When I first read V or Vendetta in 2009, I thought it was pretty good, but not substantively different than the film. Reading it again seven years later, I found I discovered that the book has a depth that the movie can’t touch. And while I think the film is fine in its own right, I can understand now why Moore called the film script rubbish and requested that his name be left off the credits.
The crucial thing I didn’t understand in my first read-through is that we aren’t necessarily supposed to root for V. Or rather, we are supposed to root for him, and this is supposed to make us very uncomfortable. For while the film unequivocally pits V as the righteous hero, Moore’s and Lloyd’s character is far more complex and disturbing. And V isn’t just disturbing because he kills people. Moore isn’t parroting the tired tautology that if the hero kills, he becomes just like the villain that he or she is fighting. What’s disturbing is V’s fractured ideology and the inevitable failure of his mission.
At its core, V for Vendetta is a story about two opposing worldviews—totalitarianism and anarchy. They are the perfect enemies; anarchy strives for freedom, and totalitarianism strives for control. V as the agent of anarchy seeks to destroy the systems of control that have imprisoned his fellow man. His acts of terrorism are all about weakening the power structure so that the people can see them as machinations of an oppressive regime, and his only goal is to tear it all down in order to let every individual decide—truly choose without the hindrance of chains—how they are going to live.
This is a noble goal, and anarchy in its pure form is beautiful and life-affirming, but a closer look shows that V strips people of their agency and power in order to achieve his desired outcomes.Some of V’s totalitarian exploits include spying on all the citizens of Britain against their will and knowledge, blowing up a commercial building filled with innocent people, and manipulating his entire environment to get what he wants. If we analyze V’s actions without simply taking him at his word, it is clear that he is more closely aligned with totalitarian control than anarchist freedom.
The most striking example of this is V’s relationship with Evey, the orphaned teenager whom he rescues and brings into his home. Throughout the book, V systematically grooms Evey to follow in his footsteps—a process that she is mostly unaware of. When Evey leaves because she becomes increasingly distressed by V’s manipulation, V kidnaps her under false pretenses; he make makes her believe that she’s been taken by the totalitarian regime. This is V’s final act in her indoctrination, and throughout Evey’s imprisonment she is questioned, tortured, and pressed to give up information on V’s whereabouts. She doesn’t give him up, even when faced with what she believes to be execution. V sees this as the last necessary step in her journey toward freedom, and he lets her go.
The scene where Evey confronts V and he tells her the truth is heartbreaking, moving, and intense. Evey can’t believe that it was V who imprisoned, tortured, and lied to her. Yet, V’s ideology not only makes these abuses necessary, but qualitatively good and righteous. According to V, Evey was in prison her entire life, and his interventions are what set her free.
The moral of Evey’s imprisonment is the idea of holding onto the last piece of yourself—your dignity, honor, and integrity—and never giving it up. And by the end of her forced imprisonment, Evey would rather die than give up this last inch. The cruel irony is that after standing so strong, she releases this final piece of herself to V, relinquishing it willingly and with the misguided conviction that this is an act of freedom. True freedom would have been to turn around, leave V, and never return. Freedom would have been to refuse her abuser, to give him the proverbial middle finger, and walk away. But she never does this. Instead, she sees V as her rescuer. And V’s rhetoric is impassioned, impressive, and convincing to the point that the reader can’t help but see V in the same way Evey does.
And this is Moore’s greatest trick—forcing the reader to sympathize with a pro-totalitarian position in an anti-totalitarian book. But if this is true, then what is Moore’s end game? Does he really believe in the ability of anarchy to heal the destruction wrought by a totalitarian regime? Can a world that relies so heavily on domination and control ever truly end? To say yes sounds quixotic, but to say no sounds cynical, and I don’t think Moore is either of these things. Instead, he’s a romantic realist, a person with a profound ability to see what’s really there, and then uses that as a reason to hope for the future.
In V, Moore has created a character with the best of intentions who truly believes in his mission. But the clear way that V’s actions violate his principles destroys the possibility of his mission’s success. The hope that anarchy promises can never be realized in the world Moore has created because: 1) It is birthed from violence, and 2) V fails to understand the crux of how an anarchist system can work.
There are two great articulations of anarchy that I’ve come across in my life. The first is from the book of Ephesians in the New Testament, where the apostle Paul outlines the structure of a totally new society that is based on freedom from the world’s law and control. The second is from Ursula K. Leguin’s novel The Dispossessed, where anarchy flourishes in a harsh environment where people need to rely on each other in order to survive. Both of these works say that if a person can’t see past their own individual personhood, then they won’t be able to achieve their desires—they will be prisoners of their own limitations. Recognizing that you need other people in order to achieve your highest self, however, is a marker on the road to freedom.
The crucial piece that V misses is that true anarchy is rooted in community and mutual responsibility to one another. Real freedom exists in and through relationships. V’s anarchy, however, only offers us an abstract principle. V and Evey are important for the ideal they represent, not for their humanity. And that is V’s major misstep. You can’t have a relationship with an ideal. You can’t love it or feel responsible for it. There is no mutual devotion between you and an ideal. Without relationship there is no freedom, and without freedom there can only be control.
I think that Moore knows this, and by making V’s mission doomed from the start, I think he is saying that anarchy and the subsequent freedom can only happen within a totally different paradigm than our racist, misogynistic, and power-hungry hegemony. And the chaos that V wreaks doesn’t achieve this, because it is still rooted in the violence and control that are inherent in the system he’s trying to break.
I don’t know what’s required in order for this paradigm shift to occur, and I don’t think Moore’s knows either—that isn’t his purpose. But I think the answer has something to do with the closing frame of the book, where Edward Finch walks down a lonely road, totally unmoored and beholden to no one. As the greatest single image of freedom in the book, it is also the most incomplete.