Preface: "On Revenge"
When Robert Mannion, the scheming villain of Wilkie Collins's sensation novel Basil, reveals his revenge plot to the eponymous narrator, it might appear at first that he has thrown off the mantle of middle-class respectability to expose his "true" monstrous self: rapacious, violent, motivated equally by perverse appetites and the desire for vengeance. Yet, I would suggest that the relationship between Mannion's persona as socially-productive, disciplined, and efficient self-made man and his role as a stealthily, indefatigably vengeful plotter is much more synergistic than antagonistic. Mannion stakes a claim to revenge based on his very rights as a man. The fear that Basil explores is that the "good citizen" of modern liberal society might also be the mauvais sujet of revenge, not because the semblance of the former masks the latter, but, more disturbingly, because Mannion's "right to injure" is fundamental to the very social order that he ostensibly threatens. In other words, it is no coincidence that a villain like Mannion emerges at the same historical moment as some of the most enthusiastic articulations of liberal ideals of self-determining, autonomous subjectivity. Mannion not only embodies the very qualities that, according to Samuel Smiles's runaway bestseller Self-Help, "make the man"- "great perseverance, application, and energy" (30)-but these qualities are explicitly the products of his "desire for revenge." So, what might that intersection of revenge fantasies with the liberal dream of self-determination and economic success that Smiles's book pedaled in 1850s England have to tell us about revenge as a cultural phenomenon and a fictional device? What is happening at the interstices between revenge and rights, in other words?
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