Women Written as Wicked and Warped

The majority of novels I read are by women, and many of my favorite authors are female. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Colette, Willa Cather, L.M. Montgomery, Daphne du Maurier, Elsa Morante, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, Octavia E. Butler, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, J.K. Rowling, Liane Moriarty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, etc., etc.

So it is with some reluctance that I’m about to discuss female villains in fiction. One reason for this week’s choice of topic is recently reading a novel (The Shipping News) with a rather nasty woman in its cast. Also on my mind is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is among the Trump administration cabinet members almost as awful as Trump himself — which is saying something.

(Heck, just a few of billionaire Betsy’s evil stances include trying to financially gut America’s public-education system, her support of guns in schools, her attempt to end government funding of the Special Olympics, her weakening of protections for victims of sexual assault, her weakening of protections for transgender students, her backing of for-profit colleges that have defrauded countless students, and so on.)

While I don’t have the numbers to prove it (if they even exist), there seem to be many more male villains than female villains in literature — not surprising given the personalities of too many men. For instance, E. Annie Proulx’s compelling Accordion Crimes — which I just read — focuses on the various players of that musical instrument over many decades, and many of them are brutish males.

But there are certainly enough female villains in various novels to do a blog post about them, so here goes…

Another Proulx novel — her appealingly quirky The Shipping News — has a secondary character (Petal) who’s as mean as can be. She resumes sleeping with many men a month after marrying the book’s awkward-but-well-meaning protagonist Quoyle (even doing that in the marital home while her husband is in the next room) and then ups the depravity by sneaking off with their two young daughters AND SELLING THEM. No wonder Quoyle leaves the U.S. for Newfoundland after Petal’s early-in-the-book death…

Another fictional woman from hell is Cathy Ames of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. She abandons the children she had with the hapless Adam Trask (though there’s some question of whether the father is Adam’s half-brother Charles) and gives Adam the good-bye present of shooting him. Cathy then becomes a prostitute before opening her own brothel known for sexual sadism. Too bad she lived too long ago to become a welcomed member of Trump’s cabinet.

There’s also the emotionally distant, self-centered, daughter-abandoning Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland — though I should add right here that MANY more fathers than mothers abandon their children in fiction, and in real life.

Going back to 19th-century novels, we have Sarah Reed — the aunt of the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Sarah is abusive toward her orphaned niece when Jane comes to live in the Reed household, and she eventually ships Jane off to the hellish Lowood school after first falsely maligning her character to the despicable religious hypocrite of a director there (who’s a male — the wealthy Mr. Brocklehurst).

There’s also the criminal Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’ 1866 novel Armadale. But like a number of “villainesses” in literature, the brainy Lydia has some good in her. We’re left with the certainty that if life had given her some breaks, she would have become a much better person.

Returning to 20th-century literature, we have The Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (there might have been a movie version of that novel 🙂 ), the cruel/amoral social climber Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, the tyrannically passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the sadistic/psychotic/author-capturing Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, the tries-to-wreck-the-lives-of-her-friends Zenia in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, the very problematic Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels, and the fake-sweet-on-the-outside-but-sadistic-to-the-core Dolores Umbridge (pictured atop this blog post) in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Who are some of your “favorite” malicious female characters in literature?

My 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 my town’s mixed record as an “arts destination” — is here.

99 thoughts on “Women Written as Wicked and Warped

  1. Gouri in The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri was not a typical villain but to some of us she was.
    Widow at an young age in Calcutta , India and pregnant she went for America to be with her late Husband Udayan`s `s brother Subhash to pursue her own interest in graduate studies. Married Subhash before her child Bela was born.
    Then when Bela was five she left the house with no forwarding address Subhash came home to see Bela all alone. Bela grew up knowing Subhash was her father.
    What kind of Mother does that to her child ?
    A villainous one.

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    • Thank you, bebe! Yes, that character was not a typical villain but certainly did some very unfortunate things. Excellent summary of her and the book.

      “The Lowland” is a really good novel; glad you recommended I read it!

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      • Jane Austin`s Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham was a villain for sure .

        But snobbish sister of Charles Bingley Caroline Bingley was so were so jealous of Elizabeth,had designs upon Mr. Darcy, and therefore jealous of his growing attachment to Elizabeth so constantly criticized Lizzy to Darcy,. She never liked Jane as well for her brother`s liking of her.
        But was not successful.

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        • Thank you, bebe, for those villainous references to “Pride and Prejudice”! A lot of interesting dynamics in that novel involving “good” and not-so-“good” characters.

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  2. Well, first off there’s Lilith, the Medusa, Lady Macbeth, and there are more aplenty out of the fabled past, mostly distinguished by being either royalty or demigods, which is my real point:

    There are wicked women in literature, but fewer than there are men, I’m guessing, because throughout world history and its contemporary entertainments, most power has resided in the persons of men, with the exception of royalty or demigods.

    My entry is one about which I am guilty– She, the major character of H. Ryder Haggars’s fabulous tale titled, unsurprisingly, “She”, herself both royalty and a self-made demigod. She has lived for many centuries, can kill with a touch, and occasionally does so, while ruling with a mighty hand over an enslaved people residing in the ancient remains of a vast, now vanished civilization, before being undone by love and nostalgia and/or fate.

    My guilt stems from the fact that, I have never sent you, Dave, my paperback of this thang– though to be fair to myself, I thought I had– but only last week, I spotted the book and another I meant to send along, in a small pile in a corner. Mea culpa. My apologies. Also: sorry!

    Very soon, I will pack ’em up, and mail them off. But I regret that you have gone without the benefit of this fine example of your topic for the week…

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    • Thank you, jhNY, for the mentions of, and interesting thoughts about, wicked women in literature! Yes, there are most likely fewer female than male villains in fiction, but some memorable female ones nonetheless.

      I know you’ve mentioned “She” before, and it does sound like an incredible book (that my local library stubbornly refuses to stock; I’ve checked several times). I greatly look forward to reading it, and of course will return it when I’m done. Last but not least, no apologies necessary. 🙂

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  3. OK, Dave, I’m getting ready to sign off this column for one (or two) day(s), which was fascinating, but I’ve got a tendency to get lost in your and everyone’s comments here. What a joy it is to have this wonderful blog and the many commenters who seem to be my friends! I’m procrastinating on getting my home ready for my mini-reunion with my grade school girl friends and neighbors in mid-May. I love them all, especially for being caring, funny, and very smart, individuals!

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Glad you’re continuing to enjoy the blog! I am, too. 🙂

      Seems like your mini-reunion is just a couple weeks away? Exciting! And great to have stayed in touch with various (impressive) people since grade school!

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      • So, I was going to sign off for a few days, and here I am back again! My girlfriends are coming on the 15th and no one will stay for long, except my best friend who will stay a little bit longer. I was very fortunate to grow up in a development with lots of young kids my age, according to one of my friends, there were 12 of us girls and 12 boys that grew up here. In addition, most of went to the same swim club, scouting troops, etc, but most importantly, we all liked to read books! Not only I was I surrounded by booklovers from my friends, but my family as well.

        What a great environment to grow up in and appreciate books and many other things as well! So I guess I better get back to cleaning!

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  4. A perfect photo for this post! Boy I sure have a strong loathing for Umbridge! How did you like Accordion Crimes? 🙂 I agree – there are a lot of brutish men in that book. As for female villains, for some reason that vile daughter from “Mildred Pierce” popped into my head haha. It’s been so long since I’ve read the book or seen the movie, I’m surprised that was my first thought! 🙂 And of course, as previous posters have mentioned, there are female villains aplenty in Jane Austen novels, which, she is one of my favorite authors too 🙂

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    • Thank you, M.B.! I agree about the photo — happy to have found it. 🙂 Even bonus villains (male and female) in the background!

      “Accordion Crimes”? Extremely well written, and I was very impressed with how E. Annie Proulx kept creating new sets of characters, showed the immigrant experience, etc. But very depressing to read with those brutish men and all the hatred and prejudice depicted.

      And thanks for the mention of “Mildred Pierce,” which I should read one day!

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          • M.B. and Dave, I had to have a giggle about “The Accordion Crimes.” If I’m going to watch any TV during the day, it is of the late show comedian shows such as Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, and the Daily Show. My most favorite show is The Rachel Maddow Show, which isn’t a comedian show, but she makes me laugh as well as informing me. I have the TV on most of the day set on MSNBC, to catch all of the news that day, but I don’t listen to it religiously, but just as background as I go about my daily rituals. However, this means I have to cede my evening viewing to whatever Bill wants to watch, so on Saturday nights we have to watch old reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show on public stations; however, I do think that the accordion player, Myron Floren, who has been there forever, is extremely talented especially playing the keyboard part. even if I don’t like all of his many songs! 🙂

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                • Kat Lit, “Accordion Crimes” is definitely an odd title for a novel, but it certainly fits the book!

                  I’m not a TV watcher, but sometimes see clips from the programs you mentioned on YouTube. You have good taste in shows. 🙂 (As I might have mentioned before, Stephen Colbert lives in my town.)

                  I have a vague memory of my parents watching Lawrence Welk, but I’m not sure…

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    • Veda! Interestingly, at least a little— James M. Caine’s mother was a professional singer, and James was trained up to be one too, mostly by his mother– before she informed him he didn’t really have what it took to succeed.

      Thank goodness! He’s one of the very best of the hard-boiled school, without whom we would have no “Mildred Pierce”, no “Double Indemnity”, and no “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Otherwise, he might have spent his days vocalizing scales instead of hunkered at the typewriter.

      Caine also wrote a short novel featuring an operatically-trained singer titled “Serenade”, in which he draws heavily from his own singing background.

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      • Thank you, jhNY! You and M.B. have convinced me that I need to finally read James M. Cain. Will look for “Mildred Pierce” or “Double Indemnity” or “The Postman Always Rings Twice” during my next library trip.

        Cain sounds like he had quite an interesting background — music, journalism (from what I just read in Wikipedia), etc.

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      • You seem quite well-rounded on this subject! 🙂 And I do find that very interesting, those other directions in life that probably felt like an awful failure at the time, and here they resulted in some amazing stories 🙂 I need to read some of his other stuff – especially with how much I enjoyed both Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity.

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  5. Dave you are talking about billionaire Betsy’s evil stances with no common sense and does not care a bit. There are some more in real life as well.
    You child is going to grow up soon and the scandals of rich and not so famous C grade actor with millions. Lori Loughlin and husband and several more bought their offspring`s prestigious schools. entrance iwhich includes cheating SAT exams and what not.
    What shocks me this woman pleading not guilty parading around with a smile .
    All these wealthy individuals have denied excellent students their chance to enroll in such colleges.

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    • Great points, bebe! Yes, Betsy DeVos is not alone in real life in doing some very bad things. And you’re absolutely right that rich white parents (female and male) who game the college-admission system are taking spots away from deserving students. Also, whatever punishment some of those parents get, it won’t be as much as if they were lower-income people committing (or not committing) lesser crimes.

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      • Male ?
        How about trumps personal adviser Mr. Jared Kushner master of no trade, …I understand he went to Harvard with his corrupt swindler of a Father`s money.

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          • My Ava. Nance Neshanian , one of my best friend from Nashville,a staunch liberal passed 9th April at 95. Picture was perhaps when she was in late 50`s. Even last year she played golf and did her own grocery.
            I am celebrating her wonderful life ❤

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              • Nance was born in 1923, her Father moved to NY from Armenia .
                She used to tell me people in her neighborhood they addressed her as ” that foreign girl”.
                I met her She was at Dillard around 2001 where she was working. We became instant friends, Nance would not tolerate any workers treat particularly any Muslim women unfairly , eventually She was let go,
                Then she was at Kroger. before all that she was a world traveler, with different friends,

                She lived with her Son or vice versa in Nashville , She had so many friends who were frequent visitors.
                Her Son mailed me her amazing photograph.from 1981 .
                She was the manager then at the gift shop at Sheraton Hotel.

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  6. Thanks for the lovely discussion on female villains!

    A question: you mention George Eliot at the top of your post, and I’ve been waffling for a while about her use of “villains” (male and female). Sometimes I think her stories have them and sometimes I don’t. She’s so good at writing nuanced characters it’s hard to think of them as truly evil even if they have evil traits.

    So what would you do with a character like Rosamund Vincy from “Middlemarch?” Villain or complicated and human?

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    • Thank you, Nimbus of a Writer! And a great question! I would consider Ms. Vincy “complicated and human” (and vain and shallow and status-conscious) rather than a villain.

      You’re absolutely right that George Eliot (one of my very favorite novelists) wrote such nuanced characters that it’s hard to think of any who are truly evil — especially among her amazing female creations. Gwendolen Harleth of “Daniel Deronda” has some Vincy-like qualities, though she’s smarter and more capable of evolving. Of Eliot’s male characters, perhaps the secondary one of the friend who badly betrayed Silas Marner might be the closest to being evil, and Tom Tulliver of “The Mill on the Floss” is one of Eliot’s least appealing male characters with bigger roles.

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  7. Hi Dave,

    I’m pretty sure “Wizard of Oz” was made into a movie. I know this because a friend of mine posted to Facebook that she was showing it to her son for the first time. I can’t remember what I commented, but she replied with something like what a shame it’s not a book, because then I would have liked it even more. I of course told her to google L. Frank Baum.

    I’m not sure why you’d be reluctant to talk about this topic as I think it’s good fun! And if the ladies are equal to men, then they have to be equal in everything right?

    Once again, I got near the bottom of your post before you mentioned the first person who come to mind. And I must apologise for being a bit one track at the moment, but OMG Cersei! I like her character in the first book, but she is much better in the show. I can’t believe how close we are to the end of the story, and still have no idea what’s going to happen. I hate Cersei so much that I hope she dies horribly. I love her so much that I want her to beat everybody. Definitely a fitting character for this week! Actually, LD Parker’s comments have me a little worried. I wonder what my reactions to most of the “GoT” characters says about me!

    A few people have mentioned Stephen King which got me thinking about the mum in “Carrie”. With how twisted that woman was, it’s no surprise that her daughter went a bit Carrie at the prom!

    Speaking of witches reminded me of Narnia. There was something a little mesmerising about the character in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. I’d hate to think how easily I would been sucked in by her if she also offered me free chocolate!

    Lastly, Dolores Umbridge is of course awful, but if we’re talking “Harry Potter” then I think Bellatrix Lestrange was more fun as a villain. And so perfectly portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter in the adaptation.

    PS. I’m glad you liked “The Shipping New” 🙂

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    • Thank you, Sue! LOL — “The Wizard of Oz” does sound familiar as a movie. 🙂 Emerald slippers and Ruby City, or maybe vice versa. 🙂 And, yes, it’s interesting that some films are so famous that some people don’t realize that some of them are based on novels.

      If Cersei is even more shocking and interesting in the “Game of Thrones” TV series than in the books, I’m impressed!

      Yes, a rather problematic mother in Stephen King’s first novel.

      There are good witches and bad witches, to paraphrase that line in “The Wizard of Oz” (mentioned again). And I agree that Bellatrix Estrange is an amazing/charismatic villain in the “Harry Potter” books. There’s also Harry’s mostly not-admirable Aunt Petunia in the Muggle part of that world. But I opted in my post to just go with one female villain from J.K. Rowling’s series. 🙂

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  8. What’s most interesting about your list is that the Wicked Witch of the West is portrayed by someone who’s not at all wicked herself, at least as portrayed by the actress who starred in the Broadway show I saw at least ten years ago. My biggest complaint about the show was that I had problems seeing the colors in the make-up and costumes. I was just about a week or two away from having cataract surgery on both eyes. What a difference that can make to vision. I loved the music, but feel like I missed something by not being able to see the entire show.

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    • That’s a really good point, Kat Lit. Very nice people can play evil characters. I’ve also heard that Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the iconic 1939 “Wizard of Oz” film, was a kind person and very friendly toward Judy Garland — Dorothy in the movie, of course.

      A shame you couldn’t enjoy that Broadway show more.

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      • Hi, I just wanted to point out that the Wicked Witch of the West in the Broadway show (“Wicked”) wasn’t at all wicked in the way she was portrayed in the book and movie as we remember her by. I assume that was also true of the novel based upon the story (which I admit I haven’t read), but I hope nobody saw my characterization of her that way at all, as she was portrayed as very sympathetic in that role. The best song of the show was towards the ending, in which the two witches sing a duet “For Good” which is probably the best duet I’ve ever seen for two main characters in any Broadway show I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a lot!).

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        • Oh, I see, Kat Lit. Thanks for clarifying that. Broadway shows based on properties from other media can certainly adjust some things — like the current “To Kill a Mockingbird” play being somewhat different from the Harper Lee novel and “TKAM” movie.

          That duet sounds like it was amazing!

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          • Yes, it was and I’m hoping that one of my girlfriends is going to be coming up here in mid-May that can help me with what seems to me as very problematical problems! I do know what I think isn’t true at all, but I’m stuck in a time warp that I don’t seem to get out of! That was just pathetic, wasn’t it!

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              • Thanks, Dave. I was referring to my laptop and printer which are fairly new and some days I’m ready to throw them both out of the picture window in my bedroom. I restrain myself by knowing that any newer models of each would be even more difficult to figure out (and here I thought that all of the new technology would make our lives simpler than before – ha!). I’m starting to go back to requesting paper statements!

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                • Technology is indeed a double-edged sword, Kat Lit. Wonderful (for instance, this blog wouldn’t exist without it 🙂 ) and frustrating (for instance, what you just described).

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                  • Yes, Dave, you are quite correct in saying that technology is a double-edged sword. I’d still prefer to think about the Sword of Damocles as something that exists in mythology, but there are many things that can be referenced here!

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  9. Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations” comes to mind. Spoiler alert on Petal in shipping news. She meets her demise earlier in the novel. She had her addictions, she wanted her own life, that was more important that being a mother to her two young daughters. Quoyle had a big heart, was a kind bear of a man. He was destined to be both mother and father, this drew him closer to his daughters, they needed each other even more. I did not have anger toward Petal because her fate was sealed in life. She did not have control over the way she was in my opinion. I did not find her evil rather had mental health problems which caused her to live a life of danger, her end game reflecting this type of life that catches up to all of us at some point.

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    • Thank you, Michele!

      Yes, the reclusive, embittered Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations.”

      I see your point that Petal might have had mental-health issues in “The Shipping News.” I suppose anyone who acts that way has some psychological problems. In that sense she might not have been inherently evil, as you say, but she sure did some evil things.

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  10. Miss Havisham in Dicken’s “Great Expectations” comes to mind. Spoiler alert on Petal in “Shipping News.” She meets her demise in the book so I was not as angry with her as you were. It was destined that Quoyle was destined to be his daughter’s mother and father for many years till he found love again, real love. He had a big heart. Petal was a troubled woman. Despite being the mother of two innocent girls, she was not capable to be their mother. She wanted her own life and adventures and had her addictions. Quoyle was an endearing, brave man, even more so because of what he and his daughter’s went through with their mother Petal. This brought them even closer and was important in the story line of an excellent novel.

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  11. Howdy, Dave!

    — Who are some of your “favorite” malicious female characters in literature? —

    As similar in their devilish maliciousness as they are different in their infernal methodologies, Therese Defarge in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and Rebecca Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” are a couple of dames I would cross the street — and all the oceans of the world — to avoid.

    Nice dolls may finish last, but neither Lucie Manette nor Amelia Sedley ever gave me nightmares, which is definitely something I could not say about either Madame Defarge or Becky Sharp.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Thank you, J.J.! Two great female villain mentions, though I always sort of liked Becky Sharp (a little). She had some positives. Still, I have to admire your tremendous line “…I would cross the street — and all the oceans of the world — to avoid” those characters. 🙂

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      • — Two great female villain mentions, though I always sort of liked Becky Sharp (a little). —

        Everybody does! Which is what makes Becky among the most insidious female characters in all of English-language literature.

        — She had some positives. —

        All false . . .

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        • Ha, J.J.! You have a point there. One of the things that makes for great villains in literature is not just being cardboard cutouts of villainy; they have at least an appealing element or two, whether false or genuine. Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” is among the memorable examples of that.

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  12. Dave, you mentioned Jane Austen, so of course I needed to think about her many loathsome female characters in her novels, e.g., Aunt Norris in “Mansfield Park,” Fanny Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility,” Lady Catherine de Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice,” Mrs. Elton in “Emma,” etc. Many of her female characters are just insipid or misguided, rather than evil, but there’s a fine line between all of them, e.g, Mary Crawford, Bingley’s sister, Anne Elliot’s two sisters, Catherine Morland’s friend who wanted to get her hands on the money she thought was there, etc. OK, so I think I hit all of Austen’s novels!

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit, for that TERRIFIC summary of Jane Austen’s female villains! They were often somewhat subtle in their villainy — not exactly Annie Wilkes of Stephen King’s “Misery” 🙂 — but still quite nasty in their way. Even the “heroine” title character in Emma was not very nice when she meddled with Harriet’s love life.

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      • Yes, I’ll agree with you about “Emma,” where I think Austen wrote that her heroine would not be liked much by anyone but her. I suppose that’s one reason I liked her so much, because she wasn’t loved as much as other heroines. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but as I’ve read both novels many times, as well as seeing many productions of each novel, I had a special village and friendship of them all!

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        • I hear you, Kat Lit. Emma Woodhouse’s flaws made her more human, and that can be very relatable.

          But, as we’ve discussed before, there are several Austen novels I like better — though “Emma” is of course very well worth reading. 🙂

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          • I think Emma was a very flawed character in many ways, but she also was a dutiful daughter, aunt and friend to Mrs. Weston and Mr. Weston for that matter. Her most flaws centered around her trying to be a matchmaker for the rest of the inhabitants who lived in her village, which was not evil, but misguided on her part. She also was rather snobbish and off-putting in her dealings with the Bates ( Mrs. and Miss), Harriet Smith, and even Jane Fairfax.

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    • Thank you, Tanya! She was definitely portrayed as evil in “Jane Eyre,” with little sympathy for her anger and mental illness. Jean Rhys created a much more nuanced, sympathetic version of Bertha in her “Jane Eyre” prequel “Wide Sargasso Sea” — which made me (and many other readers) look at Charlotte Bronte’s novel with a somewhat different eye. Still, the rest of “Jane Eyre” is so great that it’s still my favorite novel ever. 🙂

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  13. Dolores Umbridge is one of the most loathsome villains in all of literature, in my opinion!

    There are several female villains in Jacqueline Carey’s excellent if *very* racy Kushiel series. It’s a great series full of complex female characters, but it does (I think unconsciously) follow the trope that good women are (sexually) submissive, while (sexually) dominant women are bad.

    As for Betsy DeVos, she’s pretty bad, but I notice that she seems to be the focus of a lot of lock-her-up ire that for example her brother, who actually founded a mercenary company, seems to be largely exempt from.

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    • Thank you, Elena! I totally agree about Dolores Umbridge. So loathsome and creepy. In the movie version, too — Imelda Staunton was absolutely amazing in the role.

      And, yes, unfortunately often a lot of sexism and double standards in the depiction of female villains.

      And great point about Betsy DeVos vs. her brother Erik Prince — a disgusting excuse for a human being who would be in jail if he wasn’t a rich, white, far-right man.

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      • I really dislike both DeVos and Prince, but I’d say DeVos is in some ways the better villain from a literary point of view because her villainy is so petty and human. Whereas Prince seems almost like a cartoon character or something.

        Someone I thought about mentioning earlier is Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park. She’s not exactly a villain, but not exactly good either—just annoying! And of course there’s Mrs. Norris the cat in the Harry Potter books, who slinks around spying on the students.

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        • A very good point, Elena. Prince seems to have no nuance; he’s a despicable man getting even richer than he already is via war, death, and misery. DeVos doesn’t seem as sure of herself, though she’s also evil (in the educational sphere).

          Mrs. Norris is indeed VERY annoying, and I love the way J.K. Rowling named a problematic cat after her! (I love cats; I have one, and I’m glad he’s a really nice cat. 🙂 )

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          • I love cats too! I have a matched pair of sisters who are nothing like Mrs. Norris. They also have literary names, though: they originally belonged to my grandmother, who was a Mrs. Fitzgerald. She named them Zelda and Ella Fitzgerald :).

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            • LOVE that pair of cat names!

              My feline has the more pedestrian name of Misty; my younger daughter named him for his fog-like gray coloring. (Speaking of pedestrian, I take Misty for an outside walk on a leash every morning — though “walk” is not quite the word, more like “chaos.” 🙂 He enjoys it a lot.)

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                • Nice, Elena! Perhaps the ideal solution!

                  I live in a garden apartment complex, so there are no boundaries (for a cat, anyway). Lots of space for Misty, but I pull him back when he tries to leave the complex.

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                  • Yeah, that is one of the downsides of apartments. I ended up getting a house on a kind of micro-lot with the explicit intention of letting my animals play out in the tiny yard. Before I put the cat fencing in, I would take Zelda out on a leash and she would explore the yard and lounge in the sun with me. Ella never really took to the leash at all, and would just throw herself down on the ground and roll around until I carried her back inside 🙂

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                    • Great that you got a house with your pets in mind!

                      Ha! Cats have such different personalities! 🙂 Way back when, I had two cats in a New York City apartment who never went outside. Then I bought a house in New Jersey with a fenced backyard, and opened the back door for the cats to go out after basically 10 years of being inside except for vet visits. One cat enjoyed being outside in her senior years, while the other would not leave the house — ever.

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  14. I loved ‘The Shipping News,” Dave. I hate to admit that it is the only novel I’ve read by Annie Proulx. I think I’ve been afraid to break the ‘magic spell’ she held over me when I read her finest work. I’ve just read Raold Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” to my grandsons and Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge are two villainous characters. They made James, the orphan, sleep on the floor, beat him for no reason, fed him poorly, and emotionally abused him. Of course he triumphed in the end, but what a lot he endured to get there!

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    • Thank you, Molly! “The Shipping News” was also the first Annie Proulx novel I read (quickly followed by “Accordion Crimes”). “TSN” is a very original, very absorbing book — definitely deserving of its 1994 Pulitzer. And a great mention of those “James and the Giant Peach” villains!

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  15. Good topic, and I must say that ole Betsy is a wonderful example of a real life villain, although I suspect that she’s more of the “puppet” variety. I’m sure that I’ve read quite a few mysteries where a woman turns out to be the killer, but I can’t think of specific examples. In Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” I was surprised when the seemingly friendly and helpful Mrs. Castevets turns out to be one of the satanists behind the whole plan of taking the baby!

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    • Thank you, Becky! Very true that someone like Betsy DeVos, also like many male reactionaries in today’s Republican Party, has a puppet aspect to her. She certainly comes off as no great intellect in congressional hearings and other forums.

      I’ve never read “Rosemary’s Baby,” but that sounds like quite a villain! It can be fascinating when a character seems nice but turns out to be evil. Given stereotypes about women, perhaps that’s more surprising to many readers in the case of female characters.

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  16. I think villains in general, when done right, can be the most interesting since I think a good villain should believe themselves the “white hat” in their own mind, whether that is delusional or not. Personally, I prefer complex characters that are shades of grey, much like in real life.

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    • Thank you, L.D.! Villains are indeed often more interesting than admirable characters, and it’s a great point that a number of villains have a rather high opinion of themselves. Also, I agree that complex characters — not all good, not all bad — are more realistic and compelling to read about. Of the characters I mentioned in my blog post, Lydia Gwilt probably comes closest to being that kind of complicated person.

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      • I agree! In my novel, my titular character got a lot of mixed results from beta readers but in the end I was proud that I think I captured all the subtle nuances of the character, both good and bad. Also, a lot of this is a matter of perspective. I found the character a bit of a Rorschach test in that how readers viewed her told me a lot about them!

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        • Congratulations on creating that kind of title character! When a protagonist has a negative side, it’s hard to please all readers with her or him. 🙂 And you’re right that how readers react to a character says a lot about the readers. An interesting alchemy, as what the author thinks of a character morphs into what readers think of that character!

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  17. I haven’t read all of the nasty-women novels you mentioned, but it sounds like a great List of Evil Women. However, the most evil female character in any novel I’ve ever read was in Ben Ames Williams’ “Leave Her to Heaven.” I was so bewitched by her unbelievable actions that I actually remembered the author’s name without checking, as the novel was discovered on my mother’s bed table by a very young, too-curious-for-your-own-good me. I read pages at a time, re-placing the book so my mother wouldn’t know, then returning ASAP after school (no Betsy DeVoss in those days) and mom was otherwise occupied with starting supper. The character, Ellen, was a beautiful woman, who had idolized her late father way beyond anything normal. She meets and marries a man who reminds her of her father, and obsesses over him to the point of killing his crippled young brother, he adores, and leaping down the stairs while pregnant with his child, to kill it before he can love the baby more than he loves her. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was way more interesting than Moby Dick, which was our school assignment. Ultimately, I gave myself away because I simply had to ask my mother what she thought of Ellen’s jealousy. I’ll never forget that character as long as I live, because she got me into so much trouble.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, thepatterer, for that vivid/often hilariously written description of “Leave Her to Heaven” and its effect on your life as a young reader. The character of Ellen sounds like a real “femme fatale,” and if she was more interesting than Captain Ahab, well, it sounds like she earned that designation. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • I’m only familiar with the movie version of “Leave Her to Heaven”. The character of Ellen, played chillingly by Gene Tierney, is surely one of the most evil in movie history.

      Liked by 3 people

        • “Double Indemnity” was perfection. Barbara Stanwyck was in a lot of film noir, my favorite of which was “Clash by Night”.
          Dave, somehow I ended up liking my own comment! Is that something you’re able to fix?

          Liked by 1 person

          • “Double Indemnity” IS quite a movie, Pat, and Barbara Stanwyck was quite an actress. I’ve never seen “Clash by Night.”

            I’ve also sometimes liked my own comments by mistake. Unfortunately, I can’t “unlike” someone else’s “like.” But your comment was worth liking, and your comment directly above proves you didn’t “like” your previous comment deliberately. 🙂

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