At this point, at least three quarters of my friends live on my bookshelf. Books are the best place to meet brave and interesting people who can show you a whole new way of seeing the world — but there's a flip-side. The heroes might be better and stronger and funnier in books — but the villains are nastier and sneakier, too.
There are lots of characters in books who are flawed. Some are a little bit selfish, and some are a little bit careless, and some are even a little bit mean. Some are just unapologetically evil — but there's something even worse than that. Just sometimes, you come across a character who is completely toxic.
These characters might not be pure evil, but they poison everyone and everything around them. These characters lie; these characters manipulate their friends. These characters bring everyone else's worlds crashing down — just for fun, or just to make themselves feel better. You might feel sorry for them, and you might want to help them, and you might even love them — but these characters are toxic through and through. Like, if these characters had a warning label — it would be a skull and crossbones.
1. Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights
Catherine and Heathcliff are both pretty terrible people, if we're being honest — but I think Catherine just steals the show on this one. She's selfish and manipulative; she's possessive of Heathcliff in spite of refusing to marry him because of his social status. She's certainly battling with a pretty tough inner struggle — but she didn't need to bring everyone else down with her.
2. Alec d'Urberville in Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Although it's Angel Clare who makes me really angry every time I read Tess of the d'Urbervilles (that victim-blaming of poor Tess is so infuriating), it's Alec d'Urberville who's the most toxic. Aside from the most obviously terrible fact that he rapes Tess, he also goes on to manipulate her into believing that Angel will never come back for her — making her feel trapped and dependent on him.
3. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl
SPOILER ALERT: Skip this paragraph if you've somehow avoided all the Gone Girl memes for long enough that you still don't know what the book is actually about.
Rosamund Pike does a good job in the movie, but nothing can ever beat quite how toxic Amy Dunne is in the Gone Girl novel. Because of her own obsessive desire to be beloved and in control, Amy successfully turns everybody (including the reader) against her husband, leaving him defenseless and isolated. The treasure hunt that she sets for him, designed to frame him for her murder, is a stroke of pure evil genius.
4. Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park
In the society Jane Austen writes about, failed engagements, or public courtship that didn't end in marriage, could be incredibly damaging for the woman involved. Henry Crawford would have known this — and yet he delights in leading women on just to boost his own ego. He publicly flirts with two sisters, Maria and Julia, turning them against each other. Then he decides to make poor Fanny Price fall in love with him, which would have led to her ruin. Finally, disheartened that his plan didn't work, he begins an affair with a married woman, but then refuses to marry her after her husband discovers the affair and leaves her. I'm telling you — the man's toxic.
5. Edward Cullen in Twilight
Ugh, this guy gives me shivers. (Team Jacob all the way, y'all.) Edward Cullen may be pretty, but he's also incredibly controlling and creepy. He isolates Bella from her friends and family, constantly reminds her that she's lucky he hasn't murdered and eaten her yet, and controls what she does with her time even when he's not there. He literally steals the engine out of her car so that she can't go anywhere. I hate this dude.
6. Olivia Foxworth in Flowers in the Attic
Flowers in the Attic is a totally bizarre novel and pretty much every character is royally screwed up. Within the Foxworth family, we find two generations of incest, we find lies, we find secrets... and we find the family matriarch, Olivia Foxworth, who's willing to subject her family to all manner of physical and psychological abuse in order to stay in control.
7. Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O'Hara is vain, self-centered spoiled and fake. In many ways, she is actually a very likeable character: she's intelligent, sympathetically insecure, and she riles against the strict rules placed on women. However, throughout the book, we see her selfishly do whatever it takes to get her way; whether it's riches or love that she's after, she has no regard for how her actions might hurt the people around her. Frankly, my dear, she's poison.
8. Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series
I know, I know. I'm getting myself into dangerous territory here. The good guy/bad guy debate surrounding Snape has been raging for a decade, and there's no way I'm going to solve it in one paragraph. But one thing's for certain: whether or not Snape ultimately wins your heart, there's no doubt that he has a toxic influence throughout Harry's time at Hogwarts. He may be looking out for him in the end, but for much of the series he straight-up bullies Harry — and the damage he does to Neville's self-esteem is pretty unforgivable in my eyes.
9. Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series
This opinion is far less divisive: I think we can all agree that Dolores Umbridge is toxic AF. Her vicious treatment of the Hogwarts pupils is no less than child abuse, and she deliberately isolates pupils from their friends in order to retain control. Plus, she gives cat-lovers a bad name.
10. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations
Miss Havisham has a pretty heartbreaking past: she was abandoned by her fiancé on her wedding day, and could never bring herself to take off the dress. For decades, she has sat alone in her mansion, still wearing her wedding dress, with the uneaten wedding cake still rotting on the table, and all the clocks stopped at the moment she heard the news. But the years have turned sadness into bitterness — and a desperate desire for revenge. She adopted a child, Estella, and raised her to hate men. She poisoned Estella's heart and mind — and ended up using her to break more Pip's heart as well.
11. Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility and Wickham from Pride and Prejudice
These guys are the worst; I'm listing them together because they're basically the same kind of asshole. Not only does John Willoughby selfishly break Marianne's heart in order to marry for money, it also turns out that he once seduced and then abandoned a 15-year-old girl, leaving her pregnant. At least he shows remorse, though: Pride and Prejudice's George Wickham has attempted several such scandals in his past, and yet never shows one ounce of guilt.
12. Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal
Notes on a Scandal tells the story of Sheba Hart, an art teacher who begins an illicit affair with a 15-year-old boy in her class. The narrator of the novel is another teacher at the school, the older Barbara Covett — who instantly becomes obsessed with Sheba. At first, Barbara appears a rather sad and lonely but harmless character who merely craves friendship from Sheba — but as the book goes on, and the restraining order a former friend once issued against Barbara is revealed. Barbara's control over Sheba becomes increasingly sinister.
13. Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby
Tom and Daisy Buchanan are both strong contenders for the toxic crown in The Great Gatsby, but I think Tom has to swipe this one. I mean, the guy is an abusive, cheating, white supremacist. You can't get much worse than that.
14. Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre
Mr Rochester is the second Edward on this list that everyone adores. But just like his bloodsucking namesake, what's supposed to be "romantic" is actually very controlling and manipulative behavior that we need to stop idolizing. Mr Rochester is constantly on the edge of violence, he's untruthful to Jane... oh, and he keeps his wife locked in the attic. Nope, I'm out.
15. Mrs Danvers in Rebecca
From the moment the second Mrs de Winter settles in to her new husband's stately home, the housekeeper Mrs Danvers makes her disdain clear. Mrs Danvers was completely obsessed with Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter, and can't bear the idea of this new wife taking her place. Throughout the novel, she manipulates the second Mrs de Winter (whose name we never learn) in an attempt to break up the marriage — and at one point, even tries to make her commit suicide.
16. Eva Katchadourian in We Need to Talk about Kevin
This one is open to interpretation: Eva Katchadourian is an infamously unreliable narrator, so it's up to the reader to decide what really happened. On the one hand, Eva might be the helpless mother of a natural-born psychopath who brutally murdered a group of his classmates. On the other hand, she might be a toxic mother whose inability to love her son caused him to develop his violent apathy. *Shivers*.
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