A disabled child is killed, yet the reader finds themselves sympathising with the murderer. A family is slaughtered, but readers are surprised by the politeness and sensitivity of one of the perpetrators.
Fiction has a way of settling, sometimes uncomfortably, in the grey area between good and bad. Such was the case in Hannah Kent's The Good People and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, among many others.
The ability of writers to elicit some kind of sympathy out of a situation that superficially seems cut and dried is one of the most important attributes of literature.
In The Good People, a child crippled by an unnamed affliction is killed by a local woman that his grandmother has engaged to dispel the changeling that has taken over his body; they both believe they have to scare away the fairy that has the place of the child.
Somehow, while horrified by the fate of young Michael, I found it impossible to believe that the grandmother, Nora, or even the doctress, was evil. While at first glance it might seem incomprehensible that a grandmother should play a role in the murder her own grandson, the intricate backstory makes Nora's actions understandable, if not rational.
Similarly, Capote seems to call the reader to sympathise with Perry Smith, one of the perpetrators of a terrible crime in his book, In Cold Blood. In the novel, based on a true story, two men break into a family home, killing two children and their parents.
Capote wrote that Smith said: "I didn't want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat." Unforgivable? You would think so. Yet, in Capote's novel, Perry is portrayed as sensitive and guilt-ridden, led by his cold and calculated accomplice.
The ability of writers to elicit some kind of sympathy out of a situation that superficially seems cut and dried is one of the most important attributes of literature. It makes us rethink our initial perspectives and highlights the murky reality of the human condition, in which even people who consider themselves to be 'good' can commit unthinkable acts.
The Good People's Nora certainly believed herself to be a 'good' person, and others in the community evidently agreed. Yet, under certain pressures and conditions, she committed a terrible crime against a child.
In the level of detail literature provides, it enables the reader to take a more nuanced look at the characters' actions and behaviour, clearing the way for empathy in a way that a newspaper article or a news report on television may not.
The question of good and evil weighs heavily on the reader in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In Lionel Shriver's book, the reader is forced to question whether a child can be born evil, or whether a parent can make them so. The behaviour of both Kevin and his mother are under the spotlight, and ultimately, for all of her maternal failings, it is hard not to sympathise with Kevin's mother. While it is hard to excuse Kevin for the damage he wreaks, the pathway he takes is, in a way, inevitable. It was the continuation of a direction he appeared to be travelling in since his birth. This inevitability leads the reader to question how much control Kevin really had over his character or behaviour.
The line between right and wrong were also blurred in Jane Eyre. A superficial telling of the story reveals a man who locks up his mentally ill wife, while pursuing a younger and more amenable woman. While any reasonable person might consider this behaviour to be repellent, instead, the reader finds themselves admiring Mr Rochester, and wishing he and his new wife well.
In Lolita, behaviour that seems impossible to rationalise somehow becomes rational, as Humbert Humbert pursues 12-year-old Lolita. It might be in the humorous tone of the narrator, or the regret that he expresses, that Nabokov encourages the reader to come close to sympathising with the paedophile.
It seems that by providing the background to an 'evil' act, it becomes difficult to believe in the notion of evil at all. Perhaps this is one of the great strengths of literature -- it helps readers identify with those who are difficult to understand. Motivations become clear and rationality can be found in the irrational. It is one of few ways of developing an understanding of those who seem to be so different from ourselves.
F. Scott Fitzgerald alluded to the ability of literature to help readers empathise when he said:
"The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures."
Having said all of this, literature is certainly not free of villains whose actions are inexplicably bad. Crime and Punishment's Svidrigailov's actions, including child molestation, adultery and attempted rape remain unjustified, while Pinkie from Brighton Rock is feared by all for his sociopathic behaviour, to name just two. While Charlotte Bronte might be sympathetic to Mr Rochester, her book is riddled with characters whose meanness to the orphan, Jane, remains unjustified.
However, the beauty of literature lies in its ability to leave the reader questioning their preconceived notions. While a magazine or newspaper article might lead us to form certain conclusions, leaving us smug in the knowledge of our own 'goodness', a great book will take us to the murky depths of human nature, showing us that we are not all that different from the villain at the centre of the story. It is a truth that can be uncomfortable, but also strangely reassuring, and absolutely necessary.
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