Man-Eaters and Murderers: Vile Women in Fiction

February 14, 2012 | 4 books mentioned 17 4 min read

In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky’s frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It’s true, many readers want to actually like a book’s main character — they’d take them to lunch if they could — but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn’t love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget?

The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it’s their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky’s Marie is “supremely conniving,” as Mandel puts it, but she isn’t a villain. She isn’t vile. It’s impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun.

I’ve been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they’re supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction.

Here are just a few:

Edith Stoner in Stoner

coverJohn Williams’ quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self — one’s passions and desires, one’s body, one’s flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner’s wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn’t know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn:

Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another.

Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, “What the hell is up with Edith?” This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith — to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner’s narrative is complex, I’m sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss!

The Wife in “Do Not Disturb

cover“I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” Who would know what to do? In “Do Not Disturb” we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator’s wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one’s body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, “I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood.” The wife’s brief moments of vulnerability — for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed — redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand.

Cathy/Kate Ames in East of Eden

coverSome readers complain that Cathy — Cal and Aron’s mother in John Steinbeck’s classic novel — isn’t a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I’d diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business — and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she’s beautiful.  Of course she is.  Here is a description of her as a school girl:

Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it.

I love Cathy’s inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck’s descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants.

Zenia in The Robber Bride

coverThe three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn’t so much a woman as non-gendered — she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren’t real. She’s a home-wrecker and it’s fun to hate her.

I’d consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It’s funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat’s Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I’d argue that the novel’s comic tone allows for Zenia’s larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood’s oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is.

There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. As a writer, it seems to me that the trick is for an author to create a female villain who doesn’t simply become a cardboard cut-out of gender stereotypes. What could be more boring?

    And it’s bad art.

  2. I seem to remember Thomas Hardy writing a whole bunch of these characters. And yet the men are such idiots that you can’t help but side with the women to a small degree. (Except for that evil Arabella in Jude the Obscure. She’s just bad to the bone.)

  3. She doesn’t appear until the 6th or 7th book of the twelve novel sequence, but Pamela Flitton of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” is pretty much the most despicable and one of the creepiest characters, male of female, to be found in all of fiction.

  4. Kathy Nicolo in Andre Dubus III’s “House of Sand and Fog” gets my vote. Her character is narcissistic, manipulative, feckless and totally irredeemable. I HATED her. There were times when I wanted to throw the book across the room in either fury or frustration at the actions of this lifewrecker. When the movie came out, I refused to see it. I couldn’t bear to reexperience the “train wreck” of happenstance once again. That is not to say that the book is not brilliantly crafted. What was so frustrating to me as a reader was that Kathy is no mastermind. She is actually rather banal and tragically self-absorbed. But that’s the hook. How can someone who is so commonplace have such a devastating impact on the lives of others?

  5. The novel is comedic, so I don’t know if she really counts, but Vesta Bainbridge in Burgess’ Inside Mr. Enderby

  6. Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair comes to mind: an adulteress (possibly) and a murderer (possibly), certainly a manipulator willing to make her friend Amelia miserable by stealing her husband and putting her down. And yet she inspires near admiration for her zest.

  7. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy contains two – Jackie Boone and Phyllis Boyle. Both highly political, highly egocentric, highly manipulative – though quite different; Phyllis more hidden, like a spider in a web, Jackie very much the grande dame. Both make me shiver; I’ve met them, in the course of my career, and never managed to find a way round them.

    Pamela Flitton; oh yes!

  8. In classic literature: The horrible wife in Ethan Frome, Lucy Steele from Sense and Sensibility, Becky Sharpe (though Amelia’s such a milquetoast you almost like Becky better), the mother in Sons and Lovers, Countess Lydia Ivanovna in Anna Karenina, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

    In more recent novels: Kathy Nicolo from The House of Sand and Fog (I also hated, hated, hated her), Teddy in Kate Christensen’s The Great Man, and I’ve realized I can’t think of any more because I actively avoid novels that prominently feature unsympathetic female characters — I’m not sure why, but I find them super uncomfortable and painful to read, which probably says more about me than about the novels!

    Some of my favorite female characters, though, are ones who start out out quite unsympathetic but became sympathetic by the end of the story: Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind here. I love her to death — and she starts out seeming like a terrible person!

  9. And actually, I did also think of Joellyn. My relationship with her was more love/hate, though. She was awfully fun, and ultimately not totally unsympathetic, even though she was kind of a bitch. :)

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