A complex, well-crafted antagonist is a work of sheer beauty. I am especially drawn to brilliant villains with compelling backstories, partly because they mirror a greater truth about our own reality. The most entrenched conflicts come from two or more parties who believe they’re doing the right thing, as this short video explains:
But what does this have to do with Charles Dickins’ A Tale of Two Cities?
At first, Madame Thérèse Defarge seems like an innocuous shopkeeper, but as the novel unfolds, Dickens reveals that Madame Defarge holds enormous power. What seems like a harmless, if somewhat obsessive, knitting hobby turns out to be a coded communication tool for the women of the revolution. With single-minded determination, she rallies a mob that carries out her vision of justice against the wealthy classes that ruined her childhood and destroyed her family. This constant need for vengeance ultimately becomes her undoing, and I find myself alternately cheering for her and denouncing her inability to work beyond the us/them mentality.
But the main reason I love Madame Defarge, and the reason she has stuck with me all this time, is how she transformed an innocent past time (knitting) into a means of orchestrating an entire revolution.
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