Written by Dan Brown and published in 2013, Inferno revolves around the protagonist, Robert Langdon in his venture to thwart the plan of the antagonist, Bertrand Zobrist, who attempts to release a virus which was initially thought to have the potential to lead to the mass extermination of the population. However, an unexpected turn of events occurred when Zobrist, a genius geneticist, justifies his actions using the Malthusian Theory. He brings up the fact that our population is increasing exponentially, resulting in numerous ramifications upon the Earth, which will potentially lead to the demise of the human species if we do nothing to stop it. He also claims how current solutions have proven to be futile, and the only way to prevent a potential cataclysm is to reduce the population. We observe that the actions of Zobrist are highly utilitarian in protecting the human population from a potential Malthusian catastrophe, and he does not actually mean harm to the population. As the plot unfolds, we realize that Zobrist uses cutting edge technology to create a vector virus which infects the whole population and causes sterility randomly to a third of the population. The virus can be passed to subsequent generations, capping the population at a calculated “ideal” population in the long term. Langdon initially valued morality and deplored the actions of Zobrist, upon realizing Zobrist’s true intentions, he eventually agrees with his actions, eliminating the goal conflict of both characters.
Despite the seemingly ludicrous idea of utilitarianism postulated in the novel, Inferno captured the attention of many readers, clinching several awards and even had a film adapted from it. This can be attributed to its thought-provoking elements, raising questions relating to the dilemma in which all aspects of our society face- utilitarianism versus morality. For example, in the political context, politicians struggle to decide between pragmatism and righteousness when implementing policies, deliberating between which method is the most ideal. While Zobrist values utilitarianism and believes in sacrificing the rights of humans for the greater good, Langdon values morality and believes in respecting the well-being of every individual. Through the analysis of the social dilemma between morality and utilitarianism, this article seeks to argue about the blurring of lines between a protagonist and antagonist, in which it has become ambiguous as to what constitutes a hero and a villain.
Morality vs utilitarianism in Inferno
In the novel, Zobrist mentions the problems surrounding overpopulation and the futility of current measures in tackling the problems. He subscribes to the Malthusian Theory, claiming that “Ozone depletion, lack of water, and pollution are not the disease—they are the symptoms. The disease is overpopulation. And unless we face world population head-on, we are doing nothing more than sticking a Band-Aid on a fast-growing cancerous tumor.” He feels that the most pragmatic way to solve overpopulation and protect humankind from a potential cataclysm is to reduce the population. Though his method of removing the reproductive freedom of individuals against their will is immoral, it is highly utilitarian in tackling overpopulation.
Meanwhile, Langdon initially assumes that the virus which was about to be released by Zobrist will exterminate much of the population. Hence, he was against the idea and worked towards preventing the virus from being released. Despite understanding the intention of Zobrist, Langdon feels that eliminating much of the population is a ludicrous idea which indubitably goes against human ethics.
Through the conflicts of interest between Zobrist and Langdon, we can observe the social dilemma between utilitarianism and morality. This quandary faced in the novel strikes a parallel with today’s society, in which policymakers are at loggerheads as to which ideal we should base our policies on.
As mentioned in the novel, “It’s the age-old battle between mind and heart, which seldom want the same thing.” (Inferno, 2013). While the mind knows better to heed utilitarianism for the betterment of the population, our conscience seeks to favor ethics. Ultimately, the choice we make differs based on our ideals, as proven from the conflict between Zobrist and Langdon.
“Ozone depletion, lack of water, and pollution are not the disease—they are the symptoms. The disease is overpopulation. And unless we face world population head-on, we are doing nothing more than sticking a Band-Aid on a fast-growing cancerous tumor.” -Bertrand Zobrist
The blurring of lines between the protagonist and antagonist
The analysis of utilitarianism versus morality depicted by Zobrist and Langdon raises concerns over the ambiguity between heroism and villainy. At first glance, Langdon seems to be the obvious hero of the novel, while Zobrist seems to be the villain. Yet, on deeper analysis of the ideals of the characters, we can observe the ambiguity of dichotomy of both characters. Characters in many apocalyptic fictions have their own perception of the world, feelings, and ideals. This results in conflicting interests between characters, in which the storyline usually revolves around. (Magliano, Taylor, Kim, 2005). In many stories, there is no clear distinction between what constitutes a hero and villain, as ultimately these characters are merely pursuing their own objectives based on what they perceive is best for the people. Besides, the actions of antagonists may be attributed to their cultural and historical context, in which many readers do not consider. The audience usually disregards the antagonist without considering how their socio-economic background may have impacted their behavior and actions (Gunderman, 2017). Certain goals that the various characters have is largely influenced by their socio-cultural background, which may differ from the larger audience, thus it is fallacious to characterize them as a villain merely due to the difference in perceptions they hold.
Besides, the character deemed the protagonist is usually morally righteous, thus resonates with well with the larger audience compared to the character deemed the antagonist, whose actions usually go against the norm (Gunderman, 2017). How people perceive certain characters to be a villain or hero depends on their educational, social and cultural background, which differs largely based on the geopolitics of the audience. While some perceive certain actions as heroic, others perceive these actions to be vile. In the case of Inferno, readers who are inculcated with the value of deep ecology may view Zobrist as the hero, while those who are brought up being taught to value the lives of every individual may view Zobrist as the villain. Thus, different audiences may differ in their perception of the villainy and heroism of different characters. This results in the blurring of the protagonist and antagonist binary.
In addition, the actions of different characters may not entirely be ideal or evil. For example, though the goal of the protagonist may seem highly moral, the method used by the protagonist in achieving his goal may not be ideal, thus his righteousness can be questionable. Meanwhile, though the method used by the antagonist in achieving his goal may be sinful, his goal may actually serve a good purpose. The protagonist and antagonist usually represent good and evil. Yet, in our complex society, it is questionable as to what determines good or evil, thus resulting in the ambiguity of characterization (López-Sánchez, Tur-Viñes, & García-Castillo, 2010).
In Inferno, Zobrist decides to take radical action to solve overpopulation as he believes it is the ideal way of tackling overpopulation. He adopts the use of biotechnology to remove the reproductive freedom of every individual, resulting in the reduction of population. His goal is to maintain the population at an “ideal” number in the long run, ensuring the problem of overpopulation does not occur again. Zobrist posits that he adopted such means due to the lack of global concern over the threat of overpopulation. Sienna Brooks, a supporter of Zobrist, states that “The human mind has a primitive ego defense mechanism that negates all realities that produce too much stress for the brain to handle. It’s called denial.” She carries on to say “Oftentimes, those special brains, the ones that are capable of focusing more intently than others, do so at the expense of emotional maturity”. She believes that Zobrist is one of the few who is actually brave enough to face the reality of overpopulation. This puts Zobrist in a positive light, allowing readers to understand his actions and empathize with him. We can then observe the ambiguity of antagonism, in which Zobrist is expected to portray. On the other hand, through his attempt to thwart the plan of Zobrist, Langdon is covertly allowing the problem of overpopulation to exacerbate, ultimately posing a threat to humankind. This opens up the irony of how the actions of the villain serve a better purpose to society than the hero.
“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” -Dante Alighieri
Ambiguity of heroism and villainy in other films
The conundrum surrounding utilitarianism and morality has been shown in other films as well, further emphasizing the ambiguity of how we define a hero and a villain. For example, in Mathew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, the antagonist, Valentine attempts to eradicate most of the human population as he feels that it will protect humanity from extinction. Though exterminating the population definitely goes against moral values, it is a hyper-rational form of utilitarianism many environmentalists agree about. Humans ought to sacrifice some aspects of their lives for the betterment of the planet. This parallels closely to Zobrist in Inferno, in which the actions of the antagonist actually serve a purpose in protecting humankind. Thus, there is no definitive conclusion as to which characters are the antagonists and which are the protagonists, as ultimately it narrows down to the ideals people subscribe to, in the case of Inferno and Kingsman: The Secret Service, between utilitarianism and morality.
In Inferno, Zobrist’s ideal is to ensure the long-term sustainability in his method of solving overpopulation. However, in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Valentine saw the immediate need to reduce the population due to the prevalence of global warming. This shows how different characters hold different perceptions in tackling problems they see in our society. They do not mean harm to the people, but instead perceive the problem in the bigger picture. They believe that such sacrifices are necessary for the greater good of not only humankind but for the planet as well.
The disappearance of heroism and villainy
Towards the end of the novel, when Langdon realizes that Zobrist’s intention was not to cull the population, he agrees with Zobrist’s actions, eliminating the line between a protagonist and antagonist since both parties are of consensus over the main problem of overpopulation as pontificated by the novel. The dichotomy between a protagonist and antagonist arises from their conflicting interests, which drives the storyline (Magliano, Taylor, Kim, 2005). As both characters agree on the same ideal, it is difficult to discern which character should be deemed the hero or the villain.
In the epilogue, Langdon mulls over a quote by Dante Alighieri, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Langdon finally understands that “In dangerous times, there is no sin greater than inaction”, and agrees that he was guilty of denying the existence of global issues. This shows how Langdon ultimately subscribes to the views of Zobrist and agreed his actions. Since both parties agree that utilitarianism should be valued more, there is no longer a goal conflict, and we can effectively agree that the line between the protagonist and antagonist has been eliminated.
In conclusion, Inferno raises the social dilemma between morality and utilitarianism, which further brings out the underlying theme of the existence of a dichotomy between a protagonist and antagonist. In essence, this article concludes the blurring of the line between villainy and heroism. How different characters subscribe to different beliefs and how different groups of audience perceive various characters are based on their socio-cultural background, thus it would be erroneous to define a character as a hero or a villain based on our own perception of their actions. By recognizing the ideals of all the characters, we can effectively eliminate the line between a protagonist and antagonist.
Brown, D. (2013). Inferno. New York: Doubleday.
Gunderman, H. C. (2017). Blurring the protagonist/antagonist binary through a geopolitics of peace: Star Trek‘s Cardassians, antagonists of the Alpha Quadrant. The Geographical Bulletin, 58(1), 51-62.
López-Sánchez, C., Tur-Viñes, V., & García-Castillo, J. A. (2010). Evaluation of the protagonist-antagonist dichotomy in spanish television content targeting children. Revista Latina De Comunicación Social, 65, 553-560
Magliano, J. P., Taylor, H. A., & Kim, H. J. J. (2005). When goals collide: Monitoring the goals of multiple characters. Memory & cognition, 33(8), 1357-1367.
Vaughn, M. (Director). (2014). Kingsman: The Secret Service. Los Angeles: Twentieth Century Fox.
Author: Loh Wei Ting