Definition of Nemesis

A nemesis is the principal enemy of the protagonist in a work of literature. A nemesis can also be called an arch-villain, archenemy, or arch-foe.

The definition of nemesis has an interesting history. The word nemesis is related to the Greek word νέμειν (némein), which means “to give what is due.” Originally there was a goddess named Nemesis in ancient Greek religion who dealt out divine retribution for those who succumbed to hubris. She was also known as “the inescapable.” Thus, the goddess was not an evil villain, but instead a figure of implacable justice. However, due to the fact that many Greek heroes were subject to hubris, which is an extreme expression of pride and an affront to the gods, the goddess Nemesis was often the one to bring their downfall. Thus she became these heroes’ worst enemy.

Difference Between Antagonist and Nemesis

Though antagonists can be enemies of the main character, there is a notable difference between an antagonist and a nemesis. Antagonists are any characters or particular situations which create obstacles for the protagonist. An antagonist may even be a “good guy” or have the protagonist’s best interests at heart, but do things so as to thwart the protagonist’s actions.

A nemesis, on the other hand, is working against the protagonist because the two are completely at odds in their world-views and purposes. Two nemeses will often consider the other to represent all that is wrong with the world. A nemesis will never have the protagonist’s best interests in mind. Also, a protagonist may encounter many antagonists (and sometimes characters switch from being on the protagonist’s side to being an antagonist, knowingly or not), while the protagonist only has one main enemy.

Common Examples of Nemesis

There are many examples of real-life nemesis pairs from politics and world affairs, sports, businesses, and in entertainment like movies, television, and comics. Here are some famous examples of nemesis pairs:

  • Harvard University and Yale University
  • New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox
  • Axis and Allies of World War II
  • Batman and Joker
  • Seinfeld and Newman
  • Professor X and Magneto

Significance of Nemesis in Literature

Conflict is the key to any great story, and there is no greater conflict than that between a character and his or her mortal enemy. In many stories with an example of nemesis, it is not enough for the protagonist simply to defeat the nemesis; instead, many stories end with the death of the nemesis (as in all of the examples below). Often there is a sense of good versus evil, with the protagonist fancying himself or herself as the representative of good, and the nemesis as all that is evil. We can find nemesis examples in literature from around the world and back to the beginning of storytelling.

Examples of Nemesis in Literature

Example #1

No more entreating, dog, by knees or parents.
I only wish my fury would compel me
To cut away your flesh and eat it raw
For what you’ve done. No one can keep the dogs
Off of your head, not if they brought me ransom
Of ten or twenty times as much, or more.

(The Iliad by Homer)

Achilles is the central character and greatest hero of Homer’s Iliad. His most important feat in the narrative is slaying the Trojan hero Hector. The two men are almost equal in strength and power on the battlefield, but it is when Hector kills Achilles’s beloved Patroclus that Achilles decides to destroy Hector at all costs. In the above excerpt, Achilles reveals his wrath just before killing Hector.

Example #2

Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
Settle the outcome in a single combat….
I have heard moreover that the monster scorns
In his reckless way to use weapons;
Therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s fame
And gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
Sword and the shelter of the broad shield,
The heavy war-board: hand-to-hand
Is how it will be, a life-and-death
Fight with the fiend. Whichever one death fells
Must deem it a just judgment by God.

(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)

The hero Beowulf hears about the troubles that the Shieldings are having with the monster Grendel, and comes to their aid. This is a fight between good and evil in a very literal sense; earlier in the text, the Beowulf poet states that Grendel was a descendant of Cain and part of a clan of banished monsters. The hero Beowulf kills Grendel, which, as is foreshadowed in the above excerpt, is taken to by a judgment by God.

Example #3

HAMLET: Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion! Fie upon ’t, foh!

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Though in some ways Hamlet is his own worst enemy, his arch-rival is his uncle Claudius, the man who killed his father and married his mother. Hamlet devises a plan to catch Claudius, and swears to get vengeance on him. Indeed, Hamlet does kill Claudius by the end of the play, but as this is a Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet dies as well.

Example #4

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. [. . .] All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

(Moby-Dick; or The Whale by Herman Melville)

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is an interesting example of nemesis in that the arch-villain is actually an animal. Captain Ahab commands the whaling ship Pequod to pursue one specific whale, Moby-Dick. Ahab has lost his leg and an earlier ship to this infamous whale, and he seeks vengeance against the beast. By the conclusion of the book, one of the two nemeses is dead, but in this case it is Ahab who loses his life in pursuit of Moby-Dick. The fate of the whale is uncertain, but Ahab’s obsession with Moby-Dick leads to his own death.

Example #5

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….

(Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling)

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the eponymous protagonist encounters many different antagonists along the way. Chief among them are his classmate Draco Malfoy and his teacher Professor Snape. However, these antagonists do not stack up against Harry Potter’s one true nemesis: Lord Voldemort. For example, Malfoy and Snape are generally working against Potter, but every so often their paths are united against the common enemy. Voldemort and Potter are set against each other from the time of Harry’s birth due to the prophecy made above by a teacher named Professor Trelawney. It turns out to be a self fulfilling prophecy that Voldemort turns into reality simply by believing it to be true, and Voldemort creates his own worst enemy by giving Harry Potter powers that he could never harness himself.

Test Your Knowledge of Nemesis

1. Which of the following statements is the best nemesis definition?
A. A character or group of characters who present an obstacles to the main character.
B. A character who is very evil.
C. The principal enemy of the protagonist.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. A protagonist can have more than one nemesis.
B. The protagonist and nemesis usually have conflicting and opposite world-views.
C. Nemesis examples can only be found in ancient Greek literature.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following characters is a nemesis to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan?
A. Captain Hook
B. Tinker Bell
C. Wendy Darling

Answer to Question #3 Show

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