Heroes and Villains

        Why does almost every story have some sort of villain who causes conflict? For example, there is the evil stepmother in Cinderella, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and Norman Bates in Pyscho. What is it that makes the audience hate these characters? Is it their behavior towards the other characters, is it their deeds, or are they wrongly represented because we do not know their motives? Both Wuthering Heights and Washington Square have what will be referred to as villains, who act in such a way that the general public comes to hate them sometime in the book.

         In Wuthering Heights, written by Emily Brontë in 1847 and filmed by William Wyler in 1939, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) acts horribly toward everyone. He is very condescending to his child, Linton (who does not exist in the film), and to his wife, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), treating them with absolutely no respect. He insults his brother, Hindley (Hugh Williams), possibly because the young Hindley (Douglas Scott) was quite mean to the boy Heathcliff (Rex Downing) in the earlier portions of the book and film. But Heathcliff behaves the worst to the one that he loves the most--Catherine (Sarita Wooten as a girl/Merle Oberon as an adult). Everything he says and does is meant solely to hurt Catherine. When Heathcliff goes away, Catherine marries Edgar Linton (David Niven). When he returns, he is so hurt from Catherine's marriage (because he still deeply loves her but can no longer have her) that he basically devotes his life to bringing pain to Catherine.

         His love/hate of Catherine even affects the next generation in the book but not in the film. First, Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton out of spite. Then he demands his young son live with him when he hears that Isabella has died (he just learns that he has a son when Edgar goes to get Linton), even though Isabella had wanted him to live at Edgar's house. Later in the story, Heathcliff kidnaps little Catherine to manipulate Linton into marrying her; however, once she is in his house, he treats her horribly and makes her want to return to her father's house.

        Was it wrong for Heathcliff to hurt Catherine to get back at her? Was it wrong for Heathcliff to torment everyone because he has no way to deal with his pain and suffering? Does he behave the way he does because he is in pain and wants others to feel the same as he does, or does he enjoy seeing pain on their faces?

        Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend are characters that most of the readers of Washington Square,written by Henry James in 1880, and viewers of The Heiress, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1949, will come to hate. In the beginning, the audience is rooting for the young couple of Morris (Montgomery Clift) and Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). But as Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is introduced, he immediately sees another side of Morris--a self-confident, arrogant, intelligent man who is really out for his daughter's wealth. So Dr. Sloper devises many plans and tricks to help his daughter see exactly what he sees in Morris. One time Sloper corners Morris in a room, trying to get him to admit that he is only after the money and that he does not care for his daughter in the least. Sloper also tries to force his daughter to see what a low-life her fiancé really is by talking about faults he sees in Morris and by telling her the conversations he has had with Morris' sister. Then as a final test, he takes Catherine away to Europe for six months in order to help her forget Morris. He tries all this but fails.

        Was Sloper wrong to care for his daughter? Was he wrong to force his beliefs on her? Sloper cares a great deal for his daughter, although she is a great disappointment to him because she was not like his wife, who was brilliant and beautiful, as contrasted with Catherine, who is average and plain. Dr. Sloper realizes that she is being taken advantage of, therefore becoming defensive.

        Morris Townsend is a great catch of a man. He is brilliant, proper, handsome, and everything else a woman would ask for, but Morris is a gold digger. He is only after Catherine's money. He bails on her as soon as he finds out that Dr. Sloper would disinherit his daughter if she marries him. Morris gets caught up in the monetary value of Catherine and never actually sees what kind of person she really is. He takes advantage of her and her situation and tries to benefit from her. Was Morris wrong by trying to marry Catherine? Was he wrong to try to marry someone with money? If Morris loved Catherine, he was not wrong in marrying her. In the end, however, we realize he loves Catherine's money more than he loves Catherine.

        A constant theme runs among all of these villains--they all are unhappy. Heathcliff is searching for a way to cope with the fact that he can never be with Catherine. Dr. Sloper is searching for a way to bring back his deceased wife because he misses her greatly. Morris Townsend is searching for happiness by acquiring money. So the question is as follows: What is the difference between villains and the heroes? Can they be the same people? In these examples, the determining factor of whether the character is a villain or a hero is their actions. If Heathcliff had dealt with his unhappiness, not trying to make everyone else miserable, then he would not have been such a bad person. If Dr. Sloper had just accepted Catherine as she was, not trying to make her life decisions for her, then he would have appeared a much better person. If Morris had loved Catherine for who she was, not trying to marry into a fortune, then he would have seemed a loving man. So it is all in the choices every person makes as to whether each will become a villain or a hero.

Ben Hocker

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