Root For the Bad Guy

Some novels have you crossing your fingers hoping the protagonist isn’t caught by the police. It’s the more interesting ones, though, where the protagonist really ought to be caught. And still you’re hoping he gets away.

What’s wrong with you? You want this murdering sociopath to continue dodging justice, so your moral compass must be spinning like a cat in a dryer.

Because he’s the narrator? Right, because he’s the one talking to you, that makes it okay? He’s just so poetically inspired by his twelve-year-old muse that his pedophilia becomes forgivable? Well, whatever the reason, Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the touchstones of twentieth-century literature.

Or maybe the “hero” isn’t that bad a chap, really. At least after he’s realized the legal and moral consequences of his transgression—he’s not above the basic laws of man. Sounds like Crime and Punishment.

But the reason I can get behind Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley is a trickier one to uncover. This has dogged me for a couple days. It’s in third-person, so intimacy isn’t a large factor in his appeal. And he is not a good guy; redemption has no part in his agenda. So why is it the common experience to hope this creepy, self-entitled narcissist can keep up his charade long enough to catch a bullet train into the sunset?

Two reasons I can think of.

1. What he’s doing is interesting. He’s slithering his way into a relative stranger’s life and taking it over. You have to be impressed by his gift for mimicry, his dedication to assuming every tic and mannerism of Dickie Greenleaf. But even more engrossing than his impersonation is the reason he’s doing it, which is a psychoanalytical can of worms. You want Tom to keep winning because if he doesn’t, no more entertainment.

2. Everyone else is annoying. Did you notice that you don’t particularly like any of the “good” characters? Sure, you feel sorry for Dickie, who’s a decent young guy who doesn’t deserve to be tenderized by a rowing oar. And Marge has done nothing wrong unless it’s being in love with Dickie. But screw them, they’re boring. Just a couple of American expats living a dull “Hmm-I-think-I’ll-paint-today” life in an exotic locale. A little murder would be good for them.

(I’ve never read American Psycho, another novel maybe fitting the topic, but I’d be curious to know if these criteria are at work in that book, too.)

Normally when we think of morally flawed protagonists, they’re what we’d call anti-heroes. But what if they aren’t flawed so much as morally bankrupt?  That’s part of what makes a character like Thomas Ripley so special. He should be stopped, and you don’t want him to be.

And that doesn’t even bother you… does it?


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