Villains: A Case Study of Ressentiment

Why Villains are Important 

Note: For the purpose of this blog, a villain is one who opposes the goals of a hero. The person does not have to be evil like they are painted in movies. They have an agenda that conflicts with the hero. A prominent characteristic is their willingness to use graceless methods to achieve their goals. For me, they serve as tests and teachers.  Let's learn together and reveal the possibilities.

Why Study Villains and Heroes?
Heroes and villains are not just for superhero movies, they comprise the world we live in. We uncover our inner strengths and weaknesses through engaging with both the villains and heroes in our lives. This knowledge helps us uncover our shadow, Carl Jung’s term for the unconscious parts of our personality. Per Debbie Ford in her book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, “Our shadow exist to teach us, guide us, and give us the blessing of our entire selves (Ford, page 2).” To fully benefit from what the villains are in our lives to teach us, we need to study them and learn about their motivations.

Usually, stories are told from the hero’s point of view, but what is going on deep in the minds of villains? We tend to prefer movies with happy endings where the heroes overcome obstacles and achieve lofty goals. However, we often overlook a major plot point-we do not give villains enough credit for making our heroes strong. Actually, without villains, heroes do not have obstacles to overcome. What make villains tick? I propose that some villains may suffer from an extreme case of ressentiment. No character proves my point better than Beatrice Hunsdorfer from the 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel.(Spoiler Alert: For my analysis, I reveal major plot points from the play)

Friedrich Nietzsche expounds on the concept in his book, On the Genealogy of Morality. Ressentiment is an unhealthy defense mechanism used to cope with extreme feelings of envy, unfairness, jealously and powerlessness. It is an assignment of one’s own internal feelings of inferiority and helplessness onto an external person, idea or physical possession.  
Resentment vs Ressentiment - the two words have similar spellings, but describe different human conditions.  Resentment is defined as "a bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly." However, Ressentiment, in psychology and philosophy studies, is a "psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon."

Features of persons suffering from extreme ressentiment include the propensity to:
·         Undermine other’s accomplishments
·         Manipulate relationships for personal gain
·         Devalue unachievable objects of desire
·         Be envious of those in positions of authority

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds
I hope you either see the play on stage or read the book. The story will make you laugh, cry and gather insights into the shadowy sides of human nature.

The villain, Beatrice Hunsdorfer, is based on Paul Zindel’s mother who struggled to raise two children alone. She was verbally abusive to both of her daughters, but Tillie received most of the harsh treatment.

The hero, Tillie, remains focused and optimistic in spite of her negative home environment. She never allowed her mother’s negative comments or antics make her betray a love for life and science.

Below are quotes from the play that illustrate the villain’s mindset:
Beatrice’s Quotes
Beatrice’s Ressentiment
“What is left for me?”
Powerlessness: A dwelling in feelings of inferiority.
“Science, Science, Science. Don’t they teach our misfits anything anymore?”
Beatrice never completed her real estate class or beauty school. She devalues education to feel better about her situation.
To Tillie -“If you can’t get yourself dressed properly you are never going to go again” ; “When I was in that lousy high school I was one of the most respected kids you ever saw”
Tillie loves school. Beatrice blames much of the sadness in her life due to her high school experience. 
To Tillie-“I don’t like the idea of everybody laughing at you because when they laugh at you they laugh at me”
School is the enemy. To get ‘revenge’ for her sad life, Beatrice makes Tillie be absent from school.
“Marry the wrong man and before you know it he’s got you tied down with two stones around your neck for the rest of your life”
Beatrice blames ‘marrying the wrong man’ for causing pain in her life. The ‘two stones’ are her children. 
“I hate the world”
Assigns blame for her misfortune on the world.

Below are quotes from the play that illustrate the hero’s mindset:
Tillie’s Quotes
Tillie’s Resolve
“And he called this bit of me an atom.  And when he wrote the word I fell in love with it. Atom…Atom. What a beautiful word.”
For the hero, a mentor provides a window to see new life opportunities. Mr. Goodman was Tillie’s science teacher who took a keen interest in her and inspired her love of science.
“I was in the Science Fair at school”
Heroes must face their fears. For Tillie it was a fear of public speaking and that her classmates would laugh at her. Tillie’s love for science was greater than fear. She won the Science Fair.
“I don’t think that is very nice”
Tillie defended her mother and tried to make her happy even with all of the verbal abuse Beatrice inflicted.
“My experiment has made me feel important”
Tillie found her inner power through knowledge and her passion for science.
“Mother, you didn’t kill it, did you?”
Protects the innocent.

The Choice is ours, or is it?
Tillie is a character who illustrates the classic hero, the person who succeeds in spite of challenging odds. She had a mentor who supported her, faced her fear of public speaking, and focused on her goals. Why didn’t Tillie turn into a villain? Paul hinted at the reason why in the conclusion to Tillie’s science experiment: “My experiment has shown some of the strange effects radiation can produce…and how dangerous it can be if not handled correctly.” Even though all of the seeds were exposed to radiation, only the flowers closest to the radiation did not grow into healthy plants. Our environment has the ability to influence our mindset and our life choices.

What happened to Beatrice? Given a different set of circumstances, she may have made different choices and lived a happier life. Like the plants, she was sensitive to radiation, a metaphor for the ills of society. Behind the villain’s mask is a hurt person. After her daughter Ruth told her that the people at school nicknamed her ‘Betty the Loon’, Beatrice did not attend the Science Fair to support Tillie.  Instead, she stayed home, cried, and was cruel to an innocent animal. In a previous blog, I discussed the efforts to remove the stigma from mental illness. Did Beatrice Hunsdorfer intend to become a villain? No, she was really a hero caught up in ressentiment who did not get the counseling she needed to overcome her shadow.

A key to healthy emotional intelligence is not to take the actions of others personally. In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves (Ruiz, 48).”  

Now What?
Tap into your inner hero within. Acknowledge your shadow, and confront feelings of ressentiment in order to live a fulfilling life. As I grow, I see why perennial wisdom advocates to love our enemies – under a different set of circumstances, we could be them.

Further Reading:
Do You Need a Villain in Your Life? by Jacob Devaney
Why a Fully Realized Villain is as Important as Your Protagonist by Kathy Edens
Why You Need an Antagonist in Your Story  by Amanda Patterson

Ford, Debbie. The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 1998.
Ruiz, Don Miguel. The Four Agreements. San Rafael, California, 1997.
Hero retrieved from
Ressentiment, retrieved from

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