Despite having studied English Literature, and being a self-professed bookworm, I struggled to come up with a shortlist of strong and complex female characters, which have inspired me or had any sort of lasting effect. After many days of pondering I came up with a list of around ten female characters who would fit into this category and then narrowed it down to my choices below. I love these characters because of their ability to overcome adversity; succeed despite the odds; spread love and kindness; see things that others take for granted; and remain positive in terrible situations.
NB – I limited my choices on this occasion to classic literature, and to characters who are instantly recognisable; rather than choosing something obscure which nobody knows! And this is where my challenge lies. I often forget that the feminist revolution is so recent in our history, which makes it difficult to find a strong female voice.
While there have always been female authors; many from bygone eras would have faced tight constraints on what was acceptable. So for this reason, many are confined to the themes of love and marriage, (Jane Austen, The Bronte Sisters). Or else, female authors have turned to writing male characters in order to explore deeper themes about the universe, religion, etc. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).
Of course, strong female characters can be written by male authors, and this has been done successfully on a few occasions (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.) But more often than not, male-written female characters tend to be one-dimensional caricatures – think Shakespeare’s women who faint everywhere; or Dickens’ Miss Havisham whose only focus in life is to seek revenge on all men.
Thankfully in modern literature, the balance of female characters and female authors is being quickly restored. There really is some great female-focused literature out there at the moment, which I’m looking forward to reading over the holidays.
Anyway, back to my list of feisty female characters from Classic literature. Hopefully, you will find these characters as inspirational as I do:
Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With The Wind
Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara rebels against society’s norms and expectations of how a woman should behave, to ensure her own survival. She has a strong determination and drive, and uses any means to get what she wants. In the beginning her attention is focused mainly on men; backstabbing and manipulating people, in order to try and win the love of Ashley Wilkes. However as the war progresses, Scarlett’s actions help and protect those around her, yet she maintains her only motivation is her love for Ashley.
“War and marriage and childbirth had passed over her without touching any deep chord within her and she was unchanged.”
Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl
The most remarkable thing about the Diary of Anne Frank, aside from it being a true story, rather than fiction, is the fact that it was written by a teenage girl. Anne struggles with her own identity and writes in a voice that is mature beyond her years. She discusses what it means to be a woman, and looks at the wider issue of war and humanity, in the context of the Nazi persecution of Jews. Yet despite being locked away in an annex and fearing for her life, she remains positive and optimistic about her future.
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Ma Joad – The Grapes of Wrath
Another tale of overcoming adversity, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath deals with a family’s struggle for survival during the great depression. Ma Joad maintains a calm exterior, despite death and starvation. And it is this determination which helps keep the family together.
“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she has practiced denying them in herself… She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.”
Clarisse McClellan – Fahrenheit 451
She wasn’t the main character in the book, but there was something about Clarisse that struck me when I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and it has always stayed with me. She introduces herself as “Seventeen, and crazy” which resonated with me as I was seventeen at the time when I read the book, and was a bit of an outcast at school, so Clarisse felt like a friend to me. She was misunderstood by all the other characters because of her love of life, her pursuit of true happiness, and her appreciation of nature.
“I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.”
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.”
Marguerite Johnson – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou is one of my inspirations in life, and her autobiographical I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings recalls her childhood and teenage years. As a child, the hardships Marguerite (Maya) faces are almost unimaginable. Not only is she black, female, poor and “ugly” she is abandoned by her parents at the age of three, and raped at the age of eight. In addition to all this, she has to tolerate racism on a day-to-day basis. Yet, somehow she is able to gather the strength to rise above these challenges and realise her full potential.
“Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.”
Many thanks for reading. Please let me know your favourite feisty female characters, or any reading recommendations!
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