implication of Part I., it is of course impossible to say. For our present purpose it is interesting to notice that, theoretically at least, a knowledge of the depths of rascality is bound to add reality to the scaling of its heights, and then to see how, on broad lines, Mr. Chandler’s theory is borne out by the obvious distinctions between the ancient and the modern rascal.

In any case, whatever the generating principle or exact process of the heroic rascal’s evolution, he certainly “arrived” early. In primitive literature he is generally a thief, because thieving is at once the most obvious and most lucrative form of miscreancy. In this guise he travels from country to country, as Master-Thief, Little Fairly, or the Shifty Lad, robbing a long-suffering king’s treasure-house, stealing an ox from under the driver’s nose, or a sheep from off his back, and occasionally carrying away a beautiful princess for variety. He is always phenomenally cunning and charmingly reckless of all lives but his own; and he takes an aesthetic pleasure in his own performances that lifts him far above the level of the merely mercenary robber. At first his presentation is naive and without question. No stern regard for the ethics of meum and tuum blinds the author to the fact that craft and cunning, as well as steadfast constancy or blunt, honest courage, may be on a truly heroic scale. So the wily Odysseus is as wholly a hero to his Homer as the warlike Achilles ; and why should he not be, when double-dealing and diplomacy were unquestioned laws in the Olympus all three prayed to ?

Guileless Phseacians were born to be deceived, so ran the primitive philosophy ; golden fleece was hung up to be stolen; why, then, turn one’s enjoyment of so pretty a feat to sympathy for a wicked and outwitted dragon or a foolish king? Nobody is perfect, and simple stupidity is as likely as anything else to cover a multitude of sins.

So it was seldom indeed in those days that the rascal got his deserts. Brer Rabbit, having connived at the destruction and death of two of his friends and basely betrayed the third, lives on, a loved and respected citizen; and if the Shifty Lad is accidentally hanged on the bridge of Baile Cliabh, this sad fate overtakes him rather because he has been a bad son and has neglected his old mother’s warnings than because he stole much fine gold and treacherously murdered the Black Rogue, his master.

Poetic justice, in short, was not yet recognized as an æsthetic criterion. On the other hand it is noticeable that the villain as such, deep-dyed and evil to the core, is likewise unknown in primitive literature. Like the minor character and the soliloquy, the villain is after all more or less of a stage convention. He is not often met with in real life, and the abstraction necessary to create him is far beyond the naivete of folk lore or national epic. Yet the general tendency to specialization was bound to produce him — bound to exalt the hero, and to substitute for the Homeric conflict between two great personalities an opposition of conscious, if intermittent, virtue against consistent vice.

So it is necessary, in any consideration of the modern rascal, to make certain careful distinctions. First is he a hero at all, or is he rather offered like the rollicking devils and merry little vices of the Miracle Plays, merely as a foil for his more worthy compeers ? Then is he a hero because, or in despite of his rascality ? Satan, for example, in the Puritan Milton’s presentation of him, is great not as devil but as archangel ruined; when the mantle of his whilom glory has wholly fallen from him he cowers, a craven and unlovely serpent, at his Creator’s feet. Shakespeare, on the other hand, with larger heart and serener spirit, dares to let Richard III. die fighting bravely, conquered only by his own bitter judgment on himself, and sends a country lout to foil great Csesar’s triumph and enable Cleopatra to die in majesty as she had lived in power.

Yet the monster Richard is not offered as normal, nor does one feel in Cleopatra’s story any lack of the deepest poetic justice. Rascality has been presented in all its beauty and in all its power, and as truly as in the Paradise Lost, only more subtly, has it been condemned.

It is for this same reason — the inability of the avowed rascal to stand for any finality in a rational world — that most of Shakespeare’s scoundrels are presented as minor characters. It is because of the subtlety of his method that he is willing to make them heroes — at least to themselves — as charming as Autolycus or Falstaff, as incomparably graceful as Iago.

To the average reader the most interesting, because most familiar, presentation of the heroic rascal is undoubtedly that to be found in the modern novel. Here as elsewhere he is omnipresent. He came on as Rochester, black-browed, eccentric, mysterious, and supremely fascinating, — at least to Charlotte Brontë and J ane Eyre; and during the present year he has delighted us as David Harum, and made us shiver as the Gadfly.

In contrast with his primitive prototype, the modern rascal is noticeable first of all for his versatility. He is no longer merely a reckless thief, a dexterous liar, or a coarse practical joker. With the increasing complexity of life his sphere has widened immeasurably, and his motives and ambitions have been stretched to cover everything in the material and moral universe. So we have Baldassare cultivating cunning that he may take his vengeance on Tito Melema, and Tito too indolently fond of his own sweet will, and too ambitious for the favor of the Medicis, to seek power or pleasure by the straight and narrow way. We have Becky Sharp tricking matchlessly for a title, and Leicester scheming less adroitly if more recklessly for a throne. And as curiously modern variants, we have the philanthropic rascal in Roden’s Corner, and the rascal on principle in Beggars All. Some play for the prize, and some, like Rupert of Hentzau, love best the hazards of the game; some, like Becky, tread hard on human hearts, and others, like Gilbert Parker’s Pretty Pierre, can be very tender when there is need; some, as Rochester, stand proudly self-justified in a condemning world; others, undeceived, drink the bitter draught their own hearts pour for them to its dregs.

It should be needless to say that in this ethical and scientific nineteenth century the making of a hero has long since ceased to be the simple thing it was in the days of the wily Odysseus. This is partly, no doubt, because all the stories have meanwhile been told; but another and better reason for it is the fact that the standard for the heroic has been rising steadily ever since the Renaissance. Once we were satisfied that our hero should be great; now he must also be good, — or we would know the reason why.

So the novelist who attempts to deal in rascality is confronted at once by the necessity for justifying his miscreants. The methods of apology are various. One, the favorite with the romancers, is to label the rascal villain and kill him off ignominiously in the last chapter, taking care, however, to make him so artistic and debonair a sinner that he can run hard by the real hero for first place in the reader’s sympathy. This method, practiced at present by Anthony Hope and his allies, is really a reversion to the Homeric principle.

But while it satisfies the requirements of our enlightened morality, it offers no grist for our scientific mill. It is therefore far less popular than the second method of justification; namely, the “ accounting for ” the rascal by virtue of his environment. Except for such isolated instances as the Soldiers Three and the bad little boy of the Sunday-school book, the rascal of today is not born but made. And so, as the inevitable product of his circumstances, he is at worst unmoral, — a butterfly on a pin, pitiful, more sinned against than sinning.

This method of presentation involves certain rather obvious disadvantages. First, it generally entails an appalling amount of philosophy and psychology per rascal; but that we are getting to enjoy. Then the rascal is frequently made known to us from his youth up, a process strongly reminiscent of the experience of the German professor who began the study of chemistry in order to clean his coat. Most of us feel that the direct road to the rascal’s heart does not lie through Part I. of the Gadfly ; and while that is undoubtedly an extreme case of indirection, it is typical in kind if not in degree.

A third method of justification has lately come to the notice of the long-suffering public. Its perpetrator is Mr. Henry James, in the Awkward Age, where the reader’s pleased expectancy is excited by the entrance of the charming Mr. Longdon, only to be turned to a haunting doubt that the well-intentioned old gentleman cannot conceivably be as sweet and simple as he seems. But this casting a cloud of mystery over the whole situation accomplishes directly — if with slight confusion of spirit to the uninitiated — just what all the methods of apology are aiming at, namely, the reconciliation of what, in modern ethics, are contradictory terms.

These are some modern tendencies, but they have not downed the rascal. Twice at least the Gadfly is clothed with majesty; Mr. Carter and Dolly Mickleham, both rascals born, smile serenely from the pages of the Dialogues ; and David Harum, hard-hearted and keen at a horse trade, triumphs over his detractors with each new edition. So here ’s to the Rascal as Hero! Long may he live in the land! May he always fight featly and fair, as befits a good rascal and a true hero!

Edith Kellogg Dunton.

  1. Romances of Roguery. By Frank W. Chandler. London and New York : The Macmillan Co. 1899.