Dangerous Friends

Everyone loves reading about a diabolical mastermind who plots the downfall of his unwitting enemies. But there’s a variation on the literary villain whom I find particularly compelling: the dangerous friend who lays waste to the lives of his lovers, neighbors, and associates. The prototype of this character is Shakespeare’s Iago—a trusted friend who has everyone’s worst interests at heart. Shakespeare never fully explains the mystery of the dangerous friend: Why does he act that way? As Joan Didion puts it in the famous opening line of her novel Play It as It Lays, “What makes Iago evil?” This is the question that each of the books below attempts to answer in its own way.

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

This epistolary novel describes the machinations of two unscrupulous friends and ex-lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Out of boredom and festering personal grudges, they concoct a series of plots to destroy young romance and seduce virtuous widows. But when real feelings become involved, things fly out of control and the two friends cause irreparable damage, not only to their intended victims but ultimately to each other.

Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A happily married couple, Charlotte and Eduard, have just built their dream house in the country. Against their better judgment, they invite two less fortunate friends to stay with them: the unemployed Captain and the schoolgirl Ottilie. In this spare, schematic novel, Goethe uses the metaphor of chemical affinities—a theory explaining why certain molecules are drawn together—to explain the damage these four well-intentioned people somehow inflict.

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin’s beautiful novel in verse tells the story of Onegin: a blasé Byronic hero who first breaks a young girl’s heart and then, as a result of a prank conceived in a moment’s irritation, brings about the death of his closest friend. After years of wandering Russia in despair, he returns to Moscow, where he finally falls in love—only to ruin the marriage of the one woman who ever truly cared for him. Why is Onegin doomed to bring unhappiness to those who love him?

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

“I am not capable of close friendship,” confesses Pechorin. “Of two close friends, one is always the slave of the other. . . . I cannot be a slave, and to command in such circumstances is a tiresome business.” A cynical, charismatic, Onegin-like officer stationed in the Caucasus, Pechorin seems condemned by fate to destroy the lives of those around him. As the title implies, Lermontov ascribes his “hero’s” predicament to sociohistorical forces: “the vices of our whole generation in their ultimate development.”

A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

A group of earnest, liberal friends is torn apart by the return of biochemist Julius King, who has been away researching nerve gas. Julius’s latest project is to prove scientifically that human love can be defeated by exploiting people’s self-importance and vanity. As the title implies, love is defeated—but in a fairly honorable way. In a surprise ending, Murdoch “explains” Julius’s behavior by disclosing a secret from his past.

The Exception by Christian Jungersen

This psychological thriller depicts a case of bullying in the offices of the Danish Center for Information on Genocide among four educated, left-leaning women who have convinced themselves that they are good people. Jungersen masterfully sketches a link between this casual cruelty and the acts of brutality committed by ordinary people during genocide. He uses sociological data, as Goethe used chemistry, to explain the capacity of seemingly good people to harm one another.

Elif Batuman is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and has a blog at