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«Handsome, Rich, Dangerous – The Attraction of Gothic Villains in 19th-Century Literature Stefanie Krüger Abstract Villains are evil! Villains are ...»

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Handsome, Rich, Dangerous – The Attraction of Gothic Villains

in 19th-Century Literature

Stefanie Krüger


Villains are evil! Villains are dangerous! Villains are sexy! This is certainly a

prevalent idea in much of the literature and popular culture of our time. In June

2008, The Telegraph, by referring to a study of the New Mexico State University,

argued that ‘men who are narcissistic, thrill-seeking liars and all round ‘bad boys’

tend to have the greatest success finding more sexual partners.’ 1 Although the idea seems to be irritating proof can be found in successful films like Mary Harron’s American Psycho with a vicious protagonist who prefers to kill his victims while being naked and who is yet extremely successful with women. Other prominent examples are popular novels like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga whose Edward Cullen is rather seen as the figurehead of a new generation of designer vampires than as the prototype of evil for which the vampire has been known in literature and folklore for centuries.2 Although these two characters are very different from each other, especially in their representations as bad characters, they are new representatives of a tradition of attractive villains begun in Gothic fiction of the 19th century.

This paper seeks to show how our contemporary idea of the attraction of evil characters was shaped by the figure of the Gothic villain in the 19th century.

Through an analysis of Lord Byron’s ‘The Giaour’ (1813) and the character of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) it will be shown how villainy is presented as a character trait which is reversed from a potential physical or psychological threat into sexual attraction for female protagonists.

Key Words: attraction, Byronic hero, Giaour, Emily Brontë, gothic villain, Lord Byron, vampire, Wuthering Heights *****

1. Introduction The idea that villainous characters carry an air of attraction has been known for centuries and has seen famous examples in works such as John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, which presented the most popular villain, Satan, in a rather favourable light. However, the idea that the villain is even more attractive than the hero or that the villain is the attractive, yet ambivalent, hero seems to have come to fruition only in our modern times. From J.K. Rowling’s Professor Snape and Lord The Attraction of Gothic Villains in 19th-Century Literature __________________________________________________________________

Voldemort, Mary Harron’s yuppie in American Psycho, to James Bond, villainous men and characters are just as famous, if not even more so, than their good-hearted counterparts. In an article from June 2008, The Telegraph announced to have found out why ‘bad boy’ figures, such as James Bond, are so successful with women by referring to a study of the New Mexico State University. The study showed that ‘these type of men adopt a more predatory, scatter gun approach to contests and have more of a desire to try new things.’3 It is intriguing that in recent literature and film, the prototype of the attractive villain has been a particular type, namely the vampire. Examples are numerous: From the soft, teenage love story of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga with the handsome vampire next door whose entire bloodsucking family tries to blend in with American small town society, to the more grown-up version of J.L. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries with two brothers embodying the modern vampire’s ambiguity, to HBO’s adult TV-series True Blood in which vampires live in a shadow society marked by sex and violence.

Although the villainous characters presented in these three stories show considerable differences as to their degree of villainy – to the point that it is difficult to say whether the villain can still be seen as such – they share several character traits, which can already be found in the figure of the Gothic villain in the 19th century. For in the Gothic villain, this ‘tragic hero whose main energy comes from villainous actions, self-destructive impulses, or character flaws’4, we do not simply encounter a bad character, but, as the definition by Lutz suggests, a multifaceted persona who embodies the figures of villain/hero/lover. In her extensive study on vampires as literary figures, Susanne Pütz notices that indeed the depiction of vampires in contemporary literature has nothing to do with folkloric images but can rather be referred back to the figure of the Gothic villain.5 In this paper I want to present two early prototypes of attractive villains: Lord Byron’s embittered and restless Giaour, from the fragmentary narrative poem of the same title, and Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights who can be seen as an ‘directly descended from the Byronic hero.’6 Through a thorough analysis of these two characters I will show how Gothic villains are direct predecessors of modern attractive villains, especially the vampire figures in contemporary popular culture. It will become clear that the Giaour as well as Heathcliff are representatives of what the study of the New Mexico State University calls ‘dark triad’ characteristics: ‘These are a tendency to lie and manipulate others, the selfishness associated with narcissism and impulsive behaviour that gives little thought to consequences.’7 Although these characteristics bear self-destructive and asocial tendencies it will be shown how they do not diminish but further the attraction of the Gothic villain.

It has to be mentioned here that I will refer to the direct connection to contemporary attractive villains in my talk during the conference, whereas I will provide a basis for my investigation and for the subsequent discussion in this workin-progress paper.

Stefanie Krüger 3 __________________________________________________________________

2. The Giaour – A Byronic Hero In his essay on Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian, Gary Gautier notices that ‘two character types […] explode into the literary imagination in the late eighteenth century: the gothic villain and the Romantic hero.’ 8 The latter finds one of its most interesting because dramatic manifestations in the Byronic hero of the first of Lord Byron’s Oriental tales, ‘The Giaour’ from 1813. The fragmentary narrative poem, proved to be a major success and tells the story of a Turkish infidel, hence the name Giaour, who avenges the death of his love, Leila. As a member of the harem of Hassan Leila fell in love with the Giaour and, according to custom, was punished for her infidelity by being thrown into the sea when still alive. Unable to bear his loss the Giaour slays Hassan and retreats into a monastery. Due to the fact that one of the narrators – Byron chose three distinctive narrative voices to tell the story from different perspectives – puts a curse upon the Giaour for his deeds and predicts that he will never find rest but will roam the world as a vampire,9 the story is often seen as one of the first vampire narratives.10 However, the allusion to the life-sucking revenant is also due to the Giaour’s fiendish nature. The first narrator of the poem observes the Giaour from a far away cliff and sees in him ‘a demon of the night.’11 Special attention is given to the facial expression of the Giaour,

–  –  –

In this short description lies a typical feature of the Byronic hero and the Gothic villain: It is not necessarily the hellish deeds the protagonist performs which mark him as this particular kind of villain but the way he bears himself. Though the Giaour watched his enemy die, ‘I gazed upon him where he lay, And watched his spirit ebb away;’13 he is unable to bear the memory of his lost love and retreats into a monastery due to his remorse where he tells his story to one of the monks.

Already in our first encounter with the Giaour we are introduced to the idea that whatever has happened to him has left its trace not only on his face but also his soul.

But in that instant, o’er his soul Winters of Memory seemed to roll, The Attraction of Gothic Villains in 19th-Century Literature __________________________________________________________________

And gather in that drop of time A life of pain, an age of crime.

O’er him who loves, or hates, or fears, Such moment pours the grief of years – 14 Hans Richard Brittnacher points out that in contrast to other villainous protagonists the Giaour is a Byronic hero because he is represented as a torn melancholic who, due to his mental disposition, cannot but commit villainous deeds. The same, says Brittnacher, accounts for the Gothic villain: He is attractive because he is terrible and melancholic.15 This ambiguity bestows him with a fascination, which has been valued by readers through generations and can still be perceived in the villains and vampire figures of contemporary popular culture.

The Giaour knows about his sins and yet he does not confess to the monk to be granted absolution. He tells the story of his lost love and of the murder of Hassan so that the monk can give back a ring to a childhood friend of the Giaour’s. Again we encounter ambiguity in the villain’s character: He can watch a man die and slay uncountable enemies and yet in the end he needs to perform a final task which binds him in love and friendship to another being. Although he is well aware that he must not expect forgiveness, neither from the friar nor his childhood friend, 16 this final act will grant him peace for it allows him to finally die and be reunited with his lost love – we will encounter a similar wish in Heathcliff – ‘She sleeps beneath the wandering wave – Ah! Had she but an earthly grave, This breaking heart and throbbing head Should seek and share her narrow bed.’17 The Byronic hero and the Gothic villain make the laws of their worlds themselves. They decide for which sin they will do penance and which acts are necessary to find peace. The Giaour’s killing of Hassan was revenge. To tell his story to the friar and to honour the memory of his childhood friend will grant him a kind of self-chosen absolution so that his restless soul will finally find peace in the reunion with his lost love. In this idea we find two typical features of the Byronic hero which have their echo in the figure of the Gothic villain: The Byronic hero is homeless – not only in the sense that he has no permanent residence but in that he is ‘marked as a fugitive; his homelessness can be seen on his face.’18 Although the Giaour retreats into the monastery he never prays or talks to the monks, except to tell his story. ‘The Byronic figure’s lonely soul, while withdrawn from other men, human communities, values, a God, needs to be witnessed.’ 19 He cannot find peace through religion; only in death can he be reunited with his beloved and thus find an abject form of a permanent domicile because

–  –  –

For the Giaour, Leila represented this perfection.21 However, ‘the Byronic hero’s sweeping belief in the possibility of love as the most important force for defining being itself, and for locating the transcendental home’22 will never be fulfilled. Due to the fact that we know from the very beginning that Leila is dead and that the Giaour does not believe to find a second love his doom is inevitable and absolute.

‘Tis true, that, like that bird of prey, With havock have I marked my way – But this was taught me by the dove – To die – and know no second love.23 As he cannot forget his past and sees no future for himself, a home cannot be found among the living. The Byronic hero is not only doomed, he is a failure. He fails to protect his ideals of love, he fails to protect his beloved, and, due to his self-destructive potential, his narcissism, he also fails in society. In this the Giaour is a typical Byronic hero or, as Lutz calls it, a dangerous lover.

In its aestheticization of failure, dangerous love has its foundations in the finitude of being, on the edge of silence, in fragmentation, and in disintegration. Dangerous love plays with the outside – of possibility, life in society, happiness. The dangerous beloved hides a secret melancholic interiority that flashes out in passionate violence and rage. His misanthropy and self-exiled otherness cover a nature that once believed so deeply in ideals such as Truth, Beauty, and Purity, that his fall from this grace of faith plunges him into a doom of profound embittered brooding.

The dangerous lover actively maintains and embraces his failure by his work to remain outside social approval and morals.24 In his unsuitableness for the ‘domesticity of society’ 25 the Byronic hero differs from the Gothic villain. Thus, Lyn Pykett sees Heathcliff as a typical Gothic villain because ‘one major effect of Brontë’s adaptation of the Gothic frame tale in this novel is to locate the domestic as the source of the Gothic.’ 26 However, like the Giaour, Heathcliff’s demon-like depiction also invokes memories of the vampire.

Indeed, his vampiric features are far more prominent than the Giaour’s which also increases his attraction for the female protagonists in Wuthering Heights.

3. Heathcliff – The Gothic Villain In contrast to the Giaour we are introduced to Heathcliff as a child and experience his relationship to Cathy through the narrative of Nelly Dean, the housekeeper. As a child, Heathcliff ‘is ushered into the Heights for no good reason The Attraction of Gothic Villains in 19th-Century Literature __________________________________________________________________

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