Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Classics

In this series, The Sinners We Love, we've looked at two sinners, Rochester and Fantine. Certainly to do justice, we must take a little time to look at a couple of villains. Junior B asked me in the comments what the difference between a sinner and a villain was, so before I go on, we should really touch on that point. After all, it's best to be on solid ground with our terms; the two are certainly not interchangeable.

Sinner: (According to the 1828 Webster's Dictionary.)
1. One that has voluntarily violated the divine law; a moral agent who has voluntarily disobeyed any divine precept, or neglected any known duty.

Villain: (According to Dictionary.com)

1. a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.

Villains are of course sinners, but sinners are not necessarily villains. Fantine, for instance, in our last post, violated God's law of sex before marriage and suffered the consequences. But she was not cruelly malicious, nor devoted to the furtherance of wickedness. Rochester, the first one we discussed, is a little harder to pin down. He was certainly a sinner, and I would classify him as a border-line villain, but not to the extent of most.

So, since all villains are sinners, we can definitely include them in this series. :) We may not love them quite as much as sinners--but they make excellent antagonists nonetheless. In today's post, I want to highlight four authors who illustrate an important concept in regards to villains.

Go back in your mind, and pick out the really obvious, classic villains that have been loved from generation to generation. They're so familiar to us that we almost forget they exist: but every one of us, when we first came to them with fresh eyes, were properly horrified and intrigued by the depths they had sunk to. And then ask yourself: why do countless thousands love to shudder over their wicked deeds?

The answer in a moment. But first, the following four authors wrote several classic and well-known villains, that happen to be my personal favorites:

Charles Dickens
By far, if I were asked to chose my favorite villain, I would pull up Rigaud from Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit without a second of hesitation. He's such fascinating scum, I wouldn't change his repulsiveness one single jot. In fact, nice as Arthur Clennam (the protagonist) is, he wouldn't shine quite as brightly unless he had Rigaud's darkness to counterbalance his integrity.

‘I am a’—Monsieur Rigaud stood up to say it—‘I am a cosmopolitan gentleman. I own no particular country. My father was Swiss—Canton de Vaud. My mother was French by blood, English by birth. I myself was born in Belgium. I am a citizen of the world...Call me five-and-thirty years of age. I have seen the world. I have lived here, and lived there, and lived like a gentleman everywhere. I have been treated and respected as a gentleman universally. If you try to prejudice me by making out that I have lived by my wits—how do your lawyers live—your politicians—your intriguers—your men of the Exchange?’ ~Little Dorrit, Book 1, Chapter 1

Rigaud murders, assassinates, blackmails and torments with all the unswerving dedication of the best of bad guys. But he has one quirk: he's a gentleman villain, and expects to be treated as a gentleman, whether facing the noose or deigning to call upon the prisoners of the Marshalsea. Dickens' best evil characterization that I have found thus far.

Barness Orczy
Chauvelin is another classic favorite who has enthralled bibliophiles ever since he first appeared on the literary scene. Not for himself, necessarily. He's a little, conniving man trying his best to face off against the rescuing avenger of the French Revolution, Sir Percy Blakeney. And he's never going to win; we know that quite well. But he's good for the challenge of it, for without an antagonist the thrill of the chase wouldn't be nearly as great for Sir Percy or the reader. Tormented by wounded pride and jealousy, he's the perfect example of another motivation that turns men to villains: revenge.

Mary Johnston
One villain our family had particular fun with was Mary Johnston's Lord Carnal in To Have and to Hold. Lord Carnal is everything a villain should be: socially popular, devastatingly handsome, a supplicant for the hand of the fair lady, and surrounded by a bunch of henchmen to do his dirty work for him. He's not good by any stretch of the imagination, nor does he ever repent, not is his wickedness ever called into question. Much as I enjoy reading a book where I can't figure out who the villain is until the last minute, there is something occasionally safe and fun in having a book where everything is laid out clearly, and you can join the banner of right from the beginning, knowing who your comrades truly are. We pitted ourselves against him for one long, deliciously agonizing summer, and I can't think of a better crafted villain that I would love to see accurately portrayed on screen.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen crafted plenty of villains, and though they're not the stuff of swords and poison and daggers in the night, it wouldn't be fair to leave any of them out. Wickham, Willoughby, the Crawfords, Mr. Elliot, and some unmentionables (because Junior B is hearing Northanger Abbey for the first time, and I can't spoil it for her. ;) can all be placed in the villains category. Oh, they don't sparkle quite so gaudily as Dickens' villains, but they're closer to the villains that most of us will be facing in real life. I doubt I'll ever meet a Rigaud, but I've met a few Jane Austen villains in my time, and I expect to meet a few more in the course of my existence.

Sometimes it's hard to pick out a villain in stories like hers, because they commit such quiet crimes. Flirting with a girl, excusing an affair, trying to get married and set up a mistress at the same time. Wouldn't they be better off in the sinners category? No. Because, in their spit and polished way, they were all devoted to the furtherance of wickedness, some by participating in socially acceptable crimes, and some by being willing to overlook other's shortcomings. It's a slippery slope that leads down to hell, and every villain generally starts with little crimes before they become the full-fledged murderers and seducers.

When it comes down to it, all villains become villains because they grasp at a power that only God has the power to do or give. For some, like Chauvelin, it's the power to exact revenge. For some, it's the power to take love that doesn't belong to them. For some it's the power to seize their own happiness. For some it's the love of money they were never intended to have.

Every one of these villains worshiped themselves and their own power. And that's a key in reading or writing about villains. Each story has a God-figure, whether it be a supreme and all-powerful Creator who gives life and establishes morality (the God of the Bible, for Christian bibliophiles) or a supreme and all-powerful man. You see, in the end, whoever decides morality and standards of absolutes, whoever has the power of life and death, whoever can live completely unto their own glory, deserves to be God above all others. And every villain, whether they know it or not, is trying to achieve that status. The murder and blackmail and seducing is all side cant, mere symptoms of a greater problem. Clearly, every villain is a man (or woman) who worships themselves and their own standards of right and wrong.

For you have said in your heart:
‘I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.’
Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit.
Isaiah 14:13-15

Which we've discussed before, but again, it's only fair to say that villains don't have to turn into angels of goodness by the end of the story. The sad fact of life is, not everybody does repent. And frankly, I'm rather glad that Rigaud never turned over a new leaf; that wasn't his purpose and wouldn't have served the best interests of the story. Sometimes we like villains for their wickedness. As odd as that sounds, it's best to have an honest to goodness wicked person against which righteous must prevail, because  that's the best picture we can possibly draw of God prevailing against Satan's age-old struggle for supremacy.

Some would argue that in real life justice is not always done, and though it can seem so this side of heaven, I would argue that villains should always receive a moral resolution in books. It doesn't always need to be the execution block. Sometimes I quite agree with a villain not undergoing human justice, as in the case of Brother Cadfael's A Pilgrim of Hate. But the purpose of a book is not to excuse moral ambiguity, which is often what author's do in the name of 'reality'.

If a villain is truly a villain then some people will suffer from wrongdoing without righting that wrong. Rigaud's dead wife will never come back to life again. Beth will have to raise an illegitimate child, and endure the shame that will never fully leave her. Villains always leave lasting harm in their wake: but in the case of the main protagonist, the villain should always come out on the lesser end by the last page.

Why? Because that's the principle we find again and again in Scripture, a principle which is most clearly illustrated in Psalm 37:

The wicked draw the sword
    and bend the bow
to bring down the poor and needy,
    to slay those whose ways are upright.
But their swords will pierce their own hearts,
    and their bows will be broken.
Better the little that the righteous have
    than the wealth of many wicked;
 for the power of the wicked will be broken,
    but the Lord upholds the righteous.
~Psalm 37: 14-17

All-in-all, the small collection of villains in today's post proves one point: that thorough bad guys do work. In our politically correct age where every evil character has to be sympathetic, the classics go to prove that the public can be given a reader without any laudable qualities, and a hero who's downright good and virtuous, and they can withstand critique and changing morals for a couple hundred years. In fact, the most memorable villains are always the most unashamedly evil, and the most memorable heroes are always the most unashamedly good. Fancy that.

No longer is it necessary to write the self-tortured fiend who can't help what he's doing due to some trauma that scarred him for life. The callous, cruel villains who are actively working  to promote wickedness can stand in their own right as a biblical illustration of what happens when a soul is given over to sin. Relentless evil, fighting against relentless good.

Why does it work?

Because in the end, any book that comes the closest to the themes of good and evil in Scripture will always ring closest to our own hearts. The triumph of Ultimate Good is the theme of eternity. And God has written eternity on the hearts of men.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Another great post on villains! :) Villains are interesting because they are horribly fascinating...They don't gain our sympathy, just our interest. Do you think more sinners repent than villains? ;)
    I enjoyed our discussion at the lunch table about this. It was great fun. ;) :D

  2. Fantastic post! I absolutely agree that the murdering and seducing and what not is only the symptom of a bigger problem: the desire for autonomy. But that's sort of what we've been discussing lately anyway ;).


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