In real life, we’re told that honesty is the best policy, yet the greatest stories we read or watch are filled with characters lying to other characters. If we obsess over truth and factuality in the real world, why do we permit fictional characters to lie so frequently?
The simple answer: lies create tension, tension creates conflict, and conflict makes for addictive narratives.
In other words, without conflict, (or without lies), the story does not exist, and what’s the fun in that? After all, we need these stories, because they provide us with an escape, they allow us to live out our fantasies, and they show us the possibilities of what could happen.
Lies also give stories their form. In some stories, such as that of the play or the movie Sweeney Todd, the lie told by Mrs. Lovett creates a structure essential to the story we know. Without her lie, a story may still exist, but it would not be the infamous Gothic romance revenge tale we’ve all come to love.
Looking at Lies
Clearly, lies, false truths, equivocations, and the like prove essential to storytelling, as these devices manipulate the characters and the readers alike into believing certain details or into suspecting certain outcomes. In literature, a fancy term for lying is “intrigue,” which is when “a character initiates a scheme which depends for its success on the ignorance or gullibility of the person or persons against whom it is directed” (Abrams, 234). In both the play and the movie Sweeney Todd, the character of Mrs. Lovett intrigues against Sweeney Todd to make him believe that his wife, Lucy, has died.
In his article, “Lies and Literature,” W.J. Reeves thoroughly investigates the concept of why fictional characters intrigue against each other. According to his research, Reeves points out that the three primary forces driving literary liars include self-promotion, protection, and/or some form of punishment. Per Reeves’ argument, Mrs. Lovett would be driven by two of these factors, namely self-promoting herself as Sweeney Todd’s new love interests, which in turn could protect her future status. She may even believe that her lie will protect Todd as well, since the truth of discovering that his wife is not dead and instead mentally unstable could destroy his already fragile grasp on reality.
Her motivations to lie explain her actions, but the real reasons behind this intrigue represents more of a structural plot device than anything else.
Lies Trigger the Chain Reaction of the Story
No matter what the story, be it the tale of Sweeney Todd or something else, the use of intrigue (lies) in literature sets off the chain reaction of the plot. Keeping our focus on Sweeney Todd, let’s look at Mrs. Lovett’s lie more closely.
Before she tells Sweeney Todd about the status of his wife, Todd is already in a vulnerable and pliable state. Regret and anger fill his mind, as does the need for revenge. Mrs. Lovett’s lie about Lucy being dead after Judge Turpin had forcibly courted her, stalked her, and raped her, all encourage/manipulate Todd to take his revenge upon Turpin. Of course, in using the lie to transform Todd into a murderer, Mrs. Lovett puts herself in a caregiver/accomplice position to help Todd achieve his dastardly goals and to keep him safe as he does so.
While Mrs. Lovett’s choice to lie may have been an attempt to gain Todd’s trust and love, she gets far more than she has bargained for when she focuses his frustrations into a mission of vengeance. Every moment he doesn’t get his revenge makes him more troublesome to handle, though. Mrs. Lovett helps Todd create an initial trap in which to lure Turpin, and that trap does work to some extent, but when Turpin gets out of the trap, Todd immediately blames Mrs. Lovett. At risk of losing his affection or her life, due to Todd’s rage issues, the chain of events causes Mrs. Lovett to raise the stakes and allow Todd to take out his rage on the world by murdering others until she can devise a new way to trap Turpin. She’s even willing to cover up Todd’s serial killings by using the corpses to make meat pies that she will sell to the masses. In her mind, these new lies protect her love interest, Todd, and promote her to the position of loyal friend and protector. Of course, Todd only sees it as a means to an end, if it means he will have the opportunity to kill Judge Turpin once again. Thus, as the lies build up, so too does the momentum as we race through this horror show of death, blood, and cannibalism.
Although Mrs. Lovett goes to great lenths to maintain her position as caregiver and potential love interest for Todd, there is one person that could ruin the entire lie, namely Todd’s wife, Lucy. Although mad, penniless, and virtually unrecognizable, the homeless Lucy wanders the streets near Mrs. Lovett’s shop and near where Judge Turpin keeps Johanna, (Lucy and Todd’s daughter, who is now Turpin’s ward). With Lucy lurking about, Mrs. Lovett has to find a way to perpetuate her lies. So, Mrs. Lovett does everything to keep “the old woman,” as she refers to Lucy, away from her store and away from Todd. Even in the song, “God that’s Good” Mrs. Lovett repeatedly tells Toby, “throw the old woman out,” because Mrs. Lovett can’t risk Todd recognizing Lucy, or else she will lose her chance at being with Todd romantically. No matter how much Mrs. Lovett tries to keep Lucy out, Lucy remains ever on the edges and in the shadows, watching the events take place.
As the story comes to its climax, the chain of events leads to the moment where the truth will out, as they say, and when Mrs. Lovett’s lie falls apart. Fueled by his need for vengeance, as encouraged by Mrs. Lovett, Todd finally gets to the part where he will get his second chance at murdering Turpin, but just then Lucy walks into his shop. Caring about nothing but his vengeance, and not knowing the old woman is Lucy, Todd kills Lucy just as she recognizes him. He gets rid of her body in time to take his revenge out on Judge Turpin, but as Todd goes downstairs to gloat over Turpin’s lifeless corpse, he realizes the true identity of the old woman, and thus discovers the truth that Mrs. Lovett has knowingly and willfully deceived him. This truth reawakens his need for vengeance as he kills Mrs. Lovett before killing himself.
Would the Story Work without the Lie?
By the explanation above, Mrs. Lovett’s intrigue against Sweeney Todd does act as the catalyst that causes the chain of events leading to both her and Todd’s deaths, but how different would the story have been had Mrs. Lovett not lied?
Let us suppose that Mrs. Lovett decided that instead of letting Todd believe that Lucy had died that she tells him to prepare himself, for his wife has much changed. In doing so, she would have then taken Todd to the old, beggar woman who was once his beautiful Lucy.
Predicting Lucy’s reaction to meeting her long-lost husband proves a difficult task, especially throwing in the fact that Lucy has lost her faculties. She may not have recognized him, and simply tried to run away from him, or she may have thought he was a ghost come to haunt her, or any other number of potential reactions. Regardless, Todd would’ve felt the need to take care of her in some way, perhaps taking her out of the city or paying for her to go to a hospital.
After seeing what had become of his wife, Todd would have been just as bent on revenge, since his need for vengeance had been festering for 15 years. That said, would he have chosen the same blood-drenched path? If he were able to convince Lucy to let him help her, and if he had the possibility of being a whole family again, one could surmise that such hope would have tempered part of his bloodlust. He still would have had to eliminate Turpin to save Johanna, which may or may not have resulted in Turpin’s ultimate demise.
Going back to the question, does the story work without Mrs. Lovett’s intrigue against Sweeney Todd? As a revenge tale, Todd still would have gone up against Turpin to avenge Lucy’s honor and to save his daughter from a known rapist. Removing Mrs. Lovett’s intrigue, however, would change the character of Sweeney Todd from an understandable yet morally despicable antihero into that of a sympathetic protagonist, which would have lessened the beloved Gothic elements that have made this story so infamous. Had that occurred, the very form of the story would have been drastically changed into something more akin to an action story about vengeance.
In the story of Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett’s initial lie seals the form of the story to that of a paradox between the haunting and blood-soaked elements of the Gothic with that of the hero’s quest for vengeance typical of a romance fiction. The striking differences between these two genres add more tension, since we the audience become morally torn between wanting Sweeney Todd to receive justice for wrongdoings against him as we uncomfortably struggle to justify his stream of murders. That emotional uncertainty underscores the murkiness of justice, which is a key theme of the story. That sense of murkiness could only have been achieved with Mrs. Lovett’s initial lie as the catalyst for conflict.