Enemies As Engines of Engrossing Fiction

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about memorable friendships in literature. Now I’ll get less “warm and fuzzy” and discuss…enemies in literature!

Reading about adversaries is hardly pleasant, but well worth the time. The dramatic possibilities are endless, as are the questions: Who’s right and who’s wrong? Are both parties hostile or is one person doing most of the hating? Will the relationship improve or go even more downhill? Will someone get hurt (psychologically or physically)? If righteous revenge comes into play, how viscerally satisfying is that? (Very satisfying, as the many fans of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo will tell you.)

Enemies of course appear in both modern and classic literature as well as in both literary and popular fiction. In the last category, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason features two friends who go on a wilderness trip that sees one of them turn on the other. Some of what happens next is too graphic to describe here.

Another intense work is The Hunger Games, in which young people forced into a state-sanctioned contest of death become each others’ enemies to try to survive. Also not pals in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy are Katniss Everdeen and Panem President Coriolanus Snow, and ultimately Katniss and District 13 President Alma Coin.

Adversaries abound, too, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books — most notably the villainous Voldemort vs. the heroic Harry. Also, Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is seething with small-town foes.

Or how about Taliban psychopath Assef vs. the flawed but basically good Amir in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner?

Obviously, adversarial pairs don’t have to consist of one bad person and one good person. Enemies can both be likable or both be unlikable. For instance, one wouldn’t want to go near either “The kid” or Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And cousins Phillip Boyce and Norman Urquhart are both unappealing in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, though one ends up being far worse than the other.

Indeed, friends can become enemies (Philip and Norman seemingly had a congenial relationship at one point) and enemies can become friends — or at least somewhat friendly. One example of the latter happens with two pivotal characters in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; to avoid a plot spoiler, I won’t give their names here!

And enemies aren’t always a one-on-one proposition, as exemplified by Zenia trying to wreck the lives of three women in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride.

In fact, a whole state apparatus can be the enemy of almost an entire populace, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the aforementioned The Hunger Games.

Moving to older literature, there is of course the police inspector Javert who obsessively hounds Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Another authority figure, the physically strong Capt. Wolf Larsen of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, treats the initially soft Humphrey van Weyden viciously much of the time before their fraught relationship turns into something more equal.

Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons features the spoiled/selfish George Amberson Minafer, who makes himself a foe of Eugene Morgan by interfering with the love that likable widower has with George’s also-widowed mother Isabel. Complicating matters is George being in love with Eugene’s daughter Lucy.

Yes, the enemy thing can get very messy when it involves family. I think of Janie Crawford, who begins to hate her prominent husband Jody Starks after he treats her so nastily and patronizingly in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; and Dorothea Brooke, who realizes her husband — the Rev. Edward Causabon — is an ice-cold, unfeeling excuse for a human being in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

In the child-parent realm, Dmitri loathes his vile father in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and John Grimes fears and dislikes his overbearing/hypocritical dad in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain.

Sibling relationships gone bad are also a staple of many fictional works, as when a character poisons the drink of her sister in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Who are some of your “favorite” foes in literature?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, among others.