Monday, January 28, 2013

Their naked villainy

Plenty of video gamers and moviegoers have come up with lists of the ten most villainous villains (see here, for example, or here or here), but readers of literature do not seem to think in such terms any more. In a rare exception, the author of the Bite Me blog, in an illustrated list which leans precariously toward the movies, creditably includes Milton’s Satan and Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein’s monster among his 10 Freaking Awesome Villains and Antagonists! My only complaint is that Milton’s Satan (“by merit rais’d To that bad eminence”) isn’t his #1!

Perhaps villainy has gone the way of heroism: the purveyors of modern literature are far too sophisticated to believe wholeheartedly in either. There are villains galore in the nineteenth-century novel: Ahab (of course), Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter, John Barton in the novel that bears his daughter’s name, Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, Henleigh Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda, Gilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, anyone with a Colonel before his name in Huckleberry Finn.

Ever since Conrad closed out the century with a long story about the villainous Mr. Kurtz in Blackwood’s Magazine, his disciples and successors have been few and far between in English-language fiction. When a villain does appear—think of Henry Wilcox in Howards End, for example—he is offered a measure of redemption by the end of the novel. Coming up with a list of the ten most hauntingly horrible of the horrible characters in fiction since then (the phrase is Kingsley Amis’s) is no easy task:

(10.) Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925). Former college football player; breaks his adulterous lover’s nose with a short punch; earnestly talks her husband into murdering Gatsby. Fitzgerald attributes his behavior to a “vast carelessness.”

( 9.) Hollis Lomax in Stoner (1965). Chairman of the English department in which William Stoner teaches; a hunchback, barely five feet tall, he tries to destroy Stoner’s career to avenge a protégé whom Stoner had flunked; unable to get Stoner fired, he refuses to promote him and for twenty years assigns him nothing but sections of English composition five days a week at all hours of the day; when Stoner finds a little happiness with a young instructor in the department, Lomax fires her. A memorable portrait of the academic hack for whom bureaucratic power compensates for a lack of scholarship.

( 8.) O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Agent of the Thought Police; pretends to belong to the resistance movement, dupes Winston Smith into revealing himself as a thought-criminal; tortures Winston until he breaks, but not before defining the essence of totalitarianism for him: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (For some reason, NPR lists Big Brother as the fifty-ninth best character in literature since 1900, even though Big Brother is not a character at all but the public face of the Party—a face on posters. Might as well call the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg a character in The Great Gatsby.)

( 7.) Clare Quilty in Lolita (1955). Humbert Humbert’s “shadow,” even more monstrous and perverted than the self-confessed pervert and monster; abducts Lolita and spirits her away to Duk Duk Ranch (“an obscene Oriental word for copulation”—Alfred Appel), where he presses her into orgies with young boys while he watches; antisemite, pornographer, mediocre playwright.

( 6.) The two nameless mountain men in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970). So famous they have entered into American myth, the popular image of menacing rural Southerners. Their anal rape of Bobby Trippe is one of the cruelest scenes in American fiction. (Their even more famous line, “Squeal like a pig,” from John Boorman’s film, is not to be found in the novel.) The suburb-dwellers canoeing down the Cahulawassee River have never encountered “such brutality,” “such disregard for another person’s body.”

( 5.) Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940). The first mass murderer in American fiction who was not a Gothic exaggeration. Richard Wright cannot decide whether he is responsible for the deaths of Mary Dalton and his “girl” Bessie or whether the “whole sick social organism” of racist America is to blame—the indecision, strangely enough, is one source of the novel’s greatness—but no reader can forget Bigger’s chopping off the head of Mary’s corpse to fit it into the furnace nor the way he beats Bessie with a brick again and again until “he seemed to be striking a wet wad of cotton. . . .”

( 4.) Popeye in Sanctuary (1931). As a child he sliced up small animals; as an adult, he murders two men and a dog; impotent and syphilitic, he rapes Temple Drake with a corncob; he “smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down her bridal veil when they raised her head.”

( 3.) Judge Holden in Blood Meridian (1985). The murderous pedophile who leads the scalp-hunting Glanton gang and acts as its spokesman, delivering a philosophical defense of its butchery by calling it the “dance of war” (“Only that man who has offered himself up entire to the blood of war, who has been offered up himself entire to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance”). His thinking is more frightening than his violent actions.

( 2.) Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1962). The teenaged sociopath, a rapist and murderer and apostle of “ultraviolence,” who narrates Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel. The American Film Institute ranked Alex the twelfth greatest movie villain and the highest-ranked literary character, unless you count Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which I don’t. As Burgess said of him later, “He rejoices in articulate language and even invents a new form of it”—the vocal charm is more blood-curdling than any dark philosophy.

( 1.) James Todd in A Handful of Dust (1934). Tony Last escapes the savages of the South American jungle only to fall captive to the most savage human being ever drawn up by an English-language writer: an illiterate recluse who obliges him to read Dickens aloud—the entire Dickens corpus, over and over and over again—for the remainder of his days. No worse torture can be imagined.

12 comments:

Steve Abernathy said...

Good list. I'd take McEachern over Popeye from Faulkner. Others for consideration:

John Crowley's Ray Honeybeare
Iris Murdoch's Julius King
Graham Greene's Pinkie
VS Naipaul's Big Man
Half the characters in Nat West's A Cool Million

D. G. Myers said...

Patrick Kurp sends along the following: “Thomas Berger’s evil characters are usually buffoonish narcissists, not competently bad. Think of Richie in Meeting Evil or Custer in Little Big Man. Also, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. And Pnin’s academic tormentors.”

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Sylvia Tietjens in Ford's Parade's End, who ceaselessly strives to destroy her husband simply because he is good and perfect.

Steerpike in Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the Machiavellian kitchen boy - Peake shows how he grows into villainy.

The father, John Gourlay, from George Douglas Brown's The House with the Green Shutters is a great monster. Grasping, violent, egomaniacal, bursting out of the little Scottish town he is stuck in. I am sure Faulkner knew him - he is a proto-Snopes.

Kid's books still have villains - the vain, ruthless Manny Rat from Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child is a worthy one.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Pinkie Brown in Greene's Brighton Rock is a nasty piece of work.

D. G. Myers said...

On Twitter, Phil Klay nominates the Professor in Conrad’s Secret Agent, Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (1920–1970), the Bible salesman in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” (originally published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, 1955), and “all of humanity” in Céline’s Journey to the End of Night (1932).

R.T. said...

The Bible salesman in "Good Country People"? Really? I would urge Phil Klay take another look, and I would argue that villains cannot exist in comic stories, especially in O'Connor's stories and novels. Tell me where I am wrong, if you can.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I'd agree with R.T. about O'Connor. Good and evil certainly exist in her stories, but not so much the concept of villainy. The character committing bad acts is always given an opportunity to find grace, even if he refuses that opportunity. But his dramatic role in the story is never one of villain.

Shelley said...

As someone who teaches "sections of English composition," I object.

It's not Hell.

It's Purgatory.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Interesting selection, although Judge Holden's dimensionality as a character was (for me, anyway) always overshadowed by his symbolic significance as the ultimate judge - the grim reaper himself, who enters everything into his little book even as he destroys it.

nicole said...

I'll second Sylvia Tietjens.

Anonymous said...

Not Widmerpool but his wife. No greater harridan in fiction.

Avner said...

I nominate the father from St. Aubyn's Patrick Melsrose novels. A scene at the man's funeral, someone says to Patrick, "He saw the funny side of everything." "He only saw the funny side of things that didn't have one," said Patrick. "That's not a sense of humor, just a form of cruelty."