Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Heroes and alcohol

Cal Bartley
Penarth, South Wales, United Kingdom


Photo by Cal Bartley

It would seem that literary heroes cannot function without alcohol, as so many great books reference alcohol in a positive light. Even if it does not lubricate the plot, a glance at many classics suggest that a stiff drink is needed for the hero to successfully reach the final page.

If the arts reflect society, then no wonder we see so much of alcohol in the literature we read. As far back as Shakespeare’s history plays there are early examples of drinking alcohol. Falstaff in King Henry IV asks, “And is not my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench.” In Part II, the rebel Jack Cade states, “I will make it a felony to drink small beer.” Admittedly, in those days beer was a lot weaker than today’s brews and often a healthier drink than water, so perhaps that is why alcohol was seen to be such a popular tipple then and on everyone’s lips.

Fast forwarding to more modern times, we find the great PG Wodehouse usually had his favorite hero, Bertie Wooster, under the influence of alcohol to underpin his outlandish escapades, often based in his gentlemen’s club. Even when Bertie was not misbehaving when drunk, he was enjoying a snifter at home with his butler Jeeves, preparing for an evening’s fun. Again, Wodehouse was only reflecting society.

Alcohol can also be used in writing to impart glamour. In that most glamorous of novels, The Great Gatsby, alcohol is continuously referenced as a backdrop to the scenes, whether bottles of whisky in brown paper bags, or mint juleps in hotels.

Between the two world wars, the journalist George Orwell wrote about his time trying to live as an unskilled worker in Paris and London. This was long before he became the successful author of Animal Farm and 1984. At one point he describes how he once starved for five days due to lack of money. The first things he bought once he got some money together? Bread and wine – life’s essentials! Do not feel too concerned for him; once he admitted defeat he could return the luxurious middle class from which he hailed. Others were not so lucky.

There are a number of fictional policemen and private-eyes that rely on booze to function. Hard-bitten detectives such as Philip Marlowe of course like a drink. Raymond Chandler’s thrillers are crammed with references to Scotch or bourbon. A less common reference to brandy suggests a more upmarket drink, as when Marlowe is offered a brandy by a rich client, who states: “I used to like mine with champagne. The champagne as cold as Valley Forge and about a third of a glass of brandy beneath it.” The drink is brought to him by a butler.

In the moving World War II novel Fair Stood the Wind for France, the hero John Franklin is injured and has to have his left arm surgically removed. What is the first thing he drinks following his recovery from the operation? Why, red wine, of course.

A few decades later in the first of the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, the lead character – a secret agent working for the British government – makes a show of telling the barman how to make his super-strong dry martini. The individual ingredients are all described with added gin, vodka, and Kina Lillet. Such is the popularity of this drink – due more to the James Bond films than the books, perhaps – that most adults know that Agent 007 likes his martini shaken, not stirred. That is quite a detail for a cocktail drunk by a fictitious character!

In recent times, there have been some comedic drinkers in print, one of whom is Helen Fielding’s heroine, Bridget Jones. Her search for love is intertwined with drinking copious bottles of wine. Such is the importance of alcohol to this heroine that wine consumption is one of her daily diary headings. The many references to alcohol are all written for laughs, of course, but a non-drinker is left outside looking in at this particular joke – and not cracking a smile.

And this is the other side of the coin: if you do not drink, you are no fun. Unfortunately, literature tends to portray the non-drinker as less fun and more straight-laced than the boozer. This appears to cross genres in novels, literature, and poetry.

Much poetry takes the same route of associating alcohol with good times. Byron – mad, bad and dangerous to know – wrote: Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter / Sermons and soda-water the day after. These two lines encapsulate perfectly the notion that alcohol – in this case wine – promises good times, whereas sobriety – soda-water to sober up – is linked to church. The suggestion is: how boring could a non-imbiber be?

Fortunately for those not enamored with alcohol, there are also examples where drink is recognized as a curse rather than a cure. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island, he quotes a sea shanty: Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest / Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum! / Drink and the devil had done for the rest …At least an acknowledgement that alcohol can kill, even if only in a sea shanty!

By now you might be searching in your minds for a sober-sided hero – and you will have to search! Some contemporary novels are showing alcohol in another light. A recent bestseller suggests alcohol is not all it is cracked up to be. Girl on the Train is a grit-lit psychological thriller that shows the down side of alcohol as a plot driver – blackouts, misremembered scenes, no money; all realistically portrayed. The book is a realistic portrayal of the downside of drink, but our heroine is not a bundle of laughs either as she struggles to keep her life together. So at last we have a more realistic portrayal of the downside of alcohol, but it comes at a price: our heroine is fatally flawed because of drink.

So we must wait for a blockbuster where the hero or heroine is as cool as James Bond, as funny as Bridget Jones, has as much fun as Bertie Wooster, and is as great a friend as Falstaff. All without anything stronger to drink than a mocktail!



  1. Bates H E, (1944) Fair Stood the Wind for France, Penguin
  2. Byron L (1824) Don Juan, Byron
  3. Chandler R, 1939, The Big Sleep, Penguin
  4. Feilding H (1997) Bridget Jones Diary, Picador
  5. Fitzgerald FS (1925) The Great Gatsby, Charles Screibner’s Sons
  6. Fleming Ian, Casino Royale, (1953) Jonathon Cape Ltd.
  7. Hawkins P (2016) Girl on the Train, Black Swan
  8. Orwell G, (1933) Down and Out in Paris and London, Penguin
  9. Shakespeare W, King Henry IV, Part I (I,ii,44) Cambridge University Press
  10. Shakespeare W, King Henry VI, Part II (IV.ii,76) Cambridge University Press
  11. Stevenson R L (1883) Treasure Island, Cassell
  12. Wodehouse P G, 1924, The Inimitable Jeeves, Estate of PG Wodehouse



CAL BARTLEY is a literacy specialist and self-published author. She taught literacy for many years before turning to teaching creative writing for adults. Her first novel, Strong Undercurrents, was published in 2015 and her second novel, Love Before Wicket, will be published in the summer of 2019. She tutors children of all ages and tries to encourage in them a love of English. She no longer drinks!


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Literary Essays

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