By: Eden Zorne
We’ve all read a book or watched a movie at some point in our lives (I hope), and in it, there’s usually this one boy/man/male-identifying space creature that we’re inexplicably drawn to, even though he’s a terrible person. Have you ever wondered why it is that we love to hate (or sometimes just love, let’s be honest here) these guys? Or have you ever wondered where they came from (as a character type, I can’t possibly elaborate on the origins of every single example)? Well, wonder no longer! In honor of November being National Novel Writing Month, and as I am currently working on a novel with this very type of character being the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on how you look at it), I decided to take a break from that Google Doc and hop onto this one to explain the origins of the superfluous man.
The superfluous man (in Russian, лишний человек, literally extra person) is a character trope that emerged in the 19th century in Russian literature, and is a sort of spin-off of a Byronic hero. The author credited with inventing the character trope is Alexander Pushkin, whose titular character in Yevgeny Onegin (published 1833) is a superfluous man. However, it wasn’t until Ivan Turgenev’s novella The Diary of a Superfluous Man was published in 1850 that the term became well-known and canonized in the literary world. This type of character is usually a very wealthy man with high intelligence, but lacks genuine kindness and empathy. He usually has grandiose hopes and/or dreams, and is enamored in some way by society, but is existentially bored and never realizes them. The most famous characters in Russian literature fitting this character type are Pushkin’s titular Evgeny Onegin, as I mentioned before, Pechorin in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time, Prince Myshin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and Ivan Goncharov’s titular character in Oblomov. Now, let’s move onto why he is so appealing to readers.
For starters, he is usually very attractive, and even if he isn’t, well, there’s nobody that doesn’t like money. Wealth is oftentimes equally as attractive as, if not more so than, appearance. Secondly, and what personally draws me into these types of characters, is the element of intrigue. Why is he the way that he is? What happened in his life to fuel this sort of behavior? Is there a possibility of redemption? Is his portrayal a genuine representation of his true personality? All of these questions are begging to be answered, but oftentimes, it is up to the reader to make up their own answers, as, mild spoiler alert, the character often ends up dying very young, and, unless the work is written in a first-person perspective, there is little of the character’s thoughts that are explicitly conveyed. This is attractive to readers because we love to continue the stories in our heads, make alternate universes and timelines, to keep the mystery alive even after the book has ended. It keeps our minds actively engaged in the story, which keeps us longing for more. Unfortunately, most of the classic superfluous men were penned by authors that have been dead for over a century, which means that our longing for continuations of their stories will be eternal.
Although the character is generally considered to be unique to 19th-century Russian literature, there are several examples in modern Western literature and film that come to mind, although they do not embody the trope in its entirety. Three examples off the top of my head are Han Solo from Star Wars, Severus Snape from Harry Potter, and Tony Stark from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Han is essentially a smug space cowboy who gets himself into all sorts of troubles, gambles, and fights with people and seems to have not a care in the world for the consequences. Gambling is one of the behaviors typically exhibited by this character trope, and although Han does come around in the end to be a somewhat decent guy, there is no doubt that in the beginning, he was shaping up to be a sort of space Onegin. Snape is quite the opposite of Han, being somewhat depressed, angry at the universe, and isolated from others. However, his lack of genuine emotion towards anyone except Lily (which is an obsessive love and is not healthy for anyone involved; I genuinely don’t understand how people think this is an admirable act of his, but I digress), and his constant belittling of those he deems to be beneath him (students, especially those who appear weak), are also classic behaviors for a superfluous man to exhibit, with the lack of emotion and the cruelty being reminiscent of Pechorin’s behavior. Finally, we have Tony Stark, a self-proclaimed “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist.” He takes risks that endanger his life, has a bit of an alcohol problem, and above all, chases after women like Pechorin and Onegin. However, like Han, he too comes around in the end, and ends up being an admirable character, unlike the aforementioned Russian literary characters.
At the end of the day, you probably don’t really care that much about character tropes and types. You probably just want to read the book or watch the movie and enjoy it. You probably also don’t care about 19th-century Russian literature and that’s okay. But, it’s important to recognize where our favorite types of characters come from, especially for aspiring authors. Because if we love a certain type of character, we’ll do our best to create more of them, which benefits readers to a great degree, since you all will have more to read of the mysterious, hateable-yet-loveable arrogant jerk man of your dreams. Happy reading/watching!