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8 Literary Heroines: Sisters Doin' It For Themselves

Recently, a good friend and I discussed books we read and re-read growing up and noticed a common theme: Our lasting favorites featured strong female protagonists who often kicked some serious behind. After the fun I had writing about literature's desirable men and reading the heated debates in the comments, the time came to reminisce and cyber-bond over sassy leading ladies.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

1. Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

I dismiss any accusations that it is clichéd and trite to name Elizabeth Bennet the greatest literary heroine, because none compare. Austen did not write romance novels and Elizabeth isn't a girl seeking love. Austen created an assertive character whose confidence and wit transcend the pages of Pride and Prejudice to satirically jab at 18th-century British society and customs. Elizabeth is well-read, pensive, and fiercely independent. Always standing strong, she refuses her cousin's marriage proposal—even though the pairing would guarantee her family's security—and later, doesn't kowtow to Lady Catherine's insulting accusations. And, of course, despite Mr. Darcy's social class and her previous rejections of his proposal, Elizabeth does the unexpected and gets her man.

Soon after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote about Elizabeth Bennet:
"I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.

I concur.

2. Helen Graham (from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë)

2-Helen.jpg Often considered one of the first feminist novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenged the Victorian moral code through the character of Helen Graham. After falling for a handsome charmer who (after marriage) reveals his true character as an abusive scum-bucket, Helen decides to leave him, thereby saving herself and her young son. In a move unheard of during Brontë's time, Helen so much as slams a door in her husband's face, symbolically turning the tables on sexual politics. Despite Helen's murky circumstances, Brontë portrays her positively, as a spirited and assertive heroine not intimidated by men and not afraid to ruffle a few Victorian petticoats.

3. Karana/Won-a-pei-lei (from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell)

3-Karana.jpg Raise your hand if you still cry when Rontu dies. The ladies over at Jezebel have an awesome summary of this classic piece of young adult literature. Based on a true story, Karana's amazing tale begins when Aleuts wipe out her entire village by killing the men and taking away the women. After her brother is left behind, Karana chooses to stay, but soon another tragedy strikes when wild dogs kill him. Never once does Karana feel self-pity; she survives for eighteen years by herself on the island, figuring out how to make weapons, hunt for food, domesticate wild dogs, provide shelter, and protect herself from the island's many natural dangers. And while being forced out of her comfort zone to do things her tribe traditionally deemed "men's work" (and rocking at it!), Karana—still a girl at heart—sews herself some haute couture outfits out of feathers and seal pelts that I still envy.

4. Josephine "Jo" March (from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

4-Jo.jpg Due to the many comments regarding Teddy's ostensible absence from my list of leading men, a quick explanation: I was tempted to deem Teddy swoon-worthy, but let us not forget that he marries whiny, burner-of-Jo's-manuscript Amy, an unforgivable act. Now, back to the eternal tomboy, Jo. Based on Alcott herself, Jo March is another ass-kicking, independent female lead who displays a caring heart on numerous occasions. Incredibly loving, she cuts and sells her hair (her "one beauty" according to Amy, natch) to purchase a train ticket for Marmie. Jo's bold character shines despite the many dire circumstances that fall upon her family. Although this independent streak leads to the refusal of Teddy—much to my chagrin (each time I read/watch that scene, I always hope she'll say yes)—it allows for single Jo to move to New York, become a writer, get swept away by a German professor, and eventually open a school for boys.

5. Jane Eyre (from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë)

5-Jane.jpg Considered plain and unimportant from the get-go, Jane Eyre rises up as another feminist literary icon. Orphaned Jane never lets her societal position or gender determine her fate. Those Brontë sisters were on to something! Jane's shyness and lack of resources don't hinder her from getting a sweet gig as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where her other awesome character traits (talented, caring, hard-working, honest to a fault) are revealed as she works for the deliciously dark Mr. Rochester. But as long as crazy Bertha lives, moral Jane cannot marry Rochester. Even though she gets a proper offer to be a missionary's wife, the role of a subordinate doesn't fly with Jane, and she follows her heart back to Thornfield.

Through Jane, Brontë questioned Victorian stereotypes about women, saying:
"Women...suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation...and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags."

6. Scout Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

6-Scout.jpg Yes, even six-year-olds can be role models. Spunky and wise beyond her years, Scout Finch, the unpretentious narrator of Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, exhibits quiet strength and dignity and captures the innocence of youth. Scout beats up boys, sports overalls instead of dresses and swears "for the fun of it." She speaks her mind, but wants to learn from her father and the strong females who surround her. When her lawyer father defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, he receives so much flak that Scout wants to fight for his honor. Scout's bruises and missing teeth cannot hide her kind heart. She makes it okay to question authority and to always stand up for your beliefs, no matter what.

7. Hester Prynne (from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

7-Hester.jpg Public humiliation and forced isolation don't sound like much fun to me, but Hester Prynne proves that suffering can make you stronger. From the beginning, Hester's strength of character is evident. Forced to wear the infamous "A" because of a scandalous pregnancy, she is a survivor, always compassionate and honest, all the while defying convention and the harsh puritanical society that condemns her. Determined to stand alone, Hester never rats out the father of her child, and chooses banishment instead. Single motherhood? Check. Pissed-off Puritans? Check. Defiant to the core? Check.

8. Anne Shirley (from the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery)

8-Anne.jpg "Which would you rather be if you had the choice—divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?" Perhaps by default, our spunky, redheaded heroine, Anne-with-an-"e", chooses to be dazzlingly clever, indulging her wild imagination at every chance, which leads to her adventures and scrapes alike. She pursues education obsessively, excels (eventually) at her literary ambitions, and loves her friends and adoptive family deeply. Not without her faults, the always eloquent Anne opines, "It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it." She has to be reminded to "make time for romance" amongst her studies. And then of course there's Gil, whom Anne turns down at first due to her idealized notions of love, but eventually she realizes her mistake, making for a happy ending (and more books chronicling their life together). "It's delightful when your imaginations come true," says Anne, speaking for all the bookish girls who grew up wanting to write and—let's be honest—have Gilbert Blythe for our very own.

I know I admire more literary heroines than these, but once again, I showed great restraint in limiting myself. Keep the discussion going and promote strong female role models in literature!

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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images
ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
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Brad Barket/Getty Images

Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

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