Sinister villains often make good books – after all, it is frequently in the defeat of such adversaries that heroes prove heroic. For this reason, one could make a Top 10 Heroes List that closely mirrors that of the villains – and wind up including Pip, Hamlet, Charles Darnay and Uncle Tom among others.
A villain is often cruel, selfish, violent, jealous, opportunistic, unrepentant and apathetic. Redemptive moments are rare for a true villain. Still, the best do not lack dimension, as the examples below demonstrate.
This list is obviously biased and hardly exhaustive, but I hope provides a good cross-section of literary malevolence.
Bill Sikes of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist
A primal, barbaric thug with perpetually clenched fists, Sikes reigns hell-fire down upon everyone within spitting distance, from intro to exit. When not (literally) kicking the dog, Sikes intimidates, terrorizes and bullies; other characters spend the majority of the book walking on eggshells, fearing the inevitable blow-up. Upon hitting critical mass, Sikes murders girlfriend Nancy—tragically, the only person who has ever cared about him— and winds up at the end of his own rope.
Claudius of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Claudius snatches a page from the Cain playbook when he resolves to ice his very inconvenient brother, King Hamlet. Post-murder, everything seems to be coming up aces for Claudius: in addition to inheriting his brother’s crown (!), the coast is clear for Claudius to hit on the jewel of single moms, sister-in-law, Queen Gertrude. But angsty Hamlet, Jr. is having none of it and throws up mega-road blocks, after which— in true Shakespearean fashion—everyone winds up dead in a pile.
Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
Long before an Alaska tour guide led Birkenstock-wearing yuppies on the first whale watching tour, Melville’s vengeful Ahab was on the look-out for his nemesis, the great white sperm whale known as Moby Dick. Throughout the novel, the increasingly disturbed Ahab obsessively hunts The Whale, recklessly putting the lives of his crew in peril. Though he purports to be a Quaker, Ahab does not shrink from viciousness in his pursuit of the “sea monster” he holds responsible for the destruction of his ship (as well as the amputation of his leg). In the end, Ahab, strangled by his own hate, catches himself in a harpoon meant for The Whale, and is dragged into the depths of the sea. It’s lights out for Captain Crazy.
Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984
Orwell’s faceless personification of totalitarian government, Big Brother mandates his subjects communicate in “NewSpeak,” a method of “thought policing” that curbs free expression by severely limiting the lexicon. In the world of Oceania, Big Brother is the all-powerful head of state and party, existing beyond sight and accountability. But, according to Orwell, there is no denouement for Big Brother; he has existed, exists and will continue to exist in perpetuity…
Madame DeFarge of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities
A French Republican with a major hard-on against the aristocracy, Madame DeFarge spends most of Dickens’ novel knitting— yes, knitting— an enemies list worthy of Nixon. With a robust talent for motivating others to violence, the madame ensures that Paris runs red with the blood of noblemen before accidentally shooting herself with her own gun— proof that putting people in stitches isn’t all that funny.
Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
The poster child of selfishness and PTSD, Miss Havisham whiles away the years in her Gothic mansion, waiting for a male— any male— to punish for a wedding day jilt decades prior. Still sporting the would-be wedding dress in her cobweb-covered abode, Miss Havisham warps adopted daughter Estella with her vindictiveness and dysfunction. In the process, she snuffs out any trace of affect in Estella, consequently breaking Pip’s heart. In retrospect, Miss Havisham’s ex-fiance was damn prescient.
Humbert Humbert of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita
Though probably the most nuanced pedophile in literature, Humbert Humbert remains a pedophile, lusting unapologetically after the “fire of his loins,” 12-year-old nymphet Lolita. In an effort to remain in “Lo’s” life, Humbert marries her mother, the cloying and self-deluding Mrs. Haze, revealing the extent of his selfishness and depravity. When Mrs. Haze discovers Humbert’s diary – detailing his unnatural obsession with the skinny jeans and bikini sporting pre-teen – she rushes into traffic, is smacked by a car and dies.
Medea of Euripedes’ Medea
No one does scorched earth like Medea. Proof that obsessive hate can be a greater force than love, Medea murders her children to punish their father, her husband Jason, for infidelity. Then she taunts him with their bodies. Score one for the bad guys.
Simon Legree of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Even in the immoral and cruel world of slave traders, Beecher Stowe’s Simon Legree stands out. The ignorant and mean Legree delights in the ceaseless dehumanization of his “property,” reserving his greatest ire for the novel’s protagonist, Uncle Tom. Tom gets on Simon’s bad(der) side when he refuses to beat a fellow slave; Legree spends the rest of the story subjecting Tom to increasingly humiliating abuse, culminating in Tom’s beating death.
Lady Macbeth of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Literature’s favorite pushy wife, Lady Macbeth insults and manipulates her weak-kneed husband into committing multiple-murders, including that of the King of Scotland. On the plus side, she does feel pretty bad about it and slips into insanity before (most likely) offing herself.