Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Stories Without Villains

In one of the set piece incidents in War & Peace, Dolokhov -- a hard drinking, heavy gambling, constantly womanizing character with a cruel streak who is at times cited as one of the books villains -- take the opportunity of a dinner party to taunt idealistic and often hapless Pierre Bezukhof with the rumors that Dolokhof is having an affair with Pierre's wife. Pierre challenges Dolokhof to a duel, and despite being both inexperienced and short sighted, shoots him. Pierre goes off shattered by the belief that he has killed a man, even his wife's lover, but Dolokhof is in fact only severely wounded, and he is carried off to be nursed by the old mother and doting sisters whom he loves. It's an interestingly human moment, and I think points to the interpretation that Tolstoy's massive novel does not really have a villain. Even Napoleon (responsible for the French invasion of Russia, unless you accept Tolstoy's rather tiresome approach to historical philosophy) comes off as very human during his brief moments in the narrative: congratulating the wounded Prince Andre for his bravery fighting against the Russians, trying to decide where to dedicate a hospital to his mother, shocked and hurt that the Russians to not welcome his enlightened rule.

A villain is a quick and easy way to add extra tension to a story and keep the plot in high gear. Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe novels spring to mind as ones which are propelled by their particularly over-the-top villains. The longest running one is the loathsome Obadiah Hakeswill, but every novel features at least one and sometimes several villains of unremitting cruelty, venality, and often cowardice as well.

This kind of approach can make for a fun, fast moving story, but I tend to think that the best novels do not make use of the crutch of having a thoroughgoing villain. (Having said this, someone will probably point out a novel that I love which leans heavily on a villain to keep the plot moving.)

The reason, I think, is that a really thorough villain ends up being a less human villain. Fiction is, after all, a distillation of live. It concentrates it, draws out the bits which make a more comprehensible story, offers clearer plot and more resolution. To say that a novel is not fully like life is no insult. Naturalism taken too far becomes boring and aimless. The author's job is to evoke real life while still providing much more structure and intelligibility than real life does.

Yet I think good writing does well to keep certain human realities when describing characters, and one of those, I think, is that the world is not really much populated with villains. Many people do bad things, and indeed one of the things that a novelist needs to do a good job of is showing how even "good people" often cause complications for their lives by performing wrong actions. And yet even the people we might think of as the antagonists in our lives, people who make us suffer through their actions, tend to do so for reasons other than simply wishing to be the worst people possible.

Dolokhov is a great example of a character who makes many evil choices, causes severe trouble for multiple characters in W&P, and yet is not really a villain in that his goal as a character is not primarily to defeat or cause trouble to the main characters. He is a more rounded character: at times heroic, often destructive. He seems as real on the page as any other character in the novel.


Bruce A. McMenomy said...

In my readings of W&P, Dolokhov usually comes into that situation as a villain and leaves as something else. It's one of the more great-souled transformations I've encountered in literature, depending almost entirely on the evolving perspectives of Pierre. (The Russian movie version actually handles that reasonably well, too.)

Bruce A. McMenomy said...

(If more people approached politics that way, I might add, we could probably reduce the splenetic discourse in this country by at least an order of magnitude.)