Saturday, February 10, 2007


John Everett Millais, 1852.

Never had much sympathy for Ophelia, always considered her Too Stupid To Live.
My reactions tend to follow Beatrice: O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place!
But then, one could consider Claudio Too Stupid To Live, too. And Hero resembles Ophelia.
Betrayal is, of course, a fine old Shakespearian tradition and a tragic necessity.
Something like milk and eggs on a grocery list.
Personally, I get a decidedly sick feeling when I notice the foreshadowings in a serious novel and know I can expect the main character to be stabbed in the back by someone they trusted.
Betrayal, in its various forms, is one of the few things I do not excuse or forgive.
But the betrayal of affections, of trust, usually in the form of sexual infidelity, is a staple in much genre fiction.
Girl finds her fiance in bed with her best friend, goes off and buries herself in the hills and ponds of Vermont.
Due to the machinations of the Other Woman, girl believes herself betrayed - and goes off an buries herself in the bright lights and polders of Manhattan.
Or, girl is hooked up with the Alpha Male who believes it is his right to play the field - Beatrice's men were deceivers ever type - and the lady sigh(s) no more, goes off, and hey, nonny, nonnies herself with a variety of male victims.
Critics tend to make fun of these scenarios. Perhaps because of over-kill.
However, the fundamental premise, the human psychology, even the literary precedent, is absolutely solid.
You want to make your character suffer? Really suffer?
Have them betrayed.
But don't stint the eventual opportunities for revenge.
That is where many of romances fall down, imo.
The villian, as in the first case, may escape his just desserts.
Or, as in the others, girl forswears her plans for revenge, forgives too easily and falls into his arms - before her betrayer has paid.
Too many sweet Ophelias and devastated Heros, not enough Beatrices.
Much ado about nothing.


writtenwyrdd said...

My current WIP involves a lot of betrayal, but the real betrayal isn't what the heroine thinks it is. It's all about the hidden agendae...

Bernita said...

Good stuff, Written!
Very basic and viseral.

December Quinn said...

I have a betrayal in my vamp book...but the betrayer dies a rather horrible death because of it. My betrayers generally get their just desserts...but I've also had betrayers who really thought they were doing the right thing. They're still bad guys, but I think it makes things more interesting that way. :-)

Bernita said...

Yup, the twist in the ethics, the self-justifications can make it very interesting, December.

Jaye Wells said...

I've always loved the line, "Revenge is a dish best served cold."

But when it comes down to it, as long as everyone gets their just desserts, it doesn't matter if it's hot or cold.

Bernita said...

I agree, Jaye, revenge is sweet either way.
I do like the instances when the betrayer realizes the reason/justice of his/her comeuppance.

Amy Lavender Harris said...

This (absolutely excellent) post raises an interesting question about how we write ourselves into our work and read according to our moral sensibilities. Like Bernita, I consider betrayal the ultimate unforgivable thought/deed.

I don't object to seeing betrayal figure in a novel -- as long as the betrayer meets up with the harshest kind of natural/poetic/divine justice. I like to see this in real life as well. Acts of revenge are tedious to me (although revenge fantasies have a certain palliative effect): I like to see wrongdoers and predators undo themselves.

In fiction, the writer who seems to me to do this best is Forida novelist Carl Hiaasen, whose books feature bigots, land-rapers, etc. undone by their own arrogance, dishonesty, avarice, etc. Of course Hiaasen's version of natural justice is helped along by characters who speed it up a bit -- and perhaps that is the biggest challenge of achieving literary revenge -- to ascribe agency without making it seem neurotic or obsessive.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Amy, biased though you are, and thank you for extending the concept.
Too often in the real world, we have to wait for karma or some such agency to redress the balance, because we are disinclined, either by nature or by the soothing effects of civilization to compulsively pursue private justice for private betrayals.
Fiction is not thus restricted.
Another, and very old novel about cold revenge - it is available from Project Gutenberg - is H. Rider Haggard's "Finished" involving a witch doctor, Cetewayo and Zulus.

anna said...

We all applaud when the betrayer gets his, even in real life or maybe especially in real life.
Loyalty is a trait well worth cultivating.
Excellent post Bernita

spyscribbler said...

I love the theme of betrayal in fiction (although not the cliched versions above). Good thing to remember today, in my WIP! Excellent post, thank you!

Gabriele C. said...

Betrayal plays an important role in my novels, and the sexual one is the least important. My characters betray oaths of fealty, friendships, ideals, and change sides in a war. Sometimes even the good ones. It's a question of perspective. When Roderic takes Kjartan captive he promises him fair treatment as hostage for ransom, but before he has sworn the king an oath of fealty. Now the king claims the captive. Or take Arminius - according to Roman view of contracts between two entities he is indeed a traitor, according to the German view of contracts as being between two persons he is not, because the peace treaty was made between his dead father and Tiberius, not between the Cherusci and Rome.

Though I have some plain evil backstabbers, too.

writtenwyrdd said...

I'm reminded of the betrayal that is perceived as a good by the betrayer, the "It's for your own good" sort. These sorts of unredeemable characters like abusive parents or cruel religious figures are the creepiest to me because of their certainty in their justification.

Betrayal in fiction seems tied to our inner doubts and shames that we have been subjected to. It pushes buttons we are rarely willing to admit exist!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Anna.

Any time, Natasha!

Excellent examples, Gabriele, and appropriate.
In romance, the sexual betrayal is of paramount importnce, I imagine.

More excellent amplification, Written. Thank you.

raine said...

Agree with you about the concept of betrayal. And Ophelia was a sensitive soul, no doubt, but geezzzzz...

And agree that betrayal is the most deadly cut of all.
But retribution?
Tricky, that!
If in a romance, for example, the heroine resolves to be strong, simply turn away from said betrayer (assuming it is the hero), and leave his punishment to 'karma'...well, geez, what fun is that? She may not live to see it. It may never happen. Or it might happen in another lifetime, in which case you have no memory of what the bastard did before, so how are you supposed to ENJOY it?!

And if she chooses to exact that revenge herself (again, as far as the hero)--ah, well, does she lose some distinction, some nobility in our eyes? Aren't all such heroines supposed to endure with a trembling chin and stiff upper lip? And if she does act, isn't she skirting 'bad girl' territory?

The villain, however, should ALWAYS be fair game. Moider da bum.
(sorry for the long post, lol--I got carried away!).

Bernita said...

You're right, Raine.
The conventions demand, usually, that she be all sweetness and light and forgiving.No pound of flesh beforehand, even.
Or she's seen as spiteful, not strong.

I'll say again. There is not a limit on the length of posts. I value your input.

BJ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Donnetta Lee said...

Yes, I do like revenge. Betrayer gets his. Learns his lesson, has to be the hard way. Serves him right.

Sometimes revenge comes through serendipity. Must have been Fate at work, righting the universe, setting the record straight.

Greatest betrayal? Self betrayal. I like a good recovery. Swallowing pride. Doing the right thing after all.


Anonymous said...

When I was in ninth grade we studied Hamlet, and I wrote a poem for the occasion and gave it to the teacher (we were also studying sonnets, I believe) I can't remember the darn poem expect for 'She floats in beauty, like the night. She floats upon the water. And twined among the lily pads, she looks like Neptune's daughter.' LOL
I always sort of despised Ophelia as being one of Shakespere's weakest characters. But he was a master of psychology, wasn't he?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Donnetta.
Another aspect of betrayal, when we act against out better nature and regret it.

I really like that poem, Sam!
An early sign of genius.
Think you may have also been reading Byron at the time.

Ballpoint Wren said...

Blogger ate this comment! So here it is again:

Betrayal is one rock solid literary device I can think of appearing in even ancient literature, but to me it's best when the betrayed ends up in a better position than he/she was in before the betrayal.

One of my favorite stories is of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, but ends up as a hot shot in Egypt with the power of life and death over his entire family.

I love stories like this: The Count of Monte Cristo is a good one, too, and Ben Hur.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bonnie!

Thank you for that example.
A necessary compliment to the betrayal device - the victim should eventually benefit/triumph, else the betrayal is just an evil mischance - and a very depressing one to boot.

Scott from Oregon said...

The whole notion of betrayal is somewhat anathema to me.

I don't relate to the act or the concept all that well.

I dunno...

Call me a loyalist.

When I read of betrayals I have trouble equating that character as being real...

I like flawed, offbeat and struggling characters who spend their fictional live trying to find where zero is.

Stories with betrayal leave me confused and unappreciative.

Bernita said...

Opposites may define a virtue, Scott.