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O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
September 23, 2008 3:11 PM   Subscribe

50 Greatest Villains In Literature
posted by fearfulsymmetry (139 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
What, no Richard III?
No Hannibal Lecter?
The shark from Jaws?
No (insert favorite villain here)?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:24 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ack, Hannibal Lecter is #14.

Four-fucking-teen? Dr. Lecter laughs at 14, and sucks the marrow from its not-quite-13 bones.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:26 PM on September 23, 2008


I know that this thread is going to be nothing but people crying "where's _____!?", but...

No Richard III?

Also, talk to me about Voldemort again twenty years from now. As a villain, I'd guess that his staying power will be about equal to that of Skeletor.

On Preview, CPB steals my thunder, making him the #1 villain on my list.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 3:27 PM on September 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


HOW, OH HOW COULD THEY HAVE LEFT OUT

oh, I dunno, Lucy Van Pelt?
posted by longsleeves at 3:28 PM on September 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


General Woundwort from Watership Down...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 3:30 PM on September 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Patrick Bateman wasn't a villain. He was a bad,bad man ... and he was the protagonist! I always thought that was what made that book so disturbing.

I also disagree with labelling Kurtz a villain.

The only redeeming part of this list is #36, The Judge - he deserves #1 in my opinion, or perhaps #2 after Hannibal Lector (also a disppointing placement).
posted by mannequito at 3:32 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Good list, mostly. Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire? Cathy Ames in East of Eden? Either would be more appropriate for this list than the goddam Joker.

Also, the fact that they picked the Commander from The Handmaid's Tale instead of his wife makes it obvious that this list was compiled by men.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 3:33 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


They've somehow decided that Claudius is in the top 10 but Richard III doesn't even make the list.

Pish.
posted by jrochest at 3:35 PM on September 23, 2008


They really should have included Frank from The Wasp Factory... but of course it's the Torygraph. Not likely to make room for a satire on a good chuck of their readership
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:36 PM on September 23, 2008


How could they have overlooked Lady Macbeth?


Villainous!
posted by SaintCynr at 3:37 PM on September 23, 2008


Hmm, couldn't they cram a few more Disney villains in there?

Yeesh.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:38 PM on September 23, 2008


Okay list, but COMPLETELY misses the point of Satan in Paradise Lost. It's not so far that God is the bad guy (you dolts) but more in that Satan isn't such the bad guy either.

Darnitall
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:40 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


The English really need to enact a law forbidding them from ranking the quality of anything related to books until at least ten years after the publication of the last Harry Potter novel.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 3:43 PM on September 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


What, no Evil Bazooka Joe?
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 3:44 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


They ranked Mrs. Coulter above The Judge.

I'm going to repeat that, because I believe it bears repeating.

They ranked Mrs. Coulter above The Judge.
posted by middleclasstool at 3:48 PM on September 23, 2008



How could they have overlooked Lady Macbeth?

Villainous!
posted by SaintCynr at 3:37 PM on September 23 [+] [!]

Also, the fact that they picked the Commander from The Handmaid's Tale instead of his wife makes it obvious that this list was compiled by men.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 3:33 PM on September 23 [+] [!]


This list definitely skews male, but maybe they didn't go for the ladies of literature because they're seeing those characters as compromised by their situations. It's kind of a revisionist take that provides a lot of great commentary... but sadly sometimes falls somewhere between not wanting to be sexist and missing the point.

Also, the Joker is definitely a great villain of literature, but the problem is you'd have to included a few more of the great villains of Comic lore (Lex Luthor won't count cause he's really the complicated hero).
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:51 PM on September 23, 2008


Clare Quilty beats out Humbert Humbert?

Moby Dick is a villian? (I understand that Ahab believes he is)

Batman is "literature"?
posted by Flunkie at 3:53 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


How much of our opinion of Cruella de Vil as a great villain is wrapped up in the movies? Has anyone ever read the book?
posted by graventy at 3:54 PM on September 23, 2008




They ranked Mrs. Coulter above The Judge.

I'm going to repeat that, because I believe it bears repeating.

They ranked Mrs. Coulter above The Judge.
posted by middleclasstool at 3:48 PM on September 23 [+] [!]


The judge sure is like Anton Chigurh. He's not evil incarnate. He's a grim reaper figure (which McCarthy seems somewhat obsessed with)

What makes Coulter's villainy so interesting is her complexity. She's torn between equal parts mother, religion, and desire. It's actually one of the more interesting representations of the staunch religious woman I've ever read/seen. So don't judge her just cause she's not a total badass.

/Total badass does not a villain make.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 3:55 PM on September 23, 2008


Huh, I always thought Humbert Humbert was the villian in Lolita.

And yes, the commander's wife was the truly frightening one in The Handmaid's Tale. I also think that the mom in East of Eden ranks up there.
posted by emd3737 at 3:57 PM on September 23, 2008


Say what you will about Iago and Richard III - they’re no Cruella de Vil. *wtf?face*

“Moby-Dick from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville”

Yeah, pretty much anything they say after that is pops and whistles. The whale is the villian there? Uh huh. Howabout Jean Valjean? He was a thief and a parole breaker y’know.

Astonished they added the Judge. Great villian. I’d argue tho’ he -is- evil incarnate. Exactly so, in fact, given the ending and his habit of catalogue and destruction. (not to take away from Coulter)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:02 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


How about Dr. James Sheppard in the Murder of Roger Ackroyd?

Or would the villain in that case be Agatha Christie?
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:05 PM on September 23, 2008


My favorite villians are the Nurse Ratchett/ Dolores Umbridge types, but you see them more in Russian lit (Bulgakov springs to mind) than English/American.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:06 PM on September 23, 2008


Lucy Butler FTW.
posted by sperose at 4:13 PM on September 23, 2008


They forgot Mrs. Moore, my ninth-grade math teacher.

Wait, what? You mean she was real?
posted by goatdog at 4:17 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


/Total badass does not a villain make.

I'm not going on badassitude. I'm going on which is the more interesting, complex, well-written, and capable of inflicting sheer horror. That's the standard for Best Villain Ever, as far as I'm concerned. I know it's useless to argue preferences, but The Judge wins on all those points. He's a character worthy of Shakespeare. To claim that Mrs. Coulter is more complex than The Judge simply because she's a conflicted villain doesn't wash for me. And I love HDM.
posted by middleclasstool at 4:18 PM on September 23, 2008


How much of our opinion of Cruella de Vil as a great villain is wrapped up in the movies? Has anyone ever read the book?

Yes, several times.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:24 PM on September 23, 2008


Yay for adding Count Fosco! I have a taste for impenetrable Victorian novels that nobody reads anymore, and I thought he would be left out for this reason.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:27 PM on September 23, 2008


I can't believe they didn't include the kidney breakfast from Ulysses.
posted by Falconetti at 4:29 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thank god Iago's one-up on Voldemort. I'd prefer he be about 60 or so up, but hey.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 4:29 PM on September 23, 2008


I'm glad they included Pinkie Brown. He's always been one of my favorites.

I missed Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky from Demons. He always seemed particularly diabolical to me.
posted by thivaia at 4:36 PM on September 23, 2008


Agreeing with all those upthread who want Richard III or Lady Macbeth in, and you can easily remove Claudius for either of those. Claudius does what, exactly? Kills his brother and marries his brother's widow shortly thereafter? While that's certainly not good, it's hardly diabolical, as villains go. And it's not Claudius's fault that Hamlet can't simply commit to taking revenge, and manages to screw everything else up by his indecision.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:38 PM on September 23, 2008


Moriarty should be much higher, probably top 10.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:38 PM on September 23, 2008


Despite having been written at least a millennium ago, Beowulf has proved enduringly influential, inspiring the 1983 film Jaws 3-D.

Heh.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:39 PM on September 23, 2008


maybe they didn't go for the ladies of literature because they're seeing those characters as compromised by their situations.


Or maybe they underestimate the evil of women, which will make them less than worthy opponents, but also means they will be dispatched more efficiently.

Shit, did I say that out loud?
posted by louche mustachio at 4:42 PM on September 23, 2008


One perspective that I think is missing here, (and maybe I just missed it), is a thing that I've found best in The Brothers Karamazov. Which is interesting, because it doesn't have such a memorable villain, perhaps. But the most frightening (and amazing) thing about Dostoevsky to me is that he works so seamlessly through the mind of a person in the process of doing something really terrible. I don't know what other people have thought reading that, but it made me consider the fact that myself and everybody I knew really were capable of anything. I never made it through Crime and Punishment, the way the characters thought was too familiar.

I can't connect to a Sauron or a Voldemort on that level, it just isn't that believable to me. I love those books, but I wouldn't rank them on the same level as characters. And even the more believable villains often have a non-humanity to them. Really great villains are the believable ones.
posted by SomeOneElse at 4:42 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm with you, Countess. "Uncle Silas" by J. Sheridan Le Fanu is one of my favorite villains.
posted by acrasis at 4:44 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, several times.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:24 PM on September 23


NERD!

N E R D!

N E R R R R R D!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:44 PM on September 23, 2008


It's nice to see some coverage of the literary gothic, but they went with flavourless Signor Montoni over Melmoth the Wanderer, and Vathek? Bah. Ambrosio, from The Monk, on the other hand, is a badass.

Also delighted to see Gormenghast and Voyage to Arcturus appearing here - two very underappreciated novels.
posted by Paragon at 4:50 PM on September 23, 2008


#1 Goofus
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:51 PM on September 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


Darnitall

Now available in caplets.

There's a good many pleasing additions, even if there are obvious omissions. Count me in as well for Lucy Van Pelt.

Also, cound me as against Voldemort. It's getting so that all you have to do is have characters refuse to name someone and people suddenly think so much of him. Really the wizarding folk's problems were of their own making; Harry seems to have forgotten that the muggle world contains a many things a good deal more deadly than a killing curse. Like automatic weapons. Volders might be protected by those Horcruxes, but his followers probably couldn't stand up to even a good tear gassing.
posted by JHarris at 4:52 PM on September 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Whatev. I've had nightmares about Voldemort, haters.
posted by Nattie at 4:54 PM on September 23, 2008


No Bush?!
posted by DU at 4:54 PM on September 23, 2008


I don't remember being able to connect with any of Dostoyevsky's characters. They seemed too much like charicatures, and the only book of his I was about to slog through was Crime and Punishment. I must have read 2/3 of The Brothers Karamazov about 5 times before I gave up. And don't get me started on his female characters.. jeez.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:54 PM on September 23, 2008


kirkaracha: (Claiming Moriarty should be top-ten.)

I disagree. He only ever appeared in one story! Suddenly Holmes claims that lots of his cases were masterminded by this one guy who we've never heard of, he shows up, they (supposedly) kill each other, the end. It was just Arthur Conan Doyle's was of ending the series appropriately so people would stop hassling him for Sherlock Holmes stories. And it didn't even work!

Moriarty was an ineffectual bastard: he didn't even succeed at the thing he was created for.
posted by JHarris at 4:57 PM on September 23, 2008


One perspective that I think is missing here, (and maybe I just missed it), is a thing that I've found best in The Brothers Karamazov. Which is interesting, because it doesn't have such a memorable villain, perhaps. But the most frightening (and amazing) thing about Dostoevsky to me is that he works so seamlessly through the mind of a person in the process of doing something really terrible.
I've never read The Brothers Karamazov, but I agree that the authors of this list are missing that facet.

For example, I don't mean to harp on it, but again, Clare Quilty over Humbert Humbert? Really?

Clare Quilty's just a sick, vile, and truly awful person. Humbert Humbert is a villian.
posted by Flunkie at 5:00 PM on September 23, 2008


Moriarty from The Final Problem, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Not nearly as evil as when he created an alternative Holodeck reality...
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 5:02 PM on September 23, 2008


#1 Goofus

Oh come on. WHO HERE IDENTIFIES MORE WITH GALLANT?
posted by everichon at 5:04 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


This list pisses me off. Have the basic honesty to call it "50 Greatest Villains In American and English Literature," don't make it that but toss in Choderlos de Laclos and Tirso di Molina so you can pretend to world coverage. Fuck you, Telegraphyou're the villain you forgot to include!
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on September 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


Count Olaf! Lemmony Snicket's villian was robbed!
posted by R. Mutt at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Enjoyed this list, lots I hadn't heard of and it's nice to have a synopsis of each. Thanks fearfulsymmetry.
posted by nickyskye at 5:24 PM on September 23, 2008


Yeah, everichon, it's no contest. Maybe Goofus was late, lazy, rude, and spent all his quarters at the arcade, but if I ever saw a guy with a crawlspace full of bodies, it's Gallant.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:26 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


50 Greatest Villains In Literature
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:11 PM - 50 comments (50 new)

I hope you are all dastardly happy.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:26 PM on September 23, 2008


How much of our opinion of Cruella de Vil as a great villain is wrapped up in the movies? Has anyone ever read the book?

I've read it a number of times too. Cruella rules, and she was the very first person I thought of when I saw the topic for this post, and then I thought ".. but 101 Dalmations probably won't count as literature".
posted by orange swan at 5:27 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Uhm, hello? Where's Sylar?
(Oh, this wasn't meant to be a tie-in with the new season of Heroes?)
posted by Laen at 5:30 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


A list of this type that doesn't include Fantômas is purest travesty.
posted by Wolof at 5:31 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sauron <>just sayin'...
posted by Banky_Edwards at 5:33 PM on September 23, 2008


How about everyone except Milo, Tock and the Humbug in "The Phantom Tollbooth"?

be very quiet, for it goes without saying.
posted by GuyZero at 5:34 PM on September 23, 2008


Pfft. Stupid bracket-sensitive MeFi.

SAURON IS NOT AS BAD-ASS AS MORGOTH.

There, now my attempt to subtly inject my Tolkien geekery into this discussion has blown up into a public spectacle. (More public even than this.)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 5:37 PM on September 23, 2008


Not sure what you're just sayin', Banky_Edwards. If you're just sayin' Sauron should be on the list, he is.

If you're just sayin' he shouldn't be, I'm more or less with you. "Vague, distant, impersonal representation of evil" doesn't cut it for me for what a list like this should be.

Err, on preview, I haven't read the Silmarillion.
posted by Flunkie at 5:39 PM on September 23, 2008


44 Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Villain? Milo?

No way. He was the only character, except maybe the Soldier in White, that I could relate to.

Ohhhh, wait a minute...
posted by peeedro at 5:48 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Something tells me that the creators of this list have not read or did not understand Paradise Lost.
posted by bjgeiger at 5:55 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


what languagehat said. disappointing and provincial.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:57 PM on September 23, 2008


They should have split this across 50 pages for extra dastardliness.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:57 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


My favorite villain is Big Nurse Ratched, from One Flew Over the Cuchoo's Nest.
posted by sharkhunt at 5:59 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I don't get all the claims that Humbert is the "villain" of Lolita. I think this is one example where the list called it exactly right. It's not like you read the entire book cringing and seething at how disgusting he is. He may be boastful, self-deprecating, funny, vulnerable, obsessive, and predatory -- even monstrous -- but he is completely human. He artfully acknowledges many thoughts, urges, and dreams that everyone has but few can cope with or articulate. There is a part toward the end when he feels utter shame and loss, and also realizes that he could love Lolita forever even though she's now a grown woman, but that he has ruined this for himself, and ruined her as well. None of this makes for much of a hero, but he's no villain.

The line between himself and Quilty is a fine one, but in the end it's all a madcap joke to Quilty. People are disposable to him. He did it for the lulz (as far as Humbert -- and the reader-- can tell).
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 6:08 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


he is completely human
That's what makes him a truly great villian, as opposed to a bad guy.
posted by Flunkie at 6:10 PM on September 23, 2008


"Mere" bad guy, that should be.
posted by Flunkie at 6:11 PM on September 23, 2008


Seconding Nurse Ratched. Adding Livia from Robert Graves' I, Claudius.
posted by nickyskye at 6:24 PM on September 23, 2008


Cardinal Richelieu, Milady de Winter, and the Count de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers
posted by kirkaracha at 6:28 PM on September 23, 2008


That's what makes him a truly great villian, as opposed to a bad guy.

I think that sounds clever, but doesn't really mean anything.

Think of it this way. When Lolita is with Humbert, it's like she's being raised by wolves who fight dual impulses to devour and care for her. Quilty is just a devourer -- leaving Humbert is like fleeing the forest and jumping into a shark tank. Q's specter lingers over the entire book a such. You may regard Humbert as the villain, but if one accepts the book on its own terms, then it's really no question.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 6:39 PM on September 23, 2008


The greatest villain is... MANKIND!!


But seriously... why no one from the Bible? Lots of devious and dastardly people in there, including the big G-man himself (sometimes).
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:49 PM on September 23, 2008


peeedro, I have to agree with you. Milo Minderbinder never seemed like a villain to me. However, the fact that they refer to Snowden as "the kid in the back of the plane" indicates that they probably haven't even read the book.

My nominees:

Blue Duck from Lonesome Dove
Simon Legree from Uncle Tom's Cabin
Pazuzu from The Exorcist
The Mule from Foundation
posted by joaquim at 6:52 PM on September 23, 2008


Casper Gutman from The Maltese Falcon? He's a great character and definitely evil but pretty inept in the end.
posted by octothorpe at 6:53 PM on September 23, 2008


I think that sounds clever, but doesn't really mean anything.
Funny, that's exactly how I feel about "You may regard Humbert as the villain, but if one accepts the book on its own terms, then it's really no question."

When talking about a "villain" as a character in literature, I think that the impulse to equate that term with "most inhuman" is, frankly, oversimplistic. Similarly to another problem that the authors of this list have - "most powerful" or "purest embodiment of evil" (e.g. Sauron). None of these things are what makes a character a truly great villain, in the literary sense.
posted by Flunkie at 6:53 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Satan is more evil than Cthulhu? I think not, Telegraph!

Cthulhu is that which makes satan-worshippers weep until their cheap eyeliner runs.

The mere idea of Cthulhu makes those who have sold their souls to Satan wet themselves.

If Satan ran into Cthulhu in a dark alley, prissy little Mister Morning Star would hoof it back to the Pearly Gates and beg for sanctuary.
posted by CKmtl at 6:53 PM on September 23, 2008 [8 favorites]


Well any time you see one of these lists you have to keep in mind that it's all subjective and there are always personal differences but the important thing to keep in mind *HEY* .... um... the important thing *HEY* *HEY!!!!!!*

(*Sigh*) Pardon me but the 14 year old version of myself wishes to say something....

*WHAT ABOUT THE ALIEN FROM ALIEN*

Well, yes, that's a perfect example of what I was saying. Too you, well to us, the alien from alien is ...

*HE HAD ACID BLOOD!!*

Yes, I remember. Very scary.

*WHAT ABOUT MAGNETO*

A very powerful mutant indeed, but any list is going to include things you don't agree with and exclude ....

*REMEMBER WHEN HE USED MAGNETS TO PICKUP WOLVERINE*

.....

*AND DARK PHOENIX*

I don't think he ever picked up dark phoenix "with magnets"

*I MEANT SHE WAS A GREAT VILLAIN TOO*

I'm going to go get a beer. It's the only thing that shuts him up.
posted by Bonzai at 6:55 PM on September 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


What about that bitch in Good Night Moon who keeps whispering "hush"?
posted by PlusDistance at 6:59 PM on September 23, 2008 [17 favorites]


Yay for adding Count Fosco!
Yes! Hurray for Fosco, representing all the overweight, effete, drug-pushing, opera-loving, malicious mouse-trainers in literature!
Seriously my favorite literary character. Suck it, Satan!
posted by bibliowench at 7:08 PM on September 23, 2008


Whoah, no Heathcliff? Seriously?
posted by eraserhed at 7:11 PM on September 23, 2008


No Bush?!

Doesn't Literature generally mean fiction? Speaking of which, where's Osama? People still don't think he's real, do they?
posted by philip-random at 7:16 PM on September 23, 2008


Voldemort? Please.

Everyone knows that the true villain of the Harry Potter series is Dumbledore.
posted by Memo at 7:30 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whoah, no Heathcliff? Seriously?

I think Garfield is a better villain. But you know who is really the villain there? Nermal.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:37 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


Or Mondays.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:37 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


The problem with a list like this is that villains, in their most literal personifications, are for the most part uninteresting as characters. Good vs. bad = boring.

Most of the names I recognized were characters that I either identified with, or understood to be human in all their flaws and ambitions. As in, they weren't villains at all, but ordinary people whose actions were morally ambiguous.

The real villain is the tyrannical editor at the Telegraph who continues to assign these inane lists to writers who are forced to sacrifice their favorite books on the altar of incoherent brevity.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:45 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hate to join all the other villains here, but what about Wolf Larsen?!!!

Or Injun Joe?
posted by notyou at 7:46 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Steerpike's a nice choice. He's not simply mindlessly evil - you can understand his ambition, if not his choice of methods to fulfill such. I'd have to put him and Tom Ripley neck and neck. Aside from that, I despise this list.

A whale? No. Might as well throw in Cujo.

Grendel's Mom? Are you kidding? What mother (monster or not) wouldn't want to take a swipe at that nearly furless, eerily pale maggot-squirming human that killed her son?

Patrick Bateman? He's a naughty boy, even if most of the violence is in his head. But a villain he's not. Villains have goals. Bateman has impulses. Villains have plans. Bateman struggles with dinner reservations.

Sauron, C'thulhu, Satan - all too remote and vast to figure as villains. Might as well have Entropy or The Grim Reaper in there.

I'd always put Lolita herself as the second-ranking villain, after Quilty. Humbert is just a sad, pathetic bastard with a case of arrested development and a paraphilia that he can't resist once it lands in his lap. Dolores-on-the-dotted-line seemed not just thoughtless in the way tweens can be thoughtless, but manipulative and heading right towards BPD. Quilty, though ... if the book had been set any later, he'd have chopped up Lolita and sold her organs on the black market just to pay that week's hashish bill. Just after he shot a snuff flick for his private library.

I'll get me coat.
posted by adipocere at 7:53 PM on September 23, 2008


Not defining villain is lame, and causes some inconsistency. Me, I would say that the protagonist is not a villain in principle.

Ånd I would agree that Richard III is not a villain (I'd pull up my senior-year thesis paper in Shakespeare 405 to demonstrate, but yaawwn.) But if Richard III is not a villain, Vindice from Revengers Tragedy, sure as hell isn't!

I'm thrilled that Ferdinand from Duchess of Malfi is on the list, though.
posted by desuetude at 7:56 PM on September 23, 2008


Awesome, Bonzai.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:58 PM on September 23, 2008


You haters are just jealous of Cruella's fashion sense.

OK, so maybe I wasn't the most popular kid on the block.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:01 PM on September 23, 2008


oh, FOR FUCK'S SAKE!!!

MALDOROR

these people wouldn't know villainous literature if it raped their prepubescent daughter, cut her up using the various blades & other utilities on its pocketknife, then kicked its own dog as the dog tried to go for sloppy seconds on the girl's corpse.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:02 PM on September 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


I bet all the posh trendy fuckers are eating pepper icecream these days.
posted by Artw at 8:07 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


i eat wasabi icecream all the time.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:07 PM on September 23, 2008


I BET YOU HAVE ASYMMETRICALLY DYED HAIR!
posted by Artw at 8:18 PM on September 23, 2008


Whoah, no Heathcliff? Seriously?

I think Garfield is a better villain. But you know who is really the villain there? Nermal.


*resident MeFi Victorianist bursts into sobs*

I'm guessing that whoever wrote this list thought of Heathcliff--if they even thought about Heathcliff--as just a Passionate Romantic Lover, and not as, well, evil. The film/miniseries adaptations of WH are probably to blame here.

Mr. Hyde without Dr. Jekyll sort of misses the point, I think. As does Gil-Martin without the Justified Sinner.

Good to see Lovelace on the list, though.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:35 PM on September 23, 2008


How about all the Villains hellbent on stopping theV.F.D?
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 8:38 PM on September 23, 2008


If you're just sayin' he shouldn't be, I'm more or less with you. "Vague, distant, impersonal representation of evil" doesn't cut it for me for what a list like this should be.

I recently reread the books after 20+ years, and one of the things I forgot all about was the bit with Aragorn prank calling Sauron via the palantir stone. Talk about a blow to your epic evil credibility.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:51 PM on September 23, 2008


Me, I would say that the protagonist is not a villain in principle.

I fully disagree. The protagonist/antagonist distinction is based on who the focus character is, and who is the principle character impeding them from reaching their goals. This is distinct from Heroism/Villainy, which is about the moral values of one's actions. That said, my thoughts on the list:

Voldemort: I'm an avowed and unashamed Harry Potter superfan, and think the books will hold up over time, but Voldemort is most definitely not the most affecting, or even frightening villain in the books. Snape is great, as an antagonist, but obviously isn't a villain once you know everything. Draco works well too, but he (and his parents) become too powerless and ambivalent at the end to really work either. These, and countless others, are more frightening than Voldemort for being both clearly human, and being much closer to Harry's everyday activities of just trying to live a normal life - antagonizing him maliciously sometimes just for sport. Still, the best villain in the Harry Potter universe is undoubtedly Delores Umbridge, the simpering, vicious, government bureaucrat with no real talents aside from self-promotion and destroying anyone who tampers with her close-minded and ordered world. Voldemort, aside from the memories in Half-Blood Prince when he was just getting into his evil stride, is more an idea than a character. Delores is fucking chilling, even moreso for not having a stake for herself in the good/evil battle.

Sauron: Same thing, essentially. Evil, for sure, but doesn't stare into the depths of our souls as a well-defined character can. Saruman is a much better choice.

Claudius: As has been said above, he does some awful things at the beginning, but most of the Play is centered around Hamlet not committing to action, with very little increase in the forces of antagonism. One of the many reasons I think Hamlet - while fantastic as a character study - is highly overrated. Lady MacBeth is a far better choice. MacBeth himself is weak, and prone to persuasion, which is what Hecate and the Weird Sisters set upon, but he has some degree of a conscience. The demons play with him because they're just that - villains, but Lady MacBeth provokes her husband into action he wouldn't have taken because she wants to be queen. She has guilt too, eventually, but way too late to keep her machinations from bearing disastrous fruit.

Milo Minderbinder: Perfect. When I first read the book, and got to the last iteration of Snowden's death, I wanted to throw up. Alfy's another great villain, however, in the horrifying scene when he can't believe that "good old Alfy" would suffer any consequences for murder. Made even worse when it appears to turn out that he's right.

Mrs. Coulter: I'm divided about His Dark Materials, because it starts off so strongly and ends on Pullman ripping his characters into every meaningless non-dramatic situation he can in order to explain every thought in his head, killing all momentum and interest just when the reader needs it most. Still, if we're going to pick a villain from HDM, Lord Asriel strikes me as far more worthy, if only because he's so selfish until (almost, at least) the very end.

Moby Dick: Fuck that. Even the people from the Telegraph seem to get how wrong this is. Moby Dick is intentionally a meaningless center for Ahab's demented obsession. You know what would've been a little bit better in this spot? The fucking Vogons.

And yeah, total misunderstanding of Paradise Lost.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:52 PM on September 23, 2008 [10 favorites]


And how could I forget: DORIAN GRAY!

God damn lists that aren't made up by me...
posted by Navelgazer at 8:53 PM on September 23, 2008


Claudius: As has been said above, he does some awful things at the beginning

Actually, he does awful things BEFORE the beginning. And again at the end (although those awful things are more understandable).
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:59 PM on September 23, 2008


Interesting list - I just compared it to the villains in The Oxford Book of Villains (1992) and there are 20 overlaps: Long John Silver(minor crook); Moriarty(master crook); Grendel (spirit of evil - probably should not count as they chose the mom); Capt. James Hook(minor crook); Gil-Matin (spirit of evil);Count Fosco(master crook);Tom Ripley(minor crook);Bill Sikes(spirit of evil);Mr. Quilp(con man);Alec d'Urberville(seducer and Cad);Melmotte(con men); Mr. Hyde(spirit of evil & murderer);Edmund(spirit of evil);Dracula(spirit of evil);Mr. Kurtz(spirit of evil);King Claudius(murderer);Ambrosio(seducer and cad);Robert Lovelace(seducer and cad);Iago(spirit of evil);Satan eg. devil(spirit of evil);Satan eg. nephew of Satan(spirit of evil).
posted by GrimJack at 9:01 PM on September 23, 2008


Patrick Bateman? But how can he be a villain with such perfect skin?
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:11 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Saxon Kane, right you are. I should have chosen my words more carefully, but I contend that Hamlet has really only himself to blame for his predicament at the end, and Claudius really only sees Hamlet as an annoyance in his dealing with an oncoming invasion. In my view of the play, no character really has the high ground on any other, and Claudius is really just smarter, more decisive, and less hasty than Hamlet. One of the weirdest things about Hamlet, to me, is that Claudius doesn't seem to really be that bad of a king, and doesn't seem to harbor any serious ill-will to Hamlet until Hamlet makes his intentions clear.

Another way to put it is: what would be at stake if Hamlet decided not to pursue his course of action? And the answer is: not a whole hell of a lot. This is what makes Lady MacBeth so much more appropriate. If MacBeth decides not to murder Duncan, Lady MacBeth will do anything she can to push him into action. I guess you could say the same about the ghost of Hamlet's father, but that seems much less like a villain than the woman who pushes her husband into uncalled-for atrocities for personal gain.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:15 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


We're talking fiction here people, why no Satan from The Bible? Dracula deserves the slot behind (the) Satan(s).

Hamlet's Claudius? Oh please! A minor usurper who merely kills his brother. His only claim is the instability of his brother's kid.

What sort of moron would imagine that Voldemort has been more influential than Dracula? Heck, Voldemort doesn't deserve any mention because Harry Potter isn't literature.

It's mildly reassuring to see Mrs Coulter ranked way above the White Witch. But you left out the Wicked Witch of the West?

Well, maybe "i eat wasabi icecream" is the most intelligent response this deserves.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:19 PM on September 23, 2008


Napoleon — President, Hero, and Lawmaker of Animal Farm.
posted by cenoxo at 9:20 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm with those who say that Morgoth should be there, not Sauron. Navelgazer's point about Umbridge is brilliant - I love Harry Potter, but very little in those books actually scares me; she terrified me! I'm with those who point out the Anglocentrism, good lord. (How about the Banana Company from One Hundred Years of Solitude? C'mon, that's from my high school reading.)

Last and most nerdily, I think that if they're going to have a token comics villain, it really needs to be either Ozymandias (nothing wrong with Watchmen, but it would be great if the popular media touted something besides it, TDKR, Blankets or Maus as 'great comics lit' sometime) or Norman Osborn. Because this list is all about characters who are nuanced and human, and while the Joker has some of that, Norman Amberson Osborn III has got it in spades.

I'm not trying to minimize the pain of Batgirl (crippled) or Robin II (murdered) here, especially since Barbara Gordon then moved beyond it to become Oracle, the coolest female superhero and one of the smartest, period. But Joker just loves Batman in his weird, insane way. Norman can't decide whether Peter's an obstacle to his crimelord goals, the rival head of another superpowered family, the unwilling heir to the Goblin throne, or God knows what else- so he just pushes all the buttons at once. It's a bloody, glorious mess where it's not just that the villain knows the hero better than almost everybody else, but that they're practically intimate.

I made a list of the personal attacks Norman has made against Peter, but it made this comment longer than it already is, so skipping the murders of loved ones (3), brainwashings (2), kidnappings and assaults (multiple), etc. etc., I'd like to bring up the crowning glory of literary mindfuck, aka Norman's Letter.

Right after the Green Goblin kidnaps Aunt May, sets a gang of eleven supervillains on Spider-Man, drops Mary Jane off the bridge (she lives), rakes Peter over the coals psychologically, makes a clean getaway - yes, after all that, he then arranges for the letter to arrive in the mail. I quote:

"My Dear Peter,

[...] It must be stressed that these fights are by no means a sign of any real emnity. On the contrary, I hold you in enormous regard and am always grateful for your intentions. [...] As you know, your marriage, your reputation and your passion for preserving the status quo are all very important to me and I can only hope that no seeds of doubt or uselessness have been planted in any way. Take care and sleep well. [...]

Forever, Norman."


I think that letter earns him a spot in the top 50 all on its own.
posted by bettafish at 9:43 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Navelgazer, I totally see your point, and agree (and clarify) that protagonist/antagonist is a separate issue from heroism/villainy. But I do mentally resist villain-as-protagonist, I must admit.

I also totally agree that Voldemort is not the best villain. Can we separate "He Who Must Not Be Named" from "Voldemort?" The former is a better villain.

Still, the best villain in the Harry Potter universe is undoubtedly Delores Umbridge, the simpering, vicious, government bureaucrat with no real talents aside from self-promotion and destroying anyone who tampers with her close-minded and ordered world. Voldemort, aside from the memories in Half-Blood Prince when he was just getting into his evil stride, is more an idea than a character. Delores is fucking chilling, even moreso for not having a stake for herself in the good/evil battle.

Quoted for truth. Patrick Bateman would flippantly yet carefully walk the fuck in the other direction from Umbridge.

I think that Claudius is a weak example as well, but I saw that as "must include more Shakespeare," maybe? But the great thing about Shakespeare is that the villains aren't THE GREATEST VILLAINS OF ALL TIME because of all that interesting complexity and pitch-perfect humanity that is, uh, the reason we still read Shakespeare.
posted by desuetude at 9:45 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Come now - Congress is a fine villain. The Evil Liberals or Evil Conservatives - take your pick. And Oh, the reams of paper they produce, it makes for a fine read.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:51 PM on September 23, 2008


I have been outnerded by a friend who points out that Norman Amberson Osborn is a II, not a III. Mea culpa. *hangs nerdish head*

Desuetude, I agree that He Who Must Not Be Named is a better villain than Voldemort. For that matter, Tom Riddle is a fairly creepy villain (consider what that 16-year-old boy did to his classmates Myrtle and Hagrid, and then as a construct, to Ginny Weasley). Honestly, I think Moldy Voldy (... I'm not helping things) was much better in the first three and a half books than he was from end of book Goblet of Fire onwards; it was as though getting his body back took all the life out of him as a character. I don't think Rowling did that on purpose, but it actually plays into her theme of maintaining one's integrity. She explicitly had him set himself up for failure by fragmenting his soul, after all, so it only makes sense that he'd be diminished.
posted by bettafish at 9:52 PM on September 23, 2008


OK, this is probably the nerdiest response so far, but what about Baron Harkonnen? You know... from... Dune... Hey stop making fun of me!
posted by number9dream at 9:58 PM on September 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Baron Vladimir Harkonnen was my first thought as well. Neither Sauron nor Morgoth are particularly standout villains in my opinion, but Gollum should have been near the top of the list.
posted by Manjusri at 10:19 PM on September 23, 2008


Count Fosco! I forgot about him. Great inclusion. I love that fat man and his little mouse.
posted by painquale at 10:51 PM on September 23, 2008


My skin literally crawled when they mentioned O'Brien from 1984. Sure it could be because I just read it a month ago...

I truly did not see him coming. - I saw something, sure, but not him... and then the end result.... definitely a book that left me feeling creepy.

I guess I just haven't had the chance to discuss it with anyone yet and that makes it more potent. Maybe I should start going to therapy to discuss books.
posted by Kimothy at 11:05 PM on September 23, 2008


Definitely a weird lack of women on the list. I might understand leaving off Livia, but no Milady? No Lady MacBeth? No BECKY SHARP, for goodness sake? Pfft.
posted by kyrademon at 11:14 PM on September 23, 2008


I should mention in the interest of honesty that I misremembered "Aarfy" as "Alfy" in the Catch-22 bit above.

I'm sorry, and rest assured, I am repenting appropriately.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:35 PM on September 23, 2008


Augustus Melmotte beats Hannibal Lecter any day.
posted by krautland at 11:42 PM on September 23, 2008


Colonel Carthcart? Colonel Korn?
posted by dancestoblue at 12:07 AM on September 24, 2008


I know it's not from literature, but Bester from Babylon 5 was such a kickass villian. God what an evil little fucker he was.
posted by saysthis at 12:12 AM on September 24, 2008


I think the most interesting villians are the ones that we can see ourselves becoming when faced with the same choices and lack of foreknowledge. I don't know what 'greatest villians' means though.

Most of James Ellroy's villians come from the same archetype, and would qualify in aggregate if not individually.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:11 AM on September 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Looks like the new film version of Moby Dick, combining the talents of the makers of Wanted and National Treasure in a 'comic books style' unlike your 'grandfather's' Moby Dick will be unequivocal about who is the real villain: "... depicting the whale’s decimation of other ships prior to its encounter with Ahab’s Pequod, and Ahab will be depicted more as a charismatic leader than a brooding obsessive."

I can hardly wait.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:29 AM on September 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Most of James Ellroy's villians come from the same archetype, and would qualify in aggregate if not individually.

The one's who are his protagonists like Pete Bondurant or Buzz Meeks maybe, but Dudley Smith is a pure villian of the Old School.
posted by jonmc at 4:20 AM on September 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


The mere idea of Cthulhu makes those who have sold their souls to Satan wet themselves.

Hear, hear. I think the Cosmic Horror entry at TV Tropes puts it best: "Satan is evil, but he values every human soul. Cthulhu would obliterate humanity without ever really noticing its existence."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:40 AM on September 24, 2008


From Fearfulsymmetry's link:
"Our vision isn’t your grandfather’s ‘Moby Dick,’ " Cooper said. "This is an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an action-adventure revenge story."

Blood and thunder!
I can just imagine the trailer now.

"In a time..." *panning shot of a sea*
"...when whales..." *the screen flashes red with images of whales*
"...terrorised our cities..." *rapid shots of cities burning with people screaming and running away*
"...one man..." *Hayden Christensen grimacing on the bow on the Pequod*
"...decided to settle the score." *Hayden Christensen standing in front of Queequeg (The Rock) and Starbuck (Hannah Montana)*
cont'd: 'Monomania? I! Am! Ahab!' *shot of Ahab leaping through the air in slow motion with a harpoon.*

*Linkin Park begins to play as a rapid fire montage of explosions and whaling ship chases ensues*

posted by slimepuppy at 6:38 AM on September 24, 2008 [6 favorites]


Queequeg (The Rock)

Somehow, I could see that actually working.
posted by jonmc at 6:52 AM on September 24, 2008


The Trunchbull.
posted by hippugeek at 7:33 AM on September 24, 2008


"...decided to settle the score." *Hayden Christensen standing in front of Queequeg (The Rock) and Starbuck (Hannah Montana Katee Sackhoff)*

I'd go see it for that nerdy joke alone.
posted by The Man from Lardfork at 7:37 AM on September 24, 2008


*waves nunderwear flag*

Go Team Danvers!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:06 AM on September 24, 2008


slimepuppy: don't forget that they'll have to show some gay whales making out or something.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2008


Victor Von Doom, bitches!
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:39 AM on September 24, 2008


Agree with the Umbridge point that Navelgazer made, and that Moby Dick is not a frickin' villain but a misunderstood mammal that would be protected by Greenpeace today, and that Richard III should be on the list.

And Milton's Satan is a fantastic character, with his, "Better to rule in hell than serve in Heaven," mentality, but Milton himself worried he was more the protagonist than the antagonist when all was said and done, and I agree.

If we can put any American Lit characters on there, I'd go with Diogenes Dagrepont Bernoulli Pendergast, brother of Aloysius, or even the entire twisted Pendergast family, from the Douglas Preston/Lee Child novels.
posted by misha at 9:04 AM on September 24, 2008


I'll agree that Sauron and Morgoth are not the most engaging of villains. Even if you read the Silmarillion it's about 80% variations on how the races of Middle Earth self-destruct due to their own greed, or triumph because they value true love over greed. I have to say though that there are parts that really should be made into opera. Sauron is to Lord of the Rings what Hitler is to Catch 22, so remote from the events of the novel that Saruman and Denethor (again, two characters undone by the love of power) are more vivid.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:21 AM on September 24, 2008


Thank you for Becky Sharp, kyrademon! I was wracking my brain last night trying to think of her name.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:33 AM on September 24, 2008


So no Ravana from the Ramayana, huh? No Queen Medb from The Tain? No Agamemnon, (or Hektor if you're a dirty Trojaphobic asshole) or Circe or Morgana or Queen of Hearts or Jabberwock.

Milo Minderbender, though. sweet.

I'm going to make a list called "50 things from stuff I've read, in no particular order*"

*list incomplete as of printing.
posted by shmegegge at 10:06 AM on September 24, 2008


I don't think Satan is in any way the protagonist of PL. He fulfills the profile of the "epic hero" in the first few books, but he quickly begins to go downhill as Milton defies and supersedes the traditional epic. By the end of the poem, I think the true protagonists are Adam and Eve, specifically in so far as they are a couple.

shmegegge: How are either Agamemnon or Hektor "villains"? Hektor is one of the most sympathetic and humane characters of the Iliad, and while Agamemnon may be clearly motivated by a desire for power, that does not make him a villain, especially in the historical context of the poem.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:35 AM on September 24, 2008


How are either Agamemnon or Hektor "villains"?

Hektor could be construed as the villain as he is the principal antagonist of Achilles, but no I don't see him as a villain at all. hence the lame joke about trojaphobia. Agamemnon I simply disagree with you. I see him entirely as a villain. You're free to disagree, it's just my opinion. But when I read the Iliad (admittedly years ago) I recall him being constantly at odds with Achilles and that the desire to go to war is not a given on the part of any of his troops, especially that of Achilles. principally I recall his scheming being largely responsible for the deaths of men who are described in the book as decent men. But that's my interpretation. I'm not going to stand by it until death or anything. In the end, I think the book looks favorably on Priam, Achilles, Hektor, and virtually everybody except Agamemnon, Paris and Helen. If someone wanted to paint Paris or Helen as a villain I'd happily let them. If someone wanted to insist that no one is villainous in the story, hey go for it. For what it's worth, though, I happen to think a better argument could be made for Agamemnon as one than Milo Minderbender, which was ultimately my point.
posted by shmegegge at 10:57 AM on September 24, 2008


No Agamemnon, (or Hektor if you're a dirty Trojaphobic asshole) or Circe or Morgana

Why do you hate love? Restraining orders would work wonders in these stories.
posted by ersatz at 5:07 PM on September 24, 2008


Yeah, nurse Ratched. Absolutely.

I'd've gone Lady MacBeth over Cruella.
And Ishtar ("Thou hast loved the steed, proud in battle, and destined him for the halter, the goad and the whip" - 'scored by Gilgamesh she yells at daddy to send a bull after him or she'll raise the dead up to eat the living).

Dr. Szel. "Is it safe?" Although, y'know, Nazi. Fairly standard. So, ok Alex de Large.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:59 PM on September 24, 2008


H.P. Lovecraft handles distant villains very well. So I'd say Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are "engaging" since they notice humanity, but his outer gods like Azathoth are not engaging. Yes, clearly Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are far more terrifying than Satan from the Bible, but the Bible has more claim to influence than most other fiction, an argument also serving Homer well.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:20 PM on September 28, 2008


I forgot to mention, I love that Hamlet quote in your thread title.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:43 PM on September 30, 2008


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