Ideas

The Autodidact’s Bookshelf: Everyone Loves a Good Old-Fashioned Revenge Story

Vengeance is a popular literary and cinematic theme, but it rarely works out as intended

Now and then, read a good book. Louie Burrell (English, 1873-1971), A Man Reading. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Last week, to the dismay of Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a permitting reform amendment was pulled out of a must-pass spending bill to keep the government funded past the end of September. It was the culmination of a drama that has been ongoing since last summer. Manchin, a conservative, has been on shaky ground with his fellow Democrats for a while, having failed to support a number of their major legislative proposals. However, it was ultimately Republicans that undid his desired permitting reform—not on the basis of policy, mind you, but solely for the sake of revenge.

The saga began late last July when Manchin cut a deal with Democratic Party leadership. In exchange for his vote on the Inflation Reduction Act—a bill most Republicans hated—Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to insert permitting reform into a government funding bill later in the year. Intended to speed up energy projects, permit reform has become a Manchin priority.

Manchin undoubtedly expected resistance from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, which doesn’t like the energy industry. What he did not expect was that Republicans, who tend to support more energy development, would end up leading a charge against his proposals too. He underestimated how much his deal enraged Republicans, who had grown used to Manchin siding with them against progressive legislation.

Perhaps Manchin should have known better. Revenge plots are as old as time, after all.

The most famous revenge stories might be the Homeric epics. Achilles drags the Trojan Hector’s body behind his chariot to avenge the death of his close friend (and some say lover), Patroclus. Odysseus, not to be outdone, kills all his wife’s suitors upon arriving home from a grueling, 10-year journey from Troy.

Portrait of Alexandre Dumas by William Henry Powell. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Or consider “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. It’s the story of a man who is unfairly framed for treason and spends 14 years of his life in prison. He eventually breaks out of jail, finds a secret treasure and then embarks on an elaborate plot to take divine vengeance upon those who crossed him. Along the way, his plan for retribution involves taking on many false identities—including the Count of Monte Cristo—as he interacts with a complicated cast of characters.

More recently, there are American horror classics like “Carrie,” Stephen King’s tale of a painfully shy teenager with telekinetic powers, who wages destruction on her high school tormenters at the prom. Or consider the rape-revenge genre of horror flicks, including “I Spit on Your Grave” and “The Last House on the Left.” Then there’s the more recent “Jennifer’s Body,” an emerging feminist classic in the #MeToo era about a flesh-eating cheerleader who fights back against sexual harassment.

The revenge film genre isn’t solely an American phenomenon, either. Indians also love a good revenge tale. Consider the 1975 classic Bollywood movie “Sholay.” Starring Sanjeev Kumar, it is the story of a downtrodden cop on a quest to avenge the murder of his family. The movie is considered a “masala” film, an epic that blends thematic styles from different genres. Running well over three hours long, it simultaneously includes elements of comedy, musical ensembles and love story subplots. It even has a spaghetti Western feel, with chase scenes on horseback and a speeding train.

But first and foremost, “Sholay” is a revenge story. Its main character, Inspector Thakur Baldev Singh, is an honest cop, dedicated to his principles almost to a fault. Early in the movie, two petty criminals, Jai and Veeru, save Thakur’s life. After having previously formed a close bond with him, they take him to a hospital when he is wounded, despite knowing this means they will be caught and sent to prison.

A few years later, Thakur is retired, and a bandit whom he’d nabbed years earlier, Gabbar Singh, has escaped and is terrorizing a small village in the countryside. At this point, we sense something has gone horribly wrong with Thakur. He seems to possess a kind of inner fury and rage, leading the audience to wonder: What happened to him to make him so angry?

Soon, we find out the horrifying truth. Thakur’s entire family, save his beautiful daughter-in-law Radha, has been murdered by Gabbar. As if that weren’t bad enough, when Thakur confronts Gabbar after the murders, Gabbar chops off both his arms with a pair of swords.

Whereas most people would give up at this point, Thakur is relentless. He turns to the jovial duo Jai and Veeru for help. They are hardly your classic film heroes. But, much like the hobbits Frodo and Sam from “The Lord of the Rings,” there is more to this unlikely duo than meets the eye.

The film constantly blurs the boundaries between right and wrong. On the one hand, as an audience we are fascinated by the Darth Vader-like charisma of Gabbar. On the other hand, we can’t wait to see him brought down in an act of vigilantism. Throughout this masterpiece of Indian cinema, friendship and male bonding are shown to form stronger ties than do formal laws.

In the final moments of the film, a fight takes place between Thakur and Gabbar, where Thakur, against all odds, fights without the benefit of any arms. We all know the expression of a boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back; this would be like a politician having to learn Japanese just to debate his opponent.

“Sholay” theatrical release poster. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

When Thakur has the opportunity to kill Gabbar at the end of the film, he backs down at the last moment and instead turns the criminal over to the police. Here the audience is reminded that revenge can never bring back what has been lost forever. In that sense, Thakur shares traits with the Count of Monte Cristo, who eventually decides his plan for vengeance has gone too far. Unlike the revenge plots in horror films, which often lack a moral dimension, in “Sholay” and “The Count” a clear line is drawn whereby only God has the power to hand down true justice.

Some people quietly fantasize about revenge but never do anything about it. Others, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, procrastinate for what seems an eternity before finally taking action. Still others, like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), act swiftly and efficiently against those who have wronged them.

While environmentalists deserve some of the blame, Mitch McConnell whipping Republicans against permitting reform is probably what killed the amendment. From a policy standpoint, McConnell’s actions make little sense. There was almost nothing in the permitting bill that his party would disagree with. But from a political standpoint the intention was clear. Republicans wanted to send Manchin a message: “No more deals with your fellow Democrats, or you will regret it.” The message was emphatically sent, but at the cost of legislation that would have advanced Republicans’ policy goals. This episode, like its literary predecessors, shows that while revenge may feel good in the moment, it’s a losing strategy over the long haul.

 

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