How Some Protagonists Respond to Provocation

White House occupant Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of a perfectly good nuclear agreement with Iran — an agreement Iran was honoring — and followed that up with intense economic pressure and military threats. So naturally Iran started to push back, though the almost-always-lying Trump administration is surely exaggerating the extent of that.

This reminded me of a number of scenarios in literature where a character is unfairly provoked to the point of she or he retaliating. Sometimes the retaliation is effective (providing readers with satisfying wish fulfillment); other times the retaliating party suffers (which frustrates readers even as that suffering scenario can often be more realistic).

One of the most famous provoked-to-retaliate novels is Billy Budd, in which the popular-among-his-fellow-sailors protagonist is badgered by the envious, nasty John Claggart. After Claggart falsely accuses Herman Melville’s kindly title character of trying to incite mutiny, a shocked Billy strikes John with no premeditation and accidentally kills him. But we don’t get a happy ending after that. (A photo from the Billy Budd movie is above.)

In modern fiction, we have Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Wrongly declared legally incompetent as a child, her appointed guardian Nils Bjurman sexually abuses her. Eventually, Lisbeth ruthlessly revenges herself on the sadistic Bjurman without killing him but in a way that deservedly ruins his life.

Sometimes in literature, abusive or otherwise despicable men ARE justly killed. That’s the case with the Karamazov father in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Ruth’s husband Frank Bennett in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. (If you feel it’s weird to put those two novels in the same sentence, Flagg’s sprawling book is quite deep amid its entertaining aspects.)

Perhaps the greatest revenge novel of all is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which a false accusation puts young Edmond Dantes into a remote island prison for many years. After escaping, he dedicates his life to some epic payback.

Then there’s Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, in which Jessie Burlingame is treated shabbily by her husband before and during a sexual game he wants to play more than she does. Jessie, partly spurred by subconscious memories of also being abused by her father, kicks Gerald away and inadvertently gives him a fatal heart attack. The ensuing problem? Jessie is handcuffed to the bed, now alone in a remote lakeside house.

And various scenarios in various Jack Reacher novels have Jack minding his own business before being surrounded by a group of bad guys who feel they greatly outnumber Lee Child’s protagonist enough to give him a pounding. Reacher, who almost always welcomes the challenge, invariably wins convincingly.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

One final note: Iran is hardly an exemplary democracy, but neither is the U.S. under Trump and his cynical enablers in the Republican-controlled Senate, right-wing media, conservative corporate circles, and right-wing religious circles.

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a middle-school controversy and an endangered 1890s mansion — is here.

34 thoughts on “How Some Protagonists Respond to Provocation

  1. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord. Many in literature and life, it would seem, are afflicted with the god complex.

    Sorry to have been absent. I’ve been busy banging my head on politics on another site.

    Othello comes to mind as pertinent to the week’s topic. He was almost too good a listener when Iago was talking, yet never quite heard the undertones. Seeking to avenge imagined dishonor, Othello killed his innocent beloved Desdemona. Not all reactions to provocation are good ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! You’re absolutely right that some reactions to provocations can be misdirected and disastrous. “Othello” is a great example of that.

      Sounds like the “banging [your] head on politics on another site” might have been partly un-fun. It’s certainly hard to change anyone’s mind; usually the most one can hope for is a relatively civil conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Having kept away from such activity since the demise of the Huffington Post as a site for anonymous readerly comment, I succumbed at last to temptation but a couple short weeks ago…

        Reaping the whirlwind all right, but at least it keeps the hair out of my face.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ha! (Your whirlwind quip.) Yes, those kinds of conversations can get rather heated, especially these days. I can imagine what the Huffington Post would be like in 2019 if it had thousands and thousands of comments like it did 7, 8, 9 years ago. I get into some intense political debates on Facebook, but thankfully only once in a while.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your favorite novels that fit this topic? —

    If living well is the best revenge — as asserted in the famous proverb collected in George Herbert’s “Jacula Prudentum” — then the relationship between the amoral but legal (and generally provocative) Javert and the illegal but moral (and generally unprovocative) Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” appears to have worked out as it should have in any rational multiverse.

    May it ever be so.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J.! That’s a great example of this topic — and your comment is very elegantly expressed! “Les Miserables” is a classic novel that richly deserves to be a classic novel.


    • “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” has also seen employment as the title of a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, who were themselves the models on which Dick Diver and his wife were based in Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave,
    to fill a large hole in my reading, Agatha Christie’s “Curtain” fills the bill. the back-story is as compelling as the novel. one of two (1 @ Poirot, Miss Marple) she wrote at the outset of WWII, already planned as her last for each major character, suspecting she might not survive the war. when ’45 rolled around, still alive, she put them in a vault for the appropriate time. she saw the “Curtain” into publication. it fell to her well-managed estate to see her Miss Marple finale in print. as to the well-deserved “response to provocation”, in Curtain the clue is in discussions between Poirot and Capt Hastings.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Marty! Great/informative description of one of the most fascinating elements of Agatha Christie’s fascinating career! I wonder how many other authors wrote a finale like that several decades before it was published…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This post kind of makes me think of Shawshank Redemption (or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, in its novella form). Andy Dufresne is falsely accused of the murder of his wife. He is put in the middle of a violent and corrupt prison system. He is abused by the other prisoners at first. He is pushed and pushed, and his only way out of the mess is to enable and even engineer the corruption, although in the process, he helps prisoners get educated – which raises a lot of powerful questions about actions vs. morals. If you are doing something “bad” but to achieve good goals (the robin hood way of looking at it), is it truly a bad thing? A question on its own which I’m probably not equipped to answer! Anyway, Dufresnes eventually gets his due… as does the corrupt warden! One of my favorite Stephen King stories, and one of my favorite films as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! I somehow haven’t read “Shawshank Redemption” or seen the movie, but it sounds like a great example of this topic! And, yes, doing something “bad” to achieve a good goal is a complicated question. I guess civil disobedience is essentially that. I tend to favor doing something “bad” to achieve a good goal, because unfortunately there are and have been some atrocious “legal” things (slavery, Jim Crow, not allowing women to vote, laws against same-gender relationships, etc.).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, exactly! Without the “rule breakers,” there wouldn’t have been the sweeping changes that have come, which Shawshank and many other books point out so well. And goodness knows there’s still work to be done when it comes to sweeping change. I’m terribly sorry for the spoilers I kind of put in there for Shawshank, by the way! 😦 I’m sure you would still enjoy it, and I don’t think I gave anything too crucial away!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I think there are many novels, especially thrillers, that meet the criteria for this column. As I said before, I’ve stopped reading Linda Fairstein, because she was the first to prosecute the Central Park Five (along with Donald Trump, who wanted them all to get the death penalty!) I heard this morning that they all got a standing ovation at the BET awards last night. It’s about time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! I agree that many thrillers have provocation/retaliation elements. As you know, that almost defines the genre. 🙂

      Wonderful that the innocent “Central Park Five” got a standing ovation! They went through so much. And, as I’ve said before, shunning Linda Fairstein’s work is also fine with me. What she did to those five young men, and her never apologizing, is unforgivable.


  6. Dave what a great topic.
    I never paid attention to trump before he won election. I later thought that he was always against Iraq invasion and I was wrong. In another place I was corrected by so many that once he was for invasion then went against to score a point or two.
    Whatever he did now was also somehow pre-planned , to score a point for upcoming `20 election.
    Hope someone out there would beat him .
    Bell Maher ih HBO suggested only one person could and that one is Oprah, perhaps Maher has a point there, but She is not running.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Yet another example of everything the Trump administration is doing wrong! Although examples of such behavior abound in literature, I’m having hard time coming up with concrete examples right now—although I think there’s plenty of that behavior in the Harry Potter books. In fact, I think that Harry’s father and his cronies engage in a little of that towards Snape.

    And there’s also a gut-wrenching scene in Zakhar Prilepin’s “The Monastery” (not translated yet into English) in which the main character, a prisoner in the first Gulag camp, is locked up with a bunch of former guards who are under investigation. He spends all his time taunting them about how they are about to be executed, until in the end he’s the only survivor.

    Speaking of Iran, the Iranian-American author Porochista Khakhpour has been posting on social media about how heartbreaking she finds the situation. With the large and active Iranian-American community here, we can probably expect people to speak out about what is happening. It may not do anything to avert the crisis, but at least it might raise awareness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena! There are SO many examples of the Trump administration doing something wrong — and blowing up a successful agreement, against the wishes of not only Iran but various other signees, is certainly one of them. 😦 Totally understandable and unsurprising that members of the Iranian-American community would be among the people upset.

      Great mention of the “Harry Potter” books! Plenty of characters are provoked (by Voldemort and others) and eventually fight back individually or communally. Harry, Hermione, Dobby, Neville, Molly Weasley, etc. And, as you said, sometimes “good” people — such as Harry’s dad James in the series’ back story — do the provoking.

      That sounds like quite a scene in “The Monastery”!

      Liked by 1 person

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