Three Unsung Existential Heroes of Twentieth Century Literature

Existential protagonists are most often misunderstood as misanthropes who are curt, reticent, morose, disillusioned, and sometimes even mad besides being termed as cynics. They are often viewed by the society from the common man’s perspective who pretends and tries too hard to conform to the conventional societal norms set by the umpteen phonies. The existential heroes such as, “Holden Caulfield” of “The Catcher in the Rye” by “J.D Salinger”, “Jimmy” of “Look Back in Anger” by “John Osborne” and “Biff” of “The Death of a Salesman” by “Arthur Miller” are often misread by the readers.

Moreover, most readers find it hard to relate themselves to these characters. As in the case of Holden Caulfield, the teenaged boy seems to have understood the adult’s world in depth. He perceives it to be absolutely phony and fears that he would soon enter into the adult’s world. The thought of him getting into the phony world depresses the boy so much so that he gradually develops psychotic problems. The phoniness that surrounds his life attacks the boy mentally and psychologically, which he is not able to fight.

Therefore, he looks for the alternatives to combat this problem by distancing himself from the phony world and by being cynical about everything and everyone. However, the world fails to see through his innocent eyes and labels him as psychologically unstable character. Little does the world know that what Holden needs is not psychological help but spiritual help.

Holden is a soft and tender character who needs love and attention from the people. Holden weeps for the world even including the people whom he hates, but it is overlooked by the world. The delicate altruistic nature, which is subtly masked behind Holden’s cynical appearance, goes unnoticed. Holden’s ambition of wanting to be “The Catcher in the Rye” and his appreciation for innocence and search for it are evident enough to gaze the altruistic side of him.


Jimmy of “Look Back in Anger” is the embodiment of “Angry Young Man” character. He too is a big cynic himself and cribs about everything in life. Jimmy’s frustration about life in general is the impact of the World War I at large, after which the world rumbled under disillusionment and nothingness. The absurdity and the meaninglessness of life only aggravate Jimmy’s moroseness.

He bears the existential angst within him and portrays himself as insensitive and harsh but only outwardly. Behind Jimmy’s egoistic attitude and the quarrelsome nature, there is also a tender Jimmy inside. However, Jimmy is undoubtedly sentimental, and profoundly so. The Bears-and-squirrels Game he plays with his wife Alison is a futile attempt made to compensate for their failure in marriage. Jimmy’s manifestation of paroxysm only makes him a psychotic character, which is not true.


Biff of “The Death of a Salesman” is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky character as a child, who sees his father (Willy Lowman) as his “Personal Hero”. However, this image fades drastically the moment Biff encounters his father getting involved into an unsavoury sexual practice with a kip in a hotel room. Willy Lowman has a conceited image of himself and he drowns himself in the process of achieving the so-called “American Dreams”. He is so blinded by the “American Dreams” that he shatters completely in life.

He gradually develops unfathomable psychosis that drives him to meet with the final disappointment (Death). The legacy that Willy leaves for Biff is hatred, disgust and phoniness. Biff stifles his father so much that even after his death he doesn’t show any respect to the departed soul. However, he weeps for his mother who is fooled by her own husband.

Once a cheerful and optimistic kid, (Biff) becomes completely dejected and morose in his adult life. As Biff is aware of the phoniness of the world, starting from his own father, he rebels conformity and retreats himself in his quite world. His confidence vanishes in vain and he reels himself under constant agony.

The three characters are terminally trapped in a common ship, which will never reach its anchor. This puts them in a constant snit. Therefore, they are ever grousing against the world but their ‘cry’ only comes as “A Far Cry from No Land”. The world views them from a stereotypical prism, which is plaqued by ‘biases’.

On the contrary, the world fails to grasp the inner characters of these three unsung existential heroes who are the true altruists. In this light, one may also opine that the reader-response-theory is subjective at one point but on the other hand it is very much constructed by the mores of the society. Therefore, the readers’ approach towards these characters needs to be changed. They should be celebrated and not ignored.

Next Post Previous Post