Loving the Beast: Or What I Learned From Loving the Villain

Luke Evans as Gaston. I approve.im-such-a-bad-boy

Everyone thinks the story Beauty and the Beast is about Belle and the Beast, a cursed prince, but really it’s about Gaston’s ability to expectorate, decorate with antlers, and his slide into hell.

You can keep your pure-hearted heroines and heroes. I’ve always liked fairy tale villains best. Villains give a better example of what it means to be truly human. Villains face or ignore their own shortcomings. Villains illustrate the concept of free will. Villains demonstrate human frailty, human morality. Villains illuminate how to and how not to behave if one wants to be loved, accepted, and admired. We learn more about ourselves from the villain’s actions than we do from the heroine’s or hero’s actions.

Heroines and heroes can be kind of boring, particularly if they are all goody-goody, principled types. Why I think Cinderella is boring as dry grass is that I never learned anything from her, and I never learned anything from Sleeping Beauty, from The Little Mermaid, or Snow White either—other than if you’re pretty people hate you. But I learned plenty from the evil stepmother, nasty stepsisters, and The Evil Queens: If you do something mean it will, eventually, bite you on the ass and lead to your downfall.

Best to avoid being mean.

I love a well-fleshed out villain, but what I love even more is a character who has villainous traits. For me, what makes Mr Rochester far more interesting than Mr High Morals Darcy is that Rochester has a secret, a screaming wraith of a secret that makes him deceitful. The secret is in the attic and it very nearly ruins him. What do we learn from Rochester’s villainous behavior?

Polygamy is bad and don’t keep secrets from the woman you love.

queen2Naturally, my love for a bit o’ badness points to the usual discussion about ‘niceness,’ as in how the leads, particularly the female lead in a romance novel, must be ‘nice,’ never nasty or bitchy, which points to the double standard discussion about how women ‘ought to behave,’ and how older women have been maligned for centuries, which points to a discussion on social mores blah, blah…

I want more female leads in romance fiction to be villainous, to have villainous traits the way Scarlett O’Hara and Rochester do. While Scarlett’s behavior in Gone With The Wind would never be questioned if she had been a man, she is, like Rochester, a perfect example of how good people, men and women, do bad things to protect what they love.

Yes, that is what I learned from Scarlett O’Hara and Mr Rochester.

What I learned from fairy tales wasn’t be pretty, be tidy, kiss frogs because they may be princes. My education came from the villains. I learned to never pretend to be something I wasn’t because that would get me shut up in a cask stuck with nails and dragged through the streets. I leaned to never be wicked to others because that would get me shut up in a vat with poisonous snake and then boiled in oil. I learned to be happy and grateful for what I have because, like the materialistic fisherman’s wife, I could lose it all in a flash, and its only ‘stuff.’

In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston’s utter ruin teaches us how to be human far better than the Beast does when he is transformed by love. Gaston’s transformation from man into a real hellish beast shows us that the villains are the true teachers in fairy tales and in life.

9 thoughts on “Loving the Beast: Or What I Learned From Loving the Villain

  1. Sheesh..serves me right to try to correct a spelling error when I ought to be in bed. Comment got away from me before I was done. That should be ‘ or anything that romanticises racism or hatred. ‘

    • Indeed she is. My point is more about how villainous characters teach a moral tale better than sweet and kind and nice. Scarlett’s racism (the whole book’s inherent racism) is a big signpost about the evils of prejudice and intolerance.

      • It may be a big signpost, but it’s told from the point of view of the racist people and lots of readers still find it romantic so I’m very wary of holding it up as an example of something we need more of.

      • I am not suggesting in any way that we need more racist characters r anything that romanticises You bring up an interesting aspect historical fiction. How does one write a piece of work set in a particular epoch and not sugar coat the horrible things that occurred?

      • Not sure I’ve got this threaded right but re

        “How does one write a piece of work set in a particular epoch and not sugar coat the horrible things that occurred?”

        I think African American historical romance authors such as Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole and Piper Huguley do a great job of this. It’s about who you choose to centre in stories and also on the author’s perspective more broadly and how that shapes the plot and how the reader is intended to perceive those characters.

      • I agree with you. So now to this, which I hope will make more sense, and have fewer typos now that I am awake and the sun in shining.

        Your comment about intent and perspective is why I find it fascinating to read any book, such as GWTW, The Secret Garden, The Little House series that was written, not merely set, at a certain time in history — be it the US Civil War, The Boer War, etc– to observe how social mores have shifted. Because we have moved beyond that point in time (or maybe not if the US election is any indication) it is sometimes difficult to discuss those novels today; we see them with today’s social perspective, rather than through the lends of when they were written. This often makes it a greater challenge to discuss modern novels (not just romance) that are set in those same eras. Author intent to show history as it was, and a reader’s perception of the author’s intent may cross lines and open up a can of worms. The good thing is, readers are able to observe history and social change, particularly in those older books, and, hopefully, learn from the tale and the characters.

        My post about how I see fairy tale villains as the morality parable, and what I learned from them, has shifted to include learning from the historical and social setting of a story, which could be a post, a paper, and a study of it’s own, which means I would need a lot more coffee.

        I always enjoy your thoughts and discussing things with you, Laura!

      • “we have moved beyond that point in time (or maybe not if the US election is any indication)”

        There’s been a lot of rhetoric during and after the Brexit vote which suggests a fair number of people in the UK think the Empire was a wonderful thing, and the Queen does still makes people members of the Order of the British Empire, so maybe some people will see The Secret Garden as a depiction of a golden age of British history.

        “Author intent to show history as it was”

        Is it possible to “show history as it was” without any sort of bias? I suspect not, both in fiction and in works of history.

        “I always enjoy your thoughts and discussing things with you, Laura!”

        Thanks! I like having conversations too, and I suppose when I pick up on something that seems incidental-ish to the main argument of a post, it’s because in the main I agree with it so instead of saying “I agree” I pick up on a point that seems discussable (is that even a word?). If current events hadn’t put me in a very bad mood I’d probably have started “I mostly agree but…” Sorry for being abrupt.

      • You know what they say about ‘history repeating…’
        It’s fab that you pick up on things, Laura, particularly when it’s an issue I didn’t notice or consider when I wrote the post. It gives me pause to think with greater depth. I like that!

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