Understanding the Villain

Who sees her as the bad guy?

They’re two of the first terms you learn in the study of literature: protagonist and antagonist.  The protagonist is the hero, the schnook at the center of the story, the innocent in the middle of a hurricane.  It’s easy to sympathize with heroes.  Everything seems to happen to them and they’re created to be someone you like.  So it should be easy to guess who the antagonist is.  That’s the “udder guy”, the heavy, the louse who antagonizes the hero. Actually, an antagonist is simply whatever force that opposes the hero but some opponents go out of their way to make the good guy’s life miserable.  At any rate, it’s easy to see the tale from the hero’s point of view but when I was struggling with a story years ago I got some good advice from my husband.   “Never forget” he said, looking over the rims of his glasses, “No one sees themselves as the villain.”

Bertha Mason before she went to England..
Doesn’t look crazy, does she?
“No one sees themselves as the villain.”  That observation holds incredible insight and it’s the mechanism that unlocked a horde of parallel novels based on already-famous stories.  Either Dorothy Gale is the tornado-blown innocent, wearing the slippers Glinda placed on her feet OR she’s the person who killed the last member of the Western Witch’s family and then ran away in the shoes of her victim.  The Wicked Witch has an arguable grievance against the girl that Gregory Maguire turned into a series of stories.  Jean Rhys did the same thing in Wide Sargasso Sea, a story constructed from the novel Jane Eyre.  Jean couldn’t turn Jane into a villain but she could give a rational explanation for the actions of Bertha Mason, the lunatic wife of Rochester who laughs too much and sets the house on fire.  Instead of a pyromaniac, we see a Caribbean heiress whose displacement and unhappy marriage undermine her reason.  The ending is the same but the malevolent spectre is replaced with a character we can understand and pity.  She becomes “human”.

Snidely Whiplash: a cartoon baddie
Snape: Antagonist or
Tragic Anti-Hero?

Because they are human, these dimensional villains are far more interesting than the cardboard cutouts of melodrama.  Yes, there’s a certain grandeur to Snidely Whiplash twirling his whip-thin mustache but he’s more of a mechanism than a man.  Compare Snidely to Severus Snape, the anti-hero and secondary antagonist for much of the Harry Potter series.  Raised to be a racist, Snape loses the love of his life while he’s still very young and lives the rest of his life with the results of his mistakes.  He’s a difficult, demanding teacher but a talented one as well and most of the advice he gives the hero comes from the lessons he didn’t learn in time.  The remarks are delivered with sneers and insults but the basic suggestions are good.  “Don’t become a show-off.” “Rules are there to keep you safe.” “Learn to defend yourself.” Snape’s real error here is that he gives the advice he should have heeded, not what the hero needs.  Isolation and insecurity make him a deeply flawed man but ultimately a person the reader can recognize and pity, something Harry starts to do when he first sees Snape’s worst memory in The Order of the Phoenix.  Snape is humiliated and bullied by the men Harry viewed as role models and the rest of Snape’s life begins to take on the inevitability of a tragedy.  The best characters become not “all good” or “all bad” but believably real and headed for
disaster.

So remember no one sees themselves as a villain when you are watching an actor at work or a conflict play out in real life.  However ridiculous or contrived someone’s behavior may seem, to them it’s a reasonable response to an overwhelming situation.  We’re all trying to get from one place to another over an unpaved road.  If we can see where the other guy’s coming from, perhaps we can avoid a collision. 

A firm, steady sight on the truth

Revisionist tales can be slippery.  We love them because they tell the tale we already know from a perspective that gives the story new meaning.  Sometimes a revisionist history promotes a fairer review of the past, like The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.   Wide Sargasso Sea, is revisionist version of Jane Eyre but the new story is brilliant enough to stand on its own.  Most of these tales aren’t that good.  However, Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister brings something new to the table.  It isn’t just a send-up of Cinderella – it’s a meditation on the difference between perception and the truth.

Cinderella is one of the stories that teams beauty with goodness.  The poor, pretty orphan is mistreated by those who should love her, which makes her royal rescue all the more grand.  But Maguire’s Clara is a hostage to her own good looks who chooses kitchen life from spite and agoraphobia.  Her mother preached that a lovely face was in danger if exposed to the outdoor world.  Her father attracted customers with her seldom seen beauty, associating her face with his wares in a painting.  The combination has turned this Clara (this book’s Cinderella) into a unhappy, self-pitying child who seeks the kitchen to avoid being exploited and manipulates people to get what she wants. Beauty doesn’t make Cinderella a good person here; it doesn’t even make her the hero.

That role is for Iris, Clara’s step-sister, a girl obsessed with appearance and vision.  In a way Iris has the same problem as Clara since it’s Iris’s fate to ignored by those who are swayed by the mask of appearance.  Of the three sisters, (Iris, Clara and Ruth) Iris is the most discerning and probably the kindest but her vision is limited.  Iris has the ability to view most objects in terms of form, color and light, but she’s blind to her own value.  According to the rest of the characters, Iris is, at worst, plain but that’s a problem, living next to Cinderella.  Who sees the glow of a firefly when it’s in front of a fire?

The presumption of perspective permeates this novel along with its attendant disaster.  Maguire set his revisionist story in Holland during the “Tulip Mania” phase.   While tulips have become synonymous with Holland, they aren’t an indigenous species – bulbs were imported from Turkey.  The Dutch people became enchanted with the blooms and merchants started signing contracts to buy bulbs in upcoming seasons for specified prices; flower futures, you might say.  The craze for the flowers was so strong, people sold and bought the contracts at ever-increasing prices and drove up the price on the bulbs.  All sight of the intrinsic with of the flowers was lost in the search for wealth and when one buyer finally defaulted on his contract, the tulip market imploded.  Prices on the flowers dropped by a hundred-fold overnight and bankrupt merchants finally remembered the true value of their investments.  They had invested in flower bulbs, something people liked but no one needed to live.  The perception of value eventually surrendered to reality.

An old Russian teacher once told me he gauged the leanings of incoming Soviet premiers by how they reacted to history.  The progressives would refer to a certain Russian prince as “Ivan the Terrible.”  Totalitarians called the same guy “Ivan the 4th.”  So was the prince Terrible or an ambitious leader?  The hero or the goat?  The truth gets lost in the glare of conflicting perspectives.