The Evil Appeal of Sociopaths in Literature

Here’s a conundrum: I meant to sit down and make a list of sociopaths in literature, but when I had finished it I realized that I had simply made a list of all my favorite characters in literature. This probably necessitates some soul-searching on my part. 

Of course, I’m not the first person to be taken in by sociopaths. Sociopaths are known for their charm. And, at least in a book where it can’t really hurt anybody, isn’t the charismatic lack of conscience a little bit refreshing?

There are three literary sociopaths that are especially dear to me. None of them seek a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the course of their literary lives, and I am no psychiatrist, so I use the non-clinical term “sociopath” to refer to them. The word sociopath denotes charm, lack of guilt, and aggressive or deceptive behavior, while not being a medical diagnosis. This is because the books are not books about sociopathy, simply books with characters that fit the bill. 

The first sociopath is Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. Becky is an orphan, a common theme, who is accepted to a finishing school as a charity student. In many ways, she is like an evil Sarah Crewe. 

At school, Becky befriends (entraps?) the guileless Amelia Sedley and ingratiates herself in the high class world. Through seduction, deception, and implied murder, she is always seeking to climb up the social ladder. Class warrior that I am, I find myself continuously rooting for Becky, even when she grinds her competitors into the ground. 

Becky is an easy sociopath. She is incapable of forming healthy relationships with other people, even her own child. She disguises her personality and lies about her past. She even maybe, definitely, kills her second husband and Amelia’s brother for some life insurance money, only after terrorizing him to distraction. I do not suggest that she is a role model. However, as a woman, a poor woman, a Romani woman, and a character unique in the fact that her author vehemently and outspokenly hates her, you.  can’t help but hope that everything turns out okay for Becky in the end. 

Our second, and most famous, sociopath is Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom has also got environmental factors against him. Not only is he poor and orphaned, he is very, very gay, and he very, very much doesn’t want to admit it.

Tom is ushered into the upper class due to a misunderstanding. The exorbitantly wealthy Mr. Greenleaf believes that Tom was a classmate of Mr. Greenleaf’s son, Dickie, who has taken off to Europe. Tom is sent to bring him back. Instead, he falls into a disturbing, murder-y love. 

After Tom realizes that Dickie doesn’t like him and is therefore out of Tom’s control, Tom kills him in a spectacular fashion. Then he takes on Dickie’s personality. He wears Dickie’s clothes, write’s Dickie’s letters, mimic’s Dickie’s voice on the telephone, and cashes Dickie’s checks. When a friend of Dickie’s suspects the performance? He shows up later bludgeoned in the head with a marble bust. 

Like Becky, Tom wants to be financially secure, but he also wants to be loved. He never had the love of parents or siblings. He barely has friends. And, of course, he can’t exactly go out and get himself a boyfriend in 195-. Unfortunately, the love that Tom wants after all the years of deprivation, is a complete, controlled and unconditional love. He wants people to be as obsessed with him as he is with others and, spoiler, he’s not going to get that in the books. He does get it from readers, though. 

The final and most delightful sociopath is Merricat Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Merricat is singular in that she is an orphan by choice—she murdered almost her entire family when she was 12. This is a pretty good sign of physiatric issues.

Merricat is undeniably charming. Anybody who has read the first paragraph of the book, which is narrated by Merricat, could tell you that. She is also a scary son of a bitch. Like Tom, she is obsessed with a single person: her sister Constance. Merricat is determined that she and Constance will live totally isolated in their manor forever, despite Constance’s steadily stronger interest in going outside. When their cousin Charles comes and threatens Merricat’s control, she sets the house on fire and kills her uncle. Is this uncalled for? Yes. But is Charles the absolute worst? Also yes. So we’re at an impasse. 

Merricat is less sympathetic. She came from money, and she had a family. She is probably not gay, or Romani. Still, she is clearly very troubled, and the men in her family are so creepy and awful, and she is so very endearing in her narration—well, she’s a literary Ted Bundy. I’m entranced. 

All in all, sociopaths in literature are deeply destabilizing. They are bad people, morally, ethically, sensibly, and they are unhappy people. This can’t shake the appeal of a character who just doesn’t care. Especially right now, when we feel like we’ve got to care all the time about everything, the sociopath’s nonchalance is both the most evil and enchanting thing about them. Often these characters sought to vilify women, BIPOC, LGBT people, the poor and the mentally ill. At the same time, they can be reclaimed to serve as a warning. If you don’t care about the oppressed, then maybe, someday, the oppressed won’t care about you.