For a Bitterly Cold Day, 7 Bitter Literary Characters

It's winter in New England, and by golly, it feels like it today. My car thermostat read 10 degrees this morning. Brrr! Every centimeter of skin exposed to the frigid air hurt.

This bitter weather has me thinking about (what else?) bitter literary characters, who provide cautionary tales galore to let "bitter" stick to describing the weather as opposed to human personality.

Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens. Upon being abandoned at the altar, Miss Havisham spends the rest of her life rotting away along with the decrepit wedding dress she refuses to take off and the wedding feast moldering the table. Oh, and she adopts a daughter with the sole intention of raising her to wreak vengeance on the male species. Talk about a cautionary tale!

"'On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap of decay,' stabbing with her crutched stick at the pile of cobwebs on the table but not touching it, 'was brought here. It and I have worn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me."

She held the head of her stick against her heart as she stood looking at the table; she in her once white dress, all yellow and withered; the once white cloth all yellow and withered; everything around, in a state to crumble under a touch."

Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. Ahab dooms a shipload of men in his rabid quest to kill the whale that maimed him. That about says it.

"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Ethan and Zeena in "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton. It's hard to figure out who is the more bitter in this novel by the master of the twisted story. Zeena certainly seems to be self-absorbed and spiteful, but then again, her husband, who is in love with Zeena's cousin, is the one narrating her story. Not exactly a reliable narrator. Perhaps the bitterest of them all was the author?

"Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? Other possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena's narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it? She was a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the one pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him."

Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte. I've never quite understood the appeal of Heathcliff as a romantic hero. He's tempestuous, vengeful, and just mean, really. What is it with the bad boys? Anyone?

"May she wake in torment!" he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. "Why, she's a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!"

Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein wanted to uncover the mysteries of life, which ends up destroying the lives of everyone he ever loved. Meanwhile, the monster roams the world alone and despised. More than one cautionary tales lies in the pages of this classic!

"'Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even YOU turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.'"

Bitterest literary characters: Who am I missing?


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