One of the best parts about reading classic literature is discovering, and often falling in love with, great characters. Talented writers have the ability to craft characters in such a way as to make us, the readers, imagine we could know these people in real life.
The understandably typical reaction for readers is to identify with those wonderful, lovable characters, like Huck Finn and Elizabeth Bennett, who may be flawed but still, overall, noble, kind, caring, and generally laudable.
But what of those characters who get our blood boiling? The evil villains, the slithery antagonists without whom many great works of classic literature would be nothing?
It is important to consider great characters in classic literature from a broad perspective, to understand why a character is so good and lovable, yes, but also why a character that makes our skin crawl can also be demonstrative of a classic author at his or her best.
So, here are a few of the best villains from classic literature.
Inspector Javert from Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo
This is a tricky one because, while the reader knows that Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables, is a good and decent man, he is, in the eyes of the law and through misrepresentations of the people around him, a criminal and an escaped convict. This is why Javert, the upstanding policeman, hunts and hounds Jean Valjean throughout the story, which spans years in the characters’ lives.
Javert has a deep need to always do what is right, which sounds laudable enough, but his tragic flaw is an ironic single-mindedness that leads him to thinking and acting based on binaries (the law is black and white, when often there are shades of grey that he is overlooking).
This means, in the name of justice, he sometimes commits great injustices.
At times, the reader wants to reach in and smack Javert around, because he is so prejudiced against the label of “criminal” that he cannot see beyond someone’s actions to the man (or woman) who has been labeled. Even when a person has gone to extraordinary measures to do good for people, to help others, and to actively engage, honestly, in society, as is the case with this book’s protagonist, to Javert the rule is: once a criminal, always a criminal. Still, Hugo ultimately allows his readers the opportunity to empathize with his antagonist, and this is the mark of a true craftsman.
“The Firemen” of Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
Considering this is About.com’s Classic Literature site, clearly we are devoted to the love of books and the benefits of reading, so how can we possibly explore classic literary villains without including this awful bunch of book-burners from one of the greatest futuristic American novels of all time?
The firemen of Fahrenheit 451 are charged with the job of destroying books and of preventing critical thought through reading. People get ideas from books and, similarly to the society presented in Lois Lowry’s classic young adult novel, The Giver, Bradbury’s communities find independent thought to be both scary and dangerous. Thus, The Firemen make every effort to eliminate idea formation by destroying the primary source of thought - books. Fortunately, the hero, Guy Montag (a former Fireman himself) changes allegiance and goes on a quest to defeat his former colleagues and in so doing, to save the books!
Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey
There is, admittedly, a grand debate surrounding the nature of this character and how she might represent a strong female character in an all-male world. This interpretation makes Ratched only appear harsh when she is in actuality simply trying to keep control. Even if we concede this point, it is still true that she is a cruel, sadistic, heartless tyrant. She runs the psychiatric ward as a one-woman dictatorship, something we might imagine would have happened in England of the 1600s, had Mary Queen of Scots come to power instead of Elizabeth I.
Nurse Ratched is controlling, patronizing, and passive-aggressive. She toys with “niceties” only to get what she wants from the patients, which is their complete and unwavering obedience. The one patient who ends up making a stand, and who is likely the least “crazy” of the bunch, meets with the direst of fates, on Ratched’s orders.
This having been said, we can read Nurse Ratched in a variety of ways, and this is part of the fun in evaluating classic literature. Some of the themes she represents include:
1) The burgeoning struggle between sex and power, coming to light in the 1960s.
2) The nature of power and the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
3) The incredibly ineffective and dangerous conditions of mental health facilities at the time (doctors were performing routine lobotomies as instant-fixes, and testing LSD on unwitting patients – shock therapy, sleep deprivation, etc.).