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Revisiting the Monster

23/09/2012

It’s taken me more than a year to readdress the subject of monsters in literature as I promised, but not because material is lacking or because I lost interest. In fact, I’m more interested than ever. My original goal was to present an analysis of characters widely recognized as literary “monsters”; since my first post, though, my focus has shifted. I’ve been working on my first novel and so I am more interested, and attuned to, the nuances of light and dark – the shades of gray – and cannot maintain a detached academic position. The darkness is seductive, and the truth is that we all have darkness as well as light inside of us.

The constructs of ‘villain’ and ‘victim’, ‘monster’ and ‘hero’ create a false dichotomy too simple to be borne out by narrative (or, by extension, any true understanding of reality). The being who thrives on evil for evil’s sake is as rare as the one who is pure and devoid of personal motivations. In fiction, the ‘victim’ is not always unaware of the dark path ahead; acceptance of or complicity with the “bad guy” creates a paradigm shift in which everyone is a villain.

Consider the structure of stories featuring a ‘monster’. On the surface, there is a clear distinction between the forces of good and evil, with the expectation that each will act in a predictable manner and the implicit understanding that “good” is supposed to triumph over “evil”. The best monsters, though, are as beautiful and compelling as the heroes meant to defeat them. Heroes are flawed, and even innocent bystanders carry their own secrets.

La coeur a ses raisons, de quoi raison ne sait rien.

Every character has a story of his or her own, things that have happened and that are assumed to continue when they are out of the pages of the main narrative. Personal history moves each of us to seek certain outcomes in our lives – the reader’s personal prejudices and adherence to social mores may move her to identify with the hero, sympathize with the victim, and repudiate the monster, but when presented in the most basic terms it can be difficult to do so.

In the Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort wanted to escape his upbringing and claim his birthright. His belief set, while fundamentally incompatible with his own reality, defined his actions in a way that he felt appropriate. As the presence of legions of Death Eaters indicates, he was not alone in holding those beliefs. The vampires in I Am Legend just want to survive without the daily threat of extermination at Robert Neville’s hands.

Likewise, victims and heroes are not always innocent. Karen Miller (In Malice, Quite Close) saw through Tristan’s ruse, but because of her desire to leave her abusive father she went along with the story and became a partner in his plan to take her and remake her as Gisele. She chose to walk beside her captor, and to carry on as his accomplice. Albus Dumbledore, characterized as the greatest wizard in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, is revealed to have once callously disregarded the needs of his own family in his quest for power and position. (If that is a spoiler, seriously – where have you been?)

Another consideration: do thoughts and feelings factor into the identification of a character as a villain, or merely actions? How narrow is the path a character must travel without falling into villainhood – what (or how many) wrong or inappropriate or harmful actions must a character commit before straying fully from the path? Can a monster seek redemption through contrition, or does hesitation to cross the line into deeper “evil” count?

In life, the answer to all of this is simple: we are judged by our actions.

However, in a narrative the reader is suddenly made privy to a wealth of information not available in the real world. Internal dialogue and descriptive passages of otherwise imperceptible emotional and mental responses supplement concrete words and actions, leaving every character open to far more stringent judgement from the reader. In the fictional world, where every motivation is laid bare, the line between good and evil can be blurred beyond recognition.

The truth is, we are all monsters – sometimes, it’s just a little easier to tell.

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