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Saint by Day, Devil by Night: Literary Villain Bradley Headstone from Our Mutual Friend
By Hannah P.
Charles Dickens wrote many memorable and heinous villains in his time and one of the defining characteristics of his stories is that almost (if not every) one of them has more than one important villain. Sometimes, there are many, of varying levels of evil intent and impact on the plot. Our Mutual Friend fits well into this generalization, as Silas Wegg, Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, Rogue Riderhood and Bradley Headstone all impact the main storylines in different ways. However, of this collection of people with villainous intent, Bradley Headstone makes the most impact on the reader because he is a fascinating psychological study, descending ever deeper into a madness brought on by obsession.
Bradley Headstone is introduced to the story as a decent, morally upright, rule following, law-abiding schoolteacher. He is shown to be quiet, constrained and according to first appearances, an altogether respectable man. He is not wealthy, but earns enough to make a comfortable life for himself and is set up at the beginning of the story to be a fitting suitor for someone of a similar social standing. However, this is simply the surface of the matter. Underneath his cool exterior, Headstone hides a boiling pot of emotional turmoil and conflict. He is proud to a fault and repressive of his emotions, but capable of violent temper. This hidden nature is first aroused by the introduction to his life of the beautiful and virtuous Lizzie Hexam. Lizzie’s younger brother, Charlie, is one of Headstone’s students, and Charlie desires to help educate his sister through Headstone. The admired and trusted mentor of Charlie Hexam is thrilled at the presented opportunity to tutor Lizzie, whom he has already fallen for. However, two things happen to put a damper on Headstone’s passion. First, he discovers that he has a rival for Lizzie’s affections in Eugene Wrayburn, a man of higher social standing who has already procured a tutor for Lizzie. Second, Lizzie doesn’t care for Headstone and rebuffs his attentions. These things serve as a burner to ignite the fire of Headstone’s inner demons and to propel this troubled love triangle towards certain conflict.
As a villain, Headstone isn’t particularly wicked. This isn’t a story of high stakes, political intrigue, power, greed, money or scheming. Rather, this plotline from Our Mutual Friend revolves around the simple theme of obsession. The triangle of Eugene Wrayburn, Bradley Headstone and Lizzie Hexam is positioned with Lizzie on top as the object of longing and her two suitors below as rivals and opponents, both for Lizzie’s affections and against one another.
The enmity between Eugene and Headstone begins with their discovery that they are chasing after the same woman. However, this escalates when they also discover that they truly despise one another as individuals. Eugene’s arrogant, highborn nature and haughty attitude, as well as his ambiguous intentions and lust towards Lizzie, make him a sort of anti-hero for most of the story, and give Headstone good reason to dislike him. Headstone’s cold, calculating demeanor and violent jealousy give Eugene reason to dislike him, and what ensues is a lengthy game of cat and mouse.
Obsession is the central component in this game. Both men are obsessed with Lizzie, something that frightens her into running away and hiding from them. While Eugene and Headstone are in the dark as to her whereabouts, their obsession with her becomes intermingled with an obsession with each other. Headstone takes to following Eugene everywhere in hopes that he will locate Lizzie. Headstone’s sanity and grasp of reality deteriorate during this period as his focus becomes blurred and twisted in his jealousy. He sees Lizzie as an unattainable object of desire and Eugene as the reason for all his problems. In his obsessive misery, Eugene enjoys tormenting Headstone and actively leads him on their game of cat and mouse. Through less than morally upright means, Eugene locates Lizzie and his desire for her is deepened upon seeing her again. He ponders taking her by force since she will not acquiesce to his overtures, despite her being in love with him. However, this anti-hero is stopped from doing anything rash by the appearance of Headstone, who has continued to follow Eugene. Seeing Eugene and Lizzie together is the final straw for Headstone and he attacks Eugene, beating him and throwing him in the river to drown. This murder attempt almost succeeds, but the true hero of the story, Lizzie, saves Eugene in time.
Eugene’s brush with death changes him, and he is “reborn.” Eugene recognizes the error of his ways, marries Lizzie and comes to forgive Headstone, refusing to name him as the attempted murderer, knowing that Headstone will punish himself enough. Indeed, fear of discovery, unresolved violent passion, unrelenting obsession and insane jealousy eat away at Headstone. His fears all come true when another villain, Rogue Riderhood, reveals that he knows about the attempted murder and tells Headstone of Eugene’s survival and newfound happiness with Lizzie. Riderhood tries to blackmail Headstone with this information, but with nothing left to lose, Headstone takes Riderhood down with him, drowning them both in the icy waters that Eugene survived.
Obsession with anything is never healthy, but obsession with another person is especially dangerous. Headstone falls down the rabbit hole of murder and passion into insanity as he changes from respectable schoolteacher to deranged stalker and would-be-killer. He is effective as an antagonist because his brand of villainy is something that we can easily find in society at any time. People who harbor dark obsessions too often turn into case studies on Dateline and 60 Minutes because their actions become kidnapping or murder. The desire to possess is what first drives Bradley Headstone down his dark path. When he is spurned, by what he perceives as Lizzie’s interest in Eugene, Headstone’s passionate desire turns violent and his obsession envelops Eugene too. Headstone perceives Eugene as the one who has taken his object of desire, as the source of his problems, as a wall that must be taken down to get to the peace and happiness on the other side. However, Headstone conceives wrongly that by taking down Eugene he can obtain Lizzie. In fact, what lies on the other side of the wall is the emptiness, fear and self-loathing that the path violent obsession inevitably leads to.
(Formerly published in Femnista - www.charity'splae.com - )