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
John 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”
“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
Some 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
The 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?
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.”Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.”Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?”Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.