Our most ancient, foundational stories are filled to the gills with wrathful acts—committed by gods, monsters, and mortals alike. But wrath is a slippery sin. Some of my favorite evildoers/villains/criminals—Hannibal Lector, Dickens’ Uriah Heep, and ultraviolent Alex from A Clockwork Orange—aren’t really wrathful at all. And good, even meek, characters can ultimately be the angriest (see final entry). Where does literary wrath live? Find out below…
The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship, Towers and King) and more, by J.R.R. Tolkien
There’s PLENTY of wrath in Tolkien, but Sauron—corrupt immortal spirit, Dark Lord of Mordor, former lieutenant of Morgoth the Black Enemy (who, btw, was defeated in the Battle of Wrath), and evil scourge of Middle Earth—is in a class of his own. Good news! We’ll be seeing more of Sauron, hiding in Dol Guldor, in the next Hobbit film.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
The Wicked (and wrathful) Witch of the West sends: wolves, crows, bees, soldiers, and flying monkeys to kill/capture a little girl from Kansas. She’s a classic, evil, not-a-drop-of-good-in-her villain—happily, Dorothy’s bucket of water does her in.
The War of the Roses, by Warren Adler
War—domestic war—isn’t an exaggeration of what goes on between Barbara and Jonathan Rose in Warren Adler’s novel, or the 1989 movie starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. Their descent from marital prosperity into discord, mutual contempt, and, eventually, wrath, is hauntingly credible.
The Godfather and The Sicilian, by Mario Puzo
I don’t know too much about the Italian Mafia (the Three 6 Mafia’s a different story), but I’m pretty sure wrath is a natural impulse for all the great wise guys—and the Corleones are the most famous fictional mobsters of the last 40 years. Michael Corleone’s slow embrace of his wrathful nature continues to captivate and frighten us.
Harry Potter (specifically books 4–7), by J.K. Rowling
Voldemort (as dark a lord as Sauron, and only slightly more human) and Bellatrix Lestrange are perfectly wrathful characters—and Lucius Malfoy has his moments, as do Snape, Sirius, and even Harry—remember sectumsempra?
Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming
How high’s your Bond IQ? Any genius-level fan’ll tell you that supervillain SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (featured in three Bond novels and six films) is one wrathful guy—and arguably the most diabolical of all of Bond’s nemeses.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
With the dispassion of Mother Nature and the ferocity of an angry god, the anthropomorphized White Whale destroys ships and ends lives—and with a rage as rich and singular as any in literature, Ahab pursues his antagonist, until he shuffles off this mortal coil.
The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer? Thomas Preskett Prest? Anonymous?
The authorship of The String of Pearls is in doubt, but it’s generally agreed that Sweeney Todd—everyone’s favorite unhinged, murderous, cannibalism-friendly barber—first appeared in this 1846–47 Penny Dreadful. Check out the classic Victorian text or watch George Hearn sing Sondheim (just don’t do either if you expect a good night’s sleep).
Batman: The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland
I can hear the dissent: the Joker’s INSANE and evil, not wrathful! But can’t he be all three? Read what he does to Commissioner and Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) in this book—it’s wrath. What makes the Joker so frightening is that the target of his wrath isn’t either of the Gordons, or even Batman, but the idea of sanity itself. He’s out to prove that “all it takes is one bad day” for any normal guy to end up just like him.
Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens
Immoral characters (Fagan, Monks, The Artful Dodger, etc.) are a dime a dozen in Oliver Twist, but Bill Sikes is the most brutal. His murder of Nancy is one of the most difficult to read passages in all of Dickens. Given the “please sir, I’d like some more” moment, that’s an impressive feat.
“Othello,” by William Shakespeare
Sometimes anger doesn’t combust, it smolders. Iago says that he hates the Moor (twice in Act 1, Scene 3), and while the consequences of his coolly calculated ire are well known, his motivations (jealousy, lust, revenge?) remain unclear. Iago seems almost seduced by his own wrath, in love with anger and his power to act on it.
Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy
Shocking, sparkling violence—profane, mundane, and profound—pulls McCarthy’s story from one bloody sunset to the next—but the judge’s exalted wrath transcends scalpings and beatings, glues the novel together, and is almost cosmically powerful.
It, by Stephen King
It likes to kill children. When It fails to kill the kids in Derry, It tries again and again.
Carrie, by Stephen King
Carrie—the hormonal, telekinetic, tormented teen—has one of the most epically wrathful scenes in literature.