Why do so many Great Books have lousy leading ladies?
One of the hottest books in America right now is F. Scott Fizgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which at its heart is the tale of a self-made man’s obsession with a larger-than-life woman, Daisy Buchanan.
It’s a fantastic book, with all kinds of undercurrents and back-eddies, but from my very first read of the book in high school to my latest re-read a couple of months ago, I couldn’t help thinking that Daisy herself was kind of a dull flower.
Compared with Jordan Baker, the professional golfer who lies and muscles her way into the novel’s periphery? Daisy turns out to be kind of shallow, unsexy, and whingey.
Which shouldn’t come as any big surprise.
The thing about Daisy is that she’s sort of a type in world literature, a female figure serving as the magnetic focus at the center of a novel, who in fact strikes the reader as something of a dud.
Isabel Archer in Henry James “Portrait of A Lady” is described by everyone around her as spirited and vital and vibrant, but she never does anything that even remotely suggests a vein of spunk or ingenuity.
She marries a superficial bum, while spurning the advances of a small army of Great Guys, and spends the rest of the novel wringing her hands and playing the Gothic heroine. Snore.
Anna Karenina in Tolstoy’s great novel? She is at least a well-rounded, three dimensional, living, breathing woman. But tedious? And self-involved? And increasingly reliant on morphine to get through the day?
She’s all that and more.
And then there’s Emma Bovary, whose big ideas about a larger, more vivid life involve a series of tedious love affairs and a ton of credit card shopping.
It’s a fantastically well written book, but Emma herself would fit right in with the Hiltons or the Kardashians.
Of course, the literary seedcorn of this long tradition is Helen of Troy, the woman whose face launched a thousand ships.
“Small wonder that Trojans and Achaeans should endure so much and so long, for the sake of a woman so marvellously and divinely lovely,” says one admirer.
But then he comes to his senses. “Still, fair though she be, let them take her and go, or she will breed sorrow for us and for our children after us.”
The truth is Helen never does or says anything remotely interesting. In nautical terms, she’s the figurehead, not the rudder or the sail.
In the end, I get it. These “women” are mostly objects, gestalt creations invented by their cultures. They are desirable in large measure because a lot of men desire them. It’s Marketing 101.
Their actual virtues, or accomplishments, or words become secondary, even irrelevant.
This is one of the reasons that Jane Austen’s novels hold a far greater charm for me.
Her women are, in a very real sense, commodities, trying to survive the ruthless marketplace of marriage. But they are also, mostly, the kind of people with whom you’d actually like to sit down with for a hand of whist.
I also think it’s fair to say that a lot of male authors struggle with the veneer that surrounds powerful or desirable women.
They know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, but have no idea — don’t want to have any idea, maybe — what’s going on behind the mask.