On The Dutch House and Humanized Villains

Written by: Mia Yanosy

I picked up The Dutch House by Ann Patchett for three reasons. First,  I’d read Commonwealth by the same author, and liked it; second, it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and I’m (unfortunately) attracted to the prestige;  third and most importantly,  I’ve never liked a cover as much as this one. Putting aside the cliche, we all do judge books by their covers. The Dutch House’s cover features a portrait of a young girl with dark hair and fair skin, wearing a red coat. Perhaps I liked the cover because I saw myself in her, in her looks and her seriousness. 

Source: Mia Yanosy

The Dutch House is a lot like a modern fairytale. Danny and Maeve Conroy are siblings who were brought up on an estate in Pennsylvania once owned by a rich Dutch family. The house is everything one could imagine, full of art, with huge glass windows to let in light and a ballroom on the top floor, bedrooms and libraries said to have been extracted from a castle in Utrecht and placed into this new house, linden trees on the edge of the property, peonies and roses on the lawn. But behind the beautiful facade, tragedy lies. Danny and Maeve’s mother abandons them as children, leaving them to be raised by servants and an emotionally-absent father. Mr. Conroy remarries, adding to the family a young stepmother and two young stepsisters. Andrea Conroy is the stepmother of most fairy tales: villainous in the eyes of the children. But when their father dies suddenly, they really see just how unsympathetic she is.

The narrative  floats throughout their lives, back and forth through childhood and adolescence and adulthood. We watch Danny and Maeve pore over what happened to them. Why did their mother leave them? Why did their father marry Andrea? How could the Dutch House exist without them in it? 

Midway through the book, Danny, Maeve, and Celeste–the girl who will eventually become Danny’s wife–are driving home from the train station. Celeste and Maeve are meeting for the first time, and they bond over poetry, reciting Philip Larkin’s “Home is so sad” back to each other. Maeve takes the first stanza, “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left, / Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back. Instead, bereft / Of anyone to please, it withers so, / Having no heart to put aside the theft.”

And Celeste the second, “And turn again to what it started as / A joyous shot at how things ought to be, / Long fallen wide. You can see how it was: / Look at the pictures and the cutlery. / The music in the piano stool. That vase.”

Mia Yanosy on humanized villains in Ann Patchett's The Dutch House.
Source: Peggychaocair from Pixabay

Of course it’s not random that Maeve thought of this poem first; like the home in Larkin’s poem, the Dutch House is a principal character in their lives. It will always be home to Danny and Maeve, but it is also a relic, a stolen piece of their childhood. It is the only thing that really connects them to their mother and their father. Throughout the book, when Danny returns home to Pennsylvania, the two park their car on the street by the house and stare up at it. They can’t help but wonder if it has changed on the inside. 

Readers with  siblings will find it  hard not to see themselves,  as I did,  in Danny and Maeve. Though we don’t all share a tragic backstory, siblings are often bonded by the experience of living parallel lives. After Andrea kicks Danny out of the Dutch House, he and Maeve only have the money their father has put aside for Danny’s education, and each other.

Like its cover, the Dutch House is a portrait; a picture of two whole lives, the good and the bad. But I think there is a lesson, too. By the end of the book, Maeve, who is a diabetic, becomes ill. Their mother miraculously reappears, a poor woman who has travelled the world helping the least fortunate. They finally return to the Dutch House and learn that Andrea has Alzheimer’s. 

So who is the real villain of the story? The mother that abandoned her two children to pursue other passions or the stepmother who kicked them out of their own home? Who, if anyone, do we forgive?

At the beginning of the book, Maeve says that she sees the past clearly, just as it was. Danny disagrees. He tells her, “We overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered” (45).

When you look at a whole life, splayed out, as Danny and Maeve’s lives are in this book, you can’t help but use the ending to help you understand the beginning. You can’t help but see the Andrea with Alzheimer’s in the Andrea that threw Danny out, or sympathize with the mother’s decision to choose the world’s poor over her own children. 

Source: Annie Spratt from Pixabay

Classic fairytales are full of endings more damning than this one. In Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Gaston falls to his death while attempting to kill the beast. In the Brothers Grimm version of “Cinderella,” the evil stepsisters’ eyes are gouged by Cinderella’s bird friends. Most of us feel little compassion for these characters, and their fates tell us that we’re not meant to.

This leads us to the question of whether villains, or antagonists, should be humanized at all. Many argue that humanizing antagonists is too kind, that any glimpse of innocence or goodness neutralizes their immoral actions. “Some people are just bad,” they claim, a statement I find to be reductive.

The point of humanizing the “bad guy” is not to compel readers to forgive them, but to remind readers of the capacity for evil in all of us. When we see Andrea, old and dying of Alzheimer’s, we see a person who is like all of us, vulnerable to time and cruel disease. And when we can relate to a villain, even distantly or superficially, we understand the humanity in the villain and ourselves, and understand that humanity is defined not by our goodness or badness, but our capacity for both.

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