8 Literary Heroines: Sisters Doin' It For Themselves

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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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February 20, 2009 - 7:05am
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