Who is the True Villain of "Flowers in the Attic"?
What is Flowers in the Attic?
Spoilers for the Dollanganger series ahead.
Back in 1979, Virginia C. Andrews released her light novel Flowers in the Attic to much critical acclaim. Blurring the lines between genres, Flowers contains elements of romance, mystery, and especially horror. It's a fine (albeit disturbing) story that I find neither too juvenile for adults nor too text-heavy for casual readers. It's a tale filled with rarely-explored themes of incest, betrayal, and forbidden love, landing itself in many schools' banned list.
Having twice been adapted to the silver screen, Flowers still entertains audiences in modern days. With complex, multi-layered characters, it's difficult to point at a singular main antagonist—let's review the story to decide who the true villain was!
Teen narrator Cathy Dollanganger and her three siblings are devastated after the loss of their loving father. Cathy's mother Corrine, unable to provide for her family, decides to move back in with her rich parents; however, Corrine's father long ago cut ties with her after she married her half-uncle. Corrine tells her children they must secretly live in the mansion's attic or the family won't inherit a dime. With her mother Olivia's stern assistance, Corrine locks her children upstairs and claims to begin making amends with her father to secure her family's wealth. Meanwhile, Olivia sternly brings the kids food, severely punishing them whenever they act out.
After three years pass and several horrid incidents take place (more on that later), the children learn the truth: Corrine's father died months ago and she's slowly trying to poison the kids (successfully killing Cory with hidden rat poison) to avoid the clause of his will that states she loses her inheritance if any kids of hers are ever discovered. Barely alive, the surviving children escape the mansion, and Cathy swears revenge.
However, things aren't quite so simple. Who was really poisoning the kids and why? What was each character's intention? With subtle implied messages (and several sequel novels), we can begin aligning the many puzzle pieces of this surprisingly intricate young adult's book.
Eldest child Chris is likable throughout 95% of the story. A good son and brother, he reassures his siblings, studies hard, and believes in his mother's sincerity for as long as possible. When food stops coming to the attic, Chris goes so far as slitting his own wrists for the sake of allowing young twins Cory and Carrie to drink his blood for nourishment.
Nonetheless, Chris casts many a forbidden gaze at Cathy as her body matures into that of a young woman. He enters a jealous rage upon hearing Cathy kissed the family lawyer (who was sleeping) out of curiosity, and rapes Cathy... sort of. You be the judge. She resists him, but because she doesn't think brothers and sisters should be attracted to one another, not because she doesn't desire the act. She even tells him after the fact that there's nothing to forgive, and that she could have stopped him if she resisted harder.
Whether you decree Chris as sympathetic hero who made a mistak, or brutal rapist unworthy of Cathy's clemency, he's not the ultimate villain of this story.
Though the children at first blame Malcolm for their imprisonment, he bears little fault in their predicament, especially since he's unaware. In fact, it's even suggested that, contrary to Corrine and Olivia's words, Malcolm would have grown fond of the children despite their parents' incest, appreciating the children's remarkable good looks. Malcolm also does eventually alter his will to include his daughter upon her return, albeit with the stipulation that she never has kids.
Fifth book (and prequel to Flowers) Garden of Shadows highlights many of Malcolm's numerous faults, but he doesn't serve as the villain for this book, dying peacefully without ever learning of his grandchildren's existence.
At the start of the story, Olivia is painted as the antagonist, and several brutal actions support this idea. She locks the kids in the attic, physically assaults them when they violate her rules, rejects their Christmas present, administers cruel punishments such as tarring Cathy's hair, and so on.
However, Olivia harbors a rarely-seen softer side, and to be fair, her wariness of incest between the children proves to be accurate.
Olivia's redeeming traits:
- She brings the children a potted plant out of genuine kindness
- She tells Corrine to take Cory to the hospital after discovering his sickness
- She's seen praying to God, stating that she's tried to do what she thought was right (suggesting some remorse and knowledge of possible wrongs)
- Her week of not bringing food to the children was likely an attempt to prevent their poisoning
- Her depiction after the children escape (exploring their room before her established time of bringing food) can be construed as regret
- Garden of Shadows shows her struggle between wanting to love her grandchildren and condemning the actions that led to their conception
With her brutal beatings and willingness to blame children for the sins of their parents, Olivia proves far from spotless. That said, she's surprisingly empathetic, and her marriage to an untrustworthy husband (shown in Gardens) depicts her regrettable transformation from good-hearted optimist to vicious cynic.
The beautiful mother of four is eventually unmasked as a selfish traitor willing to poison her children just for money, but she only tried killing them after learning about the clause Malcolm added to his will, right? That doesn't make up for her actions, but at least for a number of years she tried to help the kids (bringing them various gifts and promises), didn't she?
Careful readings suggest her nefarious plans may have started not after learning of the clause, but as soon as her husband died. From this point, Corrine is often described as having guilty expressions and actions when she looks at the kids, and the novel heavily implies her claims of studying to be a secretary (and thus provide for the kids, freeing them from the attic) were only a lie to placate them. Her words of taking Cory to a hospital once his illness is discovered are also dubious; later evidence suggests she didn't even bury his body as claimed, but rather hid his corpse in a hidden compartment of the attic!
True, she somewhat redeems herself in the third novel, If There Be Thorns, set many years later, but as far as the first book goes, Corrine harbors the most villainous heart. She isn't a sympathetic villain who slowly fell from grace—she cast aside her offspring as soon as her husband died. If any one person can be blamed for the events of Flowers in the Attic, it's Corrine Dollanganger.
Who is your most despised character?
Future of Flowers
With film adaptations, reprints, sequels, and even a prequel, there's plenty of dark Dollanganger tales for fans to uncover. Or, for entirely fresh tales, check out more of late author V.C. Andrews' novels, like Dawn or My Sweet Audrina, which explore similarly morbid themes.
Some may find the adult events contained within these stories too graphic for youngsters, while others may appreciate the rarely-touched upon themes. Regardless of your take, Flowers in the Attic presents one of literature's most demented villains: Corrine Dollanganger.
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© 2018 Jeremy Gill