Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Search of the 'Strong Female Character'

I've been continuing to use my commute time (and Audible subscription) to work through long (mostly older) books that I would otherwise have trouble finding the time to read at the moment. By chance, the last several that I've listened to have centered around female characters, and looking back over them I can't help reflecting on the differences and similarities between them and the more modern "strong female characters" one runs into in books and movies. (post contains plot spoilers on all books discussed)

Middlemarch: I found Middlemarch a bit slow to get into (this is where the audiobook format helps, I just have the one audiobook to listen to during all commutes, so there's no real temptation to set it aside and there's nothing else to do during my 30 minutes each way) because the main character, Dorothea, is so clearly chasing a phantom of sorts when we first meet here. Dorothea wants to do good things. When we first meet her, these good things mostly involve advocating for social improvements in her local town, which is pretty much to the good, but very shortly she meets the aged Edward Casaubon whom she is convinced is a Great Man. If, she thinks, she marries him and serves him selflessly, she will be doing Great Things. (You know that the girl is in for problems when she's daydreaming about how wonderful it would have been if she could have been Milton's wife or one of his daughters, because she thinks she would have been happy to have been badly treated by him and serve his genius.) Dorothea proceeds to marry Casaubon, and it quickly becomes clear this is not likely to make either of them very happy, though they muddle on through until Casaubon is taken mercifully off the scene by heart disease. She does learn a bit during this process, and is a more interesting character by the end than she was at the beginning, though she still doesn't know herself all that well for my taste. Given how thoroughly she deceived herself about Casaubon during their courtship, you can't help wondering how well her second marriage at the end of the book is actually likely to go.

Along the way, we get a couple of interesting female counterpoint characters. Rosamond Vincy (later Lydgate) is a character with a strong ability to get her way in interpersonal interactions, but a fairly shallow understanding of life and other people. She's strong in the sense that she sticks to her guns and plays very hard, but her inability to understand people and the world makes it hard to get what she actually wants, and tends to result in her struggles just creating situations that make her unhappy. Her marriage is the worst that we see in the book.

Mary Garth on the other hand is probably the actual strongest female character in the book. She works hard to support herself and her family (she's one of the poorer characters), understands people well, and toughs it out through several fairly unpleasant situations. Given this calm strength, one of Mary's more surprising choices is to marry Fred Vincy. Yes, he's had an affection for her ever since they were children, but he's also somewhat spoiled, a spendthrift, and not very good at buttoning down and holding a job. However, Mary manages to both admire him and steer him towards better behavior at the same time -- promising him she won't marry anyone else, but at the same time saying she won't marry him until he's able to provide for a family in a way she can respect. He does turn himself around, and from the epilogue they sound like the most successful marriage.

Of the three, I'd rate Mary Garth as the best "strong female character", though she does this in a fairly quiet way (and is honestly a comparatively minor character in the book.)

Jane Eyre: The book is a biographical novel, following Jane from her very young days through her marriage, and all other characters are fairly minor other than Jane Eyre herself and Mr. Rochester. As I wrote while I was still reading it, I was surprised how appealing I found the book and the title character. Confronted with a fairly Dickensian childhood and no prospects of marriage (due to being an orphan with no fortune, who is no great beauty and whose family is not interested in putting her forward in society) Jane has fairly limited prospects but makes the best of them quietly and with a good deal of self discipline. After teaching for several years in the school where she had been a pupil, she advertises for a position as a governess and finds herself at isolated Thornfield Hall teaching the young French ward of the absent Mr. Rochester.

As a male reader, I found Jane a very appealing heroine in that she is "100% girl", with strong feelings and a very feminine way of dealing interacting with Rochester, but she's neither a flirt nor an emotionally self-indulgent character. She seems both like someone who would be rational and enjoyable to work with, but also very womanly, not "one of the guys" like some tomboyish heroines. And, of course, her moral strength and ability to deal with adversity throughout (especially in the period when she has to leave Thornfield Hall suddenly and finds herself effectively homeless in the Victorian countryside for several days prior to finding help and then work) are impressive and admirable. Jane was definitely my favorite out of these characters, and I think she also comes across as being the strongest -- though in a way that is intensely feminine, not "doing things just like a man." Julie and Scott had a good discussion of the book over at the A Good Story Is Hard To Find podcast, and Julie brought up (with prompting from her daughter) some interesting points contrasting Jane with more modern "strong" heroines that I want to get back to in a bit.

Persuasion: I'd read this Jane Austen novel several times before, but it had been a good 6+ years since I had read it, so in some ways I was coming at it fresh. Anne Elliot is one of Austen's quieter heroines, she lacks the conversational sparkle that makes Eliza Bennet and Emma Woodhouse so enjoyable to read, but then Anne is 27 (the other two are both 20) when the book opens and the story focuses heavily on regrets: When Anne was 19 she fell in love with and was briefly engaged to the ambitious but poor young Commander Wentworth, however she was persuaded by family and friends that it was imprudent to become engaged to a man who did not yet have any way of supporting a wife, and so she broke the engagement off. Just over seven years later, in the brief peace before Napoleon's return from exile, he is now Captain Wentworth and has amassed a very good fortune in prize money, while Anne has faded and spends much of her time trying to bring some order and propriety to her rather self-absorbed sisters and father.

As an older character who doesn't expect much from life, Anne is a very quiet character, but she does have a quiet strength to her as she tries to guide her father's financial retrenchment from behind the scenes and make peace in her sister Mary's chaotic household (Mary's in-laws still wish that Mary's husband had married Anne instead). And, of course, she has a very strong loyalty to Captain Wentworth, even long past expecting that he will ever propose to here again -- a loyalty which causes her to turn down several other men in the intervening seven years, despite the increasingly likelihood this will leave her always unmarried and thus at the mercy of her families whims and finances. Her strength is probably best summed up by this exchange from Chapter 23:
"Ah!" cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, "if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, 'God knows whether we ever meet again!' And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth's absence, perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, 'They cannot be here till such a day,' but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do, for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!" pressing his own with emotion.

"Oh!" cried Anne eagerly, "I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as -- if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!"

The Portrait of a Lady: I'd never read any Henry James before, and after reading The Portrait of a Lady, I don't know if I necessarily shall again. Here again we have a female main character, Isabel Archer, who shows up at the house of her rich uncle in England and promptly has everyone she meets fall inexplicably in love with her despite the fact she shows few really interesting qualities other than being young, pretty and seemingly full of potential (potential for what neither the reader nor the characters never seem all that clear.) Compared to the preceding heroines, Isabel Archer is a fairly weak and un-knowing main character. However, her consumptive cousin (who, of course, is in love with her) convinces his father (who is kind of in love with her in a dying-old-man sort of way) to leave her a fortune, and so having had a big fortune-hunter bulls-eye painted on her, she heads off to Italy on tour after her uncle's death, and there falls victim to the two interesting characters in the book: The accomplished and beautiful widow Madame Merle (for whom Isabel proceeds to develop an excessive admiration) and her old friend who exceeds her in both cool and lack of principles, the widower Gilbert Osmond. With Madame Merle's help, Osmond manages to cause Isabel to fall in love with him and marry him -- while along the way turning down proposals from several young men who, while not fascinating, are very rich and probably would have treated her well.

What makes the book gripping for the last third to quarter of its length is the presence of thoroughly fascinating villain in the form of Gilbert Osmond, who after initially fascinating Isabel and causing her to construct and almost wholly false idealized image of him, proceeds after their marriage to make her life a misery while almost never actually stepping outside the bounds of correct behavior. I kept waiting for something more fascinating to happen with him to make the novel worth while, but the conclusion in some ways just trails off rather than tying off what I found most interesting about the latter part of the book. Still, just watching him work is absolutely involving. Isabel does not come off as a particularly strong character, however, nor a very appealing one. If there's a strong female character in the book it's Madame Merle, who plays co-villain to Gilbert Osmond, but is, in the end, a far more human character.

Anna Karenina: I'm still only about a third of the way through Anna Karenina, so I won't say a great deal about this one, but thus far Anna doesn't seem to be shaping up as a very strong character either. She's even more led by her feelings and her illusions than Isabel Archer, and lacks Isabel's ability to even carry through with her own wishes or convictions, giving new reinforcement to the 'man is a rationalizing animal' witticism. While I get the impression Anna herself is going to be a gradually worsening car wreck of a character, I'm curious to see what trajectory her husband and her lover follow (at the moment neither seems hugely interesting) and what goes on in the Levin/Kitty side plot, as well as with the increasingly on-the-rocks marriage of Stiva and Dolly. Thus far, I'm not seeing any female characters looking likely to stand out.

As I mentioned, there was an interesting side conversation in the A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast on Jane Eyre relating to how Jane stacks up against more modern "strong female characters". Julie's daughter had put together a list of the six characteristics of the modern "strong young woman" character, particularly slanted towards genre YA novels, but I think fairly widely applicable:
  • She is independent to the point that she spends little time with her family (whom she loves) and relies little on family or her one or friends for help. She and her one or two good friends very themselves as outsiders and while that may be true for her friends, she is most likely held in high regard by others, simply inapproachable.
  • She had a lack of self-awareness of her good qualities, including but not limited to physical attractiveness, intelligence, leadership, etc, which she generally possesses in abundance. Because of this, she is prone to self-doubt.
  • She has little to no interest in romance unless with a childhood friend whom she views as inaccessible. Because of this she is uninterested in her own beauty, never wearing makeup or a dress unless forced.
  • She is averse to a leadership position, but excels when it is thrust upon her, generally because of a special ability she discovers she has.
  • She is proficient (or aspiring to be) at a physical skill such as hunting, combat, survival, etc.
  • She is surprisingly unobservant or uncritical of society until shown its flaws by someone else, typically her love interest. However, she is perceived as being highly intelligent because of her tendency to speak her mind, something she attributes to how bad she is at lying.
This strikes me as a moderately accurate description of a lot of a lot of modern "spunky" heroines one runs into, particularly in SF/F, and it's a very unisex sort of "strong character" writing. (Come to that, it applies to a de-masculinized sort of hero as well -- for example, what was done to the movie version of Aragorn.) It's also a fairly striking contrast with a strong classic heroine like Jane Eyre.


Rebekka said...

I always liked Kitty better than Anna, and I always felt so bad for Anna's son.

MuleChewingBriars said...

Kitty is the strong female character in Anna Karenina, and she is a foil to Anna.

My favorite female character in Tolstoy is Princess Maria Bolkonskaya, but only slightly more than the enchanting Natasha. Most men fall under Natasha's spell quite easily but Maria always seemed to have more substance to me. Probably Tolstoy wrote these two as representing Russia's pagan and Orthodox souls.