The wicked character or the wicked in the character?



  In the production and reception of a narrative, there is often a manichaistic distinction of characters into bad and good characters: the good detective versus the bad criminal, the honest policeman against the corrupted politician, the innocent girl, victim of a dissolute debaucher, etc. This distinction covers a psychological need of the reader, the illusion that the bad is finally punished, and the good rewarded. The wicked characters may prevail temporarily, but their final destruction is more than certain. Justice, if only poetic, always triumphs. A literary genre, detective stories, is based upon this distinction between good and bad characters.

  The reader, in the course of the reception, identifies with the good characters. He does it almost instinctively, pushed by a certain impulse. He is sympathetic to the their emotions. He feels distressed with their sorrows, and happy with their happiness.

  Through this mechanism of identification, people cover another psychological need. They live in their imagination situations that they are unlikely to live in their real lives, like adventures, love-affairs, etc.

  The literary theory of socialist realism was based on this mechanism of identification. Writers should create positive characters, who readers should aspire to imitate.

  Bertolt Brecht, through his distancing effect or V-Effekt (Verfremdungs-effekt) tried to make the audience avoid this identification. He wasn’t wholly successful. The spectator sympathizes “Mother courage”, considering her as a tragic figure, instead of criticizing her. This tendency towards identification is too strong to be so easily uprooted.

  The more a good character appears on the stage, the more we identify with him. So dramatists, novelists and scriptwriters focus more often on good heroes than on evil ones.

  Psychoanalysis says, that the normal function of an organism is more illustrated through the study of its abnormal functioning. We can see better the function of identification in narrative by studying works which fall outside the rule of portraying good characters. A good example is Patrick Suskid’s best seller The Perfume[1], where the main character is a negative, wicked person. Despite its merits, this work causes a certain embarrassment, because the reader fails to identify with its hero, since he is a wicked person.

  Another famous character, with whom the reader also fails to identify, is Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the central hero of his work The Picture of Dorian Gray. This wicked hero leads men and women to despair, even to suicide. Don Juan is another such character, but Moliere treated him like a comic hero, avoiding thus the spectator’s keen aversion to him. In medieval mystery plays, the wicked characters were also treated as comic figures. Incidentally, an example of this can be seen in Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film, Ivan theTerrible, where the two Chaldeans, who put the three innocent children in the kiln, are presented in a comic way.

  In all these works the reader’s need of identification may not be satisfied, but his demand for justice (poetic justice) is always satisfied. The wicked characters are unmistakably punished.

  In the naturalistic works identification is constantly undermined, because their main characters are very often negative characters. Female readers cannot identify with Therese Raquin or Nana, and equally the male readers cannot identify with their lovers, particularly Theresa Raquin’s lover who, with her help, killed her husband. Nonetheless Zola, sticking to the poetic justice, has his wicked characters be punished at last.

   The works where poetic justice is absent are very few. In Stendhal’s short story The Coffin and the Vampire, the wicked Don Blache triumphs. His men stab his “adulterous” wife, who had taken refuge in a monastery, and sees that her brother and don Fernando, her wife’s former fiancee from whom he had taken her, are beheaded. Possibly Stendhal sacrificed poetic justice in order to make readers feel compassionate for his heroes’s tragic fate.

  In Gloria (1999), a film by Sidney Lumet, remake of  a John Cassavetes’ film having the same title (1980), the murderers of the little boy’s parents and sister are not punished at the end. This possibly happens because Lumet doesn’t want to distract the spectators’ attention from the focal point of the film, which is the growing affection of the heroin (played by Sharon Stone) towards this orphan boy. She is about to leave him at a boarding school, but finally decides to take him with her. In narrative art, like in nature, there are “opposing selective pressures”. We have to abandon one target, in order to focus effectively on another one.

  Of particular interest is the fact that in certain versions of a story, from the remake of a film to a new elaboration of a given myth, the main hero changes character, from an evil one to a good one. In George-Henri Clouzot’ Diabolique (1955), the mistress, played by Simone Signoret, together with her lover, trap the scoundrel’s innocent wife. In the latest remake of the film, with Isabelle Adjani in the role of the wife, the two women ally their forces to kill the satanic husband.

  In Christian theology Judas is Jesus’s disciple who betrayed his teacher. However, in Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation, which Martin Scorsese follows faithfully in his film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Judas is a tragic person, who betrays his teacher because he prompted him to do so. Jesus had deliberately chosen to be crucified, as a means to save humanity.

   The White Snake (Bai She Zhuan) is a very famous Chinese myth. A snake is transformed into a young attractive woman, and marries a young man. A monk however reveals her true identity to her husband, thus causing a lot of trouble to the young couple.

  In the original version, the monk is a good character, who exposes the wicked nature of the woman. In a later version however of this myth, staged by the Peking Opera, the woman is a good character, who saves her husband’s life, and the monk is a wicked character, separating the young lovers from each other.

  In most cases, the intended, that is the authorial, reception, is more or less identical with the actual reception by the reader. In other words, good and evil characters are the same for the author and for the readers as well. There are instances, however, where the actual reception is not identical with that which is intended by the author, in regard to the characters.

  A striking example is the first novel of the outstanding Greek novelist Alexander Kotzias entitled Besiege (poliorkia)[2]. The main character is a collaborator of the Germans, a fanatic anticommunist, who committed great atrocities. Alexander Kotzias intended him to be a tragic character, who became a scape-goat of the royalists. At the end of the novel, abandoned by his former companions, he willfully falls into a trap, chasing a group of communists, in a deliberate pursuit of his death.  

  The majority of the readers of that time, sympathizers of the left, did not have the same opinion. For them, this character was a traitor, a scum of the earth, who died in a way he justly deserved. This was contrary to the authorial intentions, who, formerly a communist, had become a rightist. Incidentally, the characters in all his following novels are undisputably wicked characters. I think this is why, despite his literary merits, Kotzias has never conquered a wide audience.

  In cinema we encounter similar problems of reception. In post war war-films, the Germans constantly figure as the evil characters. I doubt if the German audience had the same opinion. In Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Americans are intended to be the good characters, and the Vietnamese the evil. For the majority of the Greek audience, however, the Americans were the evil characters, and not the Vietnamese.

  In the early westerns, like those where John Wayne starred, Indians invariably figured as the evil characters. In the last few decades however, Indians in films like The Little big Man (1970), starring Dusting Hoffman and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990), Indians figure as good characters. Even where they don’t figure as main characters, like in Jakie Chan’s Shanghai noon, they are allies to the good white characters. After the extinction of the “noble savage” of the 18th and early 19th century, the last specimen of which was The Last of Mohicans, his myth has been revived. Perhaps this soothes Americans’ guilt for the extinction of an entire nation.

  In modern narratives good and bad characters invariably figure in sheer opposition. When attempting to approach masterpieces of the past this entails the danger of misunderstanding them, in trying to identify good and bad characters. Georg Lucacs talks about a necessary leap of anachronism, when attempting to understand works of the past. Phenomenology, conscious of the limits of such a leap, talks about a “fusion of horizons”, between past and present era, which however often leads to misunderstandings.

  A distinct example is Sophocles’ Antigone. A modern reader, seeing or reading the play, influenced by this manichaeistic code of reception which distinguishes between good and evil characters, tends to see a “good” Antigone, victim of a “bad” Creon. What we actually have, however, is not a good and a bad character, but two tragic characters. Aristotle says that there are two kinds of tragic characters. The first kind of tragic character arouses pity because of his “unmerited misfortune”.[3] This is the case of Antigone and Philoctetes. The second kind of tragic character is the character whose “misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty”[4]. This is the case of Creon and Ajax. In opposition to the evil character, this second type of tragic hero realizes his mistake which caused a lot of harm to those about him, regrets and suffers because of it. According to Aristotle, the most tragic tragedy is Oedipus Rex. This is so possibly because Oedipus combines in him both types of  the tragic hero.

  So we see that in tragedy there are no evil characters, but simply in some characters evil is within them in the form of “amartia”, that is error or/and frailty.

  In the great literary masterpieces, from the Shakespearean tragedies to the great realistic novels of the 19th century, a lot of the main characters are tragic, not evil. The evil is within them and, coming back on them like a boomerang, brings about their fall, leading them to despair and regret. We invariably feel the tragic feeling of “eleos”, that is pity, for them. Othello commits suicide, and so does Macbeth, accepting bravely a fight the outcome of which, as he was foretold by the Fates, will be fatal to him. The boomerang we talked about hit king Lear very hard, leading him to insanity. He nonetheless is conscious of the disaster he has caused around him.

  It is true that in Shakespeare’s plays there exist evil characters, like Iago and Edmund. This probably entails a lessening of the tragic sense of life. The disaster is not engendered by Fate, or the hero’s stubbornness, or his errors and his frailty, but is brought about by evil people, who lurk outside. This difference is due to the different social conditions.

  We propose the idea, that tragedy is linked to a feeling of power and freedom on the part of the reader/spectator. The free Athenian citizen, participating in the “Ecclesia of deme”, the Assembly of Citizens, felt responsible for the fortunes of his city. He could vote against those threatening democracy, ostracizing them. The Elizabethan citizen  on the contrary could never persuade his governor, forewarning him about an imminent disaster. While he feels impotent before authority, the Athenian citizen feels that he himself is the authority, a feeling that makes him proud and self-confident. The fact that Hamlet hesitates to take revenge, while Orestes does not, clarifies my point. Orestes is eager to come to age, to return to Argos and take revenge. Hamlet lives in the Palace, but always postpones taking revenge. His dead father impatiently appears before him as a ghost, to remind him of his duty. Not even then does Hamlet make up his mind. Only when he learns that he himself is about to die, he rushes and kills Claudius.

  Also the fact that Orestes' revenge focuses on Clytemnestra, who is not an evil character, but a tragic one, while Hamlet's revenge focuses not on Gertrude, but on Claudius, who is undoubtedly an evil character, further supports my point. Hamlet is undoubtedly a less tragic figure than Orestes, if one takes in mind what advice Aristotle gives to the play-wright:

  But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another-if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done-these are the situations to be looked for by the poet.[5] Orestes kills his mother, while Hamlet simply kills his step-father.

  In the great novelists’ works of the of the 19th century the wicked characters exist only as secondary figures. Such characters are for example Fabrice’s guard and the minister Rassi in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The tragic heroes are not wicked, but have some wickedness within them, which pushes them to actions for which they later regret. This is the clear case of another hero of Stendhal, Lucien Leuwin in The red and the black, who tried to kill his former mistress. In Tolstoy’s two great masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Carenina, there are no evil characters. In War and Peace we may see a wicked character, Helen, Pier’s adulterous wife. Anna Carenina, though also adulterous, is not wicked, and her adultery is to some extent justified. On the contrary Lady Chaterley is fully justified in her adultery by her creator, D. H. Lawrence.

  The most tragic heroes are those of F. Dostoyevski, his Possessed, Rashkolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and Dimitri in Brothers Caramazov. And they are tragic because they are conscious of the evil they carry within themselves, while the reader doesn’t fail to notice their innate kindness.

   There are wicked characters who carry within themselves the good, but which is revealed to us (and to them) only at the end, in the so-called effect of the unexpected. The most known case is Ebenezer Scrooge in Christmas Carol. We see his transformation at the end of the story, from a mean old man into a generous, loving uncle. A similar transformation we see in Javert, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, who, realizing the kindness of the man he has been persecuting for so many years, kills himself in remorse.

  There is another such instance in a film we saw recently, Chocolat. The spectator only at the end of the play stops feeling aversion towards the wicked major, when he sees him realize in horror the disaster his attitude to the poor woman (played by Juliette Binoche) has caused. With this attitude he prompted the wicked barman, who was abandoned by his wife, set fire to the small boat. Incidentally Smerdiakov in Brothers Caramazov acted in a similar way. He killed old Caramazov, thinking that in doing so he was following Ivan’s philosophical ideas.

  In Ibsen’s heroes, unhappiness is caused by the “wicked” they carry in them. In the instance of Helmer in A Doll’s House, this is a hypocritical sense of honesty. In the instance of Gregers in the Wild Duck, this is a high sense of truth. By revealing the truth, he leads the little girl to commit suicide. As regards to Chechov’s heroes, they make unhappy those who are in love with them just because they can’t love them in return. Only the woman - hater Strinberg presents his heroines as wicked, and men as their victims.

  We summarize: Characters with the wicked in them presuppose a tragic sense of life. Tragic heroes exist in periods when man, powerful before authority, or being himself the authority like in the democratic city-states in ancient Greece, feels horror before the destructive results of his impulses, or his stubborn character. On the contrary wicked characters in narrative exist in periods when man feels impotent and exposed to the arbitrariness of the wicked, who are very often high ranking officials, policemen and politicians, mainly in Hollywood films. The reader or the spectator, identifying with the good characters who finally prevail, defeating the evil in the imaginative sphere of the narrative art, soothes his anguish and exorcises the evil which surrounds him.


[1] Patrick Suskid, Das Parfum, Zurich, 1985 Diogenes verlag.

[2] Alexander Kotzias, Besiege (Poliorkia), Athens 1953, Kedros editions.

[3] Aristotle Poetics, XIII, 2-4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., XIV, 2-4. (The English translation is from the e-text in Project Gutenberg).