Whom do you love? Virtue vs. villainy in literature

goodvillain

In last weekend’s New York Times book review, Bookends asked, “Can a virtuous character be interesting?” Two writers, Thomas Mallon and Alice Gregory, present their case for which type of literary character makes for more interesting reading: a good person, or a villainous one?

Mallon begins his argument for the “villain” with classic examples: Scarlett over Melanie in Gone With the Wind, Becky over Amelia in Vanity Fair, and perhaps the most fundamental and obvious example of all, Lucifer over God in Paradise Lost. He also references the recent controversy over Atticus Finch’s true colors illuminated in Harper Lee’s recently released Go Set a Watchman (I blogged on that here), and how Atticus may be an exception to the rule that we love to hate the bad guys, and that reading about flawed and even evil characters is more wholly satisfying than reading about do-gooders. Without the bad guys, Mallon says, we lose the opportunity to appreciate the virtue in the good guys – and in some cases, like in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, we lose the entire essence of the play, and the larger lessons and messages that come with it.

Meanwhile, Gregory believes that being good isn’t taking the easy way out – and suggests that leading a fully virtuous life is actually harder than we realize; in other words, it’s nothing to sneeze at:

“…being good is to feel far more at odds with the world than being bad does. It is the cumulation of calculated social compromises, purposeful acts of communion, and meticulous emotional arithmetic. Commonplace wickedness, meanwhile, is seldom the result of anything more devious than inattention to the feelings and realities of other people.”

These days, in a world of dramatic and scripted reality TV, Don Draper, and Walter White, it can be easy to fall into, well, how easy it is to be dark and twisty. Let’s face it; even on Downton Abbey, we point to Lady Mary and call her a “mean girl,” but we secretly love her stinging barbs about her sister Edith or the fact that she isn’t quite the good girl that the eldest daughter of an earl is supposed to be. We loved how wholesome and sweet Peggy Olson was in the first season or two of Mad Men, but thoroughly enjoyed her evolution into a smart, strategic, sassy, and put together professional, who could hold her own in an office full of men, yet struggled with family, love, and friendships.

When I consider some of my favorite books over the years, I find that I have equally enjoyed stories of virtuous characters and those with flaws. For instance, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park tends to get dismissed because so many readers think her heroine, Fanny Price, is boring and too much of a goody-goody. Yet I put Mansfield Park near the top of my Austen list for that very reason: I applaud Fanny’s efforts to consistently be good and fight against temptations in a house full of them. Fanny may not be proud of her poor origins, and she may not fit in with her aunt’s household, but she ultimately comes to own who she is – including such rare and snubbed traits like loyalty, honesty, prudence, and tenderness – and it serves her well in the end. We may at first laugh with the Crawford siblings as they push for a life of leisure and lechery, and roll our eyes at some of the stiff interactions between Fanny and Edmund, but truly, secretly, we yearn for the immense respect and love that grows between the two cousins because they are so ardent in their desire to be good and do good.

In Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway doesn’t seem like the most exciting guy around — all the drama surrounds his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom, and of course, Nick’s neighbor, the titular character of Jay Gatsby. Secret affairs, huge house parties, and driving at high speeds? Sounds fun…for a minute. But the disastrous effects of a life led by lies and money show us that perhaps it’s better to hang with Nick after all.

While we may believe that fictional do-gooders are boring and the villains are more exciting; does it translate to what we want and who we want to be in real life? I think not. Countless examples abound in literature of characters we connect with, despite or because of their flawed nature – perhaps it’s because, deep down, we are rooting for them to evolve and make good, which Gregory might call the true dark side. Despite the ongoing demand for reality shows, celebrity gossip, and continual opportunities for schadenfreude in this “everything is filmed or tweeted” culture, when it comes down to it, we want to inspire and be inspired, with a focus on integrity, wisdom, loyalty, and kindness. Perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus is not the exception to the rule – maybe he is the rule, and Lee helped us to realize that when she showed us the truth in Watchman.

Many readers escape to fiction because it’s more satisfying than reality. Yet there’s a reason why society is also enamored with the likes of Mother Teresa, Malala, MLK, or Oskar Schindler– we desperately want good to triumph over evil, and we really do like happy endings. So maybe we can take cues from the good literary characters and attempt to apply their approach to our own lives; it might make for a more fascinating story after all.

“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  -Anne Frank

Who do you prefer to read about – good or bad characters? What are some of your favorite examples?

2 thoughts on “Whom do you love? Virtue vs. villainy in literature

  • But most of the characters you mention aren’t evil, they’re flawed. . Scarlett is selfish and short sighted, but she’s not evil. I never really saw Jay Gatsby as evil either, just a flawed man trying to achieve a dream. It’s the flaws that make characters (and people) interesting. Because we all have flaws, we can relate to them.

    Walter White is a good man at the beginning of the series, but you can understand the flaws in his character (and even some of his virtues) that lead him to take the first in a series of increasingly bad choices towards becoming a bad man.

    It’s when the hero’s or heroines are “flawless” that I don’t care about them. To quote Elizabeth Taylor, ”
    The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” Amelia in Vanity Fair fits that description.

    Amelia is the perfect Victorian woman, which means she practically has “victim” tattooed across her forehead. I’m sure she was a more sympathetic character in her era, but as a modern woman, I just want to kick her.

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    • I’m with you on this Rebecca. I think the examples aren’t the best ones to describe as “evil.” There are worse out there that could fall under that category for sure. And yes, a completely flawless person is boring! At this time of year, I think of Ebeneezer Scrooge – ok, so he could be a jerk and made some bad choices, but he’s still sympathetic, once you learn his story.

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