Readers and listeners: I'm Justin Hienz, an intern at NPR. Every day, I see nominations and comments you submit, and I've been excited to remember with you all those fictional personalities that influence our lives. In reminiscing, I feel compelled to suggest another.
Darth Vader (a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker)
From the Star Wars films, created by George Lucas
LucasFilm/Twentieth Century Fox
Dark victory: Intern Justin Hienz (who's finishing up a religious- studies degree, so we worry) says Darth Vader thrills us because we secretly long to be bad.
Of characters from American fiction, few have elicited as enduring a fascination as Darth Vader. The stiff black suit, the mysterious, ominous mask, the deep, commanding voice, the red lightsaber he is the personification of evil and anguish, and we love him for it.
He kills subordinate Imperial officers on a whim, and we cheer. He threatens destruction, and we silently hope to see it done. At every stage, we both fear and hope for his success.
In Episodes 1-3, Vader became a more complex character for viewers. We gained a greater understanding of how a promising Jedi could fall so far from the light. And yet, watching Anakin Skywalker start down the path to becoming Darth Vader by killing a village of Sand People, I still feel a satisfying rush. They did kill his mother, after all. It was retribution justified evil; in the words of the aspiring emperor Senator Palpatine (a.k.a., Darth Sidious), I always think to myself when watching, "Do it! Kill them!" Am I a bad person because part of me wants to see Vader thrive on the Dark Side of the Force? I think not.
George Lucas's Star Wars films make relatively simple commentary on the quest for power and the internal duality we all face; to do right or wrong, particularly when wrong would feel so good. Yet unlike in most other stories of duality, in Darth Vader, the Dark Side seems attractive.
Vader allows us to imagine what a full embrace of the dark would be like. There is a fascination with acting on the reverse of socially agreed upon morality. Because a rejection of norms is taboo, tasting the forbidden fruit through Vader is a guilty pleasure. That we don't, for the most part, openly cheer for him makes our secret support feel as if we too are breaking all the rules.
In our galaxy, in our time, existence is rarely as clearly understandable as "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong" as in Star Wars. The ambiguities of everyday life leave us wondering what side of the Force we follow; usually our path is lit by the gray light of uncertainty.
But through Vader, with his unchecked power sans foreseeable consequence (save for Return of the Jedi), we can know the Dark Side, embrace it for two hours, and return to our uneasy wanderings through the gray.