Evil as Imagined Portent

  • Daryl Koehn


The previous three chapters examine how we become more dangerous as we struggle to preserve an intrinsically unstable or false sense of ourselves. We may, like Hendrik Höfgen, be driven by the morally sanctioned desire to be respected. In other cases, our struggle, like Tom Ripley’s, may be fueled by an overwhelming wish to escape our boring lives. These desires are two sides of the same coin. Unhappy with who we are, we strive to acquire a more engaging, respectable identity. Our quest requires other people’s help. Their interest and approval confirm that we finally have become whom we hope to be. Both Mann and Highsmith understand that the self is never satisfied by this quest because the self is not a persona or role. Stevenson develops this point further by disclosing the way in which society pressures us to identify with a respectable role but then proceeds to live vicariously through our immorality when we rebel against societal pressure. This social hypocrisy increases the likelihood that the self will fragment and descend into madness. In all these cases, the protagonists use imagination to anticipate threats, suggest possibilities, and rationalize their attempts to preserve their fragile personas. As their efforts unfold, imaginative cunning supplants reason. In this chapter, I explore what happens when the human imagination is allowed to operate unchecked.


Male Figure Person Evil White Face Respectable Identity Straight Answer 
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  1. 1.
    Henry James, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, ed. Anthony Curtis (London: Penguin Books, 1984 ), p. 39.Google Scholar
  2. 15.
    Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Prince of Darkness ( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988 ), pp. 114–115.Google Scholar

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© Daryl Koehn 2005

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  • Daryl Koehn

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