Enemies As Engines of Engrossing Fiction

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about memorable friendships in literature. Now I’ll get less “warm and fuzzy” and discuss…enemies in literature!

Reading about adversaries is hardly pleasant, but well worth the time. The dramatic possibilities are endless, as are the questions: Who’s right and who’s wrong? Are both parties hostile or is one person doing most of the hating? Will the relationship improve or go even more downhill? Will someone get hurt (psychologically or physically)? If righteous revenge comes into play, how viscerally satisfying is that? (Very satisfying, as the many fans of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo will tell you.)

Enemies of course appear in both modern and classic literature as well as in both literary and popular fiction. In the last category, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason features two friends who go on a wilderness trip that sees one of them turn on the other. Some of what happens next is too graphic to describe here.

Another intense work is The Hunger Games, in which young people forced into a state-sanctioned contest of death become each others’ enemies to try to survive. Also not pals in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy are Katniss Everdeen and Panem President Coriolanus Snow, and ultimately Katniss and District 13 President Alma Coin.

Adversaries abound, too, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books — most notably the villainous Voldemort vs. the heroic Harry. Also, Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is seething with small-town foes.

Or how about Taliban psychopath Assef vs. the flawed but basically good Amir in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner?

Obviously, adversarial pairs don’t have to consist of one bad person and one good person. Enemies can both be likable or both be unlikable. For instance, one wouldn’t want to go near either “The kid” or Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And cousins Phillip Boyce and Norman Urquhart are both unappealing in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, though one ends up being far worse than the other.

Indeed, friends can become enemies (Philip and Norman seemingly had a congenial relationship at one point) and enemies can become friends — or at least somewhat friendly. One example of the latter happens with two pivotal characters in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; to avoid a plot spoiler, I won’t give their names here!

And enemies aren’t always a one-on-one proposition, as exemplified by Zenia trying to wreck the lives of three women in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride.

In fact, a whole state apparatus can be the enemy of almost an entire populace, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the aforementioned The Hunger Games.

Moving to older literature, there is of course the police inspector Javert who obsessively hounds Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Another authority figure, the physically strong Capt. Wolf Larsen of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, treats the initially soft Humphrey van Weyden viciously much of the time before their fraught relationship turns into something more equal.

Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons features the spoiled/selfish George Amberson Minafer, who makes himself a foe of Eugene Morgan by interfering with the love that likable widower has with George’s also-widowed mother Isabel. Complicating matters is George being in love with Eugene’s daughter Lucy.

Yes, the enemy thing can get very messy when it involves family. I think of Janie Crawford, who begins to hate her prominent husband Jody Starks after he treats her so nastily and patronizingly in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; and Dorothea Brooke, who realizes her husband — the Rev. Edward Causabon — is an ice-cold, unfeeling excuse for a human being in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

In the child-parent realm, Dmitri loathes his vile father in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and John Grimes fears and dislikes his overbearing/hypocritical dad in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain.

Sibling relationships gone bad are also a staple of many fictional works, as when a character poisons the drink of her sister in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Who are some of your “favorite” foes in literature?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, among others.

162 thoughts on “Enemies As Engines of Engrossing Fiction

  1. Hi Dave, I’m so glad that you’ve already mentioned Harry Potter, as well as The Hunger Games, because that will make me feel a little less silly bringing up Twilight. Although the Twilight saga is far from well written , I did enjoy the characters and relationships that Stephenie Meyer created. Some of the bad guys in Meyers books are definitely black hat guys, and you know who is going to come out on top, but there are a lot of characters that are various shades of grey, and though they might be considered good guys, and they might be well liked by the reader, they don’t necessarily like each other very much. The Edward vs Jacob part of the saga is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also a long rivalry between werewolves and vampires, and while that’s not exactly original, I thought it was fun to read, as it’s not told as one group against another group, but rather a lot of different personalities within each group, sometimes getting along with the ‘enemy’ better than they do with their own group. And of course the two groups have common enemies which means that sometimes they work together as well

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not silly at all to bring up “Twilight,” Susan! I haven’t read that series myself, but books that popular often have plenty of merit amid whatever flaws they might or might not have. I enjoy a lot of “popular fiction” along with so-called “literary fiction” — whether it’s J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Tolkien, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Nicholas Sparks, David Balducci, etc. Sometimes there’s little distinction between the two “genres,” with “popular fiction” authors showing literary flashes and “literary fiction” showing popular flashes. And authors can be an almost perfect hybrid of the two, as is the case with Dickens.

      It’s great that “Twilight” characters include gray-area characters along with “black hat guys” (love that phrase!). Thanks for the terrific description of the complex layers of Stephenie Meyer’s enemy (and friend) characters.


        • I think you’re right about that, Eric, and I suppose one can say the same thing about many adult novels. That’s one reason why I sometimes find it hard to differentiate between YA novels and adult novels. YA novels often tend to read like adult novels to me! Perhaps one difference is that the protagonists of young adult novels tend to be…young adults (including teens and preteens).

          Nice to hear from you!


          • It might be due mainly to the sophisticated writing style of the author; but when it comes to mature topics, they are almost toned completely down to almost let someone know that what they are reading is a more age appropriate story.


            • Great points, Eric! But I must confess to being surprised that some of the content in some YA novels or series — such as “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” — is not as toned down as one would expect. It’s like those books are trying to simultaneously appeal to YA and grown-up audiences, and I think that’s often what the authors intend to do.

              There’s also the matter of today’s students being exposed to more depressing and/or graphic stuff in their real lives than students might have been decades ago. So that can affect the YA genre, and what YA authors and publishing houses think young readers can handle.

              Of course, you as a teacher know a lot more about this stuff than I do!


              • I think violence comes in all forms and can cross between YA novels and adult novels but I see the big difference when it comes to say highly mature topics like sexuality, drugs, prostitution, and others of a more unseemly nature—for children mostly–that those tops are really toned way down almost to be not appropriate for most children.

                Liked by 1 person

              • “Of course, you as a teacher know a lot more about this stuff than I do!”

                I appreciate that Dave, very much. But I usually tell people, I don’t know all the answers, but I do know a lot of answers.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Thanks, Eric, for your two replies!

                  You’re right — while violence in YA novels can be almost as graphic as violence in adult novels, stuff like sexuality and drugs is usually treated in a more understated, veiled way.

                  Well, knowing a lot of answers (rather than every answer) is all one can hope for! 🙂


  2. When i think enemies, my mind goes back to the beginning of literature with works like Gilgamesh and the Bible. Gilgamesh had several including Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest. In the Bible: Cain and Abel, Moses and Ramses, Brothers who become enemies is always a popular motif.

    More currently, the Musketeers had M’Lady and Cardinal Richelieu to deal with. Edmund Dantes in “The Count of Monte Cristo” had to contend with the evil Danglars, Vileforts, and Mandego. Harry Potter did have his enemy, Voldemort. Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty, Van Helsing has Dracula, and of course Ahab had Moby Dick, the last one being a mammal archenemy.

    Fairy tales with wicked queens and witches are rampant, and fables are full of enemies for no other reason than to have a moral about how it is better to not be an enemy or have evil thoughts. I think the Devil has been man’s enemy in literature, also for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. he sure does have a mean streak with the Flood.

    The King and the Duke in “Huck Finn” were probably an enemy to anyone they came in contact with, including selling Jim right out from under Huck. We just read “A Wrinkle in Time” in class, and IT and The Black Thing prove to be the enemy of the world.

    I am so glad I am done with marking essays.


    • Eric, congratulations on being done marking essays!

      Thanks for that fabulous list of memorable enemies, including those from literature of many centuries ago. Makes total sense that enemies would appear in literature’s early days, because real-life enemies were around as soon as life-forms appeared on Earth. (If only dinosaurs could write; they certainly had some tussles. 🙂 )

      Your mention of Cain and Abel reminded me that some adversarial relationships in “East of Eden” were Cain and Abel-like, with Steinbeck even consciously giving several characters names that began with C or A.

      And fairy tales and fables are indeed a rich source of foes. Glad you mentioned those two literary genres.


        • Ha ha! Nicely said, Eric! 🙂

          I first read “East of Eden” just two or three years ago, after having read most of Steinbeck’s other novels. Somehow, the length of “East of Eden” intimidated me for a number of years, and I don’t know why. Though it’s Steinbeck’s longest novel, it’s certainly not as long as a number of other novels I’ve read — including, most recently, Elsa Morante’s “History,” which you and jhNY thankfully recommended. It’s superb, and I will mention it in my next column, which I hope to post tonight.


          • I read it when I read in a newspaper column that Steinbeck considered it his “opus magnum” and when he had stated that he wrote it for his children, I had to see if I could find out why. A great deal of life’s lessons can be found in the book.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I like “The Grapes of Wrath” better, but “East of Eden” IS excellent — and I can see how Steinbeck could feel it was his best novel. Certainly many life lessons, as you note, and it ambitiously covered decades of time.

              One of the reasons it was written for his children, I think, is that several characters are autobiographical (as far as Steinbeck’s ancestors go). I think Steinbeck himself has a “cameo” in “East of Eden,” as a kid character.


              • It might be autobiographical, but I thinkf or Steinbeck, that would be too “simple and direct”? Could be. He was always so textured and nuanced for me, and I think that has added to his legacy as one of the most often read authors in school.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Well said, Eric! “East of Eden” is certainly a very layered novel mixing autobiography, fiction, Biblical references, and so on.

                  Some people feel Steinbeck’s work is relatively “simple,” but I disagree. One doesn’t have to write Proustian prose to be a textured and nuanced author, to use your apt adjectives.


                  • Or James Joyce for that matter. Steinbeck could be considered a giant of literature from the sentences that I remembered from the Grapes of Wrath:

                    “Women…knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.” (last paragraph of chapter one)

                    And these phrases are just Steinbeck at his best:
                    “The clouds…did not try any more.”
                    “…the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.”
                    “…the sun was red as ripe new blood.”

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Great lines from Steinbeck. Thanks, Eric! I also remember his chapter in “The Grapes of Wrath” in which he uses “the grapes of wrath” phrase. Heartbreakingly eloquent stuff.


                    • And in his “East of Eden”, there are simply too many great lines to remember. It is easier to fall back on “Grapes of Wrath” than “Eden.”

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • True, Eric! The lines and details of “The Grapes of Wrath” somehow stay in the brain more. (In my case, partly because I’ve read “Grapes” three or four times and “Eden” just once. 🙂 )


  3. Elephants can remember – by agatha christie mrs. burton – cox the frightfully domineering society lady who takes finding faults in her son ‘s lady friend to a new level. But without her the story would have never happened. AIso kinda dryly funny esp the description of a 70’s wedding involving a bride wearing a pantsuit with shamrocks all over it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the excellent comment, Kristy! That must have been one of Agatha Christie’s final works. Her novels certainly have plenty of enemies; I suppose mysteries and detective fiction have them almost by definition. And a parent vs. the daughter or son’s significant other is not an infrequent adversarial relationship in literature and real life.

      That ’70s wedding does sound funny. A decade with certain excesses… 🙂


  4. Howdy, Dave!

    — Who are some of your “favorite” foes in literature? —

    Because you and your droogies already have addressed George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” on individual and group levels of meaning, I will default to his “Animal Farm,” which is to say the fractious relationship between Napoleon and Snowball (aka Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky). With a single line in this opus — “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” — The Great Eric Blair distills all the social, political, economic, and cultural history of the world in such a way that everything else the rest of us poor scriveners do is redundant, an observation I may or may not made a zillion times before.

    Nevertheless, we keep plugging.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S.: Please note that, despite my opening clause, I did not say a word about Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” and the relationship between Alex and F. Alexander: Ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — it gives a darkly light!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A fractious relationship, indeed! To tell you the truth, I read “Animal Farm” so long ago (in my teens) that I had no idea Napoleon and Snowball represented Stalin and Trotsky. (Though I did know the novel was about totalitarianism.)

      “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” — that is indeed the “money quote” for many a political system, including the one in the U.S.

      Thanks for the superb comment, J.J.!


  5. I haven’t had time to read every post but the ones about pseudo friends, as in ‘All About Eve’ reminded me of the Henry James novels in which ‘friends’ are actually schemers, although they still hide behind that Jamesian veneer of civility and highly refined culture. Specifically, I’m thinking of Madame Merle in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ who plots with Gilbert Osmond, her former (and possibly current) lover for Osmond to seduce Isabel Archer who is a character very similar to Dorothea Brooke in many ways–intelligent and idealistic, they both see themselves as independent thinkers and yet are highly gullible when they fall for heartless characters like Casaubon and Osmond. Isabel marries Osmond and gradually pieces together the extent of Madame Merle’s and her husband’s relationship. This kind of dynamic is repeated with variations in two of James’s late novels, ‘The Wings of the Dove’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’. In ‘Wings of the Dove’ the lovers also decide to seduce a rich, young, naive heiress only in this case the heiress is dying of an incurable disease so that will be the device by which the deceased’s husband will inherit her money and the two lovers will have the financial means to marry and live happily ever after. It doesn’t quite turn out the way they planned because the seducer actually falls in love with the dying heiress and it permanently alters his relationship with the fellow schemer. In ‘The Golden Bowl’ two people without financial means seduce a father and his daughter, yet another variation of the schemer who poses as a friend or prospective marital partner. The schemer appears in the earlier novella, ‘The Aspern Papers’ in which the nameless first person narrator, a literary biographer of famed poet Jeffrey Aspern (loosely based on Percy Shelley) seduces the niece of an aunt who was a lover of Aspern’s and possesses what he considers very valuable love letters that may shed light on Aspern’s work. He goes to great lengths to marry in order that he can get his hands on those letters. Needless to say, his plot is foiled and but he remains clueless at the end of any moral lesson. Of course, we the reader see it but that’s one of those great examples of the clueless narrator who reveals more about himself than he thinks. Jamesian foes are an interesting and unique breed in literature.

    Liked by 2 people

    • bobess48, those are terrific thoughts, analyses, and descriptions of some pseudo friends in Henry James’ fiction! Fascinating stuff, and a reminder that literature is full of pseudo friends. One example is the “friend” of Silas Marner, near the beginning of George Eliot’s novel, who “steals” Silas’ fiancee and also basically frames Silas for a crime.

      Speaking of Eliot, nice reference to “Middlemarch” in your comment!

      Also glad you mentioned clueless narrators. Another great example of that is Charles Kinbote, in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” who has quite a high opinion of himself but reveals himself to the reader (as Nabokov intended) as kind of a buffoon and stalker.


  6. Just finished “March,” the excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Geraldine Brooks. The book takes place during the Civil War (except for the many flashback chapters), and enemies abound. Union soldiers vs. Confederate soldiers, slave owners vs. slaves, racist whites vs. free blacks, pro-slavery whites vs. abolitionist whites, etc.

    As many people reading this comment might know, “March” is the fictionalized rendering of what happens to the father in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” when he goes off to war as a chaplain. There are numerous references in the book to his wife “Marmee” and the four March daughters.

    The novel was recommended to me by a friend, Suzette Martinez Standring, who has commented under my posts in the past.


      • Many, many great versions Dave, I believe Mississippi John Hurt set the standard but I love David Bromberg’s take where he uses the old Blues trope ” If you’re still here when I get back with my butcher’s knife and gun, I’m gonna cut ya if you stand still and shoot you if ya run “

        Liked by 1 person

    • Admittedly, the hat was the object of attempted thievery by Mr. De Lion, which does complicate the circumstance, though it is disconcerting to hear Mr. Lee’s stated unconcern re children and loving wife.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Most recordings have it as winnings in a dice game. The Grateful Dead’s Version takes up the story with Billy’s wife unable to get justice she takes matters into her own hands ” as Stagger Lee lit a cigarette she shot him in the balls, blew the smoke of her revolver had him dragged to city hall”…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am more familiar with Hurt’s version. Wondering what the earliest recording is, I may have to wander to youtube. If I find out anything definitvish, I’ll let you know.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Read the wiki entry thoughtfully supplied by Dave (thanks! should have read it first!), and now see: Though there were mention of the song in newpapers earlier, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians made the first recording, an instrumental in the early 20’s. Waring’s pop-jazz outfit was still showing up on teevee into the 60’s! He is most famous today as the inventor of the Waring blender(!)

          Lovie Austin recorded the first version with lyrics, and it’s her version, and Ma Rainey’s that swept black America– Rainey’s may actually have had more influence in Mississippi because her label, Paramount, had good distribution there. Lovie Austin recorded the first version of “Trouble In Mind”, a version of which was also recorded by Hank Snow, on which I played dobro for an RCA lp in the mid-70’s. Austin’s recording featured cornet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong. Ma Rainey’s version of “Stagger Lee” featured a cornet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong.

          It’s a small small world. Think I’ll go make myself something in the blender.

          Liked by 1 person

            • Nice to read! Thanks! Have now listened to Ma Rainey’s 1925 recording– it’s the “Frankie and Johnnie” melody with different lyrics, so I have to retract my notion that her version had an effect on the song as we know it by John Hurt. Haven’t located the Lovie Austin yet.

              Interesting that in the article the hat theft is part of the original murder story in St. Louis, but apparently no one had incorporated that detail into song before Hurt.

              In the wiki article, a “piano pounder” in Kansas City gets a mention in the paper in I think 1897 for having played some Stagger Lee ballad. Wish we could hear it.

              Also wish that transcription of lyrics in 1903 was easy to get at. Have you seen them?

              Liked by 1 person

                • Another fascinating article. Thanks for posting the link, Donny!

                  And thanks for your additional comment, jhNY! As sort of an aside, one of my favorite Broadway experiences was seeing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” many years ago.


                  • I’m partial to Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues”– I probably enjoy listening to her over all other women recorded in the ‘classic’ blues period of the early-mid Twenties, because she is the country-est and least reconstructed character and singer if the bunch. She had a show at one time that featured a giant victrola, from which she would emerge onto the stage. Wish there were pictures!

                    Liked by 1 person

                • Thanks for the American Blues Scene article! Does flesh out the actual event that inspired the tune rather nicely.

                  Met Furry Lewis in 1969, though at the time, I had heard none of his 20’s recordings, and he had just finished a short, disappointing and over-lubricated set during which time he was mostly clowning around, embarrassed he had over-imbibed before showtime. Wish I’d known his catalog at the time– since, of course, I’ve heard possibly most of it, including his version of our topic.

                  It’s a small, small world.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • jhNY, Ma Rainey was indeed amazing, and I loved your description of her (“the country-est and least reconstructed…”) and that Victrola info!

                    Sorry you didn’t catch Furry Lewis at his best. I can see how some performers, if not truly given their due during their career, might allow themselves to have nights like that.


                    • He was a very old man in a town he’d never visited, surrounded by young college students, nearly all of them white. And the black students, though few, had among their number some who were loudly calling him Uncle Tom, etc., when there was opportunity. I consider myself luck to have met him at all– whatever his immediate condition. I just tried, in a very few words, to try to cheer him up and tell him I enjoyed the show– a bit of a stretch, that statement, but he was obviously upset with himself.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • jhNY, those were FAR from ideal conditions, in a variety of ways. Nice of you to try to console him a bit. I just read the Wikipedia entry on him; glad he at least experienced a late-career re-interest in his music.


  7. Have hesitated to bring up this one, as I can’t find my copy just now, and don’t want to get mired in plot points too dimly recalled BUT germane to the topic and for its time, a radical assault on many social presumptions between classes, is “Caleb Williams” by William Godwin. It is not an entirely satisfying work, and it has never been clear to me how clear the motivations and self-awareness of his characters were in the mind of the author, but the two major characters are separated by class– Williams is a servant, his master a member of the gentry– and joined by knowledge of a secret crime.

    The secret crime, discovered by the servant among the master’s hidden papers, which the servant has been forbidden to seek out, causes the master to employ any and all means to protect what he conceives to be his honor and reputation– which includes having the servant jailed, hunted down on his attempts to escape and fired from new employments. The servant, manages by the novel’s end, to have brought the master’s crime to light in a court of law, but he can hardly live with himself for having brought his old master to public shame– one ending Godwin wrote had Williams quietly raving in a cell. The master has come to loathe himself down the long years, for all he has done to keep his secret unknown, for safeguarding an honor which died on the occasion of his crime, for protecting a reputation undeserved.

    The ambivalence of the servant– at once worshipful and obsessively curious, straining bitterly under the imposed brutality of punishment brought upon him by the master’s power over the society in which he prospers, yet craven and bereft of his sense of place when he finally can reveal the crime for which he himself has mostly suffered but did not commit– is the heart of the book, narrated in first person by the Caleb Williams character. Both master and servant are trapped within the confines of their respective classes, yet neither can be quite what they are required by society (or each other) to be, and each is the ruin if the other.

    William Hazlitt lauded the book unstintingly, and it is more or less unique for its time and place. The characterizations and some of the plot-lines are not realistic so much as they are illustrative and symbolic, if not allegorical; “Caleb Williams” is not a modern novel, except in its social concerns. But it is very much the story of enemies, and it is engaging, if not engrossing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jhNY, that’s a superb summary/analysis of “William Godwin,” which is still on my to-read list, begging to be borrowed from the library.

      Enemies can certainly be ambivalent with each other, and being in separate classes complicates things a LOT. That was also the case in a way with Nelly Dean, of “Wuthering Heights,” who had a love-hate relationship with a couple of the people she served. Heathcliff was basically a borderline criminal, albeit a charismatic one who had some legitimate reasons for seething at the world. (I realize the comparison between “William Godwin” and “Wuthering Heights” is a bit of a stretch.)

      Bravo for your brilliant mini-essay of a comment!


  8. I do think that the Sheriff and Robin Hood may be the oldest I know of. They’ve been at each other’s throats since “A Guest of Robin Hood” which was written c1475. The fact that they are still known as enemies is amazing (Though a really bad children’s book from 1898 had them end on good terms).

    I’m sure I won’t be the only one to mention Moriarty and Sherlock and how memorable their opposition is. Which is very entertaining when you consider that Moriarty only fits into two stories, and he’s alive in only one of those.

    Before the end I was thinking of Jane Marple, Agatha Christie’s old detective. One of the later books is titled “Nemesis.” In which she is sent to solve a crime because she is the nemesis of crime.

    With such great characters in literature its not hard to find enemies and adversaries. Its hard to choose who to mention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham — great, GL! I loved the Robin Hood stories, and those two characters were memorable adversaries. (Sort of like the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals, with one — Robin Hood — virtually always winning!) I also seem to recall that Robin Hood triumphed in several fights against people who then joined his “merry band.”

      I hadn’t remembered that Moriarity was in so few of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Makes even more impressive how well that character remains a “household name.”

      True — so many fictional foes to name. Thanks for mentioning some terrific ones!


      • Robin lost several fights to men who joined him as well. I think he had very much become the Trickster by the Victorian Era. After that he shifted to a different archetype.

        I always think of Moriarty as possibly the greatest character to have as an enemy. When you learn so few lines but have him developed enough to “kill” Sherlock and then have an effect even after he’s dead is a very well developed character in my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Guess I forgot about some of Robin Hood’s defeats! Or maybe the edition of Robin Hood stories I read as a kid (and still have) just focused on his triumphs. Interesting how that iconic archer has morphed as a character during differing centuries.

          Excellent observation about Moriarity, and well said! Some characters have an outsized impact even with a not-outsized role.


          • That change from some defeats to just triumphs I think is part of his change. From the about 1800 onward he lost less and won more. He also gave to the poor, where as he kept for himself quite a bit before that. Even his becoming a nobleman was just another stage in his evolution.

            The small role big-impact I think is a very interesting topic and could almost make a whole blog of its own.

            Liked by 1 person

            • GL, you are an expert on Robin Hood and his literary history! It’s fascinating when a character has so much “oomph” that he or she can be molded into something different during a different era to reflect that era’s “zeitgeist,” cultural norms, wishes, propaganda needs, etc.

              As for your second paragraph, that could indeed be blog material. Sort of like the movie actors or actresses who have relatively small roles yet still win an Oscar because of how memorable those roles are.


      • They are less Engines of Engaging Fiction and more literary tropes. The conflicts are very momentary and hardly the cause of a story. Even Moriarty is more of an Engine than anything that happened between Hector and Achilles. Or even Agamemnon and Paris.


        • Interesting, GL. I suppose I should read Homer one of these days to see for myself! Just the four names you mentioned (Hector, Achilles, Agamemnon, and Paris) are so evocative despite my never reading about what they did.


          • They are like Moriarty, household names yet they don’t have much personality. You don’t read the Iliad for the characters, in my opinion. You read it to understand Ancient Greek Culture.

            Where as when you read Sherlock and Moriarty’s story you read it because the characters are interesting.

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            • Amazing, then, that those ancient characters’ names have lasted in the cultural consciousness for millennia. Perhaps the story and the milieu make it seem like those four men have more of a personality than they actually have? Or the story is so interesting, and so revealing of ancient Greek culture, that it doesn’t much matter if the characters lack scintillating personalities?


        • I guess I agree, in that epics can’t be novels, and don’t aim for novelistic outcomes, but I also think you’re cutting your definitions a bit fine. There are in ancient lit, quite a few embodiments of cultural ideals running around interacting, though often it reads like serial declamations punctuated by swordplay to those of us more comfortable and habituated to modern frames and conventions. Still, anything that gets repeated by generation after generation, without, in the case of the Iliad, ever having vanished from the memory of mankind, has got to be considered ‘engaging’.

          Paris and Agamemnon? Wanting the same gal has often caused upset in literature, and in this case, launched a thousand ships. And a million retellings over hundreds if not thousands of years.

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          • jhNY, now that you’ve eloquently responded to GL’s eloquence, I’m finding this thread even more interesting! Will keep this reply short and let GL respond (if GL so desires), but I wanted to say that you’re absolutely right that wanting the same woman — or man, for that matter — has launched a thousand plots and turned a number of friends into enemies. That triangular stuff is a major part of “Doctor Zhivago” (which I just finished this morning), though there’s a surprising lack of enmity involved.


            • ‘Engaging’ is not ‘engrossing’, but somehow it was when I read the essay’s title this morning….

              Of course, I’d argue that, having been recited at fireside by bards over so many years, the Iliad very much qualifies, as I can easily imagine dirty little faces turned up, open-eyed with wonder, in the direction of the declaiming lyre-strummer as he sang of battles fought in the Golden Age. And that’s just the kids!

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          • Except that isn’t Paris and Agamemnon. That was Paris and Menelaus. Menelaus almost didn’t go after Helen. Agamemnon become the archetype of revenge in this case. And it isn’t revenge for love it is revenge over the insult to his brother’s honor. Paris however is the archetype of romantic love. That great feeling of lust when you meet someone hot.

            This means that you don’t have characters actually interacting, you just have archetypes doing their thing while the gods mess with them and Homer explains Greek culture. I found it an engaging read, but it wasn’t very engrossing. I didn’t get lost in it like I do many stories. I felt very outside of it and could stop when I needed to.

            Archetypes are great for stories, they help you understand what is going on. Obi-wan Kenobi might fit the bill of the wise old teacher archetype but its his failings in teaching and explaining to both Luke and Anikin that make him a great character. He fails at his archetype and he becomes engrossing. Anikin however isn’t engrossing, because he embodies betrayal. Vader however is engrossing because he is very complex he has failings in his archetype of villain. Agamemnon doesn’t fail, Paris doesn’t fail, Achilles and Hector don’t fail. They are the pure embodiment of their archetypes.

            That makes them very engaging but not engrossing.

            Now I’m sure that there are several different views on what an archetype is but I applying the one I learned in high school.

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            • I cede the field to you in the area of Agamemnon, who I wrongfully identified in my haste to respond as Helen’s hubby Menelaus. Other than that bit of ground to you, I still say it is possible to be engrossed in the “Iliad” and other such archetypal renderings of tales, and that the distinction between engaging and engrossing here is subjective. Sometimes the ancient tales in the ancient forms find happy, or should I say ‘engrossed’ readers in the modern age– and sometimes, the ancient forms and conventions are more appreciated, and felt more deeply by those types than the forms and conventions of modern fiction. I don’t think archetypal characters or allegorical tales are necessarily less satisfying– engrossing– forms of literary expression. So much depends on what one brings to the party.

              Liked by 1 person

              • True what one person considers engaging as opposed to engrossing is different. Perhaps we should start there, by defining these two words for our purposes. I would suggest that engaging is a book you enjoy or is very well written, but that you can stop reading at any time. Where as an engrossing book is one that you can’t put down. As these two words are synonyms this kind of distinction is important. I do accept that what you consider an engaging book and an engrossing book will be different but the two words need to be separated if we are to have any further discussion.


            • Having had another think, I have moved into your camp!

              Because my argument and my example depends on expansion of the category– making an ancient epic poem equivalent to fiction.

              Had I chosen a better example– say “Don Quixote”– that is, had I compared fiction with fiction, I might have liked my argument better this morning….

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              • I think Don Quixote himself marks a very engrossing character. I rather enjoyed the book if I recall (its been a few years, I might need to reread it) and had a hard time putting it down. The same I can say for “The Once and Future King” and that one I know I will reread. Sorry about the lateness of my other post. We sent the kids away for a long weekend and I got very busy last night.

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                • Of course, his recognized ‘enemies’, being most of all projections out of his own mind, might make the novel a not-so-good example for this discussion. It’s hard to develop the character of a wind mill, no matter how great your writing talent, though ‘interiority’, it does not lack, having within, great grinding stones. His actual enemy, a world lacking a place for such a one as himself, is a bit hard to pin down.

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                    • Thanks, Dave!

                      A humor theme sounds good after wars and enemies.

                      I searched my brain (not a very labor intensive exercise) for something interesting to add to the two above topics, but couldn’t find anything of the sort.

                      That is, I could find plenty about war in “my” literature, as we were all raised on it (i.e., war, war, and more war) in the post-WWII Poland, but all of it is best left untyped since it only evokes bad memories.

                      Which brings me in a round-abound way back to humor. See this:

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Bella, that is a VERY funny New Yorker piece you linked to. Thanks!

                      Yes, thinking about war is certainly not pleasant, especially when it evokes personal memories.

                      I’m now off to see a movie — “Guardians of the Galaxy” — that’s supposed to be funny. (Not my usual fare, but a friend invited me to see it.)


      • jhNY, I’ve never read that legendary work (hanging my head in shame 🙂 ), but I’ve heard some blood was shed. Plenty also shed in “The Penelopiad,” Margaret Atwood’s take on “The Odyssey” from the perspective of female characters.


  9. Although a screenplay, All About Eve tells the story of a young,star struck Eve Harrington who befriends her idol Margo Channing played by Bette Davis. Under the guise of adoration, she worms her way into Margo’s life on and off stage. Tables turn,her pseudo friendship becomes venomous. Eve becomes narcissistic and through manipulation and cunning,gets what she wants,the spot light shining on her,brightly. At least for the interim till she will be dethroned by another ingénue. Fasten your seatbelts,it’s going to be a bumpy night.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nicely said, Michele! “All About Eve” is definitely a foe film. Ambition can poison the well of friendship (whether that friendship was fake or real) or of other relationships — as exemplified in the literature realm by the saga of social climber Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country.”


  10. I was trying to reply to jhNY about his Buck Rogers comment, but for some reason was unable to do so. Since he mentioned intergalactic antagonism, I just thought I’d mention the science fiction novel “Dune,” by Frank Herbert. This novel is about many different things, but at its heart is about the conflict between the House Atreides and House Corinno. This book is I think the best-selling SF book ever, and I enjoyed the first book very much. I tried to read the whole series, but I gave up at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Of course, the best enemies antagonize intergalatically, as the example of the Buck Rogers and the Emperor Ming utterly proves!

    And I refer to the long-running cartoon strip, a sort of fiction in pictures, not the Buster Crabbe serials, so as to be relevant to the format here preferred.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hey Dave, last week war this week enemies ,do you have something on your mind you’d like to tell us? Brothers Karamazov is interesting I think Dmitry and his loathsome father is a case of the two being too much alike, both creatures of the senses and impulse. More interesting is brother Ivan and his war with God which of course ends up driving him mad and hallucinating, still in all he wages a good fight and I agree with his general argument in the Grand Inquisitor chapter. I wonder if another literary warrior could be said to have taken on the big guy in Captain Ahab ? Having read Moby Dick at least three times over the years I realize simplistic metaphors applied to the whale wont do but surely he is some version of the infinite . One more point, Blood Meridian I think is less about the battle between enemies than a bunch of guys looking to fight and brutally kill anything that breathes .

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL, Donny! Perhaps there’s some kind of subconscious hostility rattling around my brain. Next post: smiley faces in literature? 🙂

      Thought-provoking thoughts about “The Brothers Karamazov” and more! Enemies can certainly be enemies partly because they’re so alike and loathe what they see in themselves. And, as you note, Ivan and God were certainly adversaries in a way. Only brother Alexei seemingly had no enemies. A very likable guy!

      Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick? Certainly interspecies foes, though perhaps the whale didn’t think things through in quite the same way as Ahab…

      You make a very valid point about “Blood Meridian.” When it came to “The kid” and Judge Holden being enemies, I was thinking mostly about the final, not-to-be-forgotten scene in the outhouse.


  13. Hi Dave – My first thought was of the great Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity. This rivalry gave Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the opportunity to “kill” off Holmes, but alas, he was forced by public pressure to eventually bring him back to life (which was a good thing for all of us who love Holmes and Dr. Watson). I was glad to see your mention of the villains in “Strong Poison,” as it must mean that you finished reading that novel. I think that most mystery fiction can be seen as the battle between the good detective and the bad villain, especially as was portrayed during the Golden Age of Mystery, the time when Sayers was writing. They were more intellectually challenging as puzzles, in my opinion, than the more complex, psychological thrillers of today. They were certainly less graphic than what’s being put out today by some very good writers, and I’m most partial to the Scandinavians, such as Stieg Larrson, Camilla Lackberg, Sara Blaedel, Kristina Ohlsson, Jo Nesbo, and many others. The enemies in these more modern books tend to be psychopathic serial killers, so you can’t muster up any sympathy for them at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terrific addition, Kat Lib! Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity were VERY memorable foes.

      Yes, I did finish “Strong Poison”! I wrote to you under my previous post about that, but I think my comment got hidden in a long thread. 🙂 Here’s what I said:

      “Kat Lib, I just finished ‘Strong Poison.’ Excellent! I found it interesting that it’s one of those mysteries in which there aren’t a lot of suspects. One knows fairly early on who the murderer is; the question is how the person did it, whether that person will be caught, etc. The method of the murder was very ingenious on Sayers’ part, though I must admit that as clueless as I usually am with mysteries, I did notice that egg thing! 🙂 I was also impressed with the intelligence, resourcefulness, and grace under pressure of the women Lord Peter Wimsey had help him gather clues and evidence.”

      Back to this comment! Great point by you about how detective fiction is chock full of enemies, because that genre’s very nature usually makes for good vs. evil characters and scenarios.

      I don’t have anywhere near your knowledge of the detective and mystery genres, but your observations about those genres in recent years vs. their golden age makes sense to me. Very interesting insights!


      • Dave excellent topic…just came home and was ready to post and Kat Lib beat me to it, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarity.
        Anyways just borrowed the book ” Low Land” by Jhumpa Lahiri, it is a meaty book, I am sure you have read it.

        Liked by 1 person

          • So true Donny now I am looking forward to reading Low Land..one patron from the library returning the book said ” was not a happy ending but she liked the way the book ended.” Hmm…

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            • bebe, glad you liked the column! Thanks for saying that!

              Sherlock Holmes and Moriarity were indeed great adversaries. Two brilliant minds in opposition. I remember once talking with The Joker creator, cartoonist Jerry Robinson, who said he was partly inspired by Moriarity being a strong foe of Holmes in making The Joker a strong foe of Batman. Not that those respective pairs have all that much in common besides that. 🙂

              Actually, I have not read that Jhumpa Lahiri book, but I want to! I loved “The Namesake” and her “Interpreter of Maladies” short story collection.


          • Donny, “The Namesake” was indeed exquisitely written. The immigrant experience (first and second generation) has rarely been conveyed better. And the Indian-American Gogol being named after the Russian author, and the reason for that. Great stuff!


      • Yes, I missed your comment about finishing “Strong Poison,” probably because of a computer virus and other laptop problems, hopefully all now fixed! I’m so glad you enjoyed that novel. Of course nowadays, that crime would be solved in a much shorter period of time and without all the theatrics, because of modern forensics. It would be strange for younger people today to think of all those old documents being typed on a typewriter, which all have distinct characteristics. When I went to college, I typed all of my papers on a manual typewriter that I think was from the 1930’s! Anyway, I’m glad you mentioned Miss Climpson and her very efficient employees; they added a lot to the novel as a whole, including humor.

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        • Sorry about your computer issues, Kat Lib. Computer issues are…enemies. 😦

          So true that modern forensics have changed detective work and, I assume, changed the nature of more recent mystery novels.

          Loved your mention of the old typewriter you worked on! Those kinds of machines did indeed have distinct characteristics — some letters lighter and all that. Perfect for mystery novels, as you note! When I was in high school, I typed term papers on a 1920s typewriter inherited from my maternal grandparents. One had to push down so hard on the keys that one’s hands were soon aching.

          The secondary characters in “Strong Poison” were indeed efficient (and excellent), and you’re right that the novel had very appealing humor to go along with the serious stuff.


  14. You mention Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” which brings to mind the most formidable enemy of all, oneself, as in the same author’s “Crime and Punishment.” The same is true in Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” for who is her true enemy but herself, of which vanity, entitlement, and ambition are so great a part?
    It’s difficult to keep up with you and your wonderful commenters, since my reading material is 99% biographical/historical, but your topics and the comments of your readers are so erudite, one cannot but aspire for more time.
    Your fan, Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    • VERY good point, expressed eloquently, about how people can be enemies with…themselves. Thanks, thepatterer! As you note, that’s certainly true with Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” (which I reread a few months ago and found riveting once again) and Emma Bovary. As well as with other characters, to varying degrees, such as Adam Trask in Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” Jacques Lantier in Emile Zola’s “Beast in Man,” Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” Gwendolen Harleth in George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” etc.

      I hear you about needing more time to read! I would like to read more nonfiction books in addition to fiction ones.

      Last but not least, thanks so much for the very kind words about my blog posts and the great comments under them! You are partly praising yourself, because your comments are excellent. 🙂


      • On reading your always-inventive columns, my mind must rewind all the great books I’ve read in my earlier lives in order to respond. It will not matter if ever I lose short-term memory, for it’s my long-term memory I really love.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “It will not matter if ever I lose short-term memory, for it’s my long-term memory I really love” — I like that line a lot!

          I must admit that when I discuss novels I read years ago, I sometimes have to check Wikipedia to remember some plot and character details. Things are a lot easier when I talk about novels I’ve read during the past few months.

          Thanks, thepatterer, for your follow-up comment!


    • You might also say that Madame Bovary’s true enemy was the impression left on her by reading too many romance books at a too-tender age, making, eventually another true enemy: the actual circumstances of her actual small town middle-class life after marriage.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Excellent insight, jhNY, eloquently expressed. Romance books, certain movies (after Madame Bovary’s time), etc., can certainly give a rather starry-eyed view of relationships that often-humdrum real life can’t match.


  15. Here’s a couple:

    From James M. Cain: 1)Veda versus eponymous in “Mildred Pierce”,
    2)”The Postman Always Rings Twice”‘s murderous pair versus the husband. Veda, the daughter hates her mother thoroughly, to the point of revulsion, while the mother has built her life around her hopes for her daughter’s future. The husband in the second example is a boor and a drudge, but as such is building for his wife just the sort of place she will murder him for. The innocence, the cheerful obliviousness to hate of the victim in each case only makes the hatred of the other more chilling.

    John Le Carre’s Smiley and Karla, each head of their nation’s clandestine service carry on a rivalry and a secret war, possibly a few, over the course of several riveting Cold War spy classics.

    Stendahl’s “The Charterhouse of Parma” features enemies, as it would, being concerned most of all with palace intrigue. Fabrizio’s father, a reactionary royalist beyond reason, hates his own son and makes it impossible for him to live in his own home; the prince and Fabrizio’s aunt Gina; Fabrizio versus the actor with whom he has a swordfight, etc., etc. etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, jhNY, for mentioning works by those three authors — and for the excellent descriptions! You covered enmity relating to family and politics/ideology — two potential sources of much sparring.

      I just put Cain on my bulging list, meaning time is also an enemy — 🙂 — because I can’t read all the great titles mentioned by you and others. But I have and will read as many as I can!


      • Hope you do read Cain. he’s well worth seeking out.

        Cain’s best– “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity” are very rooted in the hopeless grinding Thirties. No drawing-room detective stuff, no romance except as misdirection from actual intent, lots of personal animus, lots and lots of overpowering greed and personality flaws that fissure under pressure. The movies made from these properties can’t quite bring themselves to the portrayals necessary to a faithful following of the plot lines and characters in Cain’s books. The viewing public demanded romance, at least a little, at least according to the producers and studio heads.

        “Mildred Pierce” is also good, just not quite as good as the other two, as is “Serenade”, though not quite as good (though more personally satisfying for me, as the narrator is a musician) as “Mildred Pierce”. Among other things, Cain has also written historical fiction, but I have yet to get around to it– “Mignon”, I think, is such a one.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, jhNY, for the Cain rankings! Very helpful. When I get to that author, I’ll first look for “The Postman Always Rings Twice” or “Double Indemnity.” I did see the movie version of the latter with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray — excellent, despite the Hollywood-izing you describe. Not one of MacMurray’s “My Three Sons”-type roles. 🙂 Cain’s work certainly got filmed a lot!


          • Yes, and he was also in Hollywood for a while, like Faulkner and Fittzgerald, teaming up on screenplays. And like Fitzgerald, he got very few screen credits to show for it.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks, jhNY! Interesting how a number of famous authors went the (potentially) lucrative Hollywood route, and how things often didn’t work out well. Writing for movies, and writing collaboratively, is of course a lot different than the individualistic act of penning a novel.

              Also working on screenplays were Aldous Huxley (as someone — you? — mentioned in a previous post) and Dorothy Parker, to name a couple.


              • Yes– it was me who mentioned Huxley, for his work on “Jane Eyre”. Also mentioned, a while back, another famous writer who toiled in Tinseltown: Truman Capote, who worked on the screenplay for “The Innocents.”

                And years ago, say,thirty, i discovered in a load of paper trash left for the garbageman at my job: a screenplay prepared for and printed by a major motion picture company (the name now eludes me) by Christopher Isherwood. I gave it away to a literary-minded fellow who had first introduced me to “The Berlin Stories” from which through several stages of reconception was derived “Caberet”. Have no idea if anything developed from that isherwood screenplay, but leafing through it briefly, I I saw nothing familiar at the time.

                Liked by 1 person

                • The people who worked with Huxley and the people who worked with Capote must have had very different experiences!

                  Then there was John Steinbeck, who wrote the screenplay for “Viva Zapata!”

                  Wow — very interesting memory of that trashed screenplay! Were you working in the movie business at the time?


                  • Nope– audio, and the trash derived from another company in my building also unconnected to movie-making. Turns out somebody’s grandfather’s paper files had been stored at grandson’s business for years, and one day, grandson threw it all out– but not before I went through a portion of the outlay. I have, over the years, been the willing collector of other folks’ discards– depending on what’s discarded. it’s how I got that Author’s Club card too. And dozens of test pressings, and a David Sandlin print and a few first editions and and and

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Thanks for that explanation, jhNY! One person’s “trash” is indeed another person’s treasure (at least once in a while). A state of affairs that has made yard sales ubiquitous in my town!


  16. Dave,
    You mentioned “a whole state apparatus can be the enemy of almost an entire populace, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” I was going to mention that from the other perspective, that of Winston Smith who is the enemy of Big Brother because he resists…for a while.

    Shakespeare: from Iago’s sociopathic plotting to Lear’s rage at the cosmos.

    In Thomas Berger’s Neighbors and The Houseguest, the serenity and sanctity of the home is broken by the wild intrusions of strangers/outsiders whose menace ranges from silly tricks to deadly threats.

    Mr. and Mrs. Twit: kind of a children’s version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In Albee’s play, George and Martha need their games and pranks and spewing of vitriol to keep the marriage going.

    What about characters who are self-loathing, their own worst enemies? Maybe that’s another topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe, a nice way to turn that around! Winston Smith does indeed resist for a long time in Orwell’s novel. (But, as you know, he would have had to be almost superhuman to continue resisting after what happened to him near the end of the book.) In Huxley’s “Brave New World,” John has some Winston-like attributes — though he’s also different in many ways.

      Iago doing wrong by Othello — good one! As is your mention of those iconic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” characters. Plenty of emnity in other plays: Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman,” to name just two.

      Still have to get to Thomas Berger one of these days! Thanks for mentioning two of his books that are very relevant to this discussion.

      VERY interesting topic suggestion in your last paragraph!


  17. The first thing that came to mind is actually a film although it’s based on a story by a classic author. A few months ago, I finally saw Ridley Scott’s’ first big feature film (before ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’ or any of the many he’s done since)–The Duellists, with Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. It’s based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was inspired by real life soldiers in Napoleon’s army in the early 1800’s who, through a chain of circumstances became enmeshed in a series of duels. In the film the Harvey Keitel character takes offense when Keith Carradine is sent to summon him to a disciplinary meeting with a commander. Harvey challenges Keith to a duel. Keith is wounded but not killed and it precipitates over the years with a series of duels that the Harvey Keitel character seems determined to continue. They can’t duel each other when each of them holds a higher rank (I believe that’s how it goes) but when the other is promoted to an equal rank they’re fair game. Keith wants to start a new life after the fall of Napoleon and even becomes the mayor of a small village. Harvey tracks him down. I won’t go any further than that to the outcome but you get the idea. Apparently, the real life characters continued to duel for over 20 years until they were old men. How neither wound ever became fatal was just providential, I suppose. I recommend the film (and the story by Conrad, which seems more like something Balzac would have written than Conrad–it takes place miles away from any seas or oceans).

    The James Bond series is built on a series of diabolical villains who seem to relish in their villainy just for villainy’s sake. George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ books are full of opposing sides but the issue is more complex. Even the ‘evil’ people have their own reasons, for the most part, except for the occasional insane tyrants like Kings Joffrey and Aerys, who was assassinated by Joffrey’s ‘uncle’ Jame Lannister before the beginning of the series. Many of the characters do reprehensible things but they are complex enough that a lawyer in a court of law might conceivably be able to build a case in their defense in any case. Anyway, that’s what came to mind initially.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow — decades of dueling. THAT is obsessive! I will check out that Joseph Conrad story, which, from looking online a minute ago, seems to be called “The Duel.” Sounds fascinating, and I appreciate your great description of it. Not surprised something dramatic like that inspired a movie.

      Great point about the James Bond series. The villains were often charismatic and quirky, but not exactly a textured mix of evil and good. From what you say, George R.R. Martin’s villains are more nuanced. Things are certainly more interesting when the motives for “villainy” are complex — as in “Crime and Punishment” and “Native Son,” to cite two obvious examples.

      Thanks, bobess48, for the superb and wide-ranging comment!


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