What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.
Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.
I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.
Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.
Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)
Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.
I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.
Wonderful post! I remember being in a lit class (many years ago, so correct me if I’m wrong) and I thought Milton’s description of Lucifer, after the toss out from heaven, was the most gorgeous rendition I ever read. Oh, the vision of him stretched out, sitting up, feeling a bit lost. My professor was so angry that I’d seen the beauty in him and I got a sermon about the trend of some English majors liking him but disliking God.. Well you know, Lucifer did exactly what is legal, went to war where the definition of war is us wanting what they got and taking it. So yeah, his early days were rough and maybe if his so-called “dad” had been a little more understanding, like many an evil bastard in the world, he wouldn’t have become Satan? 🙂
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I’m a little surprise at your English prof. The controversy about Satan being the main character who garners the most interest has been going on since Milton published it, although it would take 100 years before anyone (Blake and then more measuredly Shelley) would actually claim that Satan was the “good guy” and morally superior to Milton’s God. I can see moral and textual reasons why a prof might discourage going as far as Blake, but the attraction to and fascination with Satan is well borne out in criticism of the past few hundred years.
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Poeturja, I also just went back and added a link from the words “Paradise Lost” to another brief analysis of Satan. You might like it. I’ll put it here too:
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Well, I should tell you that this same professor laughed hysterically at me in class when I said Bob Dylan was the greatest modern poet in the world. Hmmm, who’s laughing now 😀 Also, thank you so much for posting the link commenting on Blake and Shelley. There are so many wonderful blogs on WP and I tend to miss too many postings with so little time. I appreciate your knowledge and willingness to share it!
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Hahaha. (I’m laughing with you, not with your professor 🙂 )
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In fiction, the key aspect of the antagonist is that he/she drives the narrative. The protagonist is reactive. That makes the villain inherently appealing.
I remember as a child watching Bond movies and identifying with the bad guy and always being slightly disappointed when Bond spoiled his carefully prepared plans. The highlight for me was always when the villain revealed the extent of his ambition and his genius at formulating the plan. Bond seemed like a petulant child by comparison. Similarly, in the original Star Wars trilogy, Darth Vader was always the most interesting character. A story like this is only as strong as its villain.
Sorry if I have dumbed down your list of reference works.
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Hahaha. I won’t say you’ve “dumbed down” my list; let’s just say you’ve “democratized” it 🙂 I am more concerned about your pulling for the Bond villains. You may be an actual case of non-fictional evil 🙂