What is Pure Evil?


Ishani Routh

“A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time. When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, The one I feed the most”.

---George Bernard Shaw

If, someone is randomly asked, “What is Pure Evil?” it will never be possible for that person to give an immediate simple one-word positive or negative assertion to it. Instead, a cloud of muffled questions weaves in the mind, “Is there anything called pure evil?”, “Then, what is pure goodness?”, “Is it even possible to become purely either good or evil?” and the series continues. But the end to it would not be found for it is a question to be counter-questioned which are to be answered within which more questions may lurk in but a direct, clear and vivid portraiture of “pure evil” may not be ever possible to brush upon the canvas of our understanding.

We may take up Saussurean structuralist theory of binary opposition in order to find the answer to the titular question. This theory functions by defining any term in reciprocal determination of the opposite term, pertaining both the terms should complement each other. Hence in order to understand ‘evil’, first it needs to be answered what is meant by ‘good’.

Literature being a mode of expression has gifted us with various characters and plots which are derived from the real world. They are the photocopies of what we see, hear and witness around us, thus the characters we come across while going through various texts may be lurking around in the very society we inhabit and live. By the term “pure goodness”, the immediate picture that we draw in our mind is that of angels, godmothers or fairies which we find in fairytales, but these extreme purely positive characters are created on supernatural bases as a result of which they cannot be counted in the list of pure goodness. In the same way, if we look upon the entirely negative characters, we may recall the witches, the elves, the monsters who too are again imaginary and essentially supernatural creations. Hence, pure goodness sounds as impossible as pure evil, thus it can be stated that pure goodness somewhere equates itself to pure evil i.e. both the ideas lay side-by- side or amalgamate between themselves in the same sphere. These two traits are nothing but the two sides of the same coin. When one tends to become extremely good, by default that person attracts the evil qualities too--- the more goodness one acquires, the more evil one becomes.

In this context it is to be understood beforehand that human characters are not so easy to judge on other hand, they have layers around them that need to be peeled off and at each peeling, newer truths spring up. What we define as ‘good’ will vary from perspectives to perspectives, depending upon varying mind-sets, psychology, education, religious beliefs and many more. If a criminal is ever questioned about his deeds, the cause behind their commitment, he too will have some answers which if looked from his perspectives stand purely ‘good’. His psyche justifies his actions by listing the reasons of how society has marginalized him or may have not stood by him, as a result of which he was compelled to take up the path of wrong-doings, otherwise he is an innately good person. His actions are nothing but the ‘evil’s he faced from society. The relation between pure goodness and pure evil is paradoxical as they are intuitively countering each other. Humans have a striking similarity with iron pieces which are devoid of any magnetic qualities. When the north is induced to a non-magnetic iron piece, be default its south side is created. Thus, if there is a north, there must be a south, if there is attraction there must be a retraction, if there is evil there must be good, the combinations of two extreme opposite exists side by side, their individuality is impossible. Hence the concept of ‘pure evil’ can be tagged as true if the concept of ‘pure goodness’ is induced to an unbiased, null and fresh human mind.

In the eyes of common citizens, people living in the society, terrorism sounds as immediate image of ultimate evilness. Terrorism to us is a pure negative entity that has the only capability of destruction, it can kill, demolish, traumatize and destroy—it is a totally adverse for the human civilization. However, terrorists, the one who case the ‘terror’ has their own reasons. According to them, the society is flawed or the civilization is not following the right faith, hence they have taken up extreme paths in order to restore the correct ones. But their reasons do not suffice in common human understanding. Though, they believe they are being utterly dedicated to their path of practicing their faith, their ideology and principles, we from a distance know that they are not correct. They view themselves in their eyes as “purely good” whereas we from our stance view them as “purely evil”. If an equilibrium to this condition is to reached then it can be inferred that in their biased mind-set, they are the pure good people which is not true. Also, if society or civilization is brought into the courtroom of justice then various flaws are also to be pointed out too. But in common human understanding killing and terrorizing can never be the face of pure goodness hence that view needs to be entirely rejected, however it can be accepted that conditions and circumstances may have given birth to such terroristic ideals activating the darkest desires lying deep in the psyche dormanting away the good qualities therefore the process of transformation takes place. Their hunger of becoming “pure good” in their perspective is driving them to commit horrendous crimes.

We may take up an example from literature to delve more into this idea. For instance, Macbeth from the Shakespearean play Macbeth, is often considered one of the greatest villains in English Literature. Introduced as a valiant soldier fighting with strength and boldness, easily defeating the enemies, this character is soon seen with bloodied hands. He kills the King and playing a series of manipulations gets the control of the throne to himself. The sudden change in his position from a brave, trustworthy and valiant warrior to a greedy, cruel and power-thirsty ruler may at once be shocking but if we are to look at him more closely, we will get to know the answers. In the very beginning of the play, we get a vivid description of his fighting the enemies, the manner he adopts to fight them is itself cruel and brutish, he mercilessly kills his enemy by splitting him from throat to navel. The images we get in our minds by reading the war scenes provides us with the undertones of the amount of brutality he might have been holding behind his valiant appearance. Many critics, regarded the three sisters and Lady Macbeth as real villains of the play but they were only the spark which ignited the fire of villainy in Macbeth. After getting the throne, his killing continued for the fear of loosing his position. Even when he realized he had no other way than to be killed by Duncan’s sons, he regards life as a “tale told by an idiot”. Even in his last hours, he did not deviate from his vision of himself being the right. In his perspective, whatever he has done is good, is right though in some scenes we may find undertones of sudden realization which are soon wiped away by his self-created ideology and principles.

Taking another example from literature, say the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we may further discuss this concept. The creature created by Victor Frankenstein is called out as a monster for having not so pleasant appearance and his consecutive killings throughout the plot. But, why does he kill so many people all of a sudden? Frankenstein, a passionate scientist after having created him out of his experimental urge discovers he is not what he intended him to be hence, he is abandoned. A new-born creature instead of being pampered in the parental warm shelter is thrown into a foreign society who marginalizes, cusses and scorns at him for his looks. No matter how much he tried to a friend of human, they remained firm in their stance of being his enemy. Hence, he was compelled to dip into the sea of cruelty. Victor further betrays him by tearing up his female counterpart which he promised to provide him with. This was the last straw that infuriated the creature so much that he went into absolute butchery of humans. But the question lies here, is the creature the real villain? Is he purely evil? If some one needs to be called out as purely evil then it can be Victor Frankenstein to certain limits. It was he who gave birth to a creature, made him into a monster and then was victimized by his very creation, which further gives him the victim’s role.

Even in Indian myths, more examples can be found. Shakuni from Mahabharata is often regarded as the ultimate villain for making the Kurukshetra war to happen. However, the view changes when we go back in the plot to the episode where he witnessed the death of his family members to die in front of his eyes out of starvation and his sister’s willing blinding herself for marrying Dhritarashtra, and all of these happened due to the ills imposed on him and his family by the forefathers of the Kauravas and Pandavas. Hence, he avenged by bringing the two families sharing the same blood line into clashing conflict, which wiped off the whole Kauravas and resulted in immense bloodshed. Thus, it can be inferred that Shakuni can never ever be regarded as the pure evil, as the absolute villain for behind his villainy there lies another story of villainy which he suffered.

Be it Dr Shepphard from Murder of Roger Ackroyd, be it Professor James from Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, the seemingly absolute evil figures tend to decode themselves as objects who have been subjected to villainy. All of the villains as discussed in this essay are right, are good, entirely good in their own perspectives. But in the perspectives of the audiences or the other characters they are the pure evil. Here we may quote Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…”. Even Satan, the universal devil character, the pure dark and evil character considers himself as the pure good, even better than God, the Almighty and basing on this belief he often tried to revolt against the Divine. However, his being “pure good” never became the reality rather the opposite reality was more firmly established by his own very hands.

Therefore, it can be inferred that pure evil exists just as pure goodness exists, it can exist only when its absolute opposite exists, in its own form as created by the mind having varying concepts with regards to different perspectives and different ideologies.