The Villainy of Good Intentions

Lauren Groff

We all have the rare friend who royally screws up: the cousin in Iowa who shoots an intruder, the running buddy who serially cuckolds her husband, the high school best friend who, driving home drunk one early morning, crashes into a school bus full of kindergartners. If their actions are seen only through the cold, clear line of newsprint, our beloved screw-ups are easy to vilify: but we, who know them, know their generous hearts, their love for children and gerbils and Beanie Babies, their many small kindnesses when we are in need. The truth is, people can do monstrous things, but very rarely does the world produce a person who is actually a monster. Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is based on a historical person, but he's one of the most compelling villains anyone can think of because he's so clearly a literary figure, a character skillfully drawn by McCarthy in bold, broad strokes to minimize the Judge's humanity and amplify his epic evilness.

In life, most of us do the best we can, and, when we mess up, we work overtime to justify our actions. It was self-defense, we say; it was temporary insanity, love, simple hunger or hurt that made us act this way. We, at base, can be excused, even if our actions reverberate.

What happens, then, in literature when an otherwise good person does something with terrible ramifications? Is it possible that the person can be good, but the act villainous?

In John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, Gardner talks about Plato's take on exactly this question in The Republic:

In Plato, it seemed that if a poet showed a good man performing a bad act, the poet's effect was corruption of the audience's morals. Aristotle agreed with Plato's notion that some things are moral and others not; agreed, too, that art should be moral; and went on to correct Plato's error. It's the total effect of an action that's moral or immoral, Aristotle pointed out. In other words, it's the energia—the actualization of the potential which exists in character and situation—that gives us the poet's fix on good and evil; that is, dramatically demonstrates the moral laws, and the possibility of tragic waste, in the universe.

There's a barrelful of interesting ideas in this excerpt. The most intriguing to me are these: that the moral universe within a work of art cannot exist independently of the author, and that the work itself is an extension of the author's morality; and the idea that, no matter the circumstances in which a character finds himself, or what feelings he harbors within him, the results of his action are what delineates morality in the world the author has created.

Charles Dickens illustrated this beautifully, in his broad, satirical way, in the character of Bleak House's Mrs. Jellyby. She is a passionate woman who practices "telescopic philanthropy." This means that she's so concerned with the plight of the Borriboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger River that she has let her entire life go to shambles. Her baby Peepy falls down the stairs, his head hitting every tread, her house is a wreck, she serves dinner raw, her dress can't be laced in the back and her hair is unbrushed, her daughter that serves as her amanuensis is bathed in ink, and her husband Mr. Jellyby is on the brink of suicide. She is a woman who is thoroughly motivated by good, who acts with great pureness of heart; but her energia, the result of the wild admixture of her character and her acts, is pure domestic villainy. The great villain in Peepy's life has to be his neglectful mother.

One thinks, also, of King Lear, of Cordelia's honesty so stringent that it precipitates the downfall of the House of Lear and her own eventual assassination. She is virtually the only moral character in a world full of corruption, but her action in the situation of Lear's overweening pride and her sisters' venality and greed dooms them all. Her act, though it comes from a place of purity, becomes villainous.

A writer can extrapolate from this concept to use in her own fiction. It's perhaps interesting to think of villainy in a slightly different way than one tends to think about it: perhaps a good person with good intentions can wreak as much havoc as the most putrid sociopath the world has seen. Perhaps straightforward realism, the realm of deep character-justification, can harbor the energetic and breathtaking villainy of the sort generally found in crime novels or fantasy novels, infusing a sometimes listless genre with a kind of rare mythic energy. Perhaps a writer can consider the results of a good person's actions to be the silent, looming, and invisible villains that are about to storm the room.