The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Antagonist: The character pitted against the protagonist — the main character — of a work. Just as the protagonist need not be “good,” an antagonist need not be “bad”; rather, the antagonist may simply block or hinder the protagonist in some way. An evil or cruel antagonist is a villain.

EXAMPLES: The autocratic Creon, King of Thebes, is the antagonist in Sophocles’ Antigone (c. 441 B.C.), so insistent on upholding decrees of state that he orders his own niece’s execution. Heathcliff, in some ways the young hero of the first half of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), is the antagonist throughout most of the novel’s second half. HAL 9000, an artificially intelligent computer system gone psychotic, is the primary antagonist in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Famous antagonists who are also villains include the eponymous Dr. No (1962); Darth Vader, from the original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983); Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects (1995), who observes “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist”; and the Joker, Batman’s archenemy in comics including The Dark Knight Returns (1986; adapted to film 2012—13). In the docudrama Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Senator Joseph McCarthy, bent on ferreting out supposed Communists and Communist sympathizers during the so-called “Red Scare” of the 1950s, serves as an antagonist some would call villainous.

By contrast, examples of antagonists who are not remotely villainous may be found in short stories like Frank O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex” (1950), in which the antagonist is the narrator’s father, whose return from war interferes with the boy’s exclusive relationship with his mother, and Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” (1989), in which the antagonist is the narrator’s mother, whose goals for her daughter conflict with what Jing-mei wants for herself.