A most fascinating portrayal of a Villain




Anybody can create a hero but it takes real talent to create a fascinating villain. Different villains can elicit different emotions from reader: disgust, dread, hatred and anger are some of the obvious emotions. Then there are villains who can inspire sympathy and sometimes even admiration. One of the most fascinating villains I have encountered in literature is Arch Deacon Claude Frollo in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre dame.  He is one character who continues to stay with me even a decade and a half after I have read the book. The characters who remain with us are the ones that hold a strong personal significance for oneself. And the Arch Deacon was exactly that for me.
For those who have not read this particular book, let me give a brief run through of the character of Arch Deacon. He is a lustful, egoistic and sadistic priest at the church of Notre Dame. He has his eyes on an innocent and beautiful girl called Esmeralda. He tries to use various vile means to possess her and in the end when she stays firm and refuses to yield to his lust, he ends up destroying her, sending her to death by gallows branded as a witch. Now, you may ask, what is fascinating about all this? Isn’t that how all villains are? Well, from what I have described so far, so it may seem. But there is more to this: his early years. The book also takes us back to the Arch Deacon’s younger days. There we see an idealistic young man, who renounces worldly life to devote himself to the study of theology. We see a rational philosopher who dares to question theology and enter the realms of science. We see a loving brother who dotes over his step brother. We see a Good Samaritan, who picks up a deformed child abandoned by his parents as a monstrosity and brings him up as his own.

How does one explain such a dichotomy in character between Frollo’s earlier years and later years? Some people may even actually dismiss the transformation as an unrealistic portrayal by the author. But I did not find it so, because I could personally relate to that character. At that age, I was very much like Frollo: young and idealistic, looking to take up a monastic vocation to devote myself to study and contemplation away from the cares and vain struggles of the world. The monstrous evolution of Frollo was a rude wake up call for me, for I could see the seeds of the same evil that had grown to monstrous propositions in Frollo’s mind hiding in the recesses of my mind as well. I realized one can’t wish away the darkness that has taken residence in some corner of one’s soul away by artificially elevating oneself to a position of nobility higher than where one truly belongs. If anything that would only make you over confident and the evil tendencies can slowly find nourishment at the back of your mind and then one fine day suddenly catch you off guard and engulf you like how it did with Frollo.

In some ways, this story kind of initiated in me the thought process that eventually led me to abandon my monastic aspirations. The other characters in the story kind of provided an interesting contrast to the character of Frollo and offered me clues on what could possibly be a better way of life. Esmeralda for instance appears frail, weak and silly, but displays exemplary strength of character. She goes to the extent of marrying an unknown person just to save his life. But she stands firm when it comes to a question of principles and is willing to forsake her own life rather than yield to Frollo’s lust. Quasimodo, the titular hunchback, is another character whose one particular characteristic I admired: his single minded love and devotion. He initially is devoted to his master Frollo and an act of kindness on the part of Esmeralda makes him fall in love with her.  His love is pure, unconditional and with expectation of no return, bordering on a dog’s feelings for its master. Though I have not really experienced it personally, I have caught glimpses of it at times and find that indeed a fascinating emotion and might be wonderful to experience. It occurred to me that it might be a better idea to accept myself as I am faults and all, continue my life and work consciously to make myself a better person over time, possibly aspiring towards some of the nobler character traits portrayed by Esmeralda and Quasimodo.
When I read about all these fake saints and errant priests we see in the news every day, I sometimes wonder if they were not fraudsters after all from the outset, but rather like Frollo. Isn’t it possible that they may have started with lofty ideals and gone wrong along the way, maybe due to pushing themselves too hard or trying to attain to those ideals that were way beyond their reach too fast? Maybe some of them deserve sympathy for what they strived to become and what they have ended up becoming? I dread to think what if I had joined one of their ranks. At other times, I wonder if it had to be that way or maybe I would not have fallen by the wayside like the rest and already reached the state that I aspired towards if I had continued along the path I was heading. I guess I will never find out the answer.

Picture Credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Victor_Hugo-Hunchback.jpg

15 comments:

Pratikshya Mishra said...

villains do make more impact on the readers if they are well characterized.. though I haven't read the book you've discussed.. eg.the silence of the lambs, ...one of the most famous villains...

The Fool said...

Somehow I have not watched Silence of the lambs though I know the story. It is very interesting to learn why villains are the way they are.

Pradip Biswas said...

Real Villains are actually "bohurupi"( one who can dress and act different types of Persons). Mostly they pose as a poles apart person and significantly all of them were mostly different in their early years, This is what I saw in my life so far. However in epics the portrayed villains are not actually wicked person. There is no single line narrating Ravana as tyrant king or ruthless warrior. Durjodhon was right many times.

The Fool said...

That is true, Pradip. In our epics, villains tend to be good persons with just one tragic flaw in character. In some ways the character here is like that - he is basically a good person till he suddenly falls for this woman. From then on, all his supressed evil side begins to emerge.

themoonstone said...

Very articulately put ! The characters of 'villains' or rather personas with shades of grey are far more interesting than an out and out good or bad and probably because it relates to the way we are far better than any of the others. Since it also opens up the possibilities of a negative streak arising at a later point of time, the aspect becomes far more disturbing as well.

The Fool said...

I am so glad my words managed to convey to you exactly what I was trying to say.

Pankti Mehta said...

I think this is what exactly we were talking about yesterday night :D

Rachna said...

I quite agree with your assessment. As a matter of fact, I find shades of grey very intriguing because there is really no black or white only in real life. Yes, circumstances could be the culprit many times, In most stories, it is the negative character that engages me much more than the hero.

The Fool said...

Yeah. Indeed.

The Fool said...

All heroes are similar. Villains are the ones who are so different. I find it interesting to analyze why someone has turned evil.

umashankar said...

That was an interesting insight both into the classic and your ethos. This, along with the classic of Leo Tolstoy, constitutes my list of regrets for never having completed them. Maybe your crisp post is spur enough.

The Fool said...

Thanks umashankar. I was getting a bit into Hugo, Tolstoy and Dyotovsky during my engineering days. After that somehow I have confined myself to lighter fare such as science fiction and fantasy except for brief forays into Plato and Machiavelli.

Suresh Chandrasekaran said...

Humanity IS frail and prone to desire. What make someone a villain is the extent to which he will go to satisfy his desire. As in the Mahabharat, there is a legitimacy to the claims on the Kingdom by both the Karuravas and the Pandavas. It WAS the extent to which Duryodhan would go - poison Bhim; try to burn them in the wax palace etc. - which made him the villain. Similarly, the hatred between the two was mutual, at least as far as Bhim/Arjun went. It is the extent to which Duryodhan could go to vent his hatred - the attempted disrobing of Panchali - which made him the villain.

Villainy lies not in HAVING the desires. Villainy lies in giving the go-by to all sense of morality in the attempt to satisfy your desires.

The Fool said...

But problem is sometimes desire becomes so much that you are blinded to the sense of morality. I feel in the case of monastic people, some people who are really not ready for it, suppress desires beyond their capabilities and when it comes out, it comes out in all force and then I feel they find it difficult to be constrained by moralities.

Suresh Chandrasekaran said...

See TF - the whole idea is about how strong your sense of morality is. Most of villainy is weakness insofar as the person concerned does not have the courage to stand by his value systems regardless of the cost as against outright evil as in NOT having any morals at all, though there are quite a few of the latter as well. This giving in to desire thing comes only from such people who do not really believe in their own values strongly enough. For example, you find that even a starving man refrains from eating human flesh - IF that taboo is strongly set in him. Hunger does not become a convenient excuse for cannibalism. So also if the other values were strongly enough set in a person, a desire will not be able to overturn it. (Like a Viswamitra may be tempted into making love to Menaka and still not be a villain BUT if he gets tempted into raping Menaka, he would be one. It is the extent that determines the villainy as opposed to mere human weakness)

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