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It's back to the blogging grind, so you know what Tuesday is for! This week's topic is a juicy one. Every good story needs an antagonist and the best kind of antagonist is an evil villain. Ok, some great novels use internal or abstract antagonism...but sometimes you just need a bad guy.
Top Ten Bad Guys & Villains
If you listen to Oh Witch Please podcast you know all about why Umbridge is a particularly interesting portrayal of feminised authority. In the Harry Potter universe (and our society) over-the-top femininity is uncomfortable and thus easily demonised. Is Umbridge entirely despicable? Yes, but she's also presented as the foil to Dumbledore's Old White Guy wisdom and benevolence. There's nothing better for English majors/academics than a problematic portrayal of good and evil.
Continuing the trend of feminine authority figures portrayed as duplicitous is Mrs Coulter. There are quite a lot of similarities between Coulter and Umbridge, but Philip Pullman gives Mrs Coulter a bit more complexity and humanity. His Dark Materials is one of my all-time favourite series and one of the reasons I love it so much is how well it threads literary history and theology into the story. You can't read Mrs Coulter and Lyra independent of each other and they are both linked in different ways to Biblical representations of women, i.e. some of the most potent figures in all of the western canon.
To round off the examples of female villainy*, I have to mention Lady Macbeth. She is a contrast to the overly feminised figures of Coulter and Umbridge--cold, conniving, and ambitious without any soft edges. Lady Macbeth is a cultural reference forever-rooted in our dialogues about women in power and their influence on men in power. I think this year in particular brings the misogynistic readings of Lady Macbeth into sharp relief...but we won't get political here. I think Lady Macbeth is most interesting as a figure of remorse and guilt. 'Out, damned spot!' is one of the most iconic lines spoken by a villain and a woman on stage.
There are bad men in fiction as well, but they're usually not so interesting for feminist literary criticism. Still, I do have a totally cliched love for bad guys. The Darkling is definitely one of those bad guys that I don't even love to hate...I'm just wholly enamoured. He's an awful person, manipulative and ruthless. But as with many an evil overlord, he is also disconcertingly alluring.
Martin Chatwin, i.e. The Beast
I do love how The Magicians takes all of the inoffensive sincerity from The Chronicles of Narnia and twists it into something weird and disturbing. That's exactly what becomes of Martin Chatwin, the Chatwin sibling who didn't want to leave Fillory. He sells his humanity in order to stay in the magical land as a king. As the Beast, he is yet another evil overloud. But what makes him a really great villain is the fact that as Martin, he is a more complicated figure with a tragic past.
I imagine a villain like AIDAN, the out of control super-computer AI in Illuminae, is bound to become more and more frightening as our technology moves closer to making this sci-fi cliche into a possible reality. AIDAN's growing consciousness is able to misinterpret its programming into a heartless attack on the people it is meant to protect, all for the greater good...and eventually, when it becomes self-aware enough, it attacks for its own self-preservation. As a villain the lack of any humanity is an ominous threat. And yet AIDAN is too complex to fit into the simplistic man vs computer story...because maybe AIDAN isn't so inhuman after all. And that's a possibility that crosses over from evil to uncanny.
*mild spoilers ahead*
Problematic villain or problematic here? You never can be too sure when it comes to Severus Snape. He's an awful teacher, abusive to his students, and his redemption is based on an obsessive love. In the early Harry Potter novels, Snape is the archetype of the evil adult authority figure (think Mrs Trunchbull). Ingrained in children's stories is an illustration of good authority vs bad authority and Rowling subtly subverts this dichotomy with Snape's ambiguous villainy. We are not meant to like Snape, but we are meant to trust him. He is not a bad authority figure or a good one, but an imperfect person who has sadistic tendencies.
Humbert embodies one of the most disturbing kinds of perversion and yet reading about him is an astounding literary experience. In the novel, Humbert is the hero and he even defeats the villain Mr Quilty, but this depiction of a vile character as a story's hero is a masterful subversion of narrative structure. The form of a novel is one that requires no morality of its hero or villain. It merely require a struggle between two forces, one of which is presented as sympathetic no matter how narrative bias warps the perspective.
I was properly spooked when reading this book. I am not a fan of ghosts and demons. This 'villain' is really the stuff of nightmares, genuinely scary. The gothic, horror genre of The Diviners allows for a more purely evil antagonist than the other examples on this list. I can handle murder, but there's something about an evil demon serial killer that is more chilling than any human depravity.
The ultimate villain...or really, the ultimate antihero. Milton's Satan is one of the most complex, iconic characters in all of western literature. It almost feels wrong to put him on a list of villains as he is literally the embodiment of evil in Christian theology. But in Paradise Lost, there's more to Satan than malevolence. He is power-hungry, arrogant, cunning, deeply flawed, zealous, persuasive, and ultimately immoral - all human traits.
I don't know about you but now my mind is reeling from the complexity and moral ambiguity of literary villainy. Good thing I love thinking about thorny literary questions.
What are your favourite villains in literature?
*And I've just started planning a blog post discussing female villainy in YA within the larger context of traditional representations of chaotic women in literature...I'm such a nerd.