The antagonist, in literature, is a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
This person, or group of people, stands against the “hero” or “heroes” of a work. They are the opponent or competitor. The antagonist is generally considered to be the villain in the story, the one against whom the reader should root. While the antagonist is generally a physical person, sometimes they exist ephemerally. They might be a force against whom the protagonist works, a generalized evil, a plague, an entire country, species, or planet.
The antagonist has dualities that contrast against those of the protagonist. They are “foil” to the main character. These qualities might be on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, or they might separated by something less dramatic, but still worth fighting over.
Purpose of the Antagonist
The antagonist in a story is there to stimulate conflict and drive the plot. Without them, there might be nothing to move the story forward. The protagonist would have no reason to fight, risk their life, leave home, or make important life/death choices. A story finally comes to its resolution after the antagonist is defeated.
Examples of Antagonists in Literature
Example #1 Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
‘Jabberwocky’ is the poet’s best-loved poem and one of the most successful examples of nonsense verse in the English language. The poem tells the story of a hunt undertaken by the speaker’s son, a young man. He is going hunting for the antagonist of the poem, the Jabberwock. It has “ jaws that bite [and]… claws that catch!” It takes him a long time for him to find it. Finally, when he’s taking a break, the Jabberwock appears.
A fight occurs, the son comes out victorious and takes the creature’s head back to the father. When he gets there, the father embraces him and celebrates over his slaughter of the Jabberwock. There is so complex evil plot at work in this poem, nor is there a great deal of background on either protagonist or antagonist. This nonsense poem sets out a battle, one of strange proportions, and allows the reader to revel in the language used and the captured victory. Take a look at these lines:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
Here, the speaker is addressing his son and making sure he’s aware that the Jabberwock is a dangerous creature. But, there are other dangers out in the world as well. None of these are elucidated. A reader has to imagine, or wonder at, the nature of these creatures and what meeting them would entail. This makes the hunt for the Jabberwock feel all the more dangerous.
Example #2 Paradise Lost by John Milton
Satan in John Milton’s famous ‘Paradise Lost’ is a very interesting antagonist. To some, he exhibits qualities of both hero and villain. He goes through a character arc, if one ignores his intentions, that is similar to that experienced by heroes. He struggles, learns more about himself, and overcomes certain challenges. But, his goal is still to destroy God and Heaven. Milton’s Satan is often cited as a classic example of an anti-hero, someone for whom the audience likes despite their negative, or in this case evil and murderous, qualities. Consider this quote:
Fallen Cherub, to be weak is miserable, Doing or suffering: but of this be sure, To do augh good never will be our task; But ever to do ill our sole delight: As being contrary to his high will Whom we resist.
Eloquent and persuasive, Satan is able to rally his troops of demons with words alone. He asks them in this quote to do “augh good” or to never do good. It will be their “sole delight” to do evil alone.
Example #3 Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
One of the most obvious villains in contemporary literature, Voldemort, is a perfect example of an antagonist. A wizard who went very much in the wrong direction, Voldemort fights for power while Harry Potter, the protagonist of the novel, fights back. While he is not the only hero of the novel, he is the one against whom Voldemort is compared. Consider these lines from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry is confronting Voldemort:
You’re the one who is weak. You will never know love or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.
Here, Rowling is providing readers with more evidence of the difference between the two. The main thing that Voldemort is lacking that Harry has in huge quantities is love.