Perceptions of Heroes and Villains in European Literature

By Katherine Blakeney
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

It is tempting to classify literary, cinematic, and historical characters into groups. The trouble, of course, is that such labels can be misleading at best, and severely subjective and variable. When using terms such as hero, villain, anti-hero, anti-villain, or adventurer, it is important to remember how vague and movable the borders really are, and to ask why a certain label is or should be placed on a specific character. It is never enough to simply classify a character or a person. One must take into consideration what the creator of this character had in mind, what circumstances affected this person’s actions, what culture or society this person came from, what his or her own beliefs or intentions may be, and finally, how our own principles, prejudices, and associations may influence our perceptions.

What makes a person a hero or a villain? How much comes from inner predisposition, from personal destiny, from mere interpretation? Is someone obliged to become a hero or villain by virtue of their existence, or are heroes and villains molded over time with an outcome that could potentially have gone either way? How much of it is voluntary, and how many of these people truly anticipate (and care) how they will be interpreted by others?

One of the harshest fates that can be allotted to a historical figure is misinterpretation through both historical and literary sources, especially if such sources manage to excite public interest and admiration. Two excellent examples of this principle are Richard II and Richard III. Both deposed and killed, and both destined to be used as subjects in the plays of William Shakespeare, these two kings have suffered much from misinterpretation.

Richard II has been branded as a weak-natured tyrant who betrayed his family and practically ruined England by his extravagance. He was far from modest, but he was hardly a villain in the classical sense of the term. Crowned at the age of eleven, Richard hardly had time to establish his reputation before it was methodically mangled by his own uncles, who felt cheated by his coronation. He was raised in a stifling atmosphere thick with intrigue and murder threats, in which his uncle John of Gaunt (the “time-honored Lancaster” of Shakespeare’s play) was one of his biggest problems.

Richard’s confiscation of the Lancastrian estates after John of Gaunt’s death was a gesture of self-defense rather than of idle greed. His fears were more than justified when he was deposed and probably murdered by John of Gaunt’s son, the future Henry IV. The beauty of Shakespeare’s play, as well as the effects of propaganda both before and after Richard’s death have all but eliminated his chances of ever being assessed fairly for his intellect, his refined taste, and his fascinating personality, rather than his family squabbles.

Richard III suffered an even harsher fate at Shakespeare’s hands. He is now the anti-Christ, the epitome of villainy. Shakespeare has created a villain so fascinating, twisted, malicious, and irresistible, that hardly anyone even wants to know what he was really like. As in the case of Richard II, he who wins has the last word. After the Battle of Bosworth, Tudor sources overflowed with the most outrageous descriptions and accusations of Richard, ultimately turning him into a hideous monster who destroyed his entire family out of sheer malice. Shakespeare immortalized this vision through the medium of his play, giving life to the myth.

Few of the people who read and enjoy Shakespeare’s play ever learn that Richard was a talented administrator, with neither a hump nor a club foot, who also happened to be a caring family man and a loyal brother. Both men overcame enormous obstacles in their lives and did many noble and productive things. Richard II transformed every aspect of English culture, from cookery to fashion, and enthusiastically supported Chaucer. Richard III united his war –torn country and helped end the Wars of the Roses long before Henry Tudor claimed that honour for himself. Are these men heroes or villains, and is it really fair to judge at all? But if we are going to be judgmental, why not form our opinions for ourselves before letting someone else feed them to us?

Some historical figures though not technically vilified by history may take a new and interesting turn for the worst through faulty identification. The infamous figure of Napoleon Bonaparte has influenced an unlimited number of books, films, and people. People want to understand Napoleon, to compete with Napoleon, and most of all – to be Napoleon. His incredible political and social rise through his own talents and ambition has made him an almost mythic figure. The trouble is, that many are inspired for all the wrong reasons, and abuse his name to cover their own odd fantasies and egomaniacal schemes.

Identification with Napoleon has been used to justify tyranny, deception, treason, treachery, insanity, even murder. Poor Napoleon who never had half of the thoughts or intentions ascribed to him by his ardent disciples would have cringed at the horrid things they did in his name. He may have been no saint, but he was definitely not Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov randomly sets out to murder a helpless old woman, just to see if he can. He seems to feel that the success of this type of experiment will give him superiority over mankind, as if lack of a conscience somehow makes him a stronger and more efficient human being. He seems to be under the illusion that Napoleon was able to achieve what he did because he did possess this laudable trait.

He neglects to note that Napoleon had very clear goals and purposes that he fought for, and that killing in battle for a cause, is vastly different from the idle murder of an unarmed opponent. It is not surprising that this act gives Raskolnikov neither the unlimited power, nor the satisfaction that he imagined. Unfortunately, he is not the first or the last to deliberately misinterpret Napoleon to fit his own desires, and this usage does Napoleon’s public image no favours.

An interesting contrast to Raskolnikov is the character of Marcello from Alberto Moravia’s The Conformist. Where Raskolnikov is ready to kill to prove that he is special, Marcello goes to the same lengths to prove the opposite. He is obsessed with being the same as everybody else. He is constantly torn between his violent, subconscious urges, and a desperate desire to be “normal”. He draws his conception of what is “normal” from observing the surface appearances and attitudes of those around him. He generalizes what he sees, almost denying the potential for individuality. When he is faced with the necessity to deal with people on an individual basis, he cringes in horror and disgust. He wants to be just like “everyone”, but not like any of the specific people he sees. He is terrified of being unique on any level, and he fears his own bloodthirstiness, not for its own sake, but because he is unable to identify the same types of instincts in anyone he knows.

If these are villains, what constitutes a hero? If a hero is defined merely as someone who sacrifices himself for the good of others (at least up to a certain point), there are many “heroes” that hardly stand up to scrutiny. Just because someone does good to others doesn’t mean he/she gets nothing from it for him/herself. In fact one may bring an enormous amount of benefit to someone without sacrificing oneself at all. Does that make them any less of a hero? Also, just because a person is defined as hero, either in the context of a literary work, or through historical interpretation, doesn’t mean that on closer inspection they may not prove to be controversial at best. The interpretation of the reader is bound to color every aspect of the work itself.

Just as historical figures can be vilified unjustly through literature, they can also be elevated to a position they do not deserve. In William Shakespeare’s Richard II and Richard III, the “heroes” Henry IV and Henry VII, are shown as liberators, freeing England from oppression, tyranny, and discord. Regardless of how bland these actual characters are in the plays (Shakespeare himself was evidently more interested in the “villains”), they are meant to be admired for what they’ve done for England. What have they done? By destroying the direct line of succession, Henry IV sparked a centuries-long civil conflict, which all but annihilated every descendant of Edward III within eighty-six years.

As aptly noted by the Bishop of Carlisle in Act IV of Richard II, “…Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny/ Shall here inhabit, and this land be called/ The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls”. Now, who wouldn’t want to be rescued from tyranny that way? Henry VII virtuously united England by killing Richard III – the last legitimate heir to the throne. He also took care to destroy all of Richard’s illegitimate children, as well as his nephews (the children of George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard’s sisters). Wholesale slaughter of potential heirs to the throne – doesn’t that sound just like the popular image of Richard III? These two heroes certainly left quite a trail of “dead men’s skulls” in their wake.

It seems like a heroic thing to do, when a woman sacrifices her own pride and integrity to fight the prejudices of society and support herself and her impoverished sister. In fact, in Wilkie Collins’s novel No Name, Magdalen Vanstone is presented by the author as a self-sacrificing heroic figure. The revelation of an awful secret casts the youthful Magdalen and her sweet but helpless sister, Norah into the street after their parents’ untimely demise. It is discovered that the Vanstone daughters are illegitimate – an awful position for Victorian-era England. As they are entitled to none of their parents’ money, it passes to their father’s estranged brother, who refuses to help the two desolate girls.

Magdalen’s unscrupulous and tireless efforts to reclaim her father’s fortune by any means would seem like an almost noble quest, considering her position. Wilkie Collins himself is full of admiration for his character’s ability to defy the restrictions of society and break down all social barriers to save her sister and herself from poverty. But do the ends justify the means? As various relatives meet their deaths and the money is passed on from person to person, Magdalen follows it in a number of guises intriguing against each person the money comes to. The original thought may have been noble. Seducing her ill and romantically inexperienced cousin, Noel, and marrying him under an assumed name is not. She uses all of his weakness against him, deliberately neglects his frail health, mercilessly exploits his love for her to get him to sign a will in her name, and finally drives him to his death at the age of thirty – hardly the actions of a heroine.

A case could be made for seeing her as an adventurer, but she doesn’t gain any enjoyment from her journey, and there is no venturesome thrill in her actions. Throughout the novel she wallows in self-pity, seeing herself as a tragic figure abused by fate and society. She never stops to think of the people whose skulls she crushes beneath her feet as she defends her lost rights. Any means at her disposal are acceptable if they can defeat her enemies – even enemies who have no idea she is fighting them. An adventurer need not have impenetrable moral principles, but at least some moral boundaries are expected. Pitilessly destroying an opponent who doesn’t fight back is one of those boundaries.

A similar predicament is explored in Wilkie Collins’s most famous novel, The Woman in White. The seemingly irreproachable Sir Percival Glyde has a few nasty secrets of his own – namely his illegitimacy. Knowing that if this information became public he would lose his wealth, his estate, his title, his position in society, and everything he holds dear, he is ready to go to any lengths to protect himself. It is true that he is by nature a cruel and egocentric individual, and that the methods he uses are at least partly dictated by his own sadistic inclinations.

However, these negative sides of his nature might never have been revealed to such a great extent if the laws and morals of his society had not made him desperate. He commits a series of heinous crimes that he may otherwise never have been motivated to commit, and many innocent people suffer in the process. His villainous acts may be voluntary, but the situation that caused him to make such a decision in the first place is not his fault. His accidental death in an attempt to destroy the last remaining evidence of his secret is a vivid illustration of how the limitations of society can destroy a person morally and physically.

If suffering is essential to heroism, why is a villain’s suffering so much less valuable? Many of the most vivid villains in literature were not necessarily born to be evil. A “villain” can acquire many of his malicious and vengeful traits through the injustice and cruelty of those around him. What a person becomes is very closely related to the way he/she was raised and treated by society. Many literary villains are the way they are not because they are randomly evil, but because they were given no other choice. They many have scores of admirable qualities and volumes of wasted potential that perhaps could have made them heroes or at least content human beings in a better world.

It is wrong to discard those labeled as villains as mere forces of darkness for the hero to defeat. We must stop and think – who are they really, and what made them what they are? Do they deserve to be destroyed, or are they just misunderstood? Every society is rife with rules, prejudices, and beliefs that deeply infiltrate its members. What happens to someone who doesn’t fit these conventions, when “different” is almost invariably synonymous to “wrong” and “dangerous”?

No matter how much people assert their own spirituality, human beings are by nature shallow creatures. The first image an infant learns to identify is a human face, and we never stop judging people by their appearance. The first thing you encounter when you meet someone is their physical appearance, and unless the relationship develops any further it is all you are left to judge the person by. It is small wonder then, that attractiveness is so often associated with goodness, virtue, and sweetness of disposition, and ugliness is seen as a sign of hidden malice and frightening potential. This sad truth is explored in depth in Gaston Leroux’s  The Phantom of the Opera. Erik, the Phantom himself, is forced into hiding simply because of his disfigured face. He is not by nature a vicious person. In fact, he desperately longs for the tenderness and understanding that was denied him from birth.

Like the hunchbacked Quasimodo, from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Erik is constantly plagued by hatred, revulsion, and even outright aggression, simply because of the way he looks. Even the sensitive, romantic young opera singer, Christine des not have the courage to accept him the way he is. A musical and engineering genius, Erik is forced to conceal himself in the basements of the Paris Opera House. It is the only way he can stay alive and still have the joys of music to console him. Christine is fascinated by his music, she accepts his invisible help in her singing lessons, and indulges in prolonged conversations with him.

Inevitably, the spell is broken the moment she sees his face. They share the same interests, she knows he has a rich and beautiful soul, she is touched and entranced by his personality; why should his face change everything? Again like Quasimodo, he resorts to kidnapping hoping to win the warmth that he can never have. He is made bitter by constant rejection, he learns to kill because of the constant need for self-defense, and he quickly realizes that nothing in life will be given to him willingly, not even simple human affection. Erik and Quasimodo can’t afford the luxury of being good.

This rejection is even more painful in the case of so-called “monsters”. Not only are these characters considered repulsive – they are seen as inhuman. The titular character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula may be a vampire, but that does not imply that he has no remnants of human feeling. He can act and think for himself, just like a human being, so why can he not feel as well? Sadly, a creature that feeds on blood can hardly be a member of human society. Unlike Erik, he is dangerous by his very nature. He is capable of destroying anyone he comes in contact with, and is hardly able to control it. Of course he isn’t really given a choice about being isolated. Like Erik he learns to expect fear and violence, and give exactly what is expected of him.

One cannot help wondering, however, whether his dream of moving from Transylvania to London is more than just a desire to graze on new pastures. Perhaps what he really wants is to escape the confinement of his own curse and start a new life. Vampirism isn’t a bad habit - it is a disease. One does not reject one’s relatives and friends if they are contagiously ill, so why should vampirism be seen any differently? Dracula attacks because he is expected to, and because he knows that the moment he lets down his guard he will find himself with a stake in his heart.

The same type of understanding drives the unfortunate creature created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Considering that he is sewn up out of the bodies of dead criminals as part of a perverse experiment in the creation of life, it can almost be said the monster is made to be a villain. However it soon becomes obvious that he is just a confused, naïve child whose first contact with the cruelty of humanity is what pushes him to the dark side. His hideous appearance and unnatural origin immediately excite horror and aggression in anyone he meets.

All his efforts at being peaceful, decent, and caring are soon shattered against an impenetrable wall of fear. He is constantly attacked and chased down like a wild animal, before he even has a chance to talk. Embittered and disillusioned he seeks vengeance against the man who created him for his own ambition and then abandoned him to escape the responsibility. One cannot help but notice that the monster is the true victim in this scenario, not the villain. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, is a much darker figure. Ambitious, talented, and utterly irresponsible, he creates new life without stopping to consider the consequences, and when it is too late, he runs to save himself from any further unpleasantness. Unlike the monster, he knows exactly what he is doing and deliberately makes the wrong choice, ultimately destroying everyone around him, including himself.

When one considers all the factors that go into making a person act or think a certain way, the realization dawns that no one can be defined in one word. In the stories of our own lives, we may be villains to some and heroes to others. That is why, if we must categorize people, we should do it in a way that takes into account both the subjective nature of such a division, and the development of the case at hand.

Judgment is a dangerous thing. It can lead us to misconceptions and error, to lose sight of things that may transform the image altogether. For some, judgment may lead to undeserved elevation or help them find a strength they didn’t know they had. For others, unfairly placed, or premature judgment, can lead them on to their destruction, or to hurt and destroy others. We cannot change the mistakes that made these people what they are, or distorted their reputations beyond recall. We can however do them the justice of thinking before we judge and giving them the understanding that so many have died for.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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William Shakespeare’s Richard III is no doubt a fascinating character and an entertaining villain. It is Shakespeare’s command of the English language, and his keen sense of drama and psychological depth, that make his plays so affecting and deeply memorable. Shakespeare was a brilliant playwright, but... MORE»
The dated ideas reflected in Dracula focus primarily on the concepts of lust, sex, and evil as they were viewed during the late 19th and 20th century in what can be viewed as a strongly conservative society. At the time, sex and homosexuality were controversial topics, with emphasis constantly put upon the importance... MORE»
In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001 fear and anger shaped American attitudes in response to terrorism. Even so, this alone does not explain how Americans became open to the use of torture during the “Global War on Terror” that followed. By 2003 Americans were overwhelmingly supportive of war in the... MORE»
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