SEPT / OCT 2013: BY HANNAH PRICE
Charles Dickens wrote many memorable and heinous villains in his time. One of the defining characteristics of his stories is that most of them have more than one 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 storyline 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.
He is introduced as a decent, morally upright, rule following, law-abiding schoolteacher. He appears to be quiet, constrained and utterly respectable. He is not wealthy but earns enough to make a comfortable life for himself and is set up at the beginning as a fitting suitor for someone of a similar social standing. This is simply the surface of the matter. Under 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 aroused by the introduction to his life of the beautiful and virtuous Lizzie Hexam. Lizzie’s brother Charlie is one of Headstone’s students and Charlie hopes to help educate his sister through Headstone. His admired and trusted mentor is thrilled at the opportunity to tutor Lizzie, whom he has already fallen for. But two things put a damper on Headstone’s passion. He discovers a rival for her affections in Eugene Wrayburn, a man of higher social standing who has already procured a tutor for Lizzie… and Lizzie doesn’t care for Headstone and rebuffs his attentions. These things serve as a burner to ignite the fire of his 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, Our Mutual Friend revolves around obsession. The triangle of Eugene, Lizzie, and Headstone has her as the object of longing and her two suitors as rivals and opponents, both for Lizzie’s affections and against one another.
The enmity between the men begins with their discovery that they are chasing the same woman. This escalates when they also discover they truly despise one another as men. Eugene’s arrogant, high born nature, haughty attitude and ambiguous intentions and lust for 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 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 the men are in the dark as to her whereabouts, their obsession with her turns into an obsession with each other. Headstone takes to following Eugene everywhere in hopes that he’ll locate Lizzie. His sanity and grasp of reality deteriorate during this period as his focus blurs and twists in his jealousy. He sees Lizzie as an unattainable object of desire and Eugene as the reason for his problems. In his obsessive misery, Eugene enjoys tormenting Headstone and actively misleads him. Through less than morally upright means, Eugene locates Lizzie. His desire for her deepens 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, but he is stopped from doing anything rash by the appearance of Headstone, who followed him there. 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.” He 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 all about the murder attempt 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 the man down with him, drowning them both in the icy waters 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 murder or kidnapping. 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, his 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. 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. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hannah Price thrives on creativity and loves to be inspired by the creativity of others. Her passion is storytelling in all its forms of expression. Some of those loves are American Sign Language, theater, film, audio drama and the varied mediums of art (painting, drawing, etc.). She wants to be involved in film production someday, as she is already involved in theater production and would like to be able to turn her hobbies into a full time occupation.