When working on a biography of Chanakya, ancient Indian kingmaker, author of the Arthashastra, a classic treatise on statecraft, it struck me that the theme of revenge is a very absorbing one to write about, read as well. Chanakya may not be a fictional character, but the story of his vow to extract redress for an insult by King Dhana Nanda of Pataliputra by dethroning him, is as riveting a tale as any imaginary account of vengeance executed. Dhana Nanda was a ruler so powerful that even Alexander the Great hesitated to take him on, and Chanakya’s quest to get even is said to be behind the founding of the Mauryan Empire, when he placed his protégé Chandragupta on the Nanda’s throne.
Amazing how far revenge can drive a person! This is exactly what makes it such a compelling theme. First of all, the deed that demands reprisal provides such strong motivation for the protagonist that it takes control of the major action of the story. Inner and outer conflict, the see saw of events that will propel you to your dénouement, all arise from it. There is fertile ground to create suspense as well. Is it going to happen now? Will she succeed or will he fail? Or will she/he have a change of heart? Repent eventually, or gloat?
A protagonist single minded or obsessive enough to scheme vengeance and follow it through to its bitter end is most likely to capture the imagination of your readers. They might sympathise with the character, or detest her/him but will certainly be interested in discovering the outcome of all that plotting.
There are many novels both popular and classic with revenge as their theme that are memorable. One that comes easily to mind is Vendetta: A Story of One Long Forgotten by Marie Corelli, an author whose works I devoured in my school days, but who no longer enjoys the same following. I still recall the scene in which the hero Count Fabio Romani, who has been buried alive, returns to consciousness and how it made my heart thump in anticipation. Even more so the one in which he discovers his wife Nina and best friend Guido’s betrayal. Count Fabio’s elaborate plan of revenge and its implementation was so gripping that it was a wrench to tear myself away from the book when my strictly enforced school routine demanded it. Count Fabio’s extreme misogyny was disturbing, true, but not enough to abandon the book. I needed to know if he actually accomplished his plan and how he felt when he had.
Novels of revenge must indeed be dark and brooding. But the way they take hold of us is intriguing. Who can forget Heathcliff, one of the most tragically mesmerising of fictional characters ever created? When I first read Wuthering Heights, also in my school days, I conjured up the image of a towering man with a tortured face that could never soften into a smile. The graphic descriptions of this archetypal anti-hero create a vivid picture of his appearance: “Do you mark those two lines between your eyes; and those thick brows, that, instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil's spies?”
Heathcliff exudes gloom but vengeful personalities are fascinating because they are so obsessive. Chanakya is supposed to have exacted revenge to his satisfaction, though his own end was eventually violent. But the accomplishment of the deed does not always bring gratification or resolution.
Remember the bizarre Miss Havisham in Great Expectations? The jilted woman who brought up a girl, Estella, to be heartless so she could execute her guardian’s vengeance on the male sex. However, her plans go somewhat awry and she ultimately recognises the error of her ways. Our hearts go out to her, despite the fact that she used Pip, the protagonist, as a guinea pig in her scheme.
Heathcliff remains more enigmatic, even though a change begins to come over him towards the end and he does actually smile in his death. As the narrator Nelly Dean says: “His eyes met mine so keen, and fierce, I started: and then, he seemed to smile.”
Perhaps tales of revenge grab us because they help us to work out our own negative feelings about people who have treated us unfairly. While we long to retaliate, in real life few of us can pursue such a course wholeheartedly. But many a time too, we feel gratified that we forgave and forgot because the revenge taker is mostly rewarded with only a sour satisfaction.