A victim of circumstance
February 2, 2012 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: Need a character from mythology, literature, the Bible, etc. who, unbeknownst to him/her, is inflicted with some sort of curse/poison but doesn't find out until much later. For details on why Oedipus doesn't quite work, you should see...

From my friend:

"I’m writing an article about a certain kind of victim of environmental harm. The victim is someone who is poisoned without knowing it, and who doesn’t manifest symptoms of the damage until many years later. Think of the long latency periods for asbestos contamination of workers, Agent Orange in veterans, DEC pill takers, etc."

Obviously, Oedipus doesn't initially know that he has murdered his father and married his mother, but Oedipus isn't exactly a victim in the same way that, for example, someone who was unknowingly exposed to asbestos in the course of their job is. Plus, the whole Freudian thing would make him a poor choice -- difficult to reappropriate a motherfucker as the spokesperson for victims of environmental poisoning.

Another thought I had was Lady Macbeth, because she inadvertently plants the seeds of the madness that eventually destroys her, but again, she's not really a victim -- and I wouldn't want to compare mesothelioma sufferers to Lady Macbeth.

The best one I can think of off the top of my head is Job, who is innocently minding his business while God and the Adversary make bets about him, and he is the victim of their actions.

But still, I feel like there's a better example out there that I just can't think of. The best would be a character who is basically good, victimized by someone else, only to (much) later find out that he/she has been harmed. Any thoughts?
posted by Saxon Kane to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Pip and Miss Havisham spring to mind.
posted by gauche at 2:51 PM on February 2, 2012

As would Othello and Iago, maybe.
posted by gauche at 2:52 PM on February 2, 2012

From the Finnish Kalevala, there's the story of Kullervo, which was liberally appropriated by Tolkien for his story of Turin Turambar. It's probably a bit closer to Oedipus.

Kalervo comes into conflict with the kin of Untamo, and soon a gang of men attacks Kalervo killing his family and men, and only one maid is spared her life to serve as a slave for Kalervo. But soon the maid gives birth to Kullervo. Later Kullervo is sold to Ilmarinen, from who he soon escapes. Kullervo finds out that her parents are alive as well, and hears from them that his sister has disappeared. Kalervo has to go to pay the families taxes, and on his way back Kullervo meets a fair maiden and seduces her. Afterwards she realizes that Kullervo is her brother, and out of shame she jumps into rapids and drowns. Desperate and self destructive Kullervo returns home and attacks Untamo and slays him. (via)
posted by jquinby at 2:54 PM on February 2, 2012

What about Persephone? She eats those 6 pomegranate seeds in the underworld, not knowing that it will define the rest of her life?
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 2:57 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

The shirt of Nessus almost works. Heracles dons it quite happily and only later does it inflict terrible agony upon him. But it's a matter of hours, not years.
posted by yoink at 3:15 PM on February 2, 2012

In addition, the shirt is not given to Heracles as an act of malice--Deianeira gives it to him as a love-charm (she has been tricked by the dying centaur Nessus who seeks revenge on Heracles). So it kinda works for things like asbestos which were given to us as purported benefits and then later turned out to be poison.
posted by yoink at 3:21 PM on February 2, 2012

Othello is a tough sell -- yes, Othello is manipulated into murder, but he still kills his wife.

I had thought about Heracles, but didn't like it for the reasons you give.

Persephone is a good one, hadn't thought of that.

Some pop culture ones that I thought of after posting the question:
The family in Amityville Horror.
The replicants in Blade Runner (although, again, the problem being that they go on a killing spree).
The various victims of the movie in The Ring.
Kane (the first victim of the Alien) in Alien.
Perhaps also Rosemary from Rosemary's Baby?
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:24 PM on February 2, 2012

I kind of think Sleeping Beauty fits the bill here. The worst part of the whole Sleeping Beauty tale, for me, is that her parents try to keep the curse a secret. Instead of educating her on spindles and poisons, they banish spindles from the kingdom. So Sleeping Beauty doesn't even know what a spindle is, and that's how she gets pricked by one and falls asleep for a hundred years.

(This, if you ask me, is what comes of abstinence-only education.)
posted by brina at 3:42 PM on February 2, 2012 [12 favorites]

Literature? Case from Neuromancer. He has slowly dissolving toxin sacs implanted inside his circulatory system.
posted by Tom-B at 4:11 PM on February 2, 2012

Bilbo Baggins? At first he thinks the Ring is a great benefit (just like people used to think about asbestos). Eventually he finds out it is slowly ruining him and the Ring needs to be safely disposed of.
posted by monotreme at 4:29 PM on February 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Pharaoh of Exodus, maybe?

It wasn't just "God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let His people go, or He would bring curse X on Egypt"; rather, it was "God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let His people go, or He would bring curse X on Egypt, and God furthermore told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh's heart so that Pharaoh would not let His people go. Thereafter, God really would bring curse X on Egypt, to gain glory for Himself and to let Pharaoh know that he is the LORD."

Over and over. Curse X, curse Y, curse Z; God continually promised Moses that he wouldn't allow Pharaoh to comply with God's own demands, so that God could punish Pharaoh and therefore Pharaoh would know that God is the LORD.

Probably not the best choice, since Pharaoh was, well, Pharaoh, and had been holding the Israelites unjustly long before God decided to get involved, but in this particular aspect of it he and Egypt were definitely victims.
posted by Flunkie at 4:30 PM on February 2, 2012

Oh my god -- Golum and Bilbo. DUH. That is like the most obvious one ever.

Sleeping beauty is also good.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:34 PM on February 2, 2012

posted by Addlepated at 8:51 PM on February 2, 2012

If you're taking things from pop culture too, how about Seth Brundle from The Fly? The harm occurs over weeks rather than years, but other than that it seems on-target - at first Brundle thinks his teleportation efforts were a success - before he realizes what's actually happening he's pretty ecstatic at some of the changes his body is undergoing ... and then of course it all gets ... messy.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:29 PM on February 2, 2012

Achilles - he isn't poisoned, but his mom holds him by the heel when she dips him in the Styx (or in ambrosia, depending on the version), and his vulnerability isn't revealed until he's shot there decades later.

I guess that's more like walking around with an aneurysm than being slowly poisoned.
posted by gingerest at 10:21 PM on February 2, 2012

The Tuck family from Tuck Everlasting? I believe they did all initially drink from that spring without knowing what it would do to them.
posted by castlebravo at 7:55 AM on February 3, 2012

This happens to Richard Cypher in one of the Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind - Naked Empire.

A guy poisons Richard as part of a ploy to enlist his help. The guy doesn't tell Richard about the poison, but instead waits until he is very, very sick to come back and tell him the truth about his illness and offers the antidote in exchange for assistance. From my memory, latency was more like weeks, not years, but it still took a while for the poison to catch up with Richard and by that point he was pretty far gone.
posted by meggan at 3:11 PM on February 3, 2012

I guess you aren't looking for real, recent examples, but this immediately made me think of Erin Brokovitch and chromium poisoning.
posted by snorkmaiden at 5:55 PM on February 3, 2012

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