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Five Obsessively Ambitious and Wildly Vengeful Protagonists

Written by Jason Harris

Ah, that sweet dish of vengeance that we hear is best served cold. Everyone should read Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo to experience the bitter passionate endurance of Edmond Dante’s outrage at betrayal and his merciless commitment to vengeance. The longing for vengeance is also often connected in literature to the ambitious desire to one day “show them all” what the protagonist believes will validate their burning desire for distinction in a highly competitive field.

Thus, the story of vengeance and ambition often connects with the story of maturation (bildungsroman), especially when that story of maturation focuses on the progress of an artist (künstlerroman). In addition, in that miserably long gap between the apprenticeship of the suffering young artist who aspires to a greater fulfillment and the longed-for artistic success, there is often the agony of envy at some charming competitor who already enjoys something of the earthly rewards that the young artist covets. Or there may be a confident contempt for the undeserving philistines. Or a misanthropic hatred in general. Such is the case with Patrick Suskind’s olfactory-crafting protagonist in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which combines both artistic pursuit with superlative ambition and unrestrained violence.

History has shown us more than once how a frustrated artist, whether painter or poet, might become a dangerous dictator ready to force his vision upon others. But it is within the realm of fiction and folklore that I have been most inspired with imaginative volatile protagonists driven towards creative acts of vengeance. So, without further ado, here is my list of Five Obsessively Ambitious and Wildly Vengeful Protagonists that helped to influence my novella Master of Rods and Strings.

the cask of amontillado small The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

Montressor in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado has paper-thin irascibility but laudable sang-froid. In hyperbolic narcissistic and paranoid fashion, he’s believed he’s suffered a whopping “thousand injuries” from this schmuck Fortunato. Also, Montressor feels quite jealous; he implies he’s been supplanted by the upstart Fortunato: “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was”—and we learn that Montressor’s family has a motto indicating, “no one harms me with impunity,” which happens to be the motto of Scotland too. Whether Montressor is in fact connected to Scottish royalty, or Poe is rifting from Scotland’s motto to his protagonist’s family, or Montressor is lying, we just don’t know. But the grandiosity of the motto perfectly fits the excessive rhetoric of Montressor, and he internalizes the ethos of that motto for planning his revenge: “I must not only punish but punish with impunity.” In other words, in his own decision to harm another person, Montressor is determined that no punishment will reach him, which actually exceeds the criteria alleged motto for his family. He will not be harmed without punishment; he will be the punisher, and he will punish without any punishment for himself! Sophisticated entitled badass with a plan that works.

the complete fairy tales of the brothers grimm small King of the Golden Mountain

Here we have an ambitious young fellow who doesn’t freak out when his father has promised him to some sorcerer who may be the Devil. Lad keeps a level head, draws a circle of protection around himself, and goes underground—literally—and gets a romance going with a snake princess, who offers to marry him after he lets himself get beheaded. They do get married, but it’s all downhill from there. His wife leaves when he breaks the taboo of not revealing their connection to his father, and when the young sorcerer heads home without his wife, he acquires some potent magical items from three giants he outsmarts. The most gnarly of these items is a sword that chops off everyone else’s head when he says, “Everyone’s head off but mine.” He puts this to use when the various courtiers mock him when he returns to find his wife, who has taken up with a new beau. Best to read the Jack Zipes translation of the first edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

The Red and the Black by Stendhahl

Julien in Stendhahl’s The Red and the Black is a working-class young man frustrated that his path to emulating Napoleon seems blocked, but he is also an unusually ruthless, daring, and petulant social-climber. Rather than a military career, he turns to seduction of married women to advance within the hierarchy when he sees no other route for advancement in early nineteenth-century France. On the cusp of marrying into an aristocratic family, Julien is outed by a former mistress. He tries to murder her for revenge, but—partly due to his stubborn pride—he ends up getting executed. He’s an energetic vitriolic character who propels the plot forward nicely with his determination and arrogance.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

Like Julien, the protagonist K. in Kafka’s The Castle has socio-political ambitions. He’s supposedly a land-surveyor, but what he’d really love to figure out is how to get admitted to the castle looming over this dull village and learn what those mysterious elite goings-on might be behind the mundane scenes. However, he’s prevented by bureaucrats from ever getting into that castle to find the truth behind the everyday show—at least, he’s blocked perpetually in the unfinished version we’re stuck with till someone travels to the underworld to hear the rest of the story or resurrects Kafka to finish his work. But regardless, it’s likely K. is going to keep trying—he’s always got an angle and is as dogged as Sisyphus, but by desire rather than by doom. The doom of someone’s desire probably unites all these protagonists.

My Work is Not Yet Done by Thomas Ligotti

In this novella by Thomas Ligotti, we are immersed in some delightfully macabre consequences set in motion by the firing of Frank Domino. Those who pushed him out of his job fall dead like dominoes, and the results are far more darkly entertaining than my silly pun. This story has been compared to the writing of Kafka, but rest assured, it’s far more violent and supernatural. It’s a perfectly felicitous marriage of corporate and cosmic horror, and I can only hope Severance will take some cues from this novella. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, the road to a satisfying vengeance in My Work is Not Yet Done does not quite run smoothly, and that is part of the inextricable paradox of ambitious vengeance.

Like any other desire, the initial tempting vision of greatness and vengeance fulfilled may not quite match the ultimate execution by flawed protagonists. Vengeance, envy, and ambition are fickle dance partners known to knife and ditch those who waltz with them for long. I can’t resist adding this final observation: if counting my own Master of Rods and Strings, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Red and the Black, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, that’s four stories of ambition, envy, and revenge that take place in France!

Horror DNA would like to thank Jason for sharing this piece with us! Pick up his latest by clicking one of the links below:

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