Peck Out Her Eyes, She Deserves It!

Vindictiveness in Fiction

'Just Desserts,' by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

‘Just Desserts,’ by Paulina Smit. Creative Commons.

Some versions of Cinderella end with her ordering her bird-friends to peck out her stepsisters’ eyes. Yes, the sweet, lovely Cinderella whom we all heard about as a kid – though clearly not the Disney version. Apparently she decided to take revenge and punish her sisters by blinding them in the most gruesome way she could think of. Or, in other versions of the story, exiling them to the wilderness, or forcing them to be slaves.

 I always preferred the endings where she invites her stepsisters and stepmother to live in the castle instead, and teaches them how to be gracious. After all, Cinderella is supposed to be better than them, and if she resorts to petty vindictiveness to punish them, how is she better than her stepsisters, who mistreated her because she was prettier than them?

 I always wanted to think if anyone could be outstandingly forgiving, it was Cinderella. And I always wanted to think the stepsisters learned to be better people after what happened. Maybe I’m just an optimist about humanity.

 But, strangely enough, vindictiveness is a strong theme in many works of fiction. I mean, take The Count of Monte Cristo. This is a book completely centred around a man taking revenge, it is regarded as a true classic, and its plot keeps getting used by many other works (the movie, The Mask of Zorro, for instance, and Charade, an actual Christian inspirational fiction book that uses the same plot).

 In the book, the Count of Monte Cristo takes great pleasure in revenge. He manipulates a man’s wife to commit suicide and take her son with her as well, driving the man insane. Then he destitutes another man, and causes a third to commit suicide. Of course, the point of the book is that they all deserved it, but still…

 Clearly, punishing people who were mean to you is attractive to most readers, and I’m not really surprised this natural human reaction is so popular. Everyone likes to see someone get their comeuppance. I am surprised that I don’t enjoy it. Like I said before, I like the versions of Cinderella where she doesn’t punish her stepsisters, and the parts of The Count of Monte Cristo where he relents instead of taking revenge. But this quirk of mine ends up interfering with my enjoyment of other classics as well.

 Take Roald Dahl. Everyone loves Roald Dahl! Everyone’s read at least a dozen of his books in their childhood – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, etc. So I read them too, and they confused me like crazy. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to laugh or feel bad (I actually felt bad) when James’ aunts get flattened by the giant peach, or Veruca Salt gets carried away by squirrels.

 So while I knew these books were wonderfully creative and inventive – no one’s written about being inside a chocolate factory before! And definitely not a chocolate factory that was so fun – I couldn’t get past feeling uncomfortable with them. In this case, I never particularly felt that the characters in the book were the vindictive ones – Charlie, or James, for example. It was just this undercurrent of vindictiveness that ran through most of the books – as if the author himself was exorcizing his demons.

 So here’s the thing – bad characters should learn something, or be punished, or whatever makes a satisfactory ending to a story. But what I find uncomfortable is when other characters take this into their own hands. Because I don’t believe we ever see things quite clearly when we’ve been hurt. And I’m always afraid that taking this kind of revenge just tangles things up and makes them worse.

But that’s just me. What do you think about vindictiveness in fiction?

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Filed under -- BOOKISH THOUGHTS

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