The Social Hero
Strong characters in literature and film have proven to be a powerful way to understand and comment on society. The idea of a social hero is awkward at first because the name isn’t specific about what the hero’s relationship is to society. However, after closer examination this title becomes more functional: A social hero is one who transcends, confronts, and then conquers elements of society. Given this definition it is easy to see why authors of various kinds have used these figures as vehicles for exploring our most deeply held and sometimes deeply hidden ideals.
Each of us inherits the traditions and opinions of society at birth, a process that we tend to take for granted, but which social heroes bravely try to bring to light. This act is heroic in itself because it requires a willingness to leave the comfort of the familiar in search of a new perspective. This is implied in the movie The Celebration, where the suicide of his twin sister gives Christian the courage to confront and expose his powerful father. We may wonder what it was that forced him to be silent for so many years, unable to move on with his life. Christian’s fear of his father, reinforced by a submissive mother and siblings, was impossible to overcome until the death of his sister. Another change in perspective is at work when the “compact majority” abandons Dr. Stockman in An Enemy of the People. His belief that the majority of the people would recognize and demand truth was replaced with the realization that he could only trust himself with that burden. The most dramatic shift in perspective is depicted in the final pages of A Doll’s House when Nora reveals to Torvald that she is no longer sure about anything. Nora comes to the startling realization that she no longer loves her husband, and is totally unfit to care for her own children. Each character chose to emerge from cognitive dissonance and embrace reality regardless of the consequences.
Upon reaching the new vantage point, these social heroes had to reject old ideas in favor of new, more genuine ones. In this way, the original problem or conflict becomes an opportunity to search for the truth. As Nora says to Torvald concerning religion, “I will see if what the clergyman said is true, or at all events if it is true for me (p. 68).” Christian goes so far as to reveal the truth in front of his extended family, maximizing its impact and sealing his determination to acknowledge what really happened. Dr. Stockman declares the error of the majority in the presence of the majority itself. In all three cases, a confrontation with society or a representation thereof is the natural consequence of new-found perspective. The heroics of doing so are readily apparent because of the ensuing fury: Christian is taken out and beaten, Dr. Stockman is harassed and declared an enemy of the people, and Nora is harshly criticized by her husband.
At this point, the characters are presented with the choice to abandon their cause or to persevere in spite of opposition. Christian returns three times before finally achieving his objective. He is rewarded with the ability to put the tyranny of his father behind him and move on with his life. The determination shown by Dr. Stockman was equally heroic, but without much in the way of closure. He decides to stay and fight the majority rather than abandon the cause. There is a sense of personal victory, not public, conveyed in his declaration that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone (p. 82).” It is much more difficult to give wholesale heroic perseverance to Nora. There is a sense that she abandons her problems rather than solving them. She rightly states that she must learn a great deal of things before she can be a wife and a mother, but leaving her children seems to be denying reality rather than embracing it. It was, after all, middle class society that led her to have almost nothing to do with the rearing of her children. When she realizes that society has taken her children from her, it seems natural that she should desire to take them back. In the end, however, Nora cannot be accused of taking the easy way out of the situation even if I suggest she didn’t take the right one.
Each of the social heroes considered here, as well as many others found in literature and film, approach society with somewhat existential overtones. Whereas our legendary heroes spent much of their time living up to the expectations of others, the social heroes are engaged in a valiant struggle to live up to their own expectations in spite of society. In William Heinesen’s Laterna Magica, we are told of Hans, the deacon, who sees Old Tonnes fly from the upper window of his house. When nobody, not even the pastor, will believe his story, he asks “is the age of miracles gone forever then (p. 88)?” Later, the pastor tells him to forget about the whole thing, and to “put a blinder over your eyes, and a seal over your lips (p. 89).” We are not told the final outcome of this story, but if Hans is like other social heroes, he would probably cast off the “blinder,” and remain true to what he saw with his own eyes. What relevance is it to a true social hero that nobody else shared his belief? None whatsoever.
by Stuart Campbell
Expected Graduation: December 2004
Hometown: Pullman, WA
In this essay I tried draw out common themes found in An Enemy of the
People, A Doll's House, and The Celebration. I then attempted to use these
as a basis on which to judge the heroic qualities of the main character in
each story. The result was to form a working definition of the term 'social