Theodore Ziolkowski
Hesitant Heroes

As the classic forms were transformed in the face of industrialization, urbanization, commercialization, and other alienating forces of the modern world, so too the hero in his original purity and immediacy of action had to change. The 'hesitant' hero can be viewed as an early symptom of this vast social transformation: an epigone, a man so born so late that he is torn between opposing systems of belief and value and becomes incapable of the same unthinking action that characterized his heroic predecessors.

This sequence, of course, displays degrees of variation. For Aeneas and Orestes, in whom the veneer of civilization barely laminates the old vengeance culture, the hesitation is a matter of moments. In Parzival the brief minutes of inhibition cause a delay of more than four years—a period during which he matures to the point at which he can embrace and reconcile oppositions that are already firmly rooted in his world. Hamlet's moment of vacillation is preceded by two months of doubts and delays, and his tragic hesitation ultimately bears a tremendous cost in bloodshed, which eventually, temporizes so long that his delays render him fatally incapable of action in a complex world of multiple conflicts. In sum, we observe a progressive intensification as the hero passes from instant action through momentary hesitation to ever-lengthening delays and temporizations culminating in total inaction. This development, which parallels the growing complexities and religious-political-epistemological conflicts of Western civilization, is accompanied by a shift from narrative epic to drama, as the genre in which the psychological molivation of the hero can be more profoundly analyzed, and eventually to the novel, as the focus shifts from the inaction of the hero to the pressures of the world surrounding him.

What happens to the hero who has passed through these various stages? He reaches the state of permanent vacillation or wavering that was observed and analyzed by Sir Walter Scott in the figure whom he ironically introduces as 'our hero' and who bears the telling name 'Waverley.' Waverley, the Englishman who can never make up his mind between North and South, between Scotland and England, Catholic and Protestant, ancient community and modern society, manages—unlike Wallenstein, who is destroyed by his inability to act—to resolve his conflicts by marrying a Scotswoman and settling down on the border between the two countries and cultures. From Waverley it is an easy step to the 'passive heroes' of Dickens and Thackeray and to those neurotically introspective 'sick heroes' and self-obsessed 'antiheroes' who populate French and Russian literature of the nineteenth century with their indecision and inaction—Julian Sorel and Frederic Moreau, Dostoyevsky's nameless Underground Man and Pechorin, whom Lermontov sardonically labeled 'a hero of our own times.' (It is revealing that the term 'hero' began to be commonly, and often ironically, applied to the central figure of fictional works about the time that it began to lose the force of its original cultural meaning.

When writers of the nineteenth century wanted to confront their (almost inevitably hesitant) heroes with heroic dilemmas, they had to send them, like Conrad's Lord Jim, away from the West into exotic lands where conflicts between cultures were still taking place or, like Melville's Billy Budd, into the self-contained communities of ocean vessels where a naive sense of justice and honor by its very existence challenges the established order. Failing such exile, these figures end up in the multicultured and multivalued twentieth century like the 'hero' of Unamuno's novel Mist, so uncertain in the face of choices and unable on his doorstep to decide whether to go left or right that he simply waits until he can fall in behind a passing dog; Franz Kafka's Josef K., who spends the last year of his life postponing and ultimately rejecting the decision to accept responsibility for his guilt; or T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, who has 'time yet for a hundred indecisions.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.