Grant Ginder's joyously ribald The People We Hate at the Wedding takes family dysfunction to its hysterical limit, featuring two American siblings, Alice and Paul, attending a posh wedding in England they very much don't want to attend, with people they very much don't want to see. The novel is full of booze, family secrets, and hilariously bad decisions. Ginder picks 10 book characters we love to hate.
George Bernard Shaw once quipped that “Hatred is the coward’s revenge for being intimidated.” While that’s a noble maxim to cling to at family reunions, when it comes to fiction the fact is our favorite stories would be pretty dull if we rid them of their most loathsome characters. Try to think of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe without Voldemort, a villain whose name has become synonymous with evil, villainy, and certain Washington politicians. It just wouldn’t make sense: instead of an epic fight of good versus evil, you’d have a bespectacled teenager with a wand, sending postage via owl.
That said, the boundary between good and bad isn’t always so clear; not all characters who earn our scorn are dark wizards hell bent on destruction. In fact, in most cases they’re, well, uncomfortably closer to us. It’s here, of course, where things get more interesting. Because while we may resent a character’s deplorable actions, in the best books we nonetheless find ourselves understanding the character's motivations. Emma Bovary’s a selfish and narcissistic mother, but we’re still willing to stick with her.
Of course, owning up to this is not always easy; no one wants to admit he gets Humbert Humbert. Still, it’s often the characters who infuriate us who ultimately show us the most about ourselves. After all, rooting for the good guy is easy. Learning now to untangle a villain, though—that requires the sort of heroic empathy that only the best readers are made of.
To that end, what follows is a list of 10 of literature’s more loathsome people. Some of them, like David Melrose from Edward St, Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, are the sort of downright monsters that we can only read about with gritted teeth. Others, though, are a little more complicated. They strike a chord in us that’s as awful as it is familiar, reminding us of the ways we come up short as fathers and mothers, as sons and daughters.
1. Polonius from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Father to Ophelia and Laertes, chief counselor to King Claudius, conspirator, and the ultimate—and most insufferable—social climber. When he sends his son off to Paris, he loads him with enough trite maxims to drown the poor kid, the most famous of which—To thine own self be true—has graced the cover of more Hallmark graduation cards than any of us would like to admit. Meets a gruesome (though fitting?) end when Hamlet catches him spying behind an arras and stabs him.
2. Beth Jarrett from Ordinary People by Judith Guest
In all honesty, she’s had a hard run. Her oldest son died in a boating accident, and her youngest kid, Conrad, tried to off himself. Still, rather than dive in for a little couch time to address her demons, Beth takes to the golf course and focuses on keeping up appearances, no matter how frigidly she treats her family. Think Annette Benning circa American Beauty, but with early-'80s hair.
3. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
American literature’s favorite enfant terrible, Holden gives voice to generation after generation of disillusioned teenage readers. Try hanging out with this kid as an adult, though, and all you’ll be able to think about is that awkward summer before senior year when you coughed through cigarettes and overused phony.
I’ll let Mr. Cameron, in all of his genius, explain this one for me: “Gillian, who was between her third and fourth years at Barnard, was dating a ‘language theory’ professor named Rainer Maria Schultz and had consequently become a bit of a linguist zealot, often ranting about something called “pure” language, of which Gillian with a hard G was supposedly an example.”
Abusive, cruel, and woefully snobby, David squanders his (also hateable) wife Eleanor’s fortune, while simultaneously driving her to chase pills with vodka. He doesn’t stick around long—he only lives through the first of St. Aubyn’s magnificent Patrick Melrose cycle—but that doesn’t stop us from thinking he’s the absolute worst.
6. Anna from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Yes, she’s the title character in one of the greatest achievements of literary realism. She’s also a petulant brat. Anna’s like that friend of yours whose life is perfectly fine but nevertheless insists on screwing it up, just because she’s bored. Then, once she’s made a total mess of everything, she demands that you meet her for a glass of rosé right this second and never once asks how you’re doing.
7. Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In a novel populated solely by gin-fueled narcissists, Tom—Daisy’s husband—still manages to take the cake. Brutish, adulterous, and a card-carrying white supremacist, Tom indirectly orchestrates a murder after Daisy mows down his mistress in a hit-and-run.
8. Livia from I, Claudius by Robert Graves
You’ve got to hand it to her—no one wears the manipulative, plotting mother title with quite the aplomb as Livia. The wife of Emperor Augustus, she’s determined to have her son, Tiberius, succeed her husband as Rome’s leader. And she’ll do anything—and that includes poisoning, like, everyone—to see it happen.
9. Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
Two words: God complex.
10. Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
She means well—honestly, she does. It’s just that, to Mrs. Bennet, meaning well translates to pawning her daughters off to the richest suitors who come knocking. There’s also that pesky hypochondria thing—those classic, 18th century “nerves,” which flare up whenever things don’t go her way.