Misanthropy – a deep-seated, fundamental capacity to hate human beings – appears in a number of characters in works of literature written in a number of different eras. Examples include the following:
- Grendel in Beowulf. Grendel’s reasons for attacking the Danes are unclear and seem ultimately to result from envy. He hears the Danes enjoying themselves, feels bitter about their pleasures, and decides to attack and kill as many of them as he can. His mother, at least, has as her motive for attacking the Danes a desire to avenge her son’s death. Likewise, the dragon, later in the poem, is bothering no one until he is awakened by an act of theft from the hoard of gold on which he has been sleeping. Of the three monsters, Grendel is the one who seems most truly misanthropic.
- Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello, also seems misanthropic. His evil has actually been called “motiveless malignity.” He claims to want vengeance because he has been passed over for promotion and/or because he thinks Othello has slept with his wife, but his hatred is so deep and all-pervasive that by the end of the play he seems to feel no regret for having caused the deaths not only of Othello but also of Desdemona, Roderigo, and his own wife, not to mention the near-death of Cassio. One of the great mysteries of Othello involves the reasons for Iago’s misanthropy.
- Richard III, in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Richard III, might also be considered a misanthrope. He enjoys evil and takes pleasure in the suffering of others. He is driven by ambition, and so his motives are not as mysterious as those of Iago. In many ways, though, the two characters are quite alike. Both are Satanic figures in their respective plays.
- Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, seems misanthropic. Realizing that he cannot effectively avenge himself by attacking God once more, he decides instead to attack the relatively powerless Adam and Eve. He cannot hurt or destroy God, so he decides to hurt and destroy those whom God loves. From a Christian point of view, Satan is the very first misanthrope in human history.
- Roger Chillingworth, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, might be considered a kind of misanthrope. Like many of the characters already mentioned, he seems almost Satanic, especially in his relentless pursuit of revenge. He seems untouched by human suffering and in fact seems to take an almost sadistic pride in causing it.
- O’Brien, in George Orwell’s novel 1984, might also be called a sadistic misanthrope. His viciousness is especially apparent when he threatens to place a cage enclosing hungry rats over Winston Smith’s head:
'I have pressed the first lever,' said O'Brien. 'You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.'
It is a moment of stunning inhumanity and helps mark O’Brien as a kind of modern misanthrope -- a kind, unfortunately, all too familiar in real life as well as in literature.
Some other characters in literature who might be classified as misanthropes are Dickens' Scrooge, Orlick, Miss Havisham and Jaggers, Voltaire's Candide, Salinger's Holden Caulfield, Shakespeare's Jacques, Caliban, King Lear, Hamlet, Timon of Athens, and the three Weird Sisters, Dostoyevski's Rodion Raskolnikov, John Steinbeck's Crooks and Carlson in his novel Of Mice and Men, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Wakefield, Interesting question.