Sunday, May 1, 2011

Favorite Female Characters, Anybody?

It is a commonplace in literary criticism that female readers tend to identify with male characters because female characters are so unattractive as to make any identification with them impossible. Finding a female character who is not one-dimensional, pathetic, silly, weepy, boring, and/or sexless is next to impossible even for a very well-read person. Honestly, I can't think of any such female characters.

Except, of course, Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte's fiercely feminist novel has a protagonist who is complex, conflicted, and strong. She is neither a perfect little Madonna who never speaks above a whisper and sacrifices herself with a beatific smile for everybody else, nor a sinner always ready to repent and debase herself in payment for her sins in the last pages of the novel. Jane Eyre feels insulted by the suggestion that her husband should keep her. She relies only on money that is her own. She doesn't marry her love interest until his is completely broken down and dependent on her for even the most basic things.

So this is pretty much the only attractive female character I can think of at this moment. Am I forgetting anybody? Any suggestions?

41 comments:

Amanda said...

How about the works of Thomas Freaking Hardy?

Or Maggie from Mill on the Floss?

Or the ladies from The Thorn Birds?

Shedding Khawatir said...

All of Sally Watson's protagonists. Especially Lauchlin (The Hornet's Nest) and Jade (Jade). She has older books from the 1960s and newer books from the 2000s. Of the newer ones, I'd recommend The Ivory Cat.

Clarissa said...

I don't know who Sally Watson is. What genre does she write in?

The Thorn Birds?? You cannot be serious. Is there a single female character there who is not a study in female subjection, brainlessness and self-deprivation?

Clarissa said...

I love Thomas Hardy but the guy was a total woman hater. Which is amply reflected in all of his works of literature.

Shedding Khawatir said...

Sally Watson writes in the young adult genre, although some of her more recent books verge on adult (in the sense that the characters are more openly sexual, which I don't think she could get away with in the sixties). She is not very famous, and not really considered "literature", but I suppose some of her books could be considered bildungsroman so you might also be interested for that reason. You can purchase her older books from Image Cascade and her newer ones from Iuniverse, and I believe they are on Amazon as well (although not the Kindle).

nicoleandmaggie said...

The Country Bunny in the Country Bunny and the little gold shoes.

The Little Engine in the Little Engine that Could.

Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz is also pretty darn cool, as is Ozma (though she spent some time as a boy, so maybe she doesn't count).

Can you tell I have a preschooler?

Anonymous said...

Thackeray's Becky Sharp is pretty awesome

liese4 said...

Amelia Peabody in the Amelia Peabody series from Elizabeth Peters. She is an adventurer who marries an archeologist. She is respected in the Arab community and faces peril with wit. She wears pants (horrors) in a time when women were bundled in corsets and dresses. Her husband is sometimes bungling, but she helps him out. It's a mystery series that spans a long time in Peabody's life.

It't meant to be a kind of parody of mystery/old serials, so don't read them as if they were great literature, they're just fun to read.

Jonathan said...

The main female character in Far from the Madding Crowd is pretty impressive. Bathsheba. Hardy's treatment of her is not at all misogynist. Fortunata, Benigna, and many other Galdós characters. There are strong women in George Eliot's work. I like Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. The narrator of the Portuguese novel Menina y moca.

Of course, "attractive" is a kind of loaded term. Does Saint Teresa of Avila portray herself as an attractive character in the Vida? The protagonist of El mismo mar de todos los veranos is not a sympathetic character. Or of Carmen Laforet's Nada. The reader may identify with her but is she attractive?

Irena said...

I liked Olive Kitteridge of Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge". You may or may not like Olive, but she felt very real. Definitely not one-dimensional.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Bennett, and I have to second Becky Sharp. As far as contemporary literature goes, I really loved the Mrs. Pollifax novels. Tamora Pierce writes YA, but she is well worth reading for her heroines.

Anonymous said...

Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy (sci-fi/fantasy) by Phillip Pullman seemed pretty cool to me...

Rose said...

Elizabeth Bennet in Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch (Eliot).

Anne Elliot in Persuasion (Austen).

Anastasia said...

I hate Becky Sharp. Just saying.

Clarissa said...

Elizabeth Bennett is the character who fell in love with a guy after she saw his big, beautiful, impressive, huge . . . House, right?

Jane Austen's characters have one interest in life: marriage. I love her books put despise her characters.

Clarissa said...

182: you need to be talking to somebody, my friend. Don't stay there all alone, OK? Try to get in touch with people right now. I don't know how to help you but there are people who do, ok?

Anonymous said...

What about Margaret in Howard's End? She is such an intelligent, mature and independent woman. Very level-headed. I loved her.

el said...

That woman, who briefly appears in one Sherlock Holmes story and prevents him from stealing her photograph with a prince. Seems like smart, independant person, who knows what she wants.

Emily series of Lucy Maud Montgomery. I've already recommended them to you. It's her only feminist heroine in that that she has a career and leaves a man, who shows jealousy of it.

Pippi Longstocking of Astrid Lindgren

Clarissa said...

Unless Little Engine, Dorothy and Pippi had found a way to explore their sexuality, we are talking about a bunch of celibate and sexless characters here.

el said...

Emily & Sherlock's woman did.

Pagan Topologist said...

All of Nnedi Okorafor's characters and almost all of Nalo Hopkinson's characters. I also love Fanny by Erica Jong.

Natasha from Russia said...

If I correctly remember the novel it is ready was to marry it and already gathered it. But in the latest the moment to it of it haven't allowed to make, having told about the existing wife.
I like Deniza with "Дамское счастье" (I don't know as the name sounds in English) Zolja. Too quite to itself the feminist

Natasha from Russia said...

Has still remembered the characters-women, to meeting set requirements.
1. Фериде-ханум - "Королек птичка певчая" Решад Нури Гюнтекин.
2. Скарлетт О`Хара - «Унесенные ветром» Маргарет Митчелл
You excuse that I write names in Russian. I don't know, how they correctly are called on English, and a literal translation is assured not the correct.

I have found very interesting article on a feminism theme in the literature. I in Russian, unfortunately.
http://library.by/portalus/modules/philosophy/referat_show_archives.php?subaction=showfull&id=1109017089&archive=0217&start_from=&ucat=&

Rimi said...

Clarissa, for once I've skipped the comment thread, so let me know if this ground has been covered already:

1. Thomas Hardy was not a misogynist. Like Christie, he wrote for his living, and had to make his works pay. So if we recognise Chritie's racism and sexism as money-making crowd-please, we must accord the same courtesy to Hardy. Especially since, despite the actual financial need to write populist fiction, his female characters are far more sympathetic, intelligent, and have a certain amount of spine.

For comparable social conext and literary trends, read the very popular (and extraordinarily tedious) Adam Bede. And *that* was written by a woman.

2. I trust you've read Wide Sargasso Sea. This book is a particular favourite of mine, because it addresses all my problems with Jane Eyre, the book and the character. I am sure Eyre was a path-breakingly strong figure given her social context, but I dislike her character for reasons illustrated very well in Wide Sargasso Sea. The text of the novel is online, I believe.

3. I love Lady Sarah, a little-read Austen novel. It's a most enjoyable description of a vivacious, learned, articulate and beautiful woman, gleefully wrenching her intellectual, sexual and social independence from a society that condemns her for having an independent mind. I might not look upon Lady Susan with much personal favour, but I admire her enormously for living the way she did, in her time.

This one is also available online.

4. Do you read Terry Pratchett? I must say I enjoy Granny Weatherwax enormously! I highly recommend the witch series from Pratchett's Discworld. Please treat yourself to it from your grand-aided period.

maitreyi1978 said...

P. D. James is a great writer and a friend of Ruth Rendell. She wrote two mystery novels with her character Cordelia Gray, The Skull Beneath the Skin and An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. They are awesome stories with a great character. She also wrote a thriller called Innocent Blood whose main character Phillipa Palfrey is an interesting character. I like James more than Rendell and her Gray books are in my top ten favorite mysteries of all time.

Clarissa said...

Wide Sargasso Sea is really good.It isn't my reading of Jane Eyre, mind you, but it sets out to question the traditional reading, which is a lot. Every single film version of the novel has been just castrating, no other word for it.

I haven't read Austen's Lady Sarah. Thanks for the recommendation! I will download it right now.

And it's definitely true that Adam Bede is mind-numbingly boring.

Clarissa said...

It's got to be Lady Susan, right?

Pagan Topologist said...

Come to think of it, the female characters in The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson as well as those in the George R. R. Martin series A song of Ice and Fire.

Pagan Topologist said...

It does seem to be easier to find interesting female characters in fantasy and science fiction by female authors, although the last two I mentioned are examples showing that male authors can manage it if they wish.

Clarissa said...

It is another accepted wisdom in literary criticism that fantasy and sci fi offer more liberating images for women. So I bought into it and read Rosa Montero's Temblor (one of the most popular fantasy novels in Spain). Now I don't buy into it any longer.

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

Lene Kaaberball's protagonist in The Shamer's Chronicles (and her mother) is a strong heroine.

And no one will call Lizbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meek.

Diana Wynne Jones's heroines are strong. I especially like Sophie in Howl's Moving Castle.

And I agree that in SF women tend to be stronger. Like the main character in Children of Scarabeus or Miranda in Prospero Lost to mention just the last books I read.

Historically Eleanaor of Aquitaine must be the stronger of them all. There are many books about her. My favorite is the play The Lion in Winter.

Clarissa said...

I'm not familiar with any of this, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Dana in Kindred by Octavia Butler.


It's nominally sci-fi.

Lindsay said...

I really identify with Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy, but I know you hate those books, so that will probably not help you.

There's a huge profusion of interesting, strong, brave, smart, sexual women characters in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, as Pagan Topologist mentions above. Those books are among my favorites, and the (female) characters I most relate to in them are Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth.

I also agree with Anonymous that Kindred has a terrific female narrator.

And, if you can get past the really confusing narrative structure (or lack thereof...), Joanna Russ's The Female Man is a really character-driven example of feminist science fiction. The premise is that some temporal weirdness causes alternate realities to blur, and four women who are really all the same woman living different lives meet. Most of the book is these women talking to each other, telling their stories. I enjoyed it, confusing as it was.

Of more literary stuff, I think George Eliot's books do really well at giving you characters to empathize with --- she seems to empathize very deeply with every single one of her characters --- like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, and (I think) Romola in Romola. (Romola seems to be unpopular among Eliot fans, who tend to see it as a boring failed experiment in historical fiction. But I liked it.) There's also another book by Charlotte Bronte called Villette, which I actually liked better than Jane Eyre. (I loved the character of Jane, I just thought the book tended to get bogged down in places).

I also adore the novels of Margaret Atwood. She's most famous for her dystopia The Handmaid's Tale, but she has also written a lot of other fiction which I think is more character-driven than Handmaid's Tale was. My favorites of hers are Lady Oracle, The Robber Bride (about three women friends and their conflicting memories of a fourth friend, who recently died and who apparently was nothing she seemed to be). I also liked her The Penelopiad, which is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope's perspective. (She is doing a lot more than just sitting and spinning in this version).

J. said...

She's a little more contemporary, but I think she definitely belongs in the "literature" area...have you read any Madeleine L'Engle? Fabulous author, awesome female characters. Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, Emily in The Young Unicorns, Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light, Poly O'Keefe in The Arm of the Starfish, hell, pretty much all her women and girls are awesome.

Clarissa said...

All I can say is that my readers are very well-read. Which reflects very well on me. :-)

And also that it will take me a while to get through this reading list. :-)

Lindsay said...

It's also interesting to contemplate how many of the most active, opinionated female characters are actually girls, rather than women.

Some of this might stem from the fact that so many of the writers who try to write strong female characters are writing for younger readers --- several of your other commenters have cited young-adult authors, like Tamora Pierce, and I also know of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series, which is YA, has a female protagonist and is very popular. There's also Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess, Lyra Belacqua, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Lucy in The Chronicles of Narnia, Maggie Tulliver, many of the young protagonists of Anne McCaffrey's dragon books --- all heroines, but all children.

(Some of these characters, like Maggie Tulliver and Lyra, grow up over the course of their books --- one of Philip Pullman's reasons for writing his series was to answer what he saw in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, where the girls could only be heroines before puberty).

Clarissa said...

Yes! You are absolutely right! This summer I will be working on transforming my doctoral dissertation into a book, and it's topic is precisely this process of transformation of girls into women across 2 centuries of the European literature. I hope that some of these questions will be answered there.

Anonymous said...

Hm, Jo March doesn't seem to have been mentioned yet. Anne Shirley has but I will second...although in the later books she fades to generally being motherly and her daughters take center stage.

And I will also second the characters from Robert Jordan. His women are totally kick-ass. His men are often whiney. This probably centers around the dynamics of the magic ("Power" in his words but it's some sort of supernatural abilities) in that particular fantasy world.

I also disagree with you about Elizabeth Bennett, and assume I disagree with you about Emma Bovary. Gervaise Macquart from L'Assommoir? Ruined in the end but very admirable -- and entrepreneuring! -- until alcohol ruined her life...but it was her husband who did that and was ruined first.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Sisters A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble (contemporary British writers) have some wonderful female characters.

Melissa said...

I second the suggestion of Madeleine L'Engle's characters! :)