The revenge trope is a prevalent one in romance. Admittedly, it’s prevalent everywhere. Revenge is what powered the Count of Monte Cristo. It’s easy, you see, because it provides insta-conflict in romance. Take one hero bent on revenge, one innocent bystander, mix and stir. It’s easy to arouse emotional response to the revenge trope. There is the reason for revenge that gains the avenger a sympathetic mien. There’s the conflict between whether the avenger gives up revenge and saves the heroine or succumbs to the need for revenge.
There seems to be three main types of revenge themes:
a) Wants to wreak as much damage as possible without regard to who is really responsible.
The Avenger in this case usually believes that the value of his harmed loved one is worth more than any number of others. Liz Fielding wrote an early series called the Beaumont Brides. The first book in the series is about Luke Devlin’s sister fell in love with Edward Beaumont. She pined for him and when she died, Luke vowed revenge on Beaumont. His plan was to ruin him financially, take his life away from him piece by pieces: his money, his reputation, his one daughter’s career on the stage, and the other daughter, Luke would make her fall in love with him, break her heart and then treat her as he believed Edward had treated the sister.
The actions of the hero are horrible, really horrible. Luke decides, unilaterally, that the destruction of at least two women of their lives, goals, dreams is a worthwhile endeavor to achieve his revenge against the women’s father. He decides that his sister is worth more than any one else. His justification is based on the belief that everyone but his own family members is worthless.
Similar is the setup in Scandal by Jayne Ann Krentz. Simon, Earl of Blade contemplates the destruction of an entire family. The way that it is presented to the reader it’s almost as if a pinpoint revenge is only undertaken by the weak of heart.
A decent English gentleman of noble birth would never have dreamed of using an innocent young woman in his quest for vengeance. But Simon found he had no problem with the notion. None at all. In any event, if the rumors were true, the lady was not all that innocent.
b) Doesn’t think about collateral damage.
There are avengers who act without thinking about collateral damage. The Avenger has no intention of directly targeting family members. They are merely collateral damage. In one of my favorite Krentz books, a category called Lady’s Choice. (Please Harlequin, re-release this classic). Travis Sawyer was a business consultant for the Grant family. He was promised a part of the Grant resort as well as the Grant daughter in marriage. Only the Grant daughter married someone else and squeezed Sawyer out of his consultant fee. Sawyer comes back to put the Grant family out of business and in the meantime falls for Juliana. It wasn’t Travis intent to bring Juliana into the scheme, but she is hurt by his actions, both financially and personally.
c) With precision targets the wrongdoers
Although I question whether anyone’s death or destruction is without collateral damage, The Serpent Prince is about the best example of the focused precision targeted revenge. Simon Iddesleigh has set a path before him to kill all four of the men involved in the death of his brother. He is challenging each one to a duel. When the story opens, he has killed two of the four. Simon’s quest for revenge is one he undertakes with some reluctance.
I enjoy the revenge trope because it usually signals a darker, more weighty read (although that’s not always true given that Scandal and Lady’s Choice are really fun books despite the revenge trope.) But in thinking about the trope, I realized I had some questions.
Why is it that the avengers are almost always male? My supposition is that because we female readers are much more lenient in how amoral a male character is versus a female character. Whether it is because we identify with the heroine more or that we are more interested in the male journey, the fact is that men get away with a lot more stuff than women in our romances and this is one of them. Another reason may be because women, particularly in historicals, lack power and being an avenger almost always comes from a position of power and wealth.
Are you disappointed when revenge is not achieved? If you can bear more generalizations, I think romance readers are a bit of a bloodthirsty lot. Part of the fun of the fantasy is getting your cake and eating it too. Meaning that we often like to see our revenge carried out yet suffer no adverse consequences. The characters have to sell us on the idea that revenge is not worth it. Krentz does a great job of this in Scandal. In Scandal, the hero gives up his course of revenge after the heroine starts telling the subjects of his revenge that they are off the hook. In one scene, the hero tries to get the heroine to understand that revenge is necessary and she says to him that he needs to stop living in the past and concentrate on making their future together. He begins to realize that his relationship with the heroine is simply more important than getting even.
How much does the Avenger have to reform to be heroic? Of the above examples, it is Simon in The Serpent Prince who is most affected by his quest for revenge. He realizes that with each step in his plan, he loses more of himself. He faces the moral question of whether he is worse off for enacting the revenge than in allowing the grave insult to go unmet. Yet, Simon’s revenge is based on a very deep and serious insult. Further, it is not based on a misunderstanding (as some revenge plots are like Fielding’s Wild Justice). Ironically, Simon has the shortest path to redemption in my opinion. His aversion to his task, his precision like tecniques make him more the heroic ideal than say Simon and Luke who want to destroy the entire family for a perceived or actual wrong.
There’s not one revenge trope that is better than the other for me, but each of them require a different level of redemption. How successful an author is at selling me a revenge theme depends largely upon the reason why the revenge is undertaken (i.e., perceived v. actual wrongs); how the revenge is carried out; and whether the characters actually think about the consequences of their revenge. One of the reasons that Lady’s Choice is a favorite Krentz novel of mine is that Travis has to actively work to undo his revenge which imperils the business of the woman that he loves. He didn’t realize that she was invested in the company that he intended to destroy and once he did discover it, it was too late to change course. The conflict became not the revenge but the fear the hero had that if he didn’t fix the problem, she would choose her family over him.
What’s your thought readers regarding the Revenge Trope? Love it? Hate It? Concerned? What are your favorite books in the revenge trope and why? How about your least favorites? Do you also want Lady’s Choice to be digitized???