Publisher’s Weekly posted an article on the 11 Most Evil Characters in Books. I don’t know if my choices would be the same as theirs, but I realized that for many villains, the line between “good” and “evil” is not so clear. Goodness and evil exist more on a continuum, sometimes touching and overlapping so that it’s hard to say which is which. The best villains are the ones that are relatable—or even pitiable—because we can’t forget that they are human. Perhaps we hate them all the more because they are a reflection of ourselves.
These are the villains that I share some fellow-feeling with:
1. Javert – Les Miserables
Javert is my all-time favorite villain. He is so blindly focused on pursuing justice that he forgets all about grace. And when he realizes that he has been wrong, your heart cannot help but break for him:
To feel emotion was terrible. To be carved in stone, the very figure of chastisement, and to discover suddenly under the granite of our face something contradictory that is almost a heart. …He was forced to admit that infallibility is not always infallible, that there may be error in dogma, that society is not perfect, that a flaw in the unalterable is possible, that judges are men and even the law may do wrong.
Javert is all the more pitiable because, even in the face of extravagant grace, he cannot accept it and commits suicide.
2. Frankenstein’s Monster – Frankenstein
The monster did not choose his life, did not do anything to make himself so terrifying and repulsive; Frankenstein created him in pride, in seeking after glory, and it was a colossal failure. And then Frankenstein, the creator, hated his own creation. Can you even imagine how terrible?
Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? …If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly toward you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred.
The monster finally does pursue Frankenstein to his death, and it is a bitterly won victory. So bitter that, again, the story ends in suicide.
3. Raskolnikov – Crime and Punishment
Driven by the mistaken belief that truly great men are above rules or laws, Raskolnikov commits two murders. He wants to know if he is a great man; “I wanted to dare!” And then he is nearly destroyed by the realization that he is not a great man—he is no better than anyone else, and now he is much worse than most.
I wanted to find out then, and find out quickly, whether I was a louse like all the rest, or a man? …I’m exactly the same louse as all the rest!
Raskolnikov doesn’t regret the murders themselves; he regrets confessing to them. Thankfully, he is not a lost cause; he goes to Siberia to suffer for his sin, and he gradually finds peace and renewal.
4. Catherine – A Reliable Wife
From the first scene when we meet Catherine on the train, I hated her. She was just terrible. Ralph wasn’t perfect, but he was just a lonely, crotchety old man. I could pity him. He didn’t need to die for it. But she is set on her goal:
Love and money. She could not believe her life, as barren and as aimless as it had been, would end without either love or money. She could not, would not accept that as a fact, because to accept it now would mean that the end had already come and gone.
We all believe we are deserving of more good things, and we resent the hard times that come upon us. Thankfully, we soon discover that Catherine does have redeeming qualities, that she can and does fall in love with crotchety old Ralph.
5. Anne Boleyn – The Other Boleyn Girl
The infamy of Anne Boleyn, our constant fascination with her, is testament to her complexity as a literary figure—we will never know the truth about the historical one. Philippa Gregory’s Anne is vain, jealous, ambitious, and ruthless. But seen through the eyes of her sister, Mary, we cannot help but love her.
As I watched her, she transformed herself. Her head went back, her lips curved up in a smile. Her shoulders straightened and she rose up, just a little, like a dancer when the music starts.
Don’t we all wish we could be so majestic?
6. Kate – East of Eden
Kate’s evil is not so debatable. Steinbeck is very clear from the beginning that Kate is a monster, and that, in older days, “she would have been burned as a witch for the good of the community.” She proves again and again that she is despicable. But there are a few moments when we see her vulnerability:
She was a very small girl with a face as lovely and fresh as her son’s face—a very small girl. Most of the time she knew she was smarter and prettier than anyone else. But now and then a lonely fear would fall upon her so that she seemed surrounded by a tree-tall forest of enemies. …And she would cry in panic because there was no escape and no sanctuary.
I don’t believe that Kate could have turned out any differently, but who can hate a scared and lonely child?
7. Jack – Lord of the Flies
The boy who led the others with the chant, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” The one who sharpened a stick at both ends and led the hunt for another boy. And then the officer comes, and everyone remembers that this all started as a game…
8. Heathcliff – Wuthering Heights
Heathcliff is the epitome of a tortured soul. We don’t know where he came from, but we see him beaten and abused by Hindley for many years, with Catherine as his only companion. He falls in love with her for it, but she turns her nose up at him.
“And should I always be sitting with you?” she demanded, growing more irritated. “What good do I get? You might be dumb, or a baby, for anything you say to amuse me, or for anything you do, either!”
“You never told me before that I talked too little, or that you disliked my company, Cathy!”
“It’s no company at all, when people know nothing and say nothing.”
We all know that the people we love most are the ones who can hurt us and infuriate us the most. This story is that truth, taken to a whole new level.
9. Catharina – Girl With a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer has been painting the famous picture, and in Tracy Chevalier’s story, the woman in the picture is Griet, one of the housemaids. He asks Griet to wear the precious pearl earrings that belong to his wife, Catharina. Of course, Catharina and Griet have never been friends. Catharina is jealous of the pretty, young maid. Griet spending so much time with Vermeer is exactly what Catharina fears most. When Catharina discovers the painting, the tension hits a climax:
Catharina was no fool. She knew the real matter was not the earrings. She wanted them to be, she tried to make them be so, but she could not help herself. She turned to her husband. “Why,” she asked, “have you never painted me?”
Heart-wrenching words! If my husband was a famous painter, I would be not just a little hurt if he didn’t want to paint me, but instead wanted to paint our lovely and fresh young maid.
10. Gollum – The Lord of the Rings
Gollum is detestable, a willing accomplice to the Ring. Frodo is right to say “He deserves death.” But Gandalf reminds us all:
Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.
Gandalf’s words turn out to be true; Gollum never is cured from his obsession with the Ring, but he does help bring about the Ring’s destruction—and his own.