An ode to the strongest women characters in popular literature

“When Edward Stratemeyer thought of a female detective like Nancy Drew who is physically strong and bold and at the same time fiercely intelligent, he had created a groundbreaking female character,” writes Moinak Dutta.

Even before I try to put on paper my idea of finding powerful women characters in classics, I should put certain conditions as guiding principles for me so as to make my study coherent and precise. First of all, by the term ‘literature’ , I am only thinking of english literature, and secondly by the term ‘classics’ , I prefer to look at works of english literature which represent a period and merit a lasting recognition, having universal appeal, thereby making my study taking into consideration ‘modern classics’ which have loveable and powerful women characters.

I will start with the female protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthrone’s 1850 fiction ‘ The Scarlet letter’, Hester Pryne. Hester, considered as an adulterer for having an affair despite being married and sentenced to prison, does not hide or leave the town. Instead she confronts the so called ‘self righteous’ townspeople and fights back against the oppressiveness of puritanical, male dominated society.

Compared to Hester, Josephine March of ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, is much stronger and nuanced character. At the tender age of fifteen, Josephine is already headstrong, defiant and to some extent tomboyish. She is outspoken and absolutely not interested in marriage, quite contrary to the popular traditions. Though Josephine struggles because of her defiance, she also carries the expectations of nineteenth century women. 

She is more like Elizabeth Bennett of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and yet she is more than Lizzie. 

Lizzie, unlike her sisters , carries strong individualistic ideals and only decides to marry someone when she is absolutely sure that she has found the right person.

Josephine, however, appears more daring than Lizzie. She shows no interest whatsoever, towards marriage.

In contrast to Josephine or Lizzie, Janie Crawford from ‘Their Eyes were watching God’, a memorable woman from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, is completely a different figure. She is the epitome of tolerance and servitude at the hands of men. She suffers much like Mrs Thurlow of the short story ‘ The Ox’ by H.E.Bates and yet in her tolerance and servitude, she gathers not pity but a strange stoicism. She throws challenges to God and she accepts with complete surrender all the pangs and brutalities. In her acceptance, she shows her superhuman endurance which makes her strong.

Reading how Chaucer created his ‘The Wife of Bath’ , gives a different perspective to interpretations of women characters in literature. Though early drafts show that the role of the wife of Bath was initially meant to be smaller and one dimensional, Chaucer perhaps fell in love with the character and elongated the role of the wife. She, on the surface, looks lewd, making filthy jokes. But beneath her apparent lascivious facade she is making arguments for female dominance and trying to exert her rights over her body. She is actually attacking anti feminist traditions of the time.

When Edward Stratemeyer thought of a female detective like Nancy Drew who is physically strong and bold and at the same time fiercely intelligent, he had created a groundbreaking female character. No longer female detectives are sidekicks of their male counterparts, but they are now independent women having minds of their own. They are passionate, rebellious, intelligent, freedom seeking strong individuals who are eager to gain strong footholds of their own in a male dominated society.

Steig Larrson in his 2005 novel ‘ The Girl with the dragon tattoo’ created Lisbeth Salander as the next level Nancy Drew. A ferociously smart computer hacker, Lisbeth not only overcomes her traumatic childhood, but helps solving a family mystery. Yet Lisbeth does never fail to abide by her own uncompromising moral code. 

This essay will be incomplete if I do not mention two female characters who carve a niche for themselves by being simply what they are. One being Celie , the protagonist and the narrator of the fiction ‘The Color Purple’. Much like Janie Crawford , she suffers and her suffering is the most troubling one because she undergoes abject mental and physical maltreatment in the hands of her father first and then of her husband. In her loneliness, dejection and suffering she becomes an embodiment of tragic heroine yet like Maurya of ‘The Riders to the Sea’ of J. M.Synge, she knows that her sufferings will lead to her salvation. Like Maurya she stands face to face to her fate to attain tragic catharsis.

And the other being Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy. She is contemporary, strong, determined, fiercely loyal, highly skilled in archery and hunting. People may argue how can Hunger Games be a classic, but knowing the way the trilogy garnered readership by its profundity, by its showcasing of survival techniques, by its universal appeal of presenting the conflicts between the hunter and the hunted, there is no doubt that ‘ The Hunger Games’ will continue to gather readership in future.

As I near the rear end of the essay, keeping myself well constrained by the word limit, it will be not less than a ‘sin’ on my part if I do not mention Arya Stark of George R. Martin’s ‘ A Song of Fire and Ice’ series and Hermione Granger of J.K. Rowling’s ‘ Harry Potter’ series. Both the series being classics in their universal appeal and huge readership, the female leads as mentioned occupy considerable space. While Arya Stark is tough, noble, surviving near death situations, Hermione is no second fiddle to the famed Harry Potter. Hermione is driven by strong intellect and powerful memory. She is confident and even ‘bossy’ in certain situations, leading to greater display of courage, determination and insight. Hermione transforms from a mere eleven year old bookish girl to a seeker of a kind, brave and spirited young heroine who can set the ball of actions and events rolling. She also provides much needed support to Harry in his quests, sometimes showing him right paths even, salvaging ways out of apparently impossible scenarios. 

Reading these powerful female leads only opens up one to the fierceness and brilliance of their portrayals done with characteristic ease and elan by the authors in different ages. Being an ardent admirer of women characters in fictions which change the way we look at literature and writings in general, I would like to conclude by quoting what Rabindranath Tagore wrote about women protagonists : 

“(For we) women are not only the deities of the household fire, but the flame of the soul itself.”

As I have started the essay by parenthesising myself by conditions, I, despite being tempted, can not go into characters of strong women portrayed by Rabindranath Tagore in his fiction and plays. Having said that, I would still mention Suman of ‘ Tyaag’, Mrinal in ‘ A wife’s letter’, Charulata in ‘ The Broken Nest’, as exemplary women fictional characters who bear all the admirable traits readers can think of while going through any classic literature.

Moinak Dutta is a published fiction writer, poet, and teacher. Many of his poems and stories have been published in national and international anthologies, magazines, and dailies. His first full length english (genre: literary/romance) fiction ‘Online@Offline’ was published by Lifi Publications in 2014. His second fiction (genre: literary/quest) titled ‘In search of la radice’ was published in 2017 by Xpress Publications. He has also worked as an editor of a poetry collection titled ‘Whispering Poeisis’, which had over one hundred poems from sixty poets from different parts of India and abroad, published in 2018 by Poeisis. Presently he is engaged as a teacher of English in a government sponsored institution.

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