As the title suggests, Heroes raises significant questions about what constitutes heroism. Francis, the novel’s protagonist, and Larry LaSalle, the antagonist, have both received the Silver Star medal for heroism in combat. However, Cormier shows a significant disconnect between the public perception of both men’s “heroic” acts and the private motivations for those acts. By exploring the selfishness, cowardice, and even malevolence of publicly recognized heroes, Cormier questions whether heroism can ever be unambiguously ethical.
Cormier blurs the line between heroism and selfishness from the very moment Larry announces his decision to enlist in the Marines following the attack on Pearl Harbor. After informing the Wreck Center children of his decision, Larry declines their applause explaining that he was simply doing his patriotic duty along with countless other men across the country. Outwardly, he appears to be a devoted patriot answering a call to duty. However, Larry’s underlying desire for bloody revenge is later betrayed when he says—with an uncharacteristic anger—that he wasn’t going to let “the Japs get away with this.” Here, there is no mention of joining the war effort to stop the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, only the desire to punish the Japanese. By disguising the desire for revenge as the nobility of fulfilling a patriotic obligation, Cormier shows how morality can be manipulated, ultimately allowing people to get away with doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
Furthermore, Cormier uses Larry’s Silver Star medal to question the value of wartime heroics that stem from an intrinsic desire for self-preservation in a kill-or-be-killed situation. After several vague references to Larry’s feats of bravery in the South Pacific, it is finally revealed that Larry earned the Silver Star for capturing an enemy machine-gun nest in order to save the lives of his platoon. However, had he failed to act, he would have certainly been killed along with his fellow soldiers. Thus, his heroic act, while brave, was also the only logical choice available to him. Larry’s rape of Nicole while on furlough shows that he is capable of acts of extreme violence in a civilian context, as well. The contrast between his celebrated violence towards enemies in combat and his reprehensible violence towards Nicole—two acts whose ethics are distinguished only by society’s approval of war—implicitly questions the morality of wartime violence, regardless of whether it is socially deemed “heroic.”
With Francis, on the other hand, Cormier presents what appears to be the closest approximation of “true” heroism; when Francis fell onto a live grenade, he was willing to sacrifice his life to save the lives of his platoon. However, when Francis reveals that he had really thrown himself on the grenade as a way to commit suicide without disgracing his family, his act of selfless bravery no longer serves as a foil for Larry’s self-serving heroism. In the end, both men are flawed; neither of the novel’s supposed “heroes” quite embodies the selflessness, bravery, or courage that one would expect of a “true hero.”
Cormier’s skepticism of the possibility of “pure” heroism is best articulated during Francis’s interaction with a drunken Arthur Rivier (a veteran), who claims that there were no war heroes, only scared children. Cormier’s lack of a hard and fast definition of “true heroism” allows the reader to experience the same sense of confusion and ambiguity that the characters do, and his portrayal of flawed heroes ultimately proposes that “heroism” is a more of a myth than a reality.
Flawed Heroes ThemeTracker
Flawed Heroes Quotes in Heroes
My name is Francis Joseph Cassavant and I have just returned to Frenchtown in Monument and the war is over and I have no face.
So I offer up an Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be for Larry LaSalle. Then I am filled with guilt and shame, knowing that I have just prayed for the man I am going to kill.
The Wreck Center became my headquarters in the seventh and eighth grade, a place away from the sidewalks and empty lots of Frenchtown. I had never been a hero in such places, too short and un-coordinated for baseball and too timid to join the gangs that hung around the street corners.
Dazzled by his talent and his energy, most of us didn't dwell on the rumors. In fact, the air of mystery that surrounded him added to his glamour. He was our champion, and we were happy to be in his presence.
Never before had I known such a sense of destiny. I felt invincible, impossible to defeat, the ball always under my control.
Like a dream coming true, Nicole took the trophy from Larry LaSalle and handed it to me, the radiance of her face mirroring my own. The crowd grew silent as I pressed the trophy to my chest, my eyes becoming moist
"Heroes," he scoffs, his voice sharp and bitter, all signs of drunkenness gone. "We weren't heroes. The Strangler and his scrapbook. No heroes in that scrapbook, Francis. Only us, the boys of Frenchtown. Scared and homesick and cramps in the stomach and vomit. Nothing glamorous like the write-ups in the papers or the newsreels. We weren't heroes. We were only there…
Larry LaSalle stood before us that afternoon at the Wreck Center, the movie star smile gone, replaced by grim-faced determination. "We can't let the Japs get away with this," he said, anger that we had never seen before flashing in his eyes. As we were about to cheer his announcement, he held up his hand. "None of that, kids, I'm just doing what millions of others are doing."
The Movietone News brought reminders of the war that was raging around the globe, as the grim narrator spoke of places that had been unknown to us a few months ago—Bataan in the Pacific, Tobruk in Africa. We cheered our fighting forces and booed and hissed when Hitler came on the screen, his arm always raised in that hated salute.
We always did what Larry LaSalle told us to do. Always carried out his slightest wish…I saw Larry raising his eyebrows at me, the way he looked at me when I made a stupid move at table tennis.
I could not die that way. Soldiers were dying with honor on battlefields all over the world. Noble deaths. The deaths of heroes. How could I die by leaping from a steeple? The next afternoon I boarded the bus to Fort Delta, in my pocket the birth certificate I had altered to change my age, and became a soldier in the United States Army.
I am calm. My heartbeat is normal. What's one more death after the others in the villages and fields of France? The innocent faces of the two young Germans appear in my mind. But Larry LaSalle is not innocent.
I had always wanted to be a hero like Larry LaSalle and all the others, but have been a fake all along. And now I am tired of the deception and have to rid myself of the fakery. I look away from him, out the window at the sun-splashed street. "I'm not a hero” I tell him.
My good Francis. My table tennis champion. My Silver Star hero." Hero. The word hangs in the air. "I don't know what a hero is anymore, Nicole." I think of Larry LaSalle and his Silver Star. And my own Silver Star, for an act of cowardice. "Write about it, Francis. Maybe you can find the answer that way."
I remember what I said to Nicole about not knowing who the real heroes are and I think of my old platoon…I think of Enrico, minus his legs, his arm. I think of Arthur Rivier, drunk and mournful that night in the alley. We were only there. Scared kids, not born to fight and kill. Who were not only there but who stayed, did not run away, fought the good war. And never talk about it. And didn't receive a Silver Star. But heroes, anyway. The real heroes.