Paul Atreides carries the heaviest burden of all the characters in Dune—he is destined to change the course of the universe. From the start, we never get a sense that Paul is a typical fifteen-year-old boy. Like many other heroes, particularly in science fiction, Paul is “the One,” a messiah-type character whose arrival people have been anticipating and expecting to bring about great change. Throughout the novel, Herbert makes cryptic references to the Kwisatz Haderach. Even in the very beginning, Reverend Mother Mohiam thinks that Paul may be the Kwisatz Haderach, which immediately establishes Paul’s great significance as a character in the novel and as a figure within the universe of Dune.
Paul is different from the other “ones” in science fiction because of his steadfast resistance to his destiny and his concern about the consequences of power. Paul does not resist because he does not believe—he knows he is the Kwisatz Haderach. He resists because he can foresee the bloody war that will result throughout the universe following his rise to power. The Bene Gesserit have arranged for the advent of “the One” because they believe a war is the only way to diversify mankind’s gene pool. Paul, however, wants to believe there is another way, one that does not cause so much suffering and death.
Paul weaves the path of his destiny by the way he attempts to resist it. For example, he does not want to kill Stilgar so that he can rise to power. Instead, he creates a new position within the Fremen hierarchy so that both Stilgar and himself can be leaders. Paul successfully becomes the religious leader of the Fremen. However, we always have a sense that he is fighting a losing battle with his destiny. Paul feels torn between his allegiances—to the House of Atreides, to the Bene Gesserit, and to the Fremen—and his role in the intergalactic politics of the Imperium and the Landsraad. At the end of Dune, although he helps the Fremen cause and protects the Atreides from destruction by the Harkonnen, Paul is nonetheless forever trapped in his role as the Muad’Dib. The simple happiness he craves with Chani remains unattainable.
Jessica is one of the most complicated characters in Dune. Like her son, she is the product of centuries of genetic breeding by the Bene Gesserit, an ancient school that teaches women how to develop superhuman mental and physical abilities. Jessica rebels against the school—she was instructed by the Bene Gesserit to bear a daughter, but she defied them and bore a son instead.
Jessica’s character undergoes many changes. At the beginning of the novel, she is Duke Leto’s concubine. The two are in love, but Leto will not marry her for political reasons. Leto knows that as long as he is unmarried, he has something to offer the other Great Houses. Despite her concubine status, both Leto and Jessica treat the relationship as a marriage, and Jessica is accustomed to her life as a wealthy duke’s partner. Jessica’s life changes once the Harkonnen kill Leto. She is forced to live in the harsh desert among the Fremen and use all her abilities to survive, including seducing her captors.
Jessica resigns her wifelike role and becomes a reverend mother, serving as a matriarchal figure to thousands of people. Jessica has been preparing for such a role by training as a Bene Gesserit from birth. Throughout the novel, however, she is often troubled by emotions that intercede with her loyalty to the Bene Gesserit. Most significantly, she regrets that she groomed Paul so well for the messianic role of Kwisatz Haderach. She realizes that she has robbed Paul of his innocence—he never has a childhood, a normal adulthood, or even the normal life as a duke’s heir.
Like Paul, Jessica finds herself swept along by a subtle, yet firm current of time, leading inexorably to an unknown conclusion. Jessica is far more passive than Paul in receiving her fate because of her Bene Gesserit training. She accepts that her purpose in life is to work toward the collective goals of the Bene Gesserit. Only near the end of her exile on Arrakis does Jessica begin to see the infinite future possibilities that Paul has perceived all along.
Baron Harkonnen appears infrequently in the novel, but he initiates an important sequence of events that changes the future of the universe. He deviously tries to murder the entire House of A-treides and hopes to control the empire by having a monopoly on spice. His grandiose plans even include becoming the new emperor. Ironically, the baron’s plans drive Paul to become the leader of the Fremen and eventually leader of the universe. The baron is clearly marked as the novel’s main antagonist from his very first appearance. He is ruthless, ambitious, cruel, and so fat that he requires antigravity devices to suspend his bulk.
The baron appears like an unrealistic caricature of a leader. On the surface, he is not very different from Duke Leto. Both men are ambitious and ruthless. Leto, however, genuinely cares about his own men and family and regrets many of the tactics he must use to protect them, such as poisoning his rivals and raiding their supplies. The baron seems to delight in the intricacies of political warfare, and his regard for his family extends no further than his beloved nephew Feyd-Rautha. The personalities of the leaders of the other houses fall somewhere between those of Leto and the baron.
The baron’s villainous qualities are reflected in his sexual tastes, most notably his predatory preference for young boys. The novel suggests that the baron’s affection for Feyd-Rautha stems largely from the nephew’s youth, and we even see hints that the baron quietly lusts after Paul Atreides. Oddly enough, no other character in the novel takes a stance on the baron’s perverse sexual tastes. The result is a disturbing ambiguity that leaves the moral boundaries of Herbert’s imagined world unclear.