The ability to mirror reality is one of the gifts of great literature. We feel empathy when we read about characters that face great difficulties, because all human life involves suffering. When these same characters find the courage to rise above what Shakespeare refers to in Hamlet as "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," we are inspired. Consider the following examples of literary characters that embody the virtue of courage.
Although fairy tales may be the first thing that springs to mind when we think of literary heroism, poetry can be the ideal vehicle for capturing the strength of everyday living. Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art," repeats a sentence that seems to be a rather melancholy refrain, "The art of losing isn't hard to master," but Bishop knows that loss is an unavoidable fact of life. As fellow poet Jane Hirshfield says, "No matter what your circumstances, you will end up losing everything you love, you will end up aging, you will end up ill. And the problem is that we need to figure out a way how to make that all be all right." So when the speaker of "One Art" tells us to "lose something every day," or to "accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent," we see she has mustered the courage to accept such losses and move forward toward enlightenment.
True stories of brave firefighters and police officers give us faith in humanity when they flash across our TV screens, but written works of non-fiction can have a substantial influence on our culture. One such work that is often assigned in middle school, as the author is a 13 year-old Holocaust victim, is Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Told in the first person, this book is a moving tribute to one human’s will to survive in unthinkable circumstances. While her Jewish family huddles in a secret annex, hiding from the Nazis for two long years, Frank’s strength of character is apparent when she writes, “I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Authors sometimes find it helpful to invent characters who exhibit the courage they aspire to possess. The horrors of war are the subject of Stephen Crane’s novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” The story centers on a young solider named Henry Fleming, who is initially terrified of fighting but is also ashamed of his cowardice. As the character of Henry grows in experience and maturity on the battlefield, he sees that it is “an ironical thing for him to be running thus toward that which he had been at such pains to avoid.” In the final analysis, Henry proves his courage, he is victorious in facing his fears.
For centuries, the stage has proved to be a venue for acting out works of dramatic literature filled with personal challenges. Cursed by an abnormally large nose that makes him the brunt of many jokes, Edmond Rostand's hero in "Cyrano de Bergerac" answers his detractors’ insults with self-deprecating humor. While being heckled at a public event, Cyrano claims his enemies’ insult lacks creativity, and in turn he offers up several comic possibilities for a description of his nose: “DESCRIPTIVE: ‘Tis a rock—a crag—a cape—A cape? say rather, a peninsula! INQUISITIVE: What is that receptacle—a razor-case or a portfolio?” By having the courage to make fun of himself, Cyrano effectively disarms his tormentors.