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Books have the power to inspire us, to explore new ways of living, different points of view that can shock or comfort. Literature can be especially important to women, who can read to discover how to live well in a world that does not prioritise their needs or desires. Books can be an escape, or a way to find oneself.
Read about my top five favourite females characters in literature.
- Jo March - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Nowadays, we have a plethora of books about ambitious and independent young women who strike out on their own to live a different kind of life. But back when it came out, Little Women’s Jo March was a refreshing and modern character. Scores of young readers related to her struggles - against traditional femininity, her families poverty and her own ambitions to be a writer and have an income of her own.
Until recently, Jo March would have been described as a “tom-boy”, with little interest in clothes, boys or other female pursuits of the time. Her best friend is a boy, Laurie, and her passion is for writing and performing plays. As she gets older, her struggles become more acute. With so few options available to her, she is at odds with her sister’s more conventional paths, rejecting Laurie’s proposal in favour of a life that suits her temperament and feeds her artistically. This path is not easy for her, and Jo is not always a loveable character. She can be rash and impulsive, as well as harsh and judgmental to her sisters and mother. She has to make sacrifices to pursue her career and on occasion she loses her nerve, terribly afraid that she has made the wrong decision.
Saoirse Ronan as Jo in the 2019 adaptation
Jo is a perfectly imperfect character and despite her flaws, we are won over with her indomitable spirit and will to live and create.
2. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in the 1940 adaptation
“Rebecca” has an unnamed narrator, a nameless young woman who is dazzled by the spectre of her new husband’s late wife. Beautiful, wilful, clever - Rebecca is everything that our narrator is not. Rebecca never speaks for herself, and her character is formed through our protagonist’s naive and insecure eyes. The housekeeper, Mrs Danver’s, remains obsessively devoted to her, once her surrogate mother and best friend. Her husband, Max De Winter, is equally obsessed with her, but is filled with hate - and also guilt over her death.
Rebecca is everything you want in a female protagonist - mysterious, impulsive, glamorous, bold, and willing to go to extremes to live her life on her terms. With subsequent re-readings, you become more sympathetic for Rebecca and the unfairness of her demise. She was far from perfect - but she was exciting. Daphne Du Maurier herself was an unconventional person, so it makes sense that her most famous female character would complicated and flawed.
3. Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Scout Finch is the girl protagonist of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is told through her eyes as she makes sense of the world around her, with the help of her father, Atticus Finch. Atticus is a lawyer representing the defendant in a high-profile case. He does his best to explain to Scout the racial tensions that are dividing their small town.
Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the 1962 adaptation
Scout’s kingdom is her street - with no mother, she lives in dungarees with hair cut short, her best friends are her older brother and her next-door neighbour, //. Eschewing feminine things, Scout is in the precipice of understanding more about the world around her, and what kind of life she will have in it.
What makes To Kill a Mockingbird a special book is that is was based closely on Harper’s own childhood growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Dill is based on her childhood best friend, Truman Capote, who would spend his summers with his cousins Monroeville. So we can imagine clearly the kid of woman Scout would grow up to be - a writer and journalist, singularly focused on her career, living an independent and fulfilling life among her literary friends in New York City.
4. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The protagonist of Kate Chopin's The Awakening is Edna, a young woman at the turn of the century in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a mother and a wife who is struggling to find happiness and satisfactions within the limitations of these roles and what society expects her to be. She is pressured by her friends and family to accept conventionality, but she finds herself being drawn inexorably to a more whole and vital existence.
Nowadays, we have scores of books and novels that chart similar stories of women leaving behind convention to find themselves. But when The Awakening was published, it was truly ground-breaking. Despite her flaws, Chopin treats her protagonist sympathetically and paints her struggles seriously - not just a story of bucking against traditions, but that of a woman contemplating the meaning of her very existence. For that reason, Edna Pontellier can be considered one of the most important and influential characters in literary fiction.
5. Anne Elliot in Persuasion by Jane Austen
With every tv show or movie adaptation, we become more and more familiar with Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet. But not a lot of attention is given to Austen’s less famous characters. While Elizabeth Bennet is headstrong and resolute in the face of her family’s pressures, Persuasions’ Anne Elliot represents a different sort of young woman, the plight of many young women in Austen’s day.
Anne falls in love and is proposed to by Captain Wentworth at nineteen years old. He is fairly impoverished and the family do not believe it would be a good match. They persuade her to break off the engagement. She does so, and continues to regret it bitterly as the years pass. In a series of fortuitous events, they meet again after several years. Captain Wentworth is now wealthy, but seemingly unaware than Anne is still deeply in love with him.
Sally Hawkins as Anne in the 2006 adaptation
The plot plays out in the way you might expect. What stands out in Persuasion is the character of Anne. She is the oldest of Austen’s heroines. She has a rich interior life of her own, and a growing determination to make her decisions, and live a life not entirely consumed in the betterment of the men around her.
Who are your favourite characters from literature? Tell us in the comments below!
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