Let’s talk villains. I would argue that a good villain drives readership like little else. Yes, we need a sympathetic hero seeking a worthwhile goal for most breakout novels (think Harry Potter), but your Snidely Whiplash, your Boris and Natasha, well, people just focus on them. And few names resonate more than Simon Legree, the bullet-headed villain in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
This is one of the greatest novels ever written, and I wonder if it may be the most underestimated. Stowe does a breathtaking job of driving plot and conflict, right from the first chapter. She builds sympathy, puts her characters in terrible situations, and gives them heart-rending choices. It’s worth studying for those reasons. But villains can be hard to make real, and she is especially strong here.
Legree is introduced thus, at a slave auction: “a short, broad, muscular man, in a checked shirt considerably open at the bosom, and pantaloons much the worse for dirt and wear, elbowed his way through the crowd… coming up to the group, began to examine them systematically.” You know from the first that he’s unpleasant, and the way Tom reacts to him gives the reader even more of a clue: “(Tom) felt an immediate and revolting horror at him, that increased as he came near… his large, coarse mouth was distended with tobacco.” He mistreats the women (for a novel written in more genteel times, there are no punches pulled), and sneers at the men. Tom has some few personal items when he is bought. Legree immediately sells them for his own profit, and to show Tom his place. The reader is left with a helpless rage, a horror that this was how it worked, and a deepening fear for the hero. Legree won’t let his slaves have religion. He tells Tom, “I’m your church now… you’ve got to be as I say.” Then he boasts to a stranger how hard he is, and how he gets the most from his slaves that way. As he takes his new slaves to his plantation, he forces them to sing something rowdy. “and was well-pleased. He was making them ‘keep up their spirits.'” He is deaf to the spiritual: “There was a prayer in (the song) which Simon could not hear.” With every new characteristic revealed, we hate the guy more.
Stowe has a brilliant eye for character: “Legree had been drinking to the degree that he was inclined to be very gracious.” We’ve all met drunks like that. Legree lets his plantation get run down, only caring about work that will make him money. He manipulates his two slave assistants, playing them off each other, rewarding them for being cruel to the other slaves, roping them into his evil ways, rewarding them for telling on each other. Such attention to the character’s detail is amazing. But even more, Legree is a jealous man, who cannot bear Tom’s spiritual strength. So he tries to make Tom complicit in his evil, ordering him to flog another slave. When Tom won’t, Legree nearly goes mad.
That, it seems to me, is the way to reveal an evil character. Show his various facets, show how he treats others, then show his weaknesses, and how other characters fight back.
I’ve read now, by my count, over 250 classic novels. Of those, this book is now in my top 10 all time. The story weakened a little right at the end, but its overall power ultimately made that irrelevant. This is as good as writing gets. Messy, clear-eyed, and tough. It cries out to be made into an opera (or three).
The book, as Lincoln said, that started the Civil War. Reading it, I can see why.
Happy Reading, Happy Writing,
P M F Johnson
Call of the Labyrinth, the next novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.
The Song Of The Lark – Cather
Barchester Towers – Trollope
Animal Farm – Orwell