The Sorrowful State of the Villain

Purely virtuous heroes are hard for us to feel much affinity for. What’s interesting, though, is that as we move away from the complete and perfect hero we move towards the anti-hero and the villain. Villains from Epic stories are similar to the anti-heroes in Ironies, and vice-versa.

As we enter the ‘villain’ range of characters, virtues have largely vanished. Some tend to be authoritarian, demanding, destructive to people and environments around them, like the bullying Mrs. Joe Gargery in Great Expectations:

My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg- grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much.

Openly mocking positive communication, Mrs. Joe is a model for such characters as she deals in hostile or threatening criticism in defense of her narrow view of life. This character type constantly attempts to undermine others. It doesn’t seem possible for them to agree about anything; they are remorselessly destructive. Though they may occasionally experience some pleasure in extraordinary moments, they often misunderstand it. Examples include Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice, Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Sauron and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and so on.

Every standard villain comes from the same stock: similar, but with his or her uniquely different details. It’s probably true to say that they are more trapped than most of other character types. Because it is through the protagonist that we move the reader, the protagonist himself or herself must actually change or move, up or down a scale, to bring that about. Villains are therefore the counterpoint, the usually unmoving opposite, to the protagonist’s motion.

In moments of extremity, such as when the climax of the story draws nigh, villains normally get even worse: they actively destroy, get angry, can become guilty of rape or murder, brutally treat others, and smash or destroy those around them or their environment. Failing this, they may (and often do) destroy themselves.

When they move the other way, though, coming slightly upscale, as Mrs. Joe does by the end of Great Expectations, or like Prince Andrew’s belligerent father does partway through War and Peace, we find that we, as readers, are often profoundly moved: the realism of their portrayal has meant that the shift in key has a deeper effect on us than it otherwise might have done. We feel pity, sympathy and a sense of lost potential, and the characters become more meaningful and real.

But this particular description doesn’t cover all villains or negative characters: there is an even worse type, which covers many antagonists in literature. This is the type who lives in fear and through lies, screening dishonesty with a pseudo-ethical mask and ingenious and vicious perversions of truth, like Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings or the brilliantly described Steerpike in Gormenghast:

If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Luckily -or rather, as part of the way stories work -he or she nearly always fails.

Numerous other examples leap to mind: the mild example of the sycophantic Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, the devious Wickham being the more dynamic epitome; Mrs. Coulter is a stronger type in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The whole society seems to operate at his band in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, while both Gollum and Wormtongue -‘a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes’- demonstrate it perfectly in The Lord of the Rings. Baron Von Harkonnen is an example of it in Dune, while Gatsby in The Great Gatsby has at least some of these traits:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Worse even than that is the listless victim. It is also true that most Tragic heroes fall through this phase on their way down - Macbeth, for instance, captures the sense of despairing lack of meaning in anything perfectly:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Wuthering Heights has many characters who eventually are worn down to this point -here Heathcliff has descended so far that he has given up on revenge, no longer having the will for it:

My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives -I could do it, and none could hinder me! But where is the use?! I don't care for striking, I can't take the trouble to raise my hand!

Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre exemplifies it; Captain Corelli's Mandolin details a society in which this level is momentarily reached by several characters, as does War and Peace. The pitiful madness of many characters in literature such as Treasure Island, The Count Of Monte Cristo, and Far From The Madding Crowd probably belongs here.

And all of them serve a story-purpose. They are all counter-points to something else, even when, in Tragedy or Irony, they are the centre of attention. They all point out voids, gaps, holes and absences; they all, in doing so, evoke the presences which they can never have.

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