When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly

Sometimes opposites attract — for a little while, at least — and this is true in literature as well as real life. Today, I’m going to discuss relationships between “bad boys” and admirable women, and between not-so-admirable women and decent men.

Both variations can make for interesting reading. Is it just physical attraction? Are these people masochists? Does their very incompatibility make things (temporarily) exciting? Do those couples have ANYTHING in common? Will the relationship be fairly brief, before too much psychological (and/or physical) damage happens? Or will things go on for far too long? Was the liaison seemingly positive at first before one person started acting badly?

The idea for this post was suggested by “elisabethm,” who writes the excellent literature blog “A Russian Affair.” A recent post of hers mentioned “bad guy” Dolokhov and his marriage proposal to “good girl” Sonya in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

While on the subject of Russian literature, there is of course kind/moral Sonya and tortured soul Raskolnikov, a murderer with some redeeming qualities in Crime and Punishment. The conclusion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is basically all about the positive impact Sonya has on Raskolnikov.

Other examples of good women who spent some time with not-good men include the wonderful Dorothea Brooke, who’s married to pompous/ineffectual/cold-fish scholar Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the admirable Helen and her alcoholic husband Arthur of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen bravely leaves her abusive spouse; the hardworking Gervaise and her starts-off-decent-but-grows-mean-and-lazy-after-getting-injured husband Coupeau of Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den; the independent-minded-but-deferential (for a while) Orleanna Price and her rotten-to-the-core missionary husband Nathan of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; the clairvoyant Clara and the nasty but somewhat redeemable right-winger Esteban in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; Celeste and her violent rich banker husband Perry in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies; and Ruth and her abusive spouse Frank in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Then there are novels in which good guys find themselves in relationships with problematic women. Those include, among others, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, in which the talented but lacking-in-confidence Philip Carey falls hard for the nasty, not-so-smart Mildred Rogers; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, in which the unlikable Gauri leaves her likable husband Subhash and also abandons her daughter Bela — who Subhash conscientiously raises.

A couple of notes: Obviously, many of the above characters are not all bad or all good. And there can of course be the bad-good dynamic in same-gender relationships, but this blog post is about female-male relationships.

What are your favorite works that fit this column’s topic?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which mixes my recent trip to France with local news — is here.

76 thoughts on “When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly

  1. As you said in The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri , Gauri leaving Subhash her husband leaving her five year old child home alone.
    In Emma , her falling for Mr. Rothschild with checkered past.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking of interesting lit with odd males and females, last night Marcia and I saw the play “Anna in the Tropics,” in which a guy reads “Anna Karenina” to workers in a cigar-making factory to pass the time. The play is full of strange characters and weird plot twists. If you have a chance, add it to your list of lit-related plays to see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Bill! That play sounds great!

      I enjoy lit-related fiction, such as the last novel I read: John Grisham’s “Camino Island” — which co-stars an author and a bookstore owner, and features a theft of original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts.

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  3. Desidario, narrator of “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffmann” by Angela Carter (1972), wanders his way, wounded, to a group of simple river people who take him in, heal his injuries and teach him their riparian customs, some of which are downright strange, such as the sex he is encouraged to have with his prospective mother-in-law, whose daughter, a bit simple, carries a clothed dead fish (occasionally changed out for a fresher model) around like a doll. Great care is lavished on Desidario, who by way of repayment, helps them bargain with traders who otherwise would outwit his hosts, and attempts to teach the river people’s leader to read, to no discernible success.

    The night before his wedding, he discovers that, true, the river people have prized him because of his bargaining skill and intellectual capacities, but must, as is their custom, consume him in a communal feast hosted by his new bride, who was, with her mother’s help, to stab him to death on their wedding night, prior to cutting him into morsels to share out among the tribe. They are, or hoped to be, what they eat!

    I’ve heard some women described as ‘maneaters’ (looking at you, Hall and Oates!), but these women are literalists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, jhNY — now THAT’S a memorable plot, expertly described by you. Yikes! Now I’m wondering how that book ends, though of course I don’t want you to give the ending away.

      Hard to top that when it comes to good-bad relationships, even with the daughter not the only one among the river people who’s blameworthy.

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        • Funny thing (not that imparting this fact ought to change your mind about reading the book): that plotline is but part of a larger, complex and literally fantastic tale concerning induced hallucinations and the mutability of reality, and those who would war against Dr. Hoffmann, the man who projects such stuff.

          “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffmann” is provocative and even philosophical, but also lurid, anarchic, very well-crafted and rich in imagery. If you ever happen on it, take a peek! You might find yourself liking it more than you could expect, despite my descriptions,if not because of them.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I can think of some literature for sure. Wilbur Smith loves writing about troublesome women in his series – one of the main women is just such a manipulative little woman she’s frightening, and she rips apart two brothers for decades. On the male side, I’m also reading the new book “Varina” right now which paints a rather unflattering picture of Jefferson Davis as a husband (although I can’t say I’m surprised!) As a lady who had my fair share of run-ins with bad boys before I married my wonderful husband, I think it just boils down to the circumstances, and sometimes wild youth. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Great point at the end of your comment — it’s possible that a disproportionate number of bad-good relationships take place in people’s experimental younger years, before they mature enough to have a better chance of choosing a more compatible partner/possible spouse.

      And thanks for those examples earlier in your comment! Jefferson Davis is definitely not on my list of people I admire, and you just added another reason to dislike him!

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    • M.B., I think you’re the only person I know who’s also read “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Diary,” but I’m sure Mary must have made mention of Varina, especially since her husband was well up there in the Confederacy hierarchy along with Jefferson Davis. I think I may want to read this book, once I get through my reading drought! 🙂

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      • Kat Lib! Nice to hear from you again. We have such similar literary interests, I do believe you would like “Varina.” She is indeed mentioned many times in Chestnut’s diary as the two were pretty close friends. As such, Chestnut is also a prominent character in this book. Since I did read her diary, it was sure interesting to get the flip side and see how she was viewed from Varina’s perspective. (Although I know this is a novel not one hundred percent fact, but still it was neat).

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  5. Two characters that I think fit this category are the Underground Man and Liza. If he has the disease of too much consciousness, then Liza is the cure, but the Underground Man rejects her.
    I also thought of George Osborne – Amelia Sedley – William Dobbin from Vanity Fair.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for those examples, curioushart! I found your reference to Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” — which I’ve unfortunately never read — well said and very intriguing. (I haven’t read Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” since college, so I think I’ve forgotten every character other than Becky Sharp!)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You found some great examples of romantic relationships between good and bad people, Dave. It seems quite common in Russian literature: Pushkin’s Tatyana falling for Onegin; Sonya and Raskonikov and also in War and Peace: Pierre and Hélène and Natasha and Anatole, where Anatole and Hélène are the bad brother and sister, who have a rather questionable relationship between themselves as well.
    Thanks for mentioning me, take care!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. When in doubt, I always fall back on my favorite author, Jane Austen. She has many comic and somewhat bad characters, but for this column, probably the worst was Willoughby in “Sense and Sensibility,” in which he made love to (in the vernacular of the time) to Marianne Dashwood, until he learns he’ll lose his estate and income if he doesn’t marry another young woman per his aunt. Marianne then becomes so ill that she is near death, but she rallies and eventually finds love with Colonel Brandon. I’ve always loved this couple, because he sets her on a path to read (or be read to) and play the pianoforte! 🙂

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! That’s a very appropriate relationship for this column topic, and proves once again that there’s a Jane Austen reference for almost any blog theme. 🙂 Loved your pianoforte last line!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should have noted that it was Marianne herself who came up with idea to spend her days reading and playing the pianoforte (which Colonel Brandon bought and had delivered to her at the Dashwood’s small cottage). I realized I should have her given her more credit for coming up with this idea herself, even though this was usually how she spent her days.

        Liked by 1 person

          • I realized that I was not giving Marianne her credit by my throw-away comment. She was definitely the sister with sensibility who loved reading (especially poetry) and music (the pianoforte), so I feel uncomfortable about having put her in a bucket that intimated she was only good enough to do those things because of Colonel Brandon. So much for me being a hard-core feminist!

            I’m sitting here on tenterhooks waiting for word on whether I’ve got a mortgage commitment for my home in the Poconos. The person I’m waiting on assured me that I had a loan, but I’ve yet to see something he promised in writing by this morning or early this afternoon, which has now passed. Of course, I have to keep in mind that my bank (Wells Fargo) just got hit with a billion dollar fine for its auto and home mortgages practices, but that’s their problem, not mine. I suppose I keep going back to discrimination against me for being both older and a single woman. Not much I can do about that at this time in my life! 🙂

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  8. Another great one is Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands). Dona Flor is a good woman married to Vadinho, a philandering, hard-drinking, at times abusive gambler. After Vadinho dies (on the very first page; we get vignettes of him in flashbacks) Dona Flor re-marries Dr. Teodoro Madureira, an upstanding (and a bit OCD) gentleman. But the ghost of Vadinho, her true love, haunts her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terrific example of this theme, Robert! Thanks! I recently read the excellent “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” (after you recommended it, if I’m remembering right), and Dona Flor was indeed a wonderful person and Vadinho was indeed a rogue — VERY irresponsible yet considered charming (though I didn’t find him that charming. 🙂 ). Then came the better yet somewhat boring second husband.

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  9. Great to have you back, Dave! Just quickly, before I move on to relationships., thanks again for your wonderful Parisian photos, but I totally hear you about not wanting to take too many. I remember a friend taking me to Byron Bay for the first time. I visited the most eastern point of mainland Australia and was stunned at how beautiful the coastline is, though sadly I couldn’t say too much as I had to wait for the friend to take some sort of panoramic photo. Then he unbelievably asked if I wanted to look at the photo!

    Anyhow, “Gone with the Wind” was the first novel that I thought of. I wasn’t quite sure if it fit, but since it’s already been mentioned, I’ll go with it! I love that Rhett and Scarlet take it in turns. But then, so do I. I’ve read it twice, seen it twice, and I always walk away taking different sides. I wonder if they could have made it work if they were both the good guy at the same time? Might have made for a more boring novel though.

    “Wuthering Heights” is kind of the same. I must confess that I’m a not a huge fan of that Bronte work, but all of the characters seem to spend a fair bit of time being the bad guy. And while I don’t think any of them were particularly good guys, again, I would change my opinion of the characters depending on how much they were being mistreated.

    Great mention of “Of Human Bondage”. Poor Philip. I mostly felt so sorry for him and his out of control obsession, though there were times that I wanted to smack him around too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue! Very happy to be back! And glad you enjoyed those photos from France! Pictures in that country practically take themselves. 🙂 Yes, being obsessed with shooting and looking at photos sort of takes one “out of the moment” when viewing an actual beautiful building or landscape. Sorry you had that experience in a lovely part of Australia.

      “Gone With the Wind” and “Wuthering Heights” DO have the interesting dynamic of not always knowing which member of the couple to root for. I mean, the brutish Heathcliff is rarely likable, but Catherine can get on one’s nerves, too.

      As for “Of Human Bondage,” at least the ultra-frustrating Philip very belatedly acted with more common sense.

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    • Sue, I’m so sorry to disagree with you on GWTW, which I’ve only read once, but have seen the movie perhaps 6 times (my best friend, who is no longer my best friend), considered this the best film ever. I was at her house when I fell and broke my hip, which started most of my medical/disability problems and I had to watch the movie twice in a row, so I have very bad associations with this move. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

        • Now THAT’S a Freudian slip, Kat Lib, or whatever the correct term for something like that is.

          Very sorry you have understandably bad associations with the movie version of “GWTW.”

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          • I’m pretty sure I related this story before, but I also have a bad association with the novel. I read GWTW the summer before I entered 8th grade and we had a course in Reading — do they still do that? Anyway, the teacher asked all of the class who was their favorite author. I said Margaret Mitchell, and she replied something to the effect of “But she only wrote one book.” I was so embarrassed and I must have blushed bright red (as I was wont to do back in my younger days). Thinking back on this rather trivial event, I should have replied that my next favorite author was Harper Lee. 🙂
            It’s strange the things that one remembers from so long ago!

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            • That teacher’s remark was uncalled for, Kat Lib! There’s no law against a one-novel author being a person’s favorite author. In addition to Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee (who of course later had a sort-of second novel), there’s Emily Bronte, Ralph Ellison, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (“The Leopard”), etc.! All great writers.

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              • Yes, Dave, you think she would have been impressed by the fact that I read GWTW during summer vacation when I was also spending most of my days doing competitive swimming and synchronized swimming (or water ballet as we called it back then). If only I had discovered Jane Austen a few years earlier! 🙂 I do remember another teacher I had of English back then, who said, “I don’t care what you read, as long as you read something, even if it’s comic books.”

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                • Kat Lib, your reading of “Gone With the Wind” during summer vacation was especially impressive given that novel’s length!

                  And that other teacher of English you had was a very wise person…

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      • Actually, KatLib, I don’t think we disagree that much. I completely understand that someone would dislike Scarlett from beginning to end, but I think everything that you said is part of what I like about her. Much as I love Melanie Wilkes, who was obviously a good guy, I think a story written about her as a main character would have been boring. I can’t deny that Scarlett was selfish and self-involved, but she was such good fun! Personally, I find characters who are completely black or white unentertaining, and Scarlett was nothing if not colourful. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her determination to get what she thought she wanted in life, especially as a woman in a man’s world.

        I hope your move is going smoothly 🙂

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        • Hey Sue, I agree that we’re not far apart and that Scarlett was indeed never boring. I realize that I’ve been not in the best frame of mind this week because my move hasn’t been going very smoothly. I can’t wait until I finally move in and can just spend one day in the sun room, reading, and looking out at the lovely lake view I have. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sorry to hear that your moving isn’t going that smoothly. I too can’t wait for you to be able to enjoy your sun room. It sounds lovely. It’s amazing how even a half hour of quiet reading can reset the calm button 🙂

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  10. Madam Bovari, she is conflictive and cheated her husband. Lady Chartelly, she cheated her husband, too, Ana Karenina, Erendira and her mean grandmother, Garcia Marquez. The bad and the good character line is very tiny like black and white mixed up result in grays.

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    • Excellent examples, Anonymous! And, yes, often the good-and-bad dynamic is more gray than black and white — though authors, for dramatic effect, might make a character very good or very bad without as much nuance as there often is in real-life relationships.

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      • I hate to take exception to both Mike’s and Sue’s comments above, but I may be the only person that disliked Scarlett from beginning to end, and whatever happened to her throughout was her own fault. What is there to like about her? I think Rhett knew this about her from their first meeting until the end of the book, but still loved her in spite of it all. My personal hope was that Ashley would come to his senses and appreciate Melanie for the wonderful woman she was, which Rhett recognized from the very beginning and treasured her in a way that Scarlett and Ashley never did, until she died.

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  11. I could never relate to this tendency, but I have, unfortunately, fallen for bad boys in disguise! Meanwhile, Middlemarch is one of my favorite books and I just wanted to smack some sense Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage.;-)

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    • I hear you, lsgaitan23, and a great point! Sometimes the bad half of a couple does seem okay for a while — meaning the good half of the couple was not being masochistic, just fooled.

      “Middlemarch” is an absolutely wonderful book that deserves its designation as one of the greatest novels of all time. And — ha, yes — Philip Carey’s infatuation with Mildred was almost smack-worthy. I guess he was kind of psychologically scarred by his upbringing and his physical disability.

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  12. The first relationship that came to my mind was between East of Eden’s Cathy Ames and Adam. She set fire to a house killing her parents, bore twins and though married to Adam unsure if his or his brother Charles’, and shoots Adam before returning to a life of prostitution. Whew! Dysfunction at its best and one of my favorite books of all time.

    Liked by 2 people

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