Junior B, Mother B and I had most invigorating discussion on the villains of literature yesterday at lunch--a perfectly lovely chat. After all, it's not every day you can make serious inroads on a platter of chicken quesadillas while sharing horrors over Al-je-bal's awful deeds, and debating whether or not Saladin was actually a villain. (I think he was, but Junior B has a strange sympathy for him.) Lunchtime discussions at our house are almost always literary themed, and rarely the day goes by when we're not pulling out quotes to sprinkle throughout our conversation. (Because why say something in your own words when Charles Dickens and Jane Austen said it so much better?)
Haggard's villains weren't the only object of our discussion as we canvassed this topic, and a side tangent led me to an unexplored angle of our series. Today's post we shall dedicated to the ladies of literature, specifically the lady villains. After all, it would be rather remiss of me to neglect my own kind. Some of them were famous for their wicked deeds, but some of them are all too familiar, and easy to find in living form today.
I suppose they are ladies. Though I would use that term loosely.
It's actually a good thing to divide male and female villains into separate categories. Having our natural and God-given differences from men, we respond to disappointments and vexations in a completely separate way, and thus--when you have a female villain--it adds a different flavor to the story.
Male villains do the stabbing, the killing, the blackmailing, and all the dark deeds that come from thwarted desire. In every instance, they go down the path of destruction because an object that they want is not given to them. Females become villains because their emotions are violated. Every time. Oh granted, there's unrequited love among male villains just as much as females. Take the Count of Monte Cristo--he killed the whole upper-crust of Paris because someone took the girl he had set his affections on. (Slight exaggeration there, but when you read the book, it sure feels like he made away with the entire first class.) But you see, he didn't kill for the sake of his emotions. He killed because the object he wanted to achieve was snatched away from him.
Before you think I'm saying that men view women as objects, let me take a moment to clarify. I'm not claiming that men never feel emotion (they do) or that women always go off the deep end when someone violates their feelings (that's a stereotype, and not always an accurate one). But in all of literature, there are separate male and female reactions, and in the case of villains, extremely separate male and female motives. It's fascinating, really. I had never taken the time to think about it before until today, but even in the case of evil, we can still trace the gender divide.
To illustrate, let me pull a concept from Angela Hunt, who gave a fantastic session on plotting at a writer's conference I attended. Did you know that every book you read has either a masculine or a feminine plot? Masculine plots focus on attaining the goal. Feminine plots have a goal as well, but emphasize the change of character that the main protagonist undergoes.
The same principle holds true with male and female villains. Male villains want to attain the goal. Even villains who are trying to win the fair lady are still after a tangible goal--the wife. God created men to take dominion, to have purpose, and everything they do focuses around that dominion. It was hard-wired into them. But female villains, while they often have a goal, practice their torments for the purpose of emotionally manipulating their victim. Many females are quite purposeful in life, but we were also given a more intrinsic knowledge of the workings of the human heart and all those confusing feelings hidden therein. In the end, it's the inner feelings that drive us to the dark side, not the dominion goal.
Let's illustrate this concept by looking at some female villains, categorized by author. There may be spoilers--I won't be marking them this time, but I'll put the title next to the person, so if you haven't read it yet, beware. :)
Aunt Irene/Jane of Lantern Hill
Aunt Irene may be a rather minuscule villain in literature, but Jane was very close to me during my early teens, and I still have a soft spot for her. After all, sometimes it is not the extent of a villain's wickedness, but the extent of how much we love who they're working against that makes them a great sinner.
There may be no shining daggers or late night chase scenes in Jane's story. But when a girls longs for a solid home life and is doing everything she can to bring her parents back together, an aunt who manipulates and plants seeds of doubt to keep them apart is a villain indeed. What God has joined together, man should not separate, and emotional abusers are just as bad as people who wreak physical harm.
Madame Therese Defarge/A Tale of Two Cities--There are many female villains, and doubtless Madame Defarge can be beaten in terms of wicked deeds, but of all the Charles Dickens works I've read she really can claim the title of worst woman thus far. Living, of course, during the French Revolution, it is chiefly through her means that the noble Charles Darnay is brought to trial for the crimes of being an aristocrat, and after he is acquitted, it is through her means that he is brought back again to be executed at the guillotine. The chief suspense of the novel comes through constant views of her sitting in the inn she runs with her husband--knitting, and knitting, and knitting. Slip, slip, slip. A knit stitch here, and purl stitch there. She's one of the old women who sits in front of the guillotine and plies her needles as the heads roll into the basket, a trademark picture from the time period.
And in her knitting, depending in which stitch she puts where, are the names, histories, and evidence for all the people she intends to bring down from their inheritances. Only she knows how to read it. But she never forgets.
Madame Defarge had an almost understandable motive for her grudge against the Darnay family. Charles Darnay's father caused the death of three of her family members. This would imply that her wickedness comes from the goal of revenge, but actually, the father and the son both repented of the grief their legacy had caused. So in the end, it came down to an emotional hold that she simply couldn't let go of.
Miss Havisham/Great Expectations
Miss Havisham is a hotly debated figure in the gallery of female villains. Some think she should go there, and some think she's not exactly a villain--just an embittered woman who couldn't move on with her life. While I have been inclined in the past to take to the latter opinion, I think now that she could fit into the villains category. Suffering from a near-marriage that fell through on the very morning of her wedding day, she locks herself up in her room and raises a little girl to wreak revenge on all the male sex. Her thwarted love must be revenged somehow, and as the man who wronged her is impossible to hurt, she decides to torment an unsuspecting blacksmith's apprentice with a duplication of her own tragic story.
Villains sometimes break heads, sometimes hearts, and sometimes homes. But the female villains are generally the ones who break the relationships.
Miss Wade/Little Dorrit
While Rigaud tends to steal the spotlight in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit, a lesser villain and one easily forgotten is Miss Wade. Thwarted in love, bitter and vengeful due to society ignoring her, she has plans to make Pet Meagles' life miserable along with the pretty girl's new husband, Henry Gowans. Miss Wade even consorts with Rigaud to hire his services in the matter. But we're so enthralled with his "Compagnon de la Majolaine!" That we forget the less dangerous but still woman behind him. A woman who can uproot homes, and break hearts, and stir up dissension and strife in perfectly happy establishments--all because she was not treated as she fancied she ought to have been in her childhood.
Lucy Steele/Sense and Sensibility
I would give my long-suffering brother frequent point by point evaluations of how awful Lucy Steele was, whenever he happened to be around during our Sense and Sensibility movie times. Both Imogen Stubbs (1995 version) and Anna Madeley (2007 version) captured her sweet wickedness perfectly. She's the essence of villainy, twisting her sharp words into Eleanor, wrapping her in webs of secrecy and constantly exulting over the fact that she (Lucy) had Edward Farrars safe in her clutches.
She is the embodiment of petty evil, and the perfect example of a female villain. Using her words to wound, but in such a sweet way that you could never pin her down in a court of law, she plays on emotions with frightening skill to get the desired result.
In every example here, these woman used the weapon of emotional manipulation to cause grief and heartache in someone around them. There are plenty of Lucy Steeles and Aunt Irenes alive and well today, and though it's harder to find the over-caricatured examples of the Charles Dickens variety, I've read real-life examples of those ones too.
I'm going to have to think about this and dig up some more. I don't often think about villains being female, but as we suffer from the same sin nature, we are all too capable of being the antagonist of the tale.
And thus we have our last villains spotlight. :) Next Tuesday we'll be wrapping up the series with a conclusion post, and then on to a couple of book reviews.
Who are your favorite female villains?