Since I have recently done posts on genocide, airport security, and - worst of all - the US News law school rankings, it's time for a lighter subject. Bryan Caplan asks his readers what if any fictional villains they identify with.
This turns out to be a tougher question than I at first thought. In considering my own list of seemingly sympathetic fictional villains, it turns out that they all fall into one of four categories that undercut their villain status.
NOTE: This post contains a spoilers for Jane Austen's classic novel Pride and Prejudice, Frank Herbert's Dune, and Oliver Stone's famous 1987 movie Wall Street. Continue at your own risk below the fold.
The classic example is Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. He seems to be the bad guy during the first half of the book, but it turns out that the main character got him completely wrong.
II. I sympathize with the villain because I disagree with the story's ideological message.
Sometimes, I sympathize with the villain over the hero because I oppose the message the story is intended to convey. For example, I sympathize with evil financier Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street as against the neo-Marxist union leader played by Martin Sheen. Gekko's decision to shut down Blue Star Airlines (the main supposedly villainous action he commits in the story) seem to me perfectly justified, and indeed a boon to consumers and the American economy. That, of course, is not the message Oliver Stone intended to convey. Basically, this comes down to my disagreeing with Oliver Stone's anti-market ideology, though I think he's a great filmmaker.
Similarly, I sympathize with the carpetbagger and scalawag bad guys in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. That's because I oppose her racist/pro-Confederate ideological message, and sympathize with those who sought to modernize the economy of the South and give southern blacks equal rights under the law (an objective Mitchell explicitly condemns in the book, even though it's only implicit in the 1939 movie).
III. The villain isn't really responsible for his actions.
This, presumably, is one of the reasons for Bryan's sympathy for Gollum in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Arguably, Gollum wasn't responsible for his actions because he was in thrall to the Ring of Power. I dissent from that view, but it's a common one among Tolkien readers.
IV. The villain turns out to be the lesser of two evils.
Sometimes, a villain commits genuine sins and bears full responsibility for them, but I have some residual sympathy for his cause because it's not as bad as the alternative. As I discussed in this post, that's why I tend to sympathize with the Emperor and the Harkonnens in Frank Herbert's Dune. They are evil, repressive, and (in the case of the Baron Harkonnen) depraved. But their tyranny is not as bad as Paul Atreides' Fremen Jihad, which ends up killing billions of innocent people.
However, I can't see myself sympathizing with villains whose actions don't fall into one of the four categories above. Can you?
UPDATE: I think some of the commenters are missing the distinction between villains we can empathize with (in the sense that they have motives that we can understand), and those who we sympathize with. For example, I can understand Lenin's or Hitler's motivations for what they did. That's not the same thing as sympathizing with them.