In theory, nothing should give us greater satisfaction than being fundamentally good, likable human beings. People trust us, tell us secrets, look to us for advice, rave to others about how we helped them that night they drank too much or got a flat tire. In theory, kindness wins us the admiration of those we love and desire, makes us friends, gets us promoted, puts us on the fast track for happy and meaningful lives. And yet, if all this is true, how can we possibly explain the allure of the sinister and immoral characters found throughout literature, and particularly, 19th century literature? Perhaps it's because they represent an alternate means to an end—why give up seducing a married woman or buckle to social pressure when we can simply kill husbands and set our own standards of living? Perhaps it's because they represent novelty in a world of likable but ultimately dull characters. Or, perhaps, it's the vicarious thrill we get from entering their stories. Whatever it may be, these characters allow us to indulge the most selfish versions of ourselves, and tempt us to embrace the Byronic code: Pleasure's a sin, but sometimes sin's a pleasure. They do what they please, take what they want, and leave a trail of destruction, sometimes just for kicks.
Julien Sorel's baby-faced innocence belies a rogue home-wrecking seminarist turned dandy and his Napoleonic quest for power in 19th century France. Sorel seduces powerful women with even more powerful ties, quickly proving himself the most intelligent and capable of his contemporaries; but the young man's rapid ascension sets him up for a dark future. There's something admirable about someone who can memorize all of Horace and the Bible, lose a duel and live, not hesitate to shout at superiors, sneak around with the daughter of his employer—a Marquis—and win the hearts of married women.
This satiric poem, which Byron began in 1818 and continued working on until his death in 1824, opens with a convoluted meditation on the nature of man, followed by an apology for the author's drunkenness. (It should be noted that the title is pronounced 'Don Jouan,' mocking the Spanish pronunciation). While the myth of Don Juan famously sees him running around, taking mistresses, breaking hearts, and occasionally proving unable to understand that 'no' means 'no'; this Don Juan is different—Byron's character is so charming that women, instead, seduce him. His affairs are depicted so heroically that readers—both men and women—will wish that they too had the hero's way with words, and the poet's blatant disregard for social standards.
Pechorin, the main character of A Hero of Our Time, is Byronic; that is to say, mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The title of of A Hero of Our Time is ironic, implying that during a moment when society was obsessed with displays of magnificence and nobility, it took someone more suave and conniving than his peers to truly stand out. It's immediately clear that Pechorin is no hero, but rather someone who 'heroically' defies all expectations of the ideal Russian officer. A hero, Lermontov suggests, is someone bold enough to be himself when doing so is inconvenient and self-destructive. While Pechorin is walking, talking proof that it is possible to stand out as a hero by undermining polite society, in the end, he undermines this, and settles for the simpler pleasures of destroying a marriage and shooting a friend.
At the age of seventeen, Raymond Radiguet wrote this story of a boy who seduces the wife of a soldier off fighting in the first World War. The protagonist (whose name we can assume is Raymond) sneaks around town with his mistress, learns that mothers seldom approve of new lovers (whereas fathers often do), sleeps with his girlfriend's good friend, and causes scandal with an unexpected pregnancy. While our hero is forced to give up the thing he adores most, he remains a loose cannon.
We would all like to keep our youthful good looks and charm for as long as we can. The tragedy of human life is that this is, to our great dismay, impossible. The tragedy of Dorian Gray's life, however, is that he found a way to cheat the system. Time doesn't affect him, and worse yet, his misdeeds leave no trace on his youthful face. We first meet Dorian as a naive young man, but as more than two decades pass, Dorian begins to relish the fact that only his portrait reflects his sinister nature. In Dorian's charmed and cursed existence, Wilde reminds us that if evil were to never leave a mark, it would be hard to resist living out our days in destructive decadence.
Alex Aciman is the author of Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.