Authors put a lot of effort into creating villains that we love to hate. Think Wicked Witch of the West, Cruella de Vil, The Joker, Voldemort… villains that make us shudder, make us angry, make us scared, and make us cry. As much as it can be artistically beautiful to let these villains run amok, and have the good guys lose a battle now and then, I think we can all agree that there is no greater satisfaction than seeing a villain’s downfall. To celebrate this collective schadenfreude, I’ve put together a Keeping Up With The Penguins list of the best villain downfalls in literature.
The recent popularity of vampire novels might make us a bit more sympathetic to the plight of the bloodsucking night-walker, but if you read Bram Stoker’s original novel, it’s hard to feel sorry for this creepy motherfucker. He kidnaps, assaults, spies on and out-smarts the protagonists at every turn… but in the end, he gets knifed, his powers are destroyed, and his vampire “sisters” don’t fare too well either. It’s a huge relief, tbh. Check out my full review of Dracula here.
Alec Stoke-d’Urberville (Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
Tess of the d’Urbervilles is probably better known as a dirty book, but trust me: Alec has one of the best villain downfalls in literature. He knocks Tess up out of wedlock, blames her for his fall from Christian grace, manipulates her, and acts like an all-round lecherous prick. Tess gets him in the end though – she stabs him in a frenzy, and runs off chasing her one true love. (OK, fine, Tess ends up paying the price for her crime too, but her vengeance is still fucking awesome.)
Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)
I remember my grandfather telling me as a child that Charles Dickens was the most inventive and brutal writer in the English language when it came to writing villain downfalls. Uriah Heep is truly repulsive, writhing, sneaky, and awful. He protests that he is a “‘umble servant”, while exploiting the vulnerable and robbing everyone blind (not to mention that he still lives with his mother…). In the end, Mr Micawber outsmarts him, proving what a thieving bastard he is; Heep is forced to make reparations, he loses the position he connived to attain, and later he ends up in a god-awful Victorian prison. The whole downfall is, of course, beautifully written (and you can read the rest of my
love letter to Dickens review of David Copperfield here).
Humbert Humbert (Lolita)
Technically, in the case of Nabokov’s Lolita, the villain was also the protagonist, but it was still really satisfying to see the disgusting Humbert Humbert get what was coming to him. After obsessively manipulating and abusing Lolita throughout her teenage years, she runs off with another man, leaving Humbert heartbroken and devastated. His grief (sharpened by news of Lolita’s pregnancy to her new lover) leads him to seek out and kill the man he believes “took” Lolita from him, and that crime lands him in jail. He dies awaiting trial. A miserable end for a miserable man, and it feels so good!
The Officer (In The Penal Colony)
Perhaps not as well-known as the others on this list, but certainly more brutal than any of them, is The Officer from In The Penal Colony, one of Franz Kafka’s short stories. The unnamed Officer is a strong advocate for the use of a punishment apparatus on his colony; wrong-doers (without trial or opportunity for defense) are slowly tortured by needles that pierce their skin with the words of the commandment they have violated. If that weren’t grotesque enough, the officer meets his end by climbing into the machine itself, only to have it malfunction and needle him to his death. Kafka’s never a cheery read, but he sure knew how to take down a bad guy!
Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock & Perry Edward Smith (In Cold Blood)
This might be a controversial inclusion, given that the villains in question weren’t fictional. Truman Capote’s true crime account may read like a novel, but the downfalls of murderers Hickock and Smith were very much real. Throughout Capote’s telling, you learn intimate details about their rather miserable lives, culminating in their heinous crime (where they brutally murdered a family of four), after which they are ultimately captured and put to death themselves. It’s a sad story, and raises all kinds of questions about the “justice” of the death penalty. (You can read my complete review of In Cold Blood here – it’s recommended reading from Keeping Up With The Penguins.)
Becky Sharp & Emma Sedley (Vanity Fair)
I couldn’t help myself, I had to include this one: a great villain downfall, but in reverse! In this case, I was super-glad that the boring Amelia Sedley (the “good” girl) had to live out a dull life of hum-drum struggle, while the fabulous Becky Sharp (who may have been immoral and shameless, but also great fun!) gets to run off with the life insurance money of the husband she murdered and go on an adventure! I say it counts, because Vanity Fair is famously called the “novel without a hero”, so I can call boring Amelia the “villain” all I want. (This snarky entry might make more sense if you check out my full review of Vanity Fair here.)
Tom (The Girl on the Train)
Here’s a more recent example: seeing Tom get his comeuppance in Paula Hawkins’ novel will definitely have you heaving a sigh of relief. It’s much like a modern Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in that a gaslighting motherfucker gets called out on his bullshit, and the sisters are doing it for themselves. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.
So, if you’re at a point in your life where you’re feeling a bit disheartened, maybe it seems like the good guys always lose out or that karma never quite comes around, try giving one of these a go. Seeing the villains get what’s coming to them never fails to lift the spirits! 😉 What do you think is the best villain downfall? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).