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.