A nemesis is someone who has villainous qualities and/or does something that stymies the main character’s (protagonist) goals. While the word “nemesis” usually evokes a person’s image, the protagonist nemesis could also be something intangible—for example, addiction or greed. Pride, also known as hubris, is another often-used nemesis in literature. It’s also important to note that for a villain, the hero of the story is their nemesis. It’s all about whose perceptive the reader is interested in.
Definition of Nemesis
A nemesis is someone or something the main character is opposed to and/or fighting back against. This could be someone who has the traditional features of an antagonist or something that plagues their life no matter what they do. A character’s nemesis is not only their enemy but their number one enemy. It’s possible to have several different types of conflict in a story and multiple antagonists. But, there should only be one nemesis. It is the main thing that the character has to face and overcome.
Examples of Nemesis in Literature
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The famed Harry Potter series tells the story of a young boy who has to deal with incredible darkness throughout his life after learning he’s a wizard. His main nemesis throughout the books is Lord Voldemort. A dark wizard bent on destroying Harry and everything and everyone he loves. Here is a quote from the end of the final novel as Harry confronts Lord Voldemort:
Voldemort had raised his wand. His head was still tilted to one side, like a curious child, wondering what would happen if he proceeded. Harry looked back into the red eyes, and wanted it to happen now, quickly, while he could still stand, before he lost control, before he betrayed fear.
Despite his fear of the eventual confrontation with Voldemort, Harry follows the path set out for him and faces his fate head-on.
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
In this famous story that was inspired by German legend, Marlowe describes the prideful Doctor Faustus and his attempts to gain power. He harnesses the power of a demon by selling his soul to the devil, ensuring that in a set period of time, his life on earth will end. He turns to black magic, pushes Christianity to the side, and gives into his belief that he can handle any situation. It’s not until he realizes that there’s no way out of his contract and that he’s sure to go straight to Hell that he repents for what he’s done. Here is a quote from that portion of the story:
Cursed be the parents that engendered me:
No, Faustus, curse thy self, curse Lucifer,
That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books—ah, Mephastophilis!
Here, Faustus loses to his nemesis—arrogance. He set the wheels in motion as he stepped further and further away from societal norms and the Christian God.
Explore Christopher Marlowe’s poetry.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
While there are several different protagonists in Dracula, there is only one main nemesis that any of those characters face—the Count himself. Dracula’s character is a horrifying one. He’s clever, wise, determined, and has easily learned the ways of the new world. Johnathan Harker, Van Helsing, and others have to figure out a way to defeat him or risk the world as they know it is changing. Here are a few famous lines from the novel:
The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
In this famed tragedy, Macbeth faces one central nemesis—his own greed and ambition. These two internal forces spur him on, inspiring him, despite everything else that tries to stop him, to gain more power as quickly as possible. With the death of King Duncan, he sets the play in motion, ensuring that the Witches’ prophesy is going to come true. Here are a few famous lines from the end of the play when Macbeth realizes that he’s lost and that his wife has died:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. […]
In the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech (the lines of which come from a very famous soliloquy), Macbeth is looking out over his life and contemplating his future. It is featured in Act V Scene 5.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use a Nemesis?
It’s important for writers to include enemies in their literary creations so that readers understand what the protagonist is fighting for and what they’re fighting against. The nemesis doesn’t have to be as clear-cut as Dracula or Lord Voldemort. It can be something much more difficult to spot, like addiction or depression. These internal forces are just as dangerous, if not more so. It will very much depend on the novel, short story, poem, or play as to what kind of nemesis a writer chooses to create.
Related Literary Terms
- Anti-Hero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Tragic Hero: usually the protagonist in a piece of literature. Specifically, a tragedy. This kind of character has a tragic flaw.
- Tragic Flaw: a literary device that is used by writers to complicate their characters. Flaws include pride, envy, and cowardice.
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.
- Read: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
- Read: Macbeth by William Shakespeare
- Watch: Hubris and Nemesis in Greek Mythology