12.07.2013

Sheer villainy

A reader anonymously wrote up a list of their five top villains and it got me to thinking about my favorites. This reader's list is heavy on young adult books, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The villains in children's literature not only reach us when we're more vulnerable, but I think they're more elemental. Many of the villains I remember from my younger reading days were pure evil.

Iago torments Othello.
As an older (not to say mature) reader, the villains that scare me now are more ambiguous. These villains believe they're doing the right thing or they're out for revenge that doesn't seem all that unjustified. They share an utter ruthlessness to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their objectives. If you're a complete Machievellian, you might agree with them. And that's what scares me. 

So, here's my list of villains that scare the pants off of me:

  1. Iago: Perhaps one of the most effective tools in the villains' arsenal is to whisper doubts into another character's ear, to give voice to their darkest fears and make them real. Iago is a twisted man and he's at the top of my list because there is no arguing with him. He claims his goal is revenge, but his unstated motive is to sow chaos all around him. You can almost say he's an avatar of Loki. 
  2. Madame Defarge: I read A Tale of Two Cities years ago. The images that stuck with me are Sidney Carton's deeply moving speech as he sacrificed himself and Madam Defarge knitting away as revolutionaries plotted around her. The thing that really scares me about Madame Defarge is that I can understand her rage towards the rich and privileged. 
  3. Nurse Ratched: The scariest thing about Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was her voice. She was always eminently reasonable. If the story had been told from her perspective instead of from Chief Bromden's, she might have been a heroine who simply wanted to maintain an even keel for her patients. 
  4. Captain Ahab: Moby-Dick was assigned reading in my American Literature course when I was an undergraduate. Our instructor crammed too much into the syllabus that semester so we ended up skipping all the whaling chapters in favor of the plot chapters. I don't remember much about Ishmael or Queequeg, but I do remember Ahab's relentless drive to kill the whale. I remember the lengths, physical and supernatural, that he was willing to go to in order to destroy his enemy. He's a villain because he lost his perspective. 
  5. Mrs. Danvers: Mrs. Danvers, of Rebecca, makes my list because, like Iago, she has a quiet voice that says all the terrible things lurking inside the novel's protagonist's mind. She has no qualms about saying them in order to restore Manderley to the way she thinks it ought to be and to get revenge for her lost mistress. 

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