V for Vendetta can be thought of as a superhero comic, but I have a feeling that Moore and Lloyd would chuckle a very British chuckle at the suggestion. It’s more a politically grounded character drama whose dramatis personae and their relationships are the core of the story.
V, of course, is the masked-and-cloaked avenger whose character arc is the main plot of the novel. We learn a few things early on about him: he is a performer with a flair for the dramatic; he has a deep love for the arts, quoting Macbeth and Faust and even the Rolling Stones as he pursues his foes; and he is hypersensitive to Evey’s thoughts and feelings. There’s something nurturing about him, even despite his abiding mystique. Frankly. the more I write, the more I’m convinced that V is simply the art of performance made flesh. Or, for as much as we see flesh, made fabric and porcelain.
V rescues Evey from the fingermen—the cops—on the night he blows up parliament1, taking her into sanctuary at his home, the Shadow Gallery. Throughout Book One (Europe After the Reign), V abducts and assassinates several members of the ruling fascist party, carrying out his titular vendetta. In my favorite moment he stands with Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey. He strikes up a conversation with her in the dead of night—himself playing both ends—and admits to her that he has been seeing another woman. That woman: anarchy.
This scene is the decoder ring for V as a character. It’s easy to underappreciate, since it is a monologue with little importance to the plot. But it tells us everything about V, it does so in two and a half pages, and that is so cool.
First, the obvious: where once he flirted with justice, now he is wholeheartedly devoted to anarchy. Secondly: V flexes his vocabulary, turning what otherwise might be a silent, contemplative moment into a full blown soliloquy, a performance for no one in particular: V would not be V without the drama. Thirdly, the frames in the comic focus tightly on V’s mask and Lady Justice’s stone visage, as if to equate the two. The hint is that V is a symbol just as much as Lady Justice—a connection made more explicit throughout books two and three. Fourthly: V is talking to himself. Let’s not forget that. He is possessed of a certain weirdness, a madness—the madness of Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, a madness with charisma, a madness that captivates.
Now that we know a little more about V, we can begin to understand his relationship with Evey. He rescues her from the night and hides her in the Shadow Gallery, where she gratefully accepts his shelter and comfort. He also takes her under his wing as a student, teaching her about the art lost to the censorious Norsefire regime. She is innocence rescued from the brink—the fact that V rescued her before she was able to successfully prostitute herself is not a narrative accident—and taught to live again. Importantly, despite her closeness with V, she maintains her innocence throughout the novel, notably in three important scene.
In the first, she is made accomplice to a murder and expresses her horror at the events (she had offered to help V unaware that murder was his purpose, his only warning being a reference to Faust when she made the deal). Afterward, V lets her go back out into the streets of London, where she falls in with Gordon. Gordon is a good man at heart, but a criminal, and he meets his end at the hands of a worse criminal: Alistair.
Which leads to the second important scene: Evey takes Gordon’s gun and is about to make an attempt on Alistair’s life when she is snatched from the streets again (by V, although we don’t know this at the time). Her innocence, again, is rescued from oblivion. Her last test comes after her ensuing, ahem, reeducation, where V offers to finish what he had interrupted:
What a line, by the way. “It is as easy as it is irrevocable.”
She declines. Why is this all so important? It’s important because despite the fact that V is looking for a protégé, someone to emulate him, he is also looking for an opposite and a complement. V needs someone to create a new society in the wake of his purposeful destruction, and talks about this more and more as the end of his mission approaches and he prepares to pass on his mantle. (Another favorite line: “But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgiveable. Let’s drink their health… then meet them no more.”). He hopes Evey will be this person—and these scenes show that V’s hit the mark. There are some other visual-and-text-level struts that serve as a foundation for this complementary relaitonship, the biggest one being that scene of revelation on the rooftop, post-reeducation, where Evey, having been reborn into the rain, echoes the frequently repeated frame where V escapes from his prison into roaring flames. Fire. V. Water putting out the fire. Evey.
As all this is going on, with V becoming more and more sure of Evey, his efforts to educate her intensify. He begins simply, by drawing her story from her and assuring her that the fascist thugs of the world are unable to harm her. He offers her his library, an endless stream of quotes from the timeless classics, and even bedtime stories about the Land of Do-As-You-Please. He teaches her about drama and magic. And then, he does one of the most famously anti-heroic deeds in all of fiction: he imprisons Evey in a fake concentration camp. You see, V himself was forged in the crucible of atrocities that was a concentration camp, and he believes that the only way for Evey to truly learn what it means to be free is to experience what he experienced. He tortures her, starves her, locks her in a rat-infested cell, and fully convinces her that she has been captured by the fingermen and is going to be executed unless she divulges information about V2. He introduces to her, through a rathole in her cell wall, a letter from a lesbian actress, Valerie, imploring her to hold on to her principles—the same letter V himself received through a rathole in a cell wall all of those years ago.
At the end of this ordeal, Evey is faced with a test not of her innocence, but of her resolve. She is given a damning confession to sign that will end the torture and may result in her finding work with the fingermen. If she refuses she will be taken out back and shot. Her response? “Thank you… but I’d rather die behind the chemical sheds.”
The most horrifying part is that this ploy works, and after Evey recovers, she thanks V for putting her through the harrowing ordeal. The ethical argument here—whether or not deceiving and subjecting a human being against their will to intense pain and psychological horror in order to better them as a person could be the right thing to do—is fairly well-traveled, and until we can all agree on the matters of ethical philosophy, it’s fundamentally unanswerable. But as Evey furiously struggles to understand what’s been done to her before her moment of revelation, she does have another criticism to offer on V’s approach: “You’re wrong! It’s just life, that’s all! It’s how life is. It’s what we’ve got to put up with. It’s all we’ve got. What gives you the right to decide it’s not good enough?”
Now, given the context of the rest of the book, I’d conclude that Moore and Lloyd deeply believe that even the most painful, ugly steps toward freedom are better than meekly accepting the comfortable evils of a fascist society. But this line is an acknowledgement that the epistemological foundation of that belief is fraught, at the least. Who are we to decide, really? V does anticipate that question, in a way—he’s bringing Evey face-to-face with the other side of the comfortable evils, so she herself can decide. But that doesn’t make what he does before she decides any less horrible3.
In the end, the man who goes by V dies, and Evey takes up the mantle. She dons the cloak and the mask, and she begins the great enterprise of sculpting the chaos of post-Norsefire England into the anarchy V hoped for. And in that way, V will never truly die.
To Think the Way He Thinks, and That Scares Me
There’s one other relationship in the novel I’d like to briefly explore: the relationship between V and Eric Finch. Where sixteen-year-old Evey possesses goodness and strength of spirit, Finch is much older and much more pragmatic. He’s a good man, but he’s been molded by the fascist society to accept the idea that order is preferable to chaos. However, we are introduced very early on to the idea that Finch doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the ruling order. His first real conversation with Adam Susan, the Leader, in the novel goes like this:
Finch is the investigator (“The Nose”) who is tasked with bringing V to justice after he bombs Parliament. He is, narratively, in the best position (besides Evey) to learn about what V really stands for, indirectly admitting as much: “Because if I’m going to crack this case… and I am… I’m going to have to get right inside his head. To think the way he thinks. And that scares me.”
As befitting a person tasked to highly cerebral work, Finch is a learned man. In investigating the bishop’s murder, he demonstrates a remarkably full understanding of V’s dramatic devices. He notes that V employs a famous quote related to Charles Manson (“I am the devil, and I come to do the devil’s work”), he recognizes his reading of the twenty-third Psalm, he sees how V makes a mockery of the old doctrine of Transubstantiation, and he identifies Beethoven’s Fifth being played over the recording.
So if Evey is V’s counterpart, Finch is, in a way, Evey’s counterpart. Finch represents experience, ot the opposite of youthfulness. He represents understanding of the arts and of society, the opposite of receptiveness to utterly new encounters. And while Evey’s transformation is at the forefront of the novel’s conclusion, Finch is more the model of what it would take and what it would mean for a person who lives under fascism to turn on it and pursue freedom. So how does it happen for Finch? Slowly.
Finch’s development is set in motion late in book one when we learn that he had a romantic relationship with Delia, the medical scientist who experimented on V in the camps and who became the last victim of his vendetta. In taking the first murderous steps toward freedom, V hurt someone close to Finch and enraged him. And yet when Finch discovers and reads her journal of the ghastly things she was involved with in Britain’s holocaust, he is possessed by it. He acknowledges that it could well be a forgery, but he cannot shake the ring of truth.
Months later, being removed from the case thanks to his inability to get along with the new, thuggish head of the state’s law enforcement (Peter Creedy), Finch procures some LSD and sets out to see the remains of the Larkhill concentration camp, seeking answers. I’ll admit, my first impression of the LSD sequence was that it was a tropey self-insertion common to people who have taken hallucinogens and feel the need to evangelize their perspective-altering properties, but I now think that’s an overly cynical reading. The LSD didn’t give Finch any information he didn’t already know—this scene isn’t totally a plot convenience—but it did allow him to absorb and experience the camp, his mind already soaking with the awful knowledge contained in the journal. It also functions as a bit of a symbol for our model citizen-turned-away-from-fascism: in order to understand V and to understand the prison he lives in, he needs to partake in forbidden experiences.
Finally, now that he can think like V does, he is able to follow in V’s footsteps to Victory Station.
By the time he finds Victory Station, V has already set his dominoes in motion. The final nudge was to bomb and destroy the tower that contained the state’s surveillance machinery, giving the people of London just enough wiggle room to get outside and meet each other, to begin little acts of rebellion, to come into contact with the forces of order… and for that contact to plunge London into riotous chaos. So by the time Finch arrives at Victory Station, V’s mission is nearly complete, and that is why V allows Finch to shoot him before he limps back to the Shadow Gallery to speak one last time to Evey.
What follows is one of the most ambiguous events of the whole novel. Finch genuinely celebrates that he was able to bring down V and returns to the offices of the ruling party, proclaiming his victory. He didn’t stick around to watch V die, but judging by the amount of blood left by the retreating masked man, Finch figured he wouldn’t have long to live (and he would be right). But when his assistant, Dominic, presses for details, Finch declines. Where did this happen? “I don’t remember. Must be the drugs, eh?” A frame of the Victory Station sign suggests that Finch remembers perfectly well where it happened; why doesn’t he speak? Does he not know that V has more planned, more going on beneath the station? He saw the subway car, but did he not see the explosives beneath the flowers? Does he believe in V’s purpose? If so, why did he shoot V? Maybe he simply doesn’t appreciate that the location is important?
I think the most likely reading is that Finch sought to punish V for his spree of murders (and conversely, V knew that he deserved it) but, beyond that, did not believe that the Norsefire regime should know more about V’s plans. Now, why Finch doesn’t believe the regime should discover the station is perfectly inscrutable, and given that I’ve been reading Finch as “the model for a citizen who turns against fascism” it might suggest that there might not be a single, easily identified motivation at play. It might be a gut distrust of authority, it might be a decision arrived at after painstaking consideration, or it might be somewhere in between. Whatever the case: Finch, knowingly or unknowingly, allows Evey to finish V’s work pushing England over the brink and into a new era.
By Any Other Name
There are two other threads I want to touch on. The first is the story of Rose Almond, Derek Almond’s wife who becomes a widow halfway through Book One. Her story is a window into the lives of the disempowered: she endures a crumbling relationship with the abusive Derek until he is cut down by V, after which she is courted by the media mogul Roger Dascombe. She finds him revolting and his advances skeezy, but in the end, she is faced with the question: what other choice does she have? She, like much of London, is dependent on the oppressive, abusive regime to survive.
Unfortunately for her, Dascombe is V’s very next victim, and soon we find out that her only recourse is to become a burlesque showgirl at the Kitty Kat Keller club, demeaning work that she hates. Again, we catch a glimpse of the novel’s thematic fabric: she’s an honest woman whose work is a performance. It’s a lurid, sullying sort of performance, but it is a performance nonetheless, and as we’ve seen, the performers and the “liars” of the novel are the ones with the purest of intentions.
Rose’s story comes to a close after her desperation pushes her over the brink and, as part of the mounting turmoil in London, she pulls a gun on Adam Susan’s motorcade and kills him.
The other thread is that of Alistair “Ally” Harper, a Scottish gangster attempting to expand operations in England. Alistair is the worst sort of criminal: brutal and impeccably mercenary. He provides an important counterpoint to the novel’s anti-establishment protagonists we aspire to, as he is the kind of anti-establishment that you hope to never meet. Ally’s thugs are roped in by Peter Creedy to help law enforcement keep its head above the rising tide of chaos in the city, making him a sort of stand-in for the idea that an authoritarian government whose only goal is power is absolutely not above associating itself with the worst in society. But he’s willing to betray Creedy for a raise, and he is hired by Helen Heyer (wealthy socialite and wife of the state’s chief of surveillance) to aid her bid to usurp power from Susan. When Helen’s husband, Conrad, finds out, he and Ally kill each other, completing the parable.
One scene in particular stands out as representative of Ally’s ethic: following his betrayal of Peter Creedy, Creedy begs Ally to shoot him and put a quick end to it. Ally refuses: why waste the ammunition when his razor will do?
(Next time: the Ally-less film adaptation of V for Vendetta.)