Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
As a woman and a reader, I am constantly trying to find reflections of my own life and experiences in the literature I read. I want to read about women who are strong, independent, and intelligent, women who have their own lives and experiences, women who don't revolve themselves around their romantic relationships or domestic responsibilities.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this fictional woman doesn’t exist.
For proof of this, I’ll offer up some of my favorite fictional heroines. Jane Eyre is probably the obvious choice here. Sure, Jane is definitely smart and independent; these qualities are the main reasons Rochester is attracted to her in the first place. She overcomes an abusive childhood to make a respectable living for herself at Thornfield, Rochester’s home. And after she discovers Rochester’s secret—his crazy wife living in the attic—she refuses to stay with him as his mistress, choosing to leave him rather than compromise her self-respect. After she runs away, she finds St. John Rivers, a kind minister who wants to marry her so they can travel to India together to do missionary work. Although this would be a mutually beneficial match, Jane refuses to marry him because they are not in love.
These things are all great, and they seem to contradict my thesis. But the novel still ends with Jane returning to Rochester. After she discovers that his wife has been killed and he has been seriously injured in a fire, Jane agrees to marry him. And then, Jane’s story ends. You could claim that this is because the book is a romance, and that once Jane gets married there’s no further conflict to advance the plot. Yet the first 10 chapters of the book tell the story of Jane’s childhood and her life at the charity school she is sent away to—long before she ever met or thought of Rochester. Taken as a whole, Jane Eyre reads much more like a fictional autobiography than a romance novel. So if Jane’s story ends when she marries Rochester, what does that say about her? That once she gets married, her life is over?
Elizabeth Bennet is another good example. On the surface, she certainly seems strong and independent—certainly more so than her sisters. Against her mother’s wishes, she turns down the proposal of her cousin Mr. Collins, even though marrying him would save her family’s cottage. She even turns Darcy himself down—bluntly—when he proposes to her in a way that emphasizes her family’s inferiority and lack of breeding. But again, here we have an entire novel that drives toward the heroine’s marriage. Once she gets married, the novel ends.
But what about heroines in other types of books? The Anne of Green Gables series follows Anne Shirley through her lifetime, and therefore cannot be strictly categorized as “romance.” In fact, the growth of the romance between Anne and Gilbert Blythe actually takes up comparatively little text in the eight-novel saga, and the story continues to follow Anne’s life after her marriage. But somewhere between the sixth and seventh novel in the series—as Anne’s children grow up—Anne herself ceases to be the main character in her own story. Instead, her children take over; in fact, the entire final novel is devoted to her daughter, Rilla, and her experiences during World War I. So while the younger Anne gets to playact and walk roof ridgepoles and save the neighbor child’s life, the older Anne is reduced to dispensing sage advice to her spirited children. As a reader, it would have been nice to see something of Anne’s passionate, imaginative nature trickle down through the final books. Maybe she could have been holding protest rallies for a women’s right to vote or something like that. (Did women have the right to vote in Canada in that era? I’m not even sure.) Maybe she could have channeled her literary aspirations and become a prominent writer. Or maybe she could have “accidentally” switched the raspberry cordial with currant wine to make one of her dinner parties more interesting—anything to prevent becoming a supporting character in her own life. The lesson: life’s adventures are reserved for little girls, while grown-up women must resign themselves to being proper wives and mothers.
But perhaps the biggest letdown of all is Jo March, the heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women. Jo March was stubborn, impetuous, and temperamental—everything I consider myself to be. She had dreams of becoming a writer. But instead of pursuing these dreams, Jo gets married to a man who may be the most boring character in literary history, Professor Bhaer. How absurd was this plot twist? Alcott herself declared that Jo should have been a “literary spinster,” but that so many young girls had written to her demanding that Jo marry somebody—preferably boy-next-door Laurie—that she “didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her.” When even the author herself can see that Jo thwarted her destiny, how can I, as a modern-day reader, help but feel a little betrayed?
Maybe those examples aren’t the best. Each of these books was written over a century ago. This is 2009. Women’s roles—and opportunities—in society have evolved a great deal since then. Yet when I think about the more modern books that I’ve read, I have trouble thinking of a more recent female character that even compares. Where is our Yossarian? Where is our Guy Montag? Where is our Holden Caulfield?
One of the reasons I selected The Hunger Games as my favorite book of last year was because it featured a strong, self-sufficient female heroine. Katniss doesn’t have superpowers, just intelligence, common sense, and a strong survival instinct. Her main concern in the novel isn’t a romantic relationship, but surviving the barbaric situation she’s been placed into. When her fellow tribute, Peeta, is left seriously injured and gravely ill, she gets to rescue him.
But Katniss was also sixteen years old in the novel. When the book series continues (as it is scheduled to do this fall) will an older Katniss be pigeonholed into a subordinate role, forced to stay behind as the men and the younger children have all the adventures?
For the sake of female readers everywhere, I certainly hope not.
Selected Book Releases, February 23-March 1
Night and Day by Robert B. Parker—Latest in the mystery series revolving around Paradise, Massachusetts, police chief Jesse Stone.
White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison—Latest in the series about witch/bounty hunter Rachel Morgan