Authors put a lot of effort into creating villains that we love to hate. Think about the Wicked Witch of the West, Cruella de Vil, The Joker, Voldemort… all those villains make us shudder, make us angry, make us scared, and make us cry. As fun as it can be to let these villains run amok, and make 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 list of the best villain downfalls in literature.
From Dracula by Bram Stoker
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. Dracula 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. Read my full review of Dracula here.
From Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
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.)
From David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
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, sneaky, and awful. He protests that he is just 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. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.
From Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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, one of the best villain downfalls in literature, and it feels so good!
From In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
Perhaps not as well-known as the others on this list, but certainly just as brutal, is the unnamed Officer from In The Penal Colony, one of Franz Kafka’s short stories. The 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
From In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This might be a controversial inclusion, given that the villains in question weren’t fictional, but I stand by it. Truman Capote’s true crime account of the Clutter murders may read like a novel, but the downfalls of murderers Hickock and Smith were very real. Throughout Capote’s telling, you learn intimate details about their rather miserable lives, culminating in their heinous crime, 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 when it comes to “bad guys”. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
Becky Sharp & Emma Sedley
From Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
I couldn’t help myself, I had to include this one: one of the best villain downfalls in literature, but in reverse! 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!) got 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. Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.
From The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
Here’s a more recent example: seeing Tom get his comeuppance in Paula Hawkins’ heart-racing crime thriller will definitely have you heaving a sigh of relief. It’s like a modern version Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in that a gaslighting motherfucker gets called out on his bullshit, and the sisters are doing it for themselves. I’m not advocating murder, but I must say the (fictional) world feels safer without Tom in it. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.