The Revenant: A Literary Trope

One of the front runners for the Best Picture Academy Award this Sunday is the Leonardo Dicaprio film The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Inarritu. The film is intense, breathtaking, brutal, visceral, and an absolute feat of modern filmmaking. At its offset, it may seem like a relatively straightforward film: a man overcomes incredible odds for revenge. But when you consider the film alongside the literary concept of the revenant character role, the film takes on new layers of intellectual fascination. As such, the film becomes a great segway to talk about the literary trope of the revenant and how it works in fiction.

The dictionary definition of revenant is “one who returns,” which is exactly what Leonardo Dicaprio’s character Hugh Glass does in the film. He returns despite incredible odds thrown against him. However, as a literary concept, the revenant holds deeper meaning.

The revenant is a fictional “role,” in the same way a story might have a “love interest” or a “crucial ally.” The revenant is a specific character in a story that causes the protagonist to confront his/her past, ghost, personal fears, or negative behaviors, and/or confront his or her inability to act bravely, honestly, or responsibly.

A revenant is a physical character in the story, who often “returns,” frequently taking the form of an old friend, an ex-lover, or someone from the past. Or, the revenant can take the form of a new person in the protagonist’s life, a person that embodies a previous lifestyle which took the protagonist down a dark road before. In the book The Art of Character, author David Corbett explains that the revenant’s role is to create “circumstances that the protagonist can use to look at his own history of poor choices and lost chances.” The revenant often “epitomizes the frustration of the protagonist’s unfulfilled desire” and “embodies the inescapable realization that no one can hide from himself forever.”

A great example of a revenant is the character Jane in the television show Breaking Bad. She enters the story at a time when Jesse Pinkman is starting to make some positive choices in his life. But Jane lures Jesse down a path that confronts him with his old habits: drug use, partying, impulsive behavior. Her presence in the story forces him to look at his past choices and decided if he wants to repeat them. The revenant has surfaced to make him face his inner demons.

Looking at The Revenant film, Hugh Glass’s character is going out of his way to survive and return to the company fort for revenge purposes. He wants to avenge the death of his son. But if we reframed the story’s focus and made the protagonist any one of the men who left Glass behind to die, say John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), Captain Henry (played by Domhnall Gleeson), or Bridger (played by Will Poulter), Glass’s return becomes a direct reminder of their treachery. His return awakes their inner daemons and forces them to deal with the guilt of leaving someone behind to die. Glass has returned from the metaphorical dead, forcing each man to battle his inner weaknesses and personal failures.

An instigator of transformation, the revenant often unearths a deeper psychological fear in the protagonist. In many cases, the main character is only forced to work out their internal issues because of the reinvent’s presence in the story. Corbett says that “the revenant differs from other secondary characters in the depth and enduring nature of her influence on the protagonist. A hero may grow purely from the pressure of external events, but it’s doubtful she can transform, moving beyond a previous flaw or limitation, without the challenging supportive scrutiny of another person.”

The revenant should not be confused with “the ghost” of a story, though the two are closely related. The literary concept of “a ghost” is an intangible feeling inside the protagonist that is the invisible embodiment of a past trauma, wound, or personal darkness. Corbett describes the ghost as “a somewhat general term, and it can mean anything from the past that continues to create a moral, emotional, or psychological problem for the protagonist … [a ghost is] a generalized problem from the past or a succession of encounters that all create within the character a single sense of loss, vulnerability, or failure.” A revenant functions to unearth the ghost for the main character. The revenant is physical; an actual character in the story, whereas a ghost can be triggered from situations, settings, or characters.

When considering the literary role of the revenant in the film of the same title, Hugh Glass’s journey takes on a new life. It becomes metaphorical. His larger-than-life and seemingly impossible journey takes on an otherworldly quality. His ability to survive becomes mythical. It becomes the embodiment of a past we cannot run from, and a reminder of the enormous feats our subconscious my go though to remind us of what we’ve done. If you haven’t seen the movie, go watch it. I’ll admit, it’s brutal and difficult to view, and emotionally draining. It’s also breathtaking and a powerful work of art, one that takes a literary trope and brings it to life.

If it wins the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, it’s well deserved.

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2 responses to “The Revenant: A Literary Trope”

  1. Linda W says:

    Excellent post, Ingrid. I wasn’t familiar with the trope of the revenant. Thank you for this explanation. It’s great how this individual causes so much conflict. Now I’d like to go through my books and see which stories have this type of character.

  2. Art Rosch says:

    Ingrid, this is a beautifully conceived essay. You nailed it. My respect for you, already high, has just taken another step upward.

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