[Image: a picture of myself giving my dissertation to Aidan Turner. Source: Amanda Steele. Used with permission]
This research will consider the portrayal of heroism in the first four novels of the Poldark series. Heroes are generally considered to be perfect individuals, who always make morally correct decisions. They stand for the values of their time and function as role models that ordinary people strive to emulate. However, we see in Poldark that the hero, Ross Poldark, is deeply flawed. He faces internal moral conflicts, and he does not always behave heroically. This research will also look at two other characters from the novels, Dwight Enys and Demelza Poldark, and will consider the ways in which they can also be classified as heroes. Whilst their roles in the narrative are not as central as the role of the protagonist, we see that they fit the same specifications of heroism that Ross does. Unlike a typical hero in literature, all three of these characters perform noble actions and are seen to be fallible. They struggle with restraining their emotions and we see that their heroic actions are often motivated by self-interest. This thereby shows that the heroes of Poldark are not perfect ideals to be emulated, but ordinary people who have flaws. The role that context plays in how heroism is perceived will also be considered, as through time the idea of what a hero should embody has changed. Overall, it will be concluded that heroes should not be seen as exalted ideals, and instead should be seen as flawed people who strive to be morally good.
In this dissertation, I will be reflecting on the portrayal of heroes in the Poldark series, specifically focusing on the first four novels. These four novels form part of a twelve novel series, which follows the life story of the protagonist, Ross Poldark. Whilst these were written between 1945 and 1953, they were adapted for television in both 1975 and 2015. In all three cases, Poldark has been met with immense success. It has been suggested by critics such as Sarah Crompton that the continued popularity of the series is due to the storyline having “the underlying clarity of a fairytale [sic].” (2015). Alistair Cooke, a journalist and presenter, stated after the success of the 1975 adaptation that Ross was “a soldier whose manly instincts are only fleetingly clouded by misgivings or second thoughts. He is decent, plucky, generous, brisk, and positive.” (1981, p.53). My research will interrogate this view of Ross as a paragon of heroism, and contest the idea that he is the sole hero of the series.
A key critic that I will reference throughout this research is Thomas Carlyle, and his work On Heroes Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. This theory, written in 1841, introduces the idea that heroes are “Great Men” (Carlyle, 1968, p.2), and are the writers of history through their noble actions. However, Ross is deeply flawed, and this research will question theoretical assumptions about what it means to be a hero. A hero, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is “a person who is admired for their courage or outstanding achievements.” (Elliott, Hawker and Soanes, 2005, p.425). Ross is unquestionably brave, as we see throughout the four novels, and inspires loyalty in others. However, he is not a morally perfect character, and I will look at Ross’ flaws in relation to his heroic behaviour. Unlike in an actual fairy tale, where “stories have stereotyped characters and a certain predictability of event.” (Brewer, 2006, p.15), Poldark displays characters that do not fit into the categories of simply heroes, villains, and supporting characters. Instead of having a socially superior male hero, Poldark presents us with more than one character who is seen to make morally good choices in order to help others. These decisions to help others are often at a personal risk to themselves. Thus, I will introduce the idea of the ordinary hero, by examining the actions of Ross and two other significant characters. These characters will be the physician, Dwight Enys, and Ross’ wife, Demelza. These characters, like Ross, break the mould of the stereotypical faultless hero.
The first chapter of this research will identify both the attitude that makes Ross appear as a stereotypical hero, and the ways in which he fails to meet these specifications. Ross shows a willingness to help those who are in need, and this will be specifically examined through his loyalty to Jim Carter, a miner. The traditional view of heroism in literature is that heroes are defined as flawless by the people around them, and are then treated as such. The ordinary person is said to worship the hero, to the point that they “treat him with an obedience which knows no bounds!” (Carlyle, 1968, p.6). In Poldark, we are shown that Ross is initially revered to the point that many of the other characters are oblivious to his flaws. However, I will argue that whilst Ross is heroic in many situations, he is not morally exceptional. We see that he is ruled more by his emotions than by a sense of rationality. This is particularly clear through his involvement in an ambiguous and highly controversial rape scene. Carlyle also identifies that “a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.” (1968, p.59). This chapter will discuss both Ross’ sincerity and his obvious flaws.
Having established that Ross is not solely a flawless character in the first chapter, the second chapter will then move on to explore the other heroes of the series. I classify them as ordinary heroes, as they are not faultless individuals. Dwight Enys, like Ross, is aware of the struggles of the lower classes. Hero worship, as defined by Carlyle, is the “transcendent admiration of a Great Man.” (1968, p.14), and Enys’ patients show such a reverence to him. In doing this, they fail to see that he is flawed, just as they are. Examples of Enys’ fallibility are when he sleeps with a married woman, and when he helps a group of smugglers, including Ross, instead of eloping with the woman he loves. This shows that like Ross, Enys prizes helping those in need over all else. Demelza begins her role in the narrative as simply a miner’s daughter, but soon becomes the wife of the protagonist. Through her decisions to help others, she fits the same heroic specifications that the male heroes do. Her heroic actions require her to put herself at risk, and she does so willingly. Using case studies from the novels, I will consider the heroic actions that these three characters take, concluding that they can all be seen as ordinary heroes, despite the barriers of class and gender.
In the third chapter of this research, I will consider the wider scope of Poldark. Having already examined the ways in which Poldark portrays heroes that are not perfect, my focus will be on how a changing historical context has affected the portrayal of these heroes. With the rise of modernity, we see that “the old one-dimensional hero or paragon is finished.” (Fishwick, 1983, p.7). This is particularly significant, considering that the novels were written after the trauma of the Second World War. The concept of the hero being able to “fight and conquer” (Carlyle, 1968, p.182) was no longer the dominant specification of heroism at this time. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in his essay on ‘The Decline of Heroes’, notes that “No man is infallible, and every man needs to be reminded of this on occasion.” (1968, p.343). Poldark, one of the most popular historical novels of its time, portrayed heroes with flaws. As this portrayal of heroism is more inclusive than the standard view, as it allows readers to identify with the various identities of the characters. As well as this, readers are able to relate to the struggles that the heroes undertake in order to be morally good. In society, Andrew Flescher argues that “heroes and saints embody the ideal, not the norm” (2003, p.5). Ultimately I will argue that the morally flawed heroes of Poldark provide a way for an audience to relate to the characters, thus explaining the relevance of the series to the present day.
When considering the portrayal of heroism over time, it is important to note that there is a standard view of what it means to be a hero. However, what is often not considered is how historical context can make an impact on how a hero is portrayed, particularly in literature. By considering three different views on heroism, I will outline a contextual framework in which my own research will be placed. I will then also consider a direct review of Poldark, fitting my work in with current criticism.
Carlyle’s highly influential work, On Heroes Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) is considered as one of the starting points on which the theory of “Great Men” (1968, p.2) began. According to Carlyle’s theory, heroes are such strongly influential individuals that it is their actions alone that create the course of history. His argument that “all sorts of Heroes are intrinsically of the same material” (Carlyle, 1968, p.151) suggests that there is an innate sense of morality that is present in all heroes. However, he does not take into account the fact that people who do not fit his requirements can also be heroes. Carlyle notes that “the hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born into.” (1968, p.103). However, what unites all of these is the fact that they are typically male roles, in socially significant positions. Whilst Carlyle anticipated “a whole World of Heroes […] why may not every one of us be a Hero?” (1968, p.167) we can see from his strongly masculine definitions of heroism that he did not anticipate heroism extending to women, and certainly not to those from the lower classes. Considering the patriarchal society of the time he was writing in, this is hardly surprising. By looking at his theory, I consider how Poldark defies these expectations of what a hero should be.
Carlyle also introduces the idea of hero-worship, suggesting that these male heroes should be put on a pedestal. They are seen as role models whom others should strive to emulate. This is doubly problematic, as it suggests that women cannot be heroes, and that they must worship these socially elevated men. We can see here that the attitude towards the identity of a hero has changed over time. Schlesinger’s more recent argument suggests that “Great men enable us to rise to our own highest potentialities. They nerve lesser men to disregard the world and trust to their own deepest instinct.” (1968, p.350). This allows a wider scope for ordinary people to become heroes. The first chapter of this research will contest Carlyle’s ideology by suggesting that these elevated male heroes should not necessarily be seen as exemplary people. By exposing the flaws of what at first appears to be a perfect hero, we see that heroism can no longer be identified with perfection.
Lucy Hall and Gill Plain establish that the Second World War “expose[d] radical doubts about the possibility of constructing heroic narrative and about the condition of heroism itself.” (2017, p.118). The disillusionment of society in the modern day caused the portrayal of heroes to change, in order to continue to resonate with a cynical and world-weary audience. Winston Graham, in his memoirs, states that he intended for Poldark to simply be “an historical novel about Cornwall” (2013, loc.1055/3992). However, Poldark has continued to resonate with audiences over time, and this is due to the fallibility of the heroes that are portrayed. The second chapter of this research will examine these new heroes, whose flaws make them more relevant to the audience that they are aimed at.
Margery Hourihan introduces a more inclusive view of heroism, which focuses specifically on heroes in literature rather than in society. Her work, Deconstructing the Hero: Literary theory and children’s literature (1997), highlights that the traditional view of heroism, which Carlyle promotes, is problematic. Hourihan focuses on highlighting the dominance of the Western patriarchy in hero stories. She constantly emphasises how this view of heroism disregards the role of women and other social classes in a hero story. However, her theories are so firmly categorised in binary opposites that her consideration of context is somewhat limited. Hourihan fails to account for the fact that the historical context of a hero story affects how heroism is portrayed. Whilst she recognises that it is crucial to “encourage a respect for […] men and women of all cultural backgrounds.” (Hourihan, 2005, p.235), she does not suggest a method in which to do so. In the third chapter of this research, I will consider not only how the portrayal of heroism shifted from the time of Carlyle’s theory, but why it did so.
Coming from a modern angle, we see that the idea of an innate heroism is no longer prevalent in society. Flescher’s work, Heroes, Saints and Ordinary Morality (2003), describes the impact of heroism in the context of modernity. Flescher’s immediate concern is, “What ought we to expect ordinary people to do for others who need their help?” (2003, p.1). Poldark’s characters answer this question, as three clear examples of ordinary, flawed people who continually strive to do good when given the opportunity. By questioning what ordinary people in the present day should do for others, Flescher highlights the selfishness of society in modernity. His main argument directly opposes Carlyle’s, as he claims that the idea of the exalted hero is entirely a myth. This line of thinking strongly influenced my thesis, considering that in Poldark this concept is actualised in the characters that are presented. Unlike Carlyle and Hourihan, Flescher considers the link between being a hero and having flaws. This research will take Flescher’s point further, and consider his theory in terms of literature.
Moving towards a more specific understanding of context, I also consider the idea that a hero can be seen as a role model on which to base one’s own identity. Hall and Plain agree with Carlyle to a point, stating that “the capacity for admiration [is] intrinsic to the figure of the hero” (2017, p.124). However, they also identify that seeing heroes as role models was no longer possible, as hero-worship was “unable to reflect the emergent nihilism of the post-war world.” (Hall and Plain, 2017, p.124). This shift after the Second World War is clear in the heroes of Poldark, who combat the old views on heroism through defying stereotypical expectations and having to struggle with morality.
Again, considering how heroism is viewed in the modern day, it is significant to note that Ross was initially seen in the same way that Carlyle would define the hero. Crompton’s analysis of the romantic nature of the series importantly brings to light the fact that heroes are needed in times of social distress. Her fairy tale interpretation identifies Ross as an unquestionably gallant character, having a “natural impatience with the unkindness of the world” (2015). However, like Hall and Plain, Crompton acknowledges that heroes cannot be portrayed as perfect. In a departure from the classical interpretation of heroism, one which Carlyle largely established, Crompton identifies Ross’ many flaws, such as the fact that he is “not averse to a pretty whore or an evening gaming and drinking.” (2015). Subsequently, we see that a consideration of historical context is essential in considering how a hero is understood. Prior to the Second World War, heroism was seen as an ideal to strive for, despite how unrealistic that concept may be. After this period, the view that continues into the present day is that everyone should strive to be morally good, as no one can be perfect. Roger R. Rollin argues that “neither we nor real-life heroes can live mythically for more than moments. History and nature have their ways with us.” (1968, p.26). However, through the flaws of the heroes, Poldark has gained popularity even with a modern audience, who can still relate to the moral struggles of the characters today.
Chapter 1 – The Protagonist as Hero
Considering that the title of the first Poldark novel is Ross Poldark (1945), it comes as no surprise that Ross’ position in the overall narrative is central. As established in the introduction, heroes are defined as “morally extraordinary people […] they go above and beyond the call of duty.” (Flescher, 2003, p.3). Ross certainly fits this specification, and this is especially notable when he comes into contact with the lower classes. During the period that the novels are set in, we see that “the upper classes looked on themselves as a race apart” (Graham, 2015a, p.103) from the working class. Ross, unlike the rest of his class, does not subscribe to this view, and shows clear sympathy for those who are socially below him. This unorthodox compassion is what inspires the miners, who are tenants on Ross’ land, to hold such a strong loyalty towards him.
Ross’ compassion for the miners who live on his land comes from his strong social conscience. Having returned from the American Revolutionary War, Ross is in a position of poverty. Although he is a gentleman, with “his ancient name”, he is also an “impoverished farmer squire” (Graham, 2015a, p.343). At the start of the first novel we see that Ross, like the miners, has to work in order to survive. As a result, Ross is able to empathise with their hardship. In a period where any kind of sympathy for the poor was seen as “unnatural […] like mothering a Frenchie.” (Graham, 2015a, p.284), Ross’ concern for the wellbeing of his tenants is a clear indicator that he is a benevolent character.
An important scene, present in the 2015 adaptation but not in the novels, takes the portrayal of Ross’ heroism further. Not only does Ross empathise with the miners, but we are shown explicitly that he is their personal friend. In this scene, Ross returns from the war and greets his tenants warmly with physical embraces, even calling a boy, Jim, by name. He states, “You were my father’s tenants, now you’re mine” (‘Episode 1’, 2015). This demonstrates his strong sense of duty towards those depending on him. When it is pointed out that Ross has a “ruined home and barren land” (‘Episode 1’, 2015) to be concerned about, he shows a determination to help his tenants to the best of his ability, replying, “I have hands, do I not?” (‘Episode 1’, 2015). In the first novel, it is stated that Ross has an “implicit concern for the welfare of people living on his land.” (Graham, 2015a, p.58) but this scene from the adaptation emphasises this concern more clearly. By emphasising Ross’ personal affection towards his tenants, we immediately begin to consider him as a hero. He is not “the prince who rejects the isolation of the palace for a better life lived among his grateful subjects” (Crompton, 2015), as he does not see his life as having more worth than the lives of his tenants.
Whilst this friendship is not as immediately obvious in the novels, we are still clearly told of Ross’ views. On returning from the war, his mentality is that “All men were born in the same way: no privilege existed which was not of man’s own contriving.” (Graham, 2015a, p.103). To explore Ross’ egalitarian view here fully, I will analyse his involvement in the life of Jim Carter, a boy from the lower classes. Ross, having employed Jim, consistently shows himself to feel personally responsible for his welfare. He allows Jim to stay in a cottage on his land, and states that, “I should ask no rent from him” (Graham, 2015a, p.163). Adding this to “the fair wages” (Graham, 2015a, p.156) that Jim receives, and Ross’ own precarious financial position at this point, it becomes clear that Ross is willing to do whatever it takes to “give [Jim] a better chance” (Graham, 2015a, p.186). Further, knowing Jim’s health issues, he wants to “offer Jim a surface job” (Graham, 2015a, p.186), which considering the context of the novel is significant. During the eighteenth century, miners were “under the necessity of breathing so much impure air […] their health is speedily injured and they die, at an early period” (Lipscomb, quoted in Marriott, 2015, loc.397/1949, original italics). With an awareness of the dangers of mining, we can see that again, Ross is acting for Jim’s benefit.
Carlyle’s theory suggests that a hero does not necessarily know himself to be one. He states that, “What others take him for, and what he guesses that he may be; these two items strangely act on one another, help to determine one another.” (Carlyle, 1968, p.33). Ross does not see himself as a hero, but we see from the behaviour of the characters around him that he is viewed as such within his community. This can be seen in parts of the narrative where Ross sees his own failures, but the people around him do not. An example of such a situation occurs when Jim is arrested for poaching. Unlike the rest of his class, Ross sees the lower classes as “folk with hurts and feelings” (‘Episode 3’, 2015), and this leads him to intervene in Jim’s court case. He first visits the owner of the land that Jim was caught poaching on, declaring that “[He] would consider himself under an obligation to make good any loss” (Graham, 2015a, p.282). In the 2015 adaptation, Ross puts the blame on himself for Jim’s arrest even more explicitly, and his first reaction on hearing the news is that he “should have made him the offer [of a job] last night” (‘Episode 3’, 2015).
Ross then goes to court to speak for Jim, making a passionate appeal to the judge. Ross argues that for the poor, it is “a time of distress […] of hunger, of poverty, of sickness” (Graham, 2015a, p.289). Considering that the view of the upper classes was that “No good will come of being sentimental about such folk.” (Graham, 2015a, p.284) we see here that Ross clearly does not embody the values of his time. When Jim eventually dies, Ross’ sorrow lies in the fact that “he had striven to help the young man and always his efforts had come too late.” (Graham, 2015b, p.243). Whilst Ross can only see his own failure here, readers are told that “it was common belief that if Cap’n Poldark hadn’t stood up in court and preached to the magistrates Carter would have been sent for seven years’ transportation” (Graham, 2015a, p.332). As we are told by Graham, Ross is inclined to “feeling that any failure is his failure.” (2015b, p.433), but through seeing the perspectives of the lower classes it is clear that they do not see his flaws.
Through his cross-class loyalty, noble actions, and the fact that he is viewed as heroic, it seems to readers that Ross is an archetypal hero. However, Ross does not simply “do battle against […] the empire of Darkness and Wrong” (Carlyle, 1968, pp.157-158). Graham shows readers that Ross is not purely a good person, and therefore defies the stereotypes of heroism. Ross’ early assertion that “Ill usage makes the sweetest of us vicious” (Graham, 2015a, p.37) sets up his bitter attitude towards his situation on having returned from the war. During the war, his lover Elizabeth and his cousin Francis have agreed to wed, and Ross sees this as an excuse “to play the jilted lover” (Graham, 2015a, p.131). Subsequently, many of Ross’ bad traits come to the surface when he has any interaction with Elizabeth. In several of his interactions with her, he aims to hurt her with his words, as a way to express his anger at losing her.
A particularly dark scene occurs when Ross visits her, after her marriage to Francis, and notes that, “A black desire rose in him to smash [her] composure.” (Graham, 2015a, p.126). The language used here is particularly threatening, and reflects the turbulence of his state of mind. After seeing Elizabeth at the Charity Ball, we see that “his loneliness and dismay caught up with him like a slow-poisoning fog.” (Graham, 2015a, p.100). This despair leads him to spend the night with Margaret, a prostitute, an action that is later described by Ross himself as “blind seeking after sensation in order to drown a hurt” (Graham, 2015a, p.320). Through seeing Ross’ darker moments, we become aware that Ross is not purely the idealised male hero that the lower classes take him to be.
In what is arguably the most immoral act of the entire four novels, we see in the fourth Poldark novel what is widely referred to by critics as a rape scene. On finding out that Elizabeth is getting married to George, his rival, Graham describes “the darkness in [Ross’] heart” (2016b, p.304). When Ross does go to see Elizabeth, he first forces her to kiss him. The language used to describe this situation is suitably sinister. We see the “intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish”, as well as the fact that Elizabeth repeatedly says to Ross, “Let me go” (Graham, 2016b, p.313, original italics). Whilst it is not explicitly stated that Ross rapes Elizabeth, we can at least be certain that Ross has performed an act of betrayal, in committing adultery. The contrast here between Ross standing up for the innocent, then hurting the innocent, proves without a doubt that he is not perfect.
Having established that Ross is a hero because the people around him see him as one, we see the effect of Ross losing that status near the end of the series. As Demelza is one of the only people who knows about the betrayal, we see this through her. Unlike Ross’ tenants, and even most readers, Demelza knows “his faults, his weaknesses; if you thought of your husband as godlike and perfect, you were a fool and asking for disillusionment.” (Graham, 2016b, p.316). With her reaction to his betrayal, we see the illusion behind Ross’ infallible heroism shattered in an instant. As well as the immorality of the action itself, we see that “he had not only let himself down, he had let [Demelza] down. It was a joint betrayal” (Graham, 2016b, p. 317). Before this scene, Ross had represented to her “a kind of nobility, not of birth but of character” (Graham, 2016b, p.316). But after this scene, she no longer sees him as a hero. Thus, we see that Ross is not the stereotypically perfect character that he at first appears to be.
In a review of the 2015 adaptation, specifically discussing Ross, Sarra Manning states of Ross that “he is a hero for any age. He’s imbued with a social conscience, [and] sees the heroine as an equal rather than a commodity to be conquered and possessed” (2015). This, significantly, was written before the airing of the second season of the adaptation in 2016, where the alleged rape scene takes place. The first season from 2015 corresponds to the first two novels, and in these Ross does seem to display these heroic qualities, and his flaws are less violently immoral. However, in the latter novels, we see that when Ross is given the opportunity (and indeed, the excuse) to fulfil his desires, he does so.
Hall and Plain note that after the Second World War, “heroism was characterised by modesty and restraint” (2017, p.117), and we see that Ross cannot restrain himself when it comes to Elizabeth. He has a lingering possessiveness towards her, despite the fact that he has long been married to someone else. In place of rationality, we see Ross being controlled by “feeling, all feeling. The thing struck at him two ways together, at his love and at his hate […] Together they were overpowering.” (Graham, 2016b, p.305). By allowing himself to be controlled by his emotions in the alleged rape scene, we see that Ross at least temporarily loses his sense of morality. Adding this to Demelza’s loss of faith in him, we see that Graham irrevocably destroys the illusion of Ross’ perfection. Whilst Cooke states that “Whatever else he is, [Ross] Poldark is not vulnerable.” (1981, p.53), we see that Ross is vulnerable to his own emotions. Though he does behave heroically, particularly in regards to the lower classes, he does struggle with maintaining his own innate sense of morality.
Chapter 2 – The Ordinary Hero
Having established in the first chapter that Ross Poldark is a hero, but still human and flawed, I will consider how other characters in the series may also be considered heroes. Hourihan notes that in hero stories, “Other characters are included only insofar as they impact upon [the hero].” (2005, p.38). Poldark, however, shows characters that can be considered as heroes in their own right, regardless of their relationship to Ross Poldark. These characters take one step further in pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a hero, as they do not fit the typical archetype of being a socially elevated male. Stephen Greenblatt notes of the historical novel that “the historical figures are not merely background material or incidental presences but the dominant characters” (2009). This is true of the series, where the heroes portrayed are the main focus of the story, as they are so unconventional within the setting of the novels.
The first character that I will be examining as an example of an ordinary hero is Dwight Enys. Enys, a physician, borders the two worlds of high class and low class. In a similar way to Ross and his tenants, it is the constant contact with the lower classes that allows Enys to have a strong sense of sympathy for their struggles. We are told that Enys has qualifications “rarely met with outside of London” (Graham, 2016b, p.120). This suggests that he could treat wealthier patients if he chose to, and “work among people of [his] own kind” (Graham, 2016b, p.120). But instead he remains in Cornwall, despite knowing that he is “increasingly popular with the patients who can afford to pay nothing.” (Graham, 2016a, p.21). There is a sense of self-sacrifice here, as Enys gives up his own chances for wealth in order “to help poor people” (Graham, 2016b, p.120). It is this attitude that leads his patients to view him in the same way that the miners see Ross: as a hero. Enys’ affection for the lower classes in turn is genuine, as he describes them as “loyal and kind and honest and God-fearing and brave […] they are a fine people and I get on well with them” (Graham, 2015b, p.212).
However, we see that once again the lower classes do not see the flaws of their chosen hero. Having had an affair with the wife of a miner, Keren Daniel, we are told that “the eyes of the countryside […] laid the blame on the girl” (Graham, 2016a, p.28). This is despite the fact that Keren dies at the hands of her husband, who kills her in a fit of anger at her unfaithfulness. Even in the case of adultery, Enys’ hero status is only momentarily tarnished. Enys himself does not see himself as a hero at all, as his opinion of himself is “self-critical and self-exacting.” (Graham, 2016a, p.28). Enys is aware that acting on his attraction to Keren is “Against his better judgement” (Graham, 2015b, p.210). However, he still gives in to his desires. His moral conflict is reflected clearly, with “One side of him was displeased, indignant; the other, not.” (Graham, 2015b, p.211). Hourihan notes that a typical hero story does not take into account that characters other than the protagonist have “complex lives and motivations of their own” (2005, p.41). But by showing us this complexity, and inner struggle, Graham proves that Enys is not perfect. Whilst he does generally behave in a noble manner, Enys does have difficulties when it comes to restraining his emotions. Rollin identifies that “Identification with a positive object like a hero […] can provide such necessary psychical support [to the ego].” (1983, p.19). Enys is portrayed as an ordinary hero, rather than a flawless individual. As a result, readers are able to positively relate to Enys as a hero, despite his shortcomings.
Like Ross, we see that Enys is willing to make personal sacrifices for the lower classes, at risk to his own interests. There is a point in the narrative where Enys discovers the identity of the man who had been informing the authorities about illegal smuggling trips that were being made. This occurs just before Enys is due to elope with Caroline Penvenen, a wealthy heiress. The consequences of the smugglers being caught would be “Imprisonment or transportation for a dozen men […] imprisonment and ruin for Ross.” (Graham, 2016b, p.229). We are told that Enys wants to save the men from this fate, as he believes that “The full responsibility was on his own shoulders.” (Graham, 2016b, p.229). Schlesinger identifies the heroic thinking behind such selfless actions, stating that a hero will “try to wrench history from what lesser men consider its preconceived path.” (1968, p.350). Knowing that he is turning away from “elopement and his love and his new life.” (Graham, 2016b, p. 228) does not deter Enys from doing what he knows to be right. By choosing to intervene at this point, Enys chooses the wellbeing of those from the lower classes over his own happiness. Luke Norris, who plays Enys in the 2015 adaptation of Poldark, notes that Enys’ love for Caroline is not as strong for the love he has for his friends. Enys chooses to save Ross and the other smugglers, knowing that he will hurt Caroline, and Norris states that, “that might be his fatal flaw.” (Norris, 2016). Flescher establishes that being a hero “entails being courageous in terms of risking self-interest, and being compassionate in terms of desiring the betterment of others in need.” (2003, p.11). By this specification, Enys is indeed a hero, and this heroic status remains intact despite the fact that he is clearly flawed.
The second character that I will consider is Demelza Poldark. When Demelza enters the novel, she is nothing more than a miner’s daughter, described as “a thin scarecrow of a child” (Graham, 2015a, p.106). But by the end of the fourth novel, she is married to Ross, the protagonist. Hourihan identifies the existing position of women in hero narratives, stating that “Women matter only insofar as their actions affect [the hero]; in their own right they are of no interest or importance.” (2005, p.41). Graham defies this trope, as Demelza’s heroic actions are noble in their own right, and can be examined without considering the fact that she is Ross’ wife. Hourihan goes on to describe that women who do get portrayed as heroic show the same “arid rationalism” (2005, p.206) that male heroes do. Poldark’s innovation lies in the fact that firstly, the male heroes are not rational. In striving to help others, they often ignore the consequences of their heroic actions. But more significantly, Demelza does not behave in a stereotypically masculine way, and does not have to do so in order to be considered a hero.
A clear instance of Demelza’s heroism can be seen in her concern for Ross’ cousin, Verity, who is miserable after the end of her relationship to Andrew Blamey. As summarised by Emma Marriott, Demelza is “unrestrained by the usual inhibitions of the gentry, [and] refuses to accept the situation” (2015, loc.620/1949). Demelza subsequently reunites Verity and Blamey, going not only against Ross’ wishes, but against the wishes of Verity’s father and brother, who broke the couple up in the first place. Hourihan pays close attention to the marginalisation of women in hero stories, summarising that, “women are designed to serve […] women who refuse to do so are threats to the natural order and must be controlled.” (2005, p.1). Whilst Demelza is anxious about getting caught by Ross, her authority figure, she still goes on with her intentions, having “plotted and schemed for more than a year.” (Graham, 2015b. p.366). From the very beginning of her endeavour, Demelza is aware that she “would be condemned by Ross” (Graham, 2015b, p.382) for getting involved in Verity’s personal life. She therefore struggles with “the enormity of her intention” (Graham, 2015b, p.79), as she is constantly anxious about getting discovered. However, she is determined to follow her own sense of morality, as seen when she tells Blamey, “I love Verity. I’d give anything to see ‘er happy.” (Graham, 2015b, p.87). We see that Demelza “cannot help being sincere!” (Carlyle. 1968, p.59) and thereby fits Carlyle’s definition of a hero, despite her gender and class not fitting his expectations of the role. In addition to this, her heroic action in reuniting Verity and Blamey is not conventionally masculine in any way, which thereby defies the standard role of a heroine in a hero story.
The fact that Demelza “deceives [Ross] without a flicker out of love for Verity.” (Graham, 2015b, p.425) makes clear that she, like Ross and Enys, will stop at nothing to help those who cannot help themselves. However, the heroic actions taken by these three characters can be measured differently, through the level of authority they must defy in order to be morally good. We are told early on in the narrative that “legality was never Ross’s strong point” (Graham, 2015a, p.49), as his sense of morality often conflicts with the law. This is particularly clear in the scene where Ross breaks the dying Jim out of jail. Although “His knowledge of the law was vague and his attitude towards it faintly contemptuous” (Graham, 2015a, p.123), Ross is fully aware that following his own moral code in this situation would have negative consequences. We see this soon after Jim’s death, in his metaphor that “The bees will hum if I do not plaster them with honey.” (Graham, 2015b, p.242). Yet this does not deter him from following “his own standards of behaviour, though no one gave him credit for them” (Graham, 2015a, p.321). Through his awareness of social injustice, Ross cannot abide by the law because he is ruled by his own sense of morality. As a result, it is clear that the risks he takes in order to perform his heroic actions are substantial.
By the beginning of the third novel, Enys tells Demelza, “I’d do anything to help Ross – and will do, you know that” (Graham, 2016a, p.22). As he shares the same values as Ross, in caring for the lower classes, we see that he also defies the law to help those in need. When Ross goes to break Jim out of jail, he asks Enys to come with him. Enys does so unquestioningly. When Ross and Enys get to Jim, Enys warns Ross to “Avoid his breath […] It will be deadly at this stage.” (Graham, 2015b, p.231). This shows the level of immediate risk involved with this action. In terms of the law, neither of the men face any legal consequences for breaking Jim out of jail. But prior to this, when Ross speaks up for Jim in court, the judge threatens to have Ross “committed for contempt of court.” (Graham, 2015a, p.293). Much later in the narrative, when Enys is in court for having saved the smugglers from detection by the authorities, the judge describes the situation as “a peculiar disgrace that a well-known physician […] should allow himself to become so involved in this reprehensible traffic.” (Graham, 2016b, p.255). As well as this minor knock to his reputation, Enys is “fined £50” (Graham, 2016b, p.255). Both male heroes do get punished, at least to some extent, for defying authority. This is as a result of the fact that neither Ross nor Enys are of a high enough social status to bypass the law. When considering how he should have tried to save Jim from being imprisoned, Ross identifies that he should have “pointed out to [the magistrates] how inconvenient it would be for him to be deprived of his manservant.” (Graham, 2015a. p.295). Ultimately, we see that Ross and Enys, through their noble actions, flaws, and relatively low social standing, can both be seen as ordinary heroes.
The difference with Demelza is that her foremost figure of authority, rather than being the law, is Ross. This initially seems to suggest that Demelza is a less of a hero than Ross and Enys, as her heroic actions are played out on a smaller scale. Her own social position is limited, and therefore the authority she answers to is less significant than that of the male heroes. However, she too must take personal risks in order to be noble, and the consequences that she suffers as a result of her heroism are more severe than those that Ross and Enys suffer. Not only does Demelza betray Ross’ trust by reuniting Verity and Blamey, but she later realises on visiting Francis that “she had robbed this household of its most vital personality. She had been the instrument of a theft” (Graham, 2015b, p.413). This gives her a great sense of guilt, which leads her to “courting infection to help at Trenwith” (Graham, 2016a, p.26). On hearing the news that Francis, Ross’ cousin, and the rest of his family are gravely ill, we are told by Graham that, Demelza “owed them nothing.” (Graham, 2015b, p.453). With Francis’ wife, Elizabeth, portrayed throughout the whole narrative as “her rival.” (Graham, 2015b, p.453), it seems even more heroic that Demelza would consider helping her. Through helping Francis and his family through their illness, Demelza inadvertently causes the death of her own daughter. Hourihan argues that in order to be seen on the same level as a male hero, “women must strive to behave as much like men as possible.” (2005, p.206). Demelza is not a male paragon of valour but a complex individual, and it is her actions rather than her outward identity that create the view of her as a hero.
Chapter 3 – The Hero through Time
Having concluded in the preceding chapters that the heroes of Poldark have flaws despite their heroic actions, I will consider the wider scope of the series and how its heroes reflect a shift in the concept of heroism. Carlyle argues that the eighteenth century was “a Sceptical Century […] Heroism was gone forever” (1968, p.224, original italics). However, as Poldark proves, heroism did not die, despite the “spiritual paralysis” (Carlyle, 1968, p.224) of modernity; it simply evolved. Marshall W. Fishwick addresses the fact that “changes in media, lifestyle, priorities, [and] ideologies are reflected in our heroes.” (1983, p.12). If people no longer believed in the concept of a perfect hero, it would be necessary to portray heroes who were not perfect, but still attempted to be morally good. Hourihan criticises the message given by typical hero stories, as they show that “it is the hero who is of primary importance and the activities of such men that matter in the world” (2005, p.38). Graham’s heroes defy the portrayal an exalted male figure who could do no wrong, as seen with all three characters that I have considered. These heroes prove that anyone can be a hero, provided that they strive to be morally upstanding.
Carlyle outlined in 1841 that heroes had particular specifications that they must fulfil. The hero was seen as “a natural luminary […] of manhood and heroic nobleness” (Carlyle, 1968, p.2). The idea that “A man shall and must be valiant” (1968, p.42) continued, largely uncontested, until the trauma of the Second World War. The aftermath of the war was so severe that the public’s perception of heroism changed drastically. The hero as an ideal to strive for was no longer seen as viable. Instead of the archetype of the flawless hero, Hall and Plain argue that “Anti-heroes [are] seen to thrive in the ethically compromised space that follows the cessation of hostilities.” (2017, p.124). The heroes of Poldark, however, are not anti-heroes. Their flaws give them the capability to resonate with an audience that was dealing with “the ethical legacy of a war of unprecedented brutality.” (Hall and Plain, 2017, p.118). Unlike the heroes prior to this time, who could do no wrong in the eyes of their worshippers, we see that the ordinary heroes of Poldark “were not born heroic but became so gradually” (Flescher, 2003, p.110, original italics). The innate imperfections of the heroes in Poldark render them as feasible role models for an audience of the present day.
Flescher points out that the heroes of modernity struggle with morality, but “have subsequently learned to lead a virtuous life.” (2003, p.8). As Ross is the protagonist, and is considered generally to be the hero of the series, it is important to note that he has inner conflicts, being between his own desires and behaving selflessly. As the 2015 has access to Ross’ thoughts, we see this struggle first hand. When thinking about his failure to save Jim from prison, we see that Ross knows he is a “sentimental fool […] Upsetting himself about some farm labourer with a bad cough” (Graham, 2015a, pp.321-322). However, we see from the simple fact that Ross tried to save Jim that he does indeed care about him personally. Ross considers his inability to save Jim as his own personal failure, especially as “He had known Jim’s loyalty to himself and had given a greater loyalty in return.” (Graham, 2015b, p.243).
When Ross is speaking up for Jim in court, he is unable to contain his emotions at the injustice he sees. Statements such as, “I would like to wring someone’s neck for this.” (Graham, 2015b, p.233) prove that Ross has a violent nature that he must control, even when advocating justice and compassion. This violence comes through frequently, as we see in his persisting attachment to Elizabeth. Just the thought of Elizabeth “wakened in him a desire, almost a need […] He’d never gotten over his attachment, it was something fundamental, a weakness if you liked, overlooked but still there.” (Graham, 2016a, p.206). When he goes to see Elizabeth after hearing about her marriage, we are told that “His resolutions were finer pointed, less unreasoning and impulsive.” (Graham, 2016b, p.307). However, this does not stop him from later forcing himself upon her, showing that Ross does not always win the battle against morality and his own emotions. The fact that Ross does not always win against his own mind makes the heroic actions that he does perform all the more valuable, as readers are aware of Ross’ mental struggle.
Carlyle notes that the objective of a hero “is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true things” (1968, p.92). This is particularly true in Ross’ case, as he is seen as “one of literature’s great heroes: a gentleman […] who has a keen sense of morality” (Marriott, 2015, loc.77-81/1949). Ross, as the noble protagonist, at first appears to be the hero that Carlyle outlines. However, whilst he does attempt to be morally good, the heroic nature Ross displays is not always necessarily motiveless. This can be seen in the loyalty between Ross and the miners. Ross’ intentions regarding them appear to be selfless, at least on a surface level. We are told that “The Poldarks had always been on good terms with their tenants […] polite convention was not allowed to stand in the way of common sense.” (Graham, 2015a, p.54). However, unlike in the 2015 adaptation, where the tenants are greeted as friends, we are told that Ross went to see his tenants “in search of cheap labour.” (Graham, 2015a, p.54). The difference in the 2015 adaptation is that the tenants are more than a source of income to Ross. We see that he cares for their wellbeing, as seen in both his familiarity with them and his self-sacrificial treatment regarding Jim. However, in both portrayals, Ross is shown to clearly need the poor for his own personal gain.
When considering the motives behind Enys’ heroic actions, we see a similar theme. On the surface, Enys’ intentions appear to be motiveless, particularly in his treatment of the poor. We see the lower classes “slowly coming to appreciate” Enys, especially as he “did not mind administering to folk who could only pay in kind, or not even that way” (Graham, 2016a, p.31). However, Enys motives here are still present, at least if not obvious to the lower classes themselves. Enys’ goal is to study lung diseases, and in order to do this he takes advantage of the “mining community where consumption of the lungs is widespread.” (Graham, 2015b, p.54). Although Enys gets little income from treating the lower classes, gaining wealth was never his intention in the first place. In the same way that Ross “felt righteous and unashamed.” (Graham, 2015a, p.163) at letting Jim stay rent free on his land, Enys takes pride in the fact that he chooses not to serve the wealthy. We see this when he tells Caroline, who is an heiress herself, “the poor are in greater need of attention than the well off. I don’t want to become a society pet.” (Graham, 2016b, p.120). His pride in his own self-sacrifice is evident, yet it does not tarnish his reputation as a hero. Carlyle’s claim that “Society is founded on Hero-worship.” (1968, p.15) appears to hold some gravity here, as it is the people around Enys who define him as heroic. The lower classes do not need to question Enys’ motives for being heroic, as they benefit from his actions.
Demelza’s heroic actions are motivated by neither personal gain nor the pursuit of knowledge, but to satisfy her own emotions. At first, when helping Verity meet with Captain Blamey, it seems that she only wants to secure for Verity the same marital happiness that she has found. She tells Ross that “[Verity] was not meant to be an old maid.” (Graham, 2015b, p.27). Like Demelza, Verity has little power, as “She can’t work and with limited prospect of marriage, her only means of security is to be indispensable at home” (Marriott, 2015, loc.495/1949). By her own admission, Demelza claims her own motives as being “because I loved Verity and hated her to be unhappy.” (Graham, 2015b, p.422). Ross’ counterargument to this is that “Nothing mattered, no loyalty or trust, so long as you got your own way.” (Graham, 2015b, p.423). Through Ross’ identification of Demelza’s determination to make things right, we are able to come to a greater understanding of what motivates her to act selflessly. Having been told that she should not interfere in the matter, Graham significantly describes the “dark glint in the depths of her glance which suggested she was not discouraged.” (Graham, 2015b, p.32). The language used here expresses Demelza’s mischievous nature, particularly considering that she is still a teenager at this point. Graham tells us about “her temperament to dislike anything not clear and downright.” (Graham, 2015b, p.437). Thus, we see that Demelza’s need for “a clear cut-issue” (Graham, 2015a, p.367) is what guides her actions. Conclusively, we see that Demelza has a need to satisfy moral issues in her own mind, regardless of whether the negative consequences should fall on herself.
During the eighteenth century, when the narrative is set, “the exaltation of reason [had] encouraged a corresponding devaluing of emotion and imagination” (Hourihan, 2005, p.88). Whilst a typical hero in literature would embody the values of their time, Poldark shows characters that defy the values of reason and restraint. Through Graham’s portrayal, we see that none of the three heroes I have identified can be said to embody the values of their time. In Ross’ case, his actions show that he often behaves impulsively. Dr Choake, one of Ross’ business partners, summarises Ross’ behaviour as “reckless in the extreme.” (‘Episode 4’, 2015). The actions he describes to come to this conclusion are “His early skirmishes with the law, his contempt of court at the last assizes, and now this marriage to his serving wench” (‘Episode 4’, 2015). In all three of these cases, Ross follows his own moral convictions rather than those of society. Enys’ heroic actions also do not correspond to reason; rather, they are guided by his own strong emotions at the injustice of society towards the lower classes. Unlike in the previous two cases with Ross and Enys however, Demelza’s heroic concern for another person does not come from a social conscience. Demelza is able to empathise with both classes, having “lived with ‘em, which is more’n [Ross will] ever do!” (Graham, 2015b, p.287). She is instead almost solely guided by her own instincts.
Joseph Campbell states that in modern times, “It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse.” (2008, p.337) and we see this in Poldark, where the heroes refuse to be restrained by societal values. Throughout history, we see “the hero […] mutating to fit the changing conceptual and political environment but always demonstrating the ‘natural’ superiority of the Western patriarchy.” (Hourihan, 2005, p.21). But in Poldark, we see that the heroes do not need to reflect the dominant ideology of the time. They instead reflect the change in the portrayal of heroism, by demonstrating that the ordinary hero is classified as such through their altruistic actions, not their base identity.
Through this line of thinking, we can see that heroes in the years after the Second World War were not portrayed as consistently perfect. Schlesinger argues that the Second World War “precipitated a universal revulsion against greatness.” (1968, p.342), as faultless heroes were unrealistic, and thereby easily dismissible as a goal to strive for. Flescher importantly identifies the modern view that if heroes did not face conflicts, “they would surpass their humanity altogether and thereby cease to retain their appeal.” (2003, p.116). Carlyle’s view on the flaws of heroes is somewhat vague. He states, “Is not a man’s walking, in truth […] ‘a succession of falls’?” (1968, p.61). Whilst at this point Carlyle identifies that heroes are not perfect, he does not discuss the tension between these human weaknesses and the state of being a hero. Having such flaws does not mean that a character cannot be a hero; it instead makes them a more compelling one. Heroes without flaws are seen as “caricatures or idealized types.” (Flescher, 2003, p.122), and the effect that this produced on literature was “the construction of a casual ‘amateur’ heroism” (Hall and Plain, 2017, p.120). In light of this, it is important to acknowledge that the heroes of Poldark have flaws, and therefore even a modern audience can relate to a hero story set so specifically in the past.
In conclusion, this research has shown that Poldark provides an innovative portrayal of heroes. As one who is “straddling different social classes” (Manning, 2015) Ross is able to empathise with the plight of the lower classes. As a result, we see that “He has a strong sense of justice without in any way being sanctimonious.” (Marriott, 2015, loc.146/1949). This was during a time when society was shown to be indifferent to the struggles of the poor, as the lower classes were seen as “a different breed” (‘Episode 3’, 2015). Ross, by both disagreeing with this view and using his social position to help the lower classes, is portrayed as a “Traitor to one’s own station in life” (Graham, 2015a, p.321), therefore painting him as a hero to the lower classes. Hourihan notes that in a stereotypical hero story, “the hero is also dominant over the lower orders […] He is the symbol of an elite.” (2005, p.62). Whilst Ross has influence over the lower classes, he does not see himself as inherently worth more than they are. In addition to this liberal view that Ross holds, we see that he often puts his own welfare at danger in order to try and help those who cannot help themselves. This is one of the factors that classifies Ross as a hero.
Whilst Ross is selfless in some aspects of his life, he is not morally infallible. His struggle between succumbing to his emotions and maintaining his sense of rationality can be seen in several cases, and his behaviour is unmistakably immoral on occasion. Hourihan states that the hero historically “stands for the power of reason” (2005, p.88), and we see that Ross defies this expectation. His general benevolence to those socially below himself do not change the fact that he is ruled by his own emotions. We see this in situations where he faces a struggle between acting selfishly or acting with restraint, and he often recklessly chooses the former. Thus, we see that Ross Poldark does not embody the values of the time the novel was published, nor the values of the time that the story is set in. Yet he is still seen as a hero through his heroic actions. In a typical hero story, we are told that “it is often simply his role as the protagonist […] which labels the hero as good.” (Hourihan, 2005, p.144). However, we see that Ross is not simply defined as a hero through his central role in the narrative, but in the fact that he does put his own interests at risk for other people, particularly considering that those he helps cannot help themselves. Rollin notes that “The beauty of fictional heroes is that they are wholly mythic, not like real-life heroes who are historical figures elevated to the mythic.” (1968, p.24). But in Poldark, the protagonist does not have a mythical status in terms of his heroism. His flaws ensure that our view of him is of a realistic man, who does make mistakes.
As well as the flawed protagonist, who can still be classified as a hero through his actions, we see other characters in the narrative who have heroic significance. By showing characters other than the protagonist as complex, we see that these characters are more than just “actors in [the hero’s] story” (Hourihan, 2005, p.40). They are portrayed as heroes in their own right. Graham portrays these characters in a similar way to how he portrays Ross, as they are seen as selfless through their heroic actions. Therefore, we see that Enys and Demelza are more than just supporting characters. Poldark promotes the view that it is not only great men who can be heroes. The rejection of these archetypal heroes can be explained by considering both the time in which they were written in, and the setting of the novels themselves. The narrative is set in the eighteenth century, “in which the promotion of reason, science, commerce and bourgeois values was in the ascendancy and in the process of transforming patterns of knowledge” (Botting, 2014, p.3). Poldark uses its heroes in this setting to reject these often uncharitable values, and instead promote having a sense of social morality over blindly obeying convention. As well as this, we see that the cynicism around heroism after the trauma of Second World War resulted in a shift in its portrayal, creating the new heroes that emerge in the Poldark series.
According to Hourihan’s theory on dualisms in hero stories, “one of the two contrasting terms is constructed as superior and the other as inherently inferior in relation to it.” (2005, p.16). The inferior terms that she identifies are those of “other social classes” and “women” (Hourihan, 2005, p.16). Poldark proves that gender and class, which make up the outward identity of the characters, are not what classifies a character as a hero. Demelza fits the specifications for a hero despite the fact that she is a female, and from the lower classes. Graham tells us that “Fundamentally there was nothing meek or mild about her. She was a fighter” (Graham, 2016b, p.320). We see that a hero can be defined as such through their charitable actions, regardless of their basic identity. In turn, as we see with Ross, a character’s identity does not necessarily qualify them as a certain flawless type of hero.
Flescher suggests that we should view the instructions of a hero as “instructions for virtuous living, albeit instructions that are meant to be followed flexibly according to our particular capacities” (2003, p.8). By showing us several different types of flawed heroes, with very different social roles in the narrative, it becomes clear that the common factor uniting them all is their self-sacrificing actions towards others. These actions reflect the sense of morality that the characters have, which they follow at all costs. As Francis, Ross’ cousin states to Demelza, “It isn’t where you’re born in this world, it’s what you do.” (Graham, 2016a, pp.340-341). Thus, the ordinary heroes of Poldark prove there are no outward specifications that need to be met in order to be a hero. The only qualification that a character needs in order to be a hero is that they must make a choice to help another person, despite the personal risks to themselves. In the present day, we see a desire for a hero who will “sort out society” (Crompton, 2015). The continued popularity of the series attests to the ideology that anyone can be a hero in the present day.