Is James Bond a Hero?

He’s got his vices and very few perceptible virtues… But then, I didn’t intend for him to be a particularly likable person.

Ian Fleming on his main character, in Playboy, Dec. 1964, p. 100

Putting St. George on Trial

Fig. 1. Playboy Croatia does a feature on living like James Bond.
Source: Gillette, Michael. “Being Bond.” Playboy Croatia, Nov. 2012.

It’s no surprise so many fans want to live the James Bond lifestyle and fancy themselves a glamorous, globe-trotting agent. James Bond is a skilled gambler, golfer, and athlete, drives the slickest, spy-outfitted cars, has an innate knowledge of the latest luxury brands and that je ne sais quoi that coaxes beautiful women into bed with him. But to call a spade a spade — he’s a terrible role model. The character has been lampooned by modern day critics as well as Fleming’s contemporaries, including one Reverend Leslie Paxton, who argued Bond was “the epitome of worldy vice” (F. Fleming 271).

Fleming never argued Bond was a nice guy — just a professional doing his job. The name James Bond was chosen to render the character exceptionally unmemorable, “an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department” (“THE EXCLUSIVE BOND”). He frequently references Bond’s cruel appearance as well as demeanor, offering tongue-in-cheek remarks like, “I was sorry to see Goldfinger go. He was a so much nicer man than James Bond!” (“To Jack Jones, Esq., The Western Mail, Cardiff”). He even put Bond on a more expensive diet following the unexpected postwar public endearment towards the globetrotting superspy whose favorite food was scrambled eggs (“THE EXCLUSIVE BOND”).

At the same time, the nature of the Bond universe postures its protagonist as a hero most of the time, even if only comparatively. The Bond cosmic order identifies “good guys” by their attractiveness and the antagonists by their ugliness (Synnott). Fleming has also endowed him with a basic ethical code the bad guys lack (ibid).

Furthermore, Bond is unambiguously a manifestation of Fleming’s masculine hero fixation (Harling). “Hero” is a term affixed to Bond both within the novels and while speaking of them. Bond muses of his exploits, “This time it really was St George and the dragon!” suggesting his efforts are not only heroic — of the saving-damsel-from-dragon variety — but even saintlike (and not in the Roger Moore sense) (Goldfinger, 155). The comparison is not an exceptional instance: in Fleming’s words, he was a “devotee of the corny ending where the villain dies and the hero gets the girl” (“To Jack Jones, Esq.” 204).

The Other End of the Gun Barrel

In addition to fielding accusations of “sex, snobbery, and sadism,” Fleming would soon be held morally accountable for the impressionable adolescent boys who had begun reading his novels and idolizing their antihero. Perhaps sensing the character’s commercial value, Fleming tried his hand at a Bond novel that would better embody the “New Morality” of the 1960s (“From William Plomer” 295). Fleming, who intended the series for “adult heterosexuals” rather than teenage boys, wrote The Spy Who Loved Me as a literary experiment, intending to show Bond from another, more cautionary point of view (it went about as well as you’d expect) (“Ian Fleming: The brain behind Bond”). No longer would 007 a figure to be idolized. The book concludes with the amicable ramblings of Police Captain Stonor, who warns Viv that Bond is no better than the villains of these plots — he is as coldblooded as any dangerous criminal. She musn’t idolize one and fear the other; both were a different species far removed from citizen life, and one she must quickly forget.

But it seems that Fleming could not escape his life-long romantic tendency towards hero-worship. Vivienne, who has just had exceptional sex with our man, has also quelled her doubts about placing him on a pedestal and decided no man will ever compare, is content to dismiss his advice. “My expression cannot have been receptive” (141).

◀ Bond, Part 2: Fleming becomes his own hero // Girls, Introduction  ▶