All readers look for themselves in a work of fiction, and women have long carved out representation in literature, often against seemingly insurmountable odds. One thing is certain: women are fantastic conveyors of their experiences. These incredible women are only a small sample of the groundbreaking characters we know and (maybe) love, and there is no better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than to honor some of the fictional women who shaped us, and the phenomenal writers who created them in both classic and modern literature. We hope you continue to support groundbreaking women in fiction and in life.
9 Groundbreaking Women in Fiction
Is there any more empowering moment in literature than when Jane stands before Mr. Rochester and tells him that she is a person with a soul and it is equal to his own? Jane, who is described as being plain and small, is an icon for not letting class, gender, or stature stand in the way of her voice and independence, a rarity in the Victorian era, which boasted some extremely rigid gender norms, and strict ideas for social behavior.
Considered one of the best novels of the twentieth century and a defining novel on gender and family relations, Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE presents Lily Briscoe, an aspiring artist desperate to leave a lasting imprint on the world. Lily shies against family life, and throughout the story she rebels against convention and strives to find fulfillment in her art. At a time when women were beginning open the boxes in which they had been contained, Lily’s audacity to have a dream outside family life speaks to many artists who continue to push boundaries.
Zora Neale Hurston’s best known novel, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, details an old woman named Janie who is recounting her life story to a friend. Janie’s journey is not easy or satisfying, but she holds on fiercely to her identity and is determined to find love and freedom in her life despite experiencing ongoing pain and violence. Her belief in herself and her resistance to fold to others’ expectations are admirable and emotional, and show that a fierce female character lives on in her stories.
Read the full review of THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’s Scout Finch was a welcome representation of “tomboy” little girls. Smart, curious, and deeply ethical for a child, Scout’s narration gives credence to little girls when serious literature was all about men’s experiences and boys got to go on all the adventures. Scout narrates one of the greatest novels in history, and we are all the better for having her.
Wendy’s Fictional Dinner Party Guest: Atticus Finch
Perhaps it’s a cliché to want to have dinner with Atticus Finch—lawyer, father, all-around good man. Atticus is known for his conscience, grace, compassion, and morality. I suspect that his words would be full of insight and wisdom, and challenge me to sit straighter in my chair.
MANHATTAN BEACH’s standout main character, Anna, is a young, independent woman who works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Through her cunning and will, Anna becomes the first and only female civilian diver and manages to convince a gangster to reveal her missing father’s fate. Anna values her independence and is confident enough to know that she has every right to occupy a space as anyone else. In the end, this willpower and wit enable her to hold on to her independence and live the life she chooses instead of a life of unhappy domesticity.
Amy was terrifying and cruel, and that is exactly why she was shocking to so many readers. She was a three dimensional, complicated villain, and as a reader, it was hard to tell when to root for her or despise her. Sometimes she was a straight-up villain, sometimes she was a fascinating antihero, an archetype we still don’t see enough of in female characters.
Some say she’s cold and unfeeling, calculating to a subhuman degree, and basically totally nutso. I say Amy Dunne is just a smart, sensitive woman in a man’s world, frustrated by patriarchy, down with to-do lists, and dedicated to the fine art of revenge! This powerhouse of a novel sees crime writer Gillian Flynn come into her own as a dramatic storyteller in full command of her many gifts.
Crazy like: A fox! Amy is a hottie!
Best crazy moment: The box cutter. ’Nuff said.
Harriet, a long-struggling artist, gets three young men to present their work as her own. Unsurprising to Harriet, they are successful; the bizarre events that follow are not universal to every woman, but we can all feel the pain of not getting due credit for our work. Harriet’s drastic measures feel somewhat familiar, as if we’ve all imagined pulling a scheme and revealing the truth along with it, and powering through the ensuing chaos with our own determined belief that we’ve earned whatever rewards are to follow.
Intellectually ambitious, electric in its prose, and emotionally satisfying, The Blazing World confronts the joy and fury of Harriet Burden, an artist whose work has long been dismissed and ignored by the male-dominated art world. Longlisted for 2014’s prestigious Man Booker Prize and described by NPR as “complex, astonishing, harrowing, and utterly, completely engrossing,” it is a polyphonic tour de force from one of America’s most fearless writers.
Esi and Effia
Half-sisters Esi and Effia, who embark on drastically different paths and never meet, have stories that are both heart-wrenching. Each sister holds on to a piece of her past and a piece of herself through her experience, despite incredible tragedy and change. The sisters’ stories exist separately, but they are equally rich in characterization and a depth that is cast over their ancestors and all the women who will later know their stories.
Two half-sisters are separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. HOMEGOING traces the descendants who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and 300 years of history, each life indelibly drawn.
In Rachel Kushner’s THE MARS ROOM, Romy is in a correctional facility for life. And then some. Romy and her fellow inmates lay bare the issues faced by women in prison and the class and racial problems that helped land them there. Romy Hall is a one-of-a-kind narrator in an unusual setting, and her powerful voice alongside Kushner’s vivid writing allows this groundbreaking character to leave a lasting impression that will make you think long after you’re done reading.
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