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.