Women as the Heroes of Their Own Stories

Yet more food for thought in the discussion of modern heroines (i.e. major female characters who don’t die, marry, or go crazy by the end of the book). This article in The Atlantic by Kelsey McKinney. The first half, in any case, since the second describes a book I have not read.

I do take issue with certain examples the author uses, such as her suggestion that Jane Eyre and “all of the Bennett sisters” were blinded by love. That strikes me as a misreading of Jane Eyre’s character—although one that is probably shared by other “readers”— as well as a (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the social forces at work in Jane Austen’s novels that required women to be well married in order to have any status or agency. The very fact that some of the Bennett sisters not only desire love in their marriages but are willing to reject secure but emotionally unsatisfactory relationships can be viewed as a principled and brave choice, given the possibly quite stark alternative—penniless, homeless, dependent spinsterhood.

And of course, there’s the argument to be made (as we have made here previously) that so many great works of literature that focus on men also involve a love story. Her first example of “Nick Carraway’s lurid account of the 1920’s” strikes me as a bit off, since The Great Gatsby revolves around one man’s obsessive love of a particular woman.

On the other hand, I really see her point, although I disagree with some of her specifics. I have most definitely normalized for myself the idea of male heroes that we are all meant to relate to (and I have) because “man” means mankind, both men and women, or so I’ve been told, and the male experience is meant to be understood as the universal experience. I’ve been willing to go along with that, and it’s been to my edification to do so, or so I believe.

But! The very wrongness of this—why should women not be heroes, too, in stories with supposedly universal themes?—was brought home to me in a big way when I recently stumbled across this post (several years old now) that proposes a genderswap version of The Lord of the Rings films in which all the major characters were actually portrayed by actors of the opposite sex: http://october-26.livejournal.com/371384.html?format=light. Just look at it! Some of this “casting” is brilliant, and I can totally see it. But more than that, I want to see it! Or read it. I would watch the hell out of this movie. Or read those books.

As some of you may have heard me claim before, The Lord of the Rings is my bible. It’s my moral text. I read and internalized it for myself at a fairly young and impressionable age, and that is something I am still happy about. But how much more powerful or meaningful might it have been with more women characters? How different might it be with all women? Not so much in substance as in impact? What might that have meant to me? And why is there still no real literary equivalent that I’m aware of?

Anyway, just revisiting the old conversation here because it’s one I don’t have good answers for but don’t get tired of having. Looking forward to your thoughts!

The First Modern Heroine

Not long ago I was talking with Rose Modry, and she mentioned that a professor of hers had once said something to the effect that 19th century literary heroines had only three options:  to die, to go mad, or to marry happily.  There is considerable truth in that, but it got us thinking that there must be, somewhere in literature, a heroine who breaks out of that mold for the first time, a heroine who finds a happy ending outside of conventional marriage.

Any thoughts?  Someone suggested that somewhere in the work of Louisa May Alcott there is such a character, but couldn’t remember who.  Little Women was published in 1868.  Lily Dale, whose story Anthony Trollope tells in The Small House at Allington (1864) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) occurred to me as a possible candidate.  But these are early books–typical Victorian heroines continued to appear for some decades after.

Although she disqualifies herself by marrying, Margaret Schlegel in Howards End  (1910) is a big step forward, since she doesn’t have to marry, and could be said to “conquer” her husband rather than the other way around.

Somewhere it seems there must be a heroine who really changed things by finding through her own efforts a happiness independent of men:  the first modern heroine.  Nominations are open.