When the ‘Good’ Are the Bad, It Can Get Ugly

As the Brett Kavanaugh drama unfolded this month, I thought about fictional characters who seem admirable on the surface yet are in reality bad people.

Kavanaugh, of course, is Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. I never felt Kavanaugh was a good guy — he’s an ideologue with nasty, ultra-conservative views on women, the poor, civil rights, guns, the environment, and more. But to at least some people, he seemed like a decent and friendly “family man.” That persona was blown to bits when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford credibly accused him of having sexually assaulted her several decades ago. To me, there was no motive for Dr. Blasey Ford to lie — she knew she would be deluged with hate mail, social-media abuse, death threats, and other horrors from right-wing Republicans. The only coming-forward upside for Dr. Blasey Ford (shown with Kavanaugh in separate photos above) was to tell the truth.

So…some quasi-equivalents of Kavanaugh in literature:

The first character who came to mind was Perry in Liane Moriarty’s fantastic Big Little Lies. In the eyes of society, he’s a charming and respected banker. Under the surface, he has a sordid past and present that includes ugly violence against his wife Celeste and other women.

Then there’s Willie Stark, the Huey Long-like politician in All the King’s Men. He’s charismatic, and seems idealistic and populist. In reality — a reality that grows stronger as Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel goes on — Stark is a corrupt hypocrite.

Another complicated politician is Hamm Sparks of Fannie Flagg’s engaging Standing in the Rainbow. He’s hardworking — raising himself up from poverty — and appears to be admirable in other ways as well. Popular with the electorate, too. But Hamm eventually reveals himself to be too slick, very right wing, and an adulterer (cheating on his shy wife Betty Raye).

In Andre Dubus III’s compelling House of Sand and Fog, the married Lester Burdon is an apparently upstanding law-enforcement guy until he becomes enamored with Kathy Nicolo and starts doing rash and illegal things to try to help her regain the home that’s subject to an epic ownership dispute.

The most recent novel I finished — Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing mystery The Case of the Slain Soprano — turns out to have a murderer who was thought to be the nicest of guys. An excellent actor, I guess.

Oh…and there’s a complicated version of good but not actually good in J.K. Rowling’s iconic Harry Potter series when the admirable Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody seems to turn bad. But that’s because he was kidnapped and impersonated by another character, Barty Crouch Jr.

I’ll conclude by mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Which fictional characters fitting this topic do you most remember? And any thoughts on the Kavanaugh situation?

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 — about a school stairway collapse in my town — is here.

72 thoughts on “When the ‘Good’ Are the Bad, It Can Get Ugly

  1. First off; thanks for following my nascent blog. Secondly, I have made a note, thanks to your post, to read ALL THE KING’S MEN because Huey Long is one of my favorite “characters” from history. I rarely read fiction except for authors like Hemingway because all of his “fiction” is basically re-telling of actual events with the names changed, thereby giving his work an authenticity of tone that’s almost impossible to create un-organically. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, liberalcracker! And I hope you like “All the King’s Men.” It’s a great novel.

      Yes, some fiction is nonfiction in disguise, which can certainly increase authenticity, as you say. But I think the best novelists can create “reality” out of thin air — without relying on actual events, or relying on actual events only for indirect inspiration.


  2. Well said and thank you for the literary reminders. I think if Kavanaugh had said “I did it. It was wrong and I regret it. I’ve set a new path and have lived an honorable life since then,” We objectors would have accepted that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, energywriter!

      You’re right — it certainly would have been better if Kavanaugh had ‘fessed up. Many (including me) would still not have supported him for the Supreme Court, but some people might have changed their minds and done so.

      Sort of the cover-up-is-worse-than-the-crime scenario, though I think the crime was much worse.


  3. The distinguished, respected, famous Judge Irving (played by Anthony Hopkins) in the movie “All the King’s Men” is discovered to have committed a serious crime when he was a young man. Yet, he angrily screams “I AM A MAN OF HONOR!”.

    (In the end, he commits suicide to avoid the suffering of the destruction of his reputation which he so treasures & which he worked for decades to build up.)

    This part of the movie is SO VERY SIMILAR to what we saw when Judge Kavanaugh expressed his outrage & anger & political conspiracy theories in the Senate hearing on Sept. 27.

    This movie helps me conclude that Judge Kavanaugh’s anger is probably a result of his knowledge that he DID attempt to rape that girl when he was in high school & that he did many other shameful things in that period of his life as well.

    I think a completely innocent judge would have maintained a calm, rational, judicial composure in that setting. It is typical of the guilty villain to lash out in anger and blame-shifting at those who have exposed his crimes.

    The truth is, Kavanaugh probably has been an honorable man in the 30 or so years since his teens & early 20s. His wife and daughters never knew the Brett Kavanaugh who routinely did shameful things as a young person. He’s trying to prevent them from ever knowing (or believing in the existence of) that shameful Brett Kavanaugh.

    The saintly, heroic Brett Kavanaugh of the present and the last 30 years is trying desperately to save himself from the shameful, villainous Brett Kavanaugh of the past.

    It’s all very Shakespearean, don’t you think?

    Harkens back to “King Lear,” “The Tempest,” “Hamlet” (Claudius in particular), & “Macbeth” in some ways.

    To the blog master: Thank you for your blog post. Very interesting and thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words and terrific comment, Barto!

      It has been so many years since I read “All the King’s Men” (never saw the movie) that I had forgotten about Judge Irving. He is indeed an excellent comparison to Brett Kavanaugh. And, yes, Kavanaugh’s over-the-top histrionics were practically an admission of guilt.

      It’s true, as he grew older, that Kavanaugh might have become more honorable when it comes to matters of sex. Unfortunately, his problematic service with Kenneth Starr and George W. Bush, and his retrograde views on so many issues during his entire adult life, doesn’t feel honorable. But, again, his behavior in his personal life might have improved. Still, I think what he did as a student disqualifies him for the Supreme Court. As does his ultra-partisanship for the Republican Party.

      I agree that all this is very Shakespearean. Too bad Kavanaugh doesn’t have even an ounce of Shakespeare’s eloquence.


  4. Dave, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a riveting book and as I have mentioned before . Mr. jack Palance mad it perfect.

    In real world everything has changed from last night. , the transformation of Brett Kavanaugh from somewhat expressionless to angry man, accusatory, crying and sniffing makes him not fit to be a Supreme Court Justice.
    He brought Hillary Clinton, Democrats in his speech makes him an unfit candidate..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kavanaugh is definitely Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like, bebe! Of course, even the “good” version of Brett K. is not good because of his nasty far-right politics. And, as you said, the unstable/vicious/self-pitying temperament he displayed Thursday makes him unfit to be a justice — even aside from the very credible sexual-assault/sexual-misconduct accusations against him.

      I’ve never seen the movie, but that brief Jack Palance clip you posted is mesmerizing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave, it took me a while to remember that the title of your column was actually one of the Clint Eastwood “Spaghetti” westerns. that I saw at a Texas movie theater when I was in college. What I loved most was the soundtrack to all of the movies, as scored by Ennio Morricone. There is a CD that I purchased some years ago as part of a fund drive for the Philly classical/jazz radio station, that had as a giveaway CD the great Yo-Yo Ma cellist playing the soundtracks that were composed by Morricone, including the above, and “The Mission,” which I can’t remember right now, but means that I’ll have to go rooting through my CD collection to find it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Kat Lib, that movie reference was intentional. 🙂 Thank you for noticing it!

      Unlike you, I’ve never seen the film, but have heard part of the striking soundtrack. Interesting that Yo-Yo Ma played Ennio Morricone’s music!


      • Success! I managed to find the CD of Yo-Yo Ma playing selections (with orchestral accompaniment) from the aforesaid soundtracks of “The Good, Bad & the Ugly,” “The Mission” (probably my favorite), “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Casualties of War,” “The Untouchables,” and many others. Thanks for making me remember that I’ve got this CD that I love a lot

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I think I will return to one of my recent favorites, the Chilbury Ladies Choir (I’m sure you’re sick of me bringing up that book by now, but man it really moved me!) and point out the RAF pilot Henry. He seems like such a charming and gallant man up front but it turns out he’s an abusive monster. There’s also the ever-famous and charming Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. He is in fact so charming that intellectual Elizabeth is completely taken in by his tale of woe and doesn’t even consider that it could be a bold-faced lie to cover up his many scandalous misdeeds. Unfortunately, this is often true of abusers whether they are judges, doctors, politicians, or every day people. They are experts with smoke and mirrors, and they have uncanny abilities to turn on the charm when it is most needed. Some excellent reading material on these matters would be “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. An amazing inside look at the minds of abusive men and why they are able to get away with it again and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Great mention from a great book (“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir”)! That novel can never be brought up too much. 🙂

      VERY true about abusers. They often can turn on the charm enough to fool people for years. Well stated by you. “Why Does He Do That?” must be amazing/depressing/eye-opening reading.

      Liked by 1 person

    • M.B., that was a great mention of Wickham in P&P. He’s definitely one of those characters that seem to be good and charming, but he eventually shows his true colors after it becomes known about his treatment of Darcy’s sister, then Elizabeth’s sister as well.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Another interesting subject! As for the political question, I hope that at some point the general public will have to see sense and rid the swamp of all those male predators! The literary good guy turned bad made me think of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, in which the handsome Dorian has his portrait painted and becomes so scared of growing old and ugly, that he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the picture growing old instead.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elisabeth! I like that Dorian Gray mention/summary and the way it fits this topic!

      I also hope male predators (politicians and others) eventually end up in the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, those low-lifes are a hardy bunch. In the U.S., it’s very depressing to see how little has changed on the Senate Judiciary Committee since it treated Anita Hill so badly when she told the truth about sexual predator/Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Heck, two of the same male senators are still on that committee 27 years later.

      Liked by 2 people

          • I hope that Joe Biden doesn’t run for POTUS in 2020. I used to live not that far from his district and he was loved by so many, but the blemish on him had to do his treatment of Anita Hill, and I don’t really think that’s going to be acceptable any longer. Although, Trump seems to get away with that, so who knows?

            Liked by 1 person

            • I also hope Biden doesn’t run, Kat Lib. I can’t complain much about his behavior and policies in recent years, and it’s heartbreaking how much tragedy he has had to deal with in his family, but the way he acted during the Anita Hill hearings was atrocious. The Supreme Court may have been a lot different if he had supported Anita Hill more and that support had prevented the odious Clarence Thomas from being confirmed.

              And, yes, Predator-in-Chief Trump seems to get away with everything — at least for now.


  8. I think I’ll stay with Liane Moriarty for my first comment, of which there are many, in addition to “Big Little Lies.” The first one that came to mind is “What Alice Forgot.” I’m sure I must have mentioned the plot of this book before, but it’s interesting in that Alice falls at the gym, hits her head, and when she comes to, she thinks she’s the same good person she was; however, she turned out to be a not so nice one. So she goes from being good to bad (not evil by any means) back to a mix of both once she gets her memory back.

    On an unrelated note, I saw a Broadway production of the Jekyll/Hyde play and it was fascinating to watch. We had great seats (front three rows, center stage), the actor who played the main character/s was the same, by having him dressed and made up to be Jekyll and then his other side was made up to be Hyde. He was amazing, and we watched him turn from side to side in the same scene (we could also see the sweat pouring off him!).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lib! From your expert summary, it sounds like “What Alice Forgot” is VERY relevant to this topic. I wish my local library would have that novel on its shelves. I’ve absolutely loved three of the Liane Moriarty books I’ve read so far (“Big Little Lies,” “The Husband’s Secret,” and “The Hypnotist’s Love Story”) and liked “Truly Madly Guilty” a lot but not quite as much as the other three.

      That Jekyll/Hyde play on Broadway sounds fantastic! Loved your description!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have go to my go-to author, Jane Austen. For someone who grew up and lived amongst a very small circle of people and villages, other than Bath, she really could see so much in her fellow neighbors and family to write as many relative novels as she did, perhaps one of the many reasons I love her as much as I do. So there is Willoughby who comes across as he does in “Sense and Sensibility.” Someone who at first comes across as being good, but then bad, when he chooses money and estate over his love for Marianne. I think that It could be said it’s the same with Henry Crawford, because I think he really loved Fanny Price in “Mansfield Park,” if she hadn’t turned down his proposal. So I think I’m probably the only Jane Austen fan who actually wanted her to marry Crawford (heresy, I know) rather than the rather dull Edmund Bertram.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Jane Austen definitely had an expert way with characters, Kat Lib, including the good-bad dynamic. To your initial point, an observant person can certainly see almost every form of human behavior even within a limited geographic area!

          Liked by 3 people

        • I also really wanted Fanny Price to marry Crawford–or rather, for Crawford to be worth her marrying him! I get what Austen was trying to do, but the marriage to a rather dull first cousin never could get me very enthused!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks, Elena, I’m happy to read that there is someone else who felt the same as I did about the so-called love match between Fanny and her cousin. It just never rang true to me, and it was the only match of her novels that I was ever disappointed in.

            Liked by 2 people

  9. If Ford was so traumatized, why wait all these years? and due to trauma – is she recalling things correctly?
    When did it go from “He said-She said” all the way to “She said – and He’s dead”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the comment, GP, including that great last line. I hear you, but it often happens that sexual-assault victims wait many years to report the crime, or never report it at all. Fear of not being believed, fear of being falsely accused of “asking for it,” embarrassment, etc. Also, because of the trauma, sexual-assault victims can have incomplete memories of an attack. I know several women who have been raped, and the above points are among what they’ve said.

      As for why Dr. Christine Blasey Ford waited decades before reporting the attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh, one can only guess. Perhaps she kind of grudgingly decided to go on with her life until Kavanaugh was up for one of the most prestigious jobs in the country and she became infuriated that someone like him would be allowed to rise so high.

      Finally, I think Dr. Blasey Ford’s credibility has only increased after reports last night of two more women accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I find it interesting that when males report priest molestations after 30 years there is complete outrage against priests but when females wait that long they are ridiculed, chastised, and attacked for ‘waiting too long’. Hypocrisy and double standard much?

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Ah, the Trump administration….Since you brought up Harry Potter, I’d like to add Gilderoy Lockhart, who’s so charming but can’t actually do most spells, and, it turns out, steals adventures from other people and passes them off as his own. Then there’s Dolores Umbridge, whom I consider to be one of the most loathsome villains in literature, who is all saccharine-sweet but enjoys torturing students.

    I’m currently finishing “Lethal White,” the latest Cormoran Strike book, also written by Rowling under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, which features a politician with some very dark skeletons in his closet. I won’t reveal what they are for fear of spoilers, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear of someone from the Trump administration with something similar in their past.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Elena! Gilderoy Lockhart and Dolores Umbridge are terrific examples of characters who sort of make believe they’re good when in actuality they are not — with Umbridge, of course, VERY villainous, as you note. She makes a reader’s blood run cold. Definitely one of the most memorable characters among the many memorable characters J.K. Rowling created.

      One of these days I have to read a Robert Galbraith novel. Everything Rowling writes (including “The Casual Vacancy”) is impressive!

      Liked by 3 people

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