Why do so many Great Books have lousy leading ladies?


“The Great Gatsby,” original cover, 1925

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.

  1. Going to the movies, via books and plays, what about Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Scarlet in Gone with the Wind.
    And let’s not forget a fact of life. Women are interesting (and beautiful) just by being women while men are only interesting if they have done something interesting.

  2. Here are some of my favorite “strong female character” reads written by men.

    “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” – Brian Moore
    The “Game of Thrones” sequence – George RR Martin
    “The Rainbow” and “Women In Love” – DH Lawrence
    “A Passage To India” – EM Forster
    “Angle of Reposte” — Wallace Stegner
    “Dune” – Frank Herbert

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Ellen B says:

    And…Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. This is truly the exception that proves the rule. While the narrator, Humbert Humbert, sees Lolita only as a blank canvas for his desire, Nabokov’s genius is in showing Delores to the reader as a real person. The most poignant scene comes near the end when an adult Lolita summons Humbert, takes his money, and rejects him.

  4. Ellen B says:

    One more,
    Lying Awake,, by Mark Salzman. A short, beautiful, searching book with an aging nun as its protagonist.

  5. Ellen B says:

    Perhaps this is rationalizing by the male authors? They want to let their protagonists off the hook for not fulfilling their highest good, so they make the female characters less than compelling. If Helen isn’t all that, it makes the futility of the Trojan war all the more tragic.

    It is hard to find engaging heroines in fiction even, sadly, today. My own taste is towards wordy, metaphysical novels (Moby Dick, anyone?), but here are a few of the “greats” with interesting women characters:
    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (not Catherine of Wuthering Heights. Catherine is the type of wimpy lead that you are talking about.)
    My Antonia by Willa Cather
    Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Hardy generally avoided the virgin/whore dichotomy in his female characters.
    Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

    More recently,
    The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas. Avant-garde style, but a somewhat realistic character.
    Intuition by Allegra Goodman
    ALL of Alice Munro’s stories!

  6. V. Burnett says:

    It might also be fair to say that many male authors aren’t really interested in intelligent, powerful or complex women. If all you need is an object of desire to drive your male-centric plotline, why make her complicated?

    I also suspect that many female authors of previous generations struggled with delving into what an autonomous female character would look like. Jane Austen is a great example of someone who got that right but Edith Wharton? Her characters are so restricted and opaque that it causes me pain to spend too much time with them. (Granted – that was part of her point. The social construct Wharton lived in was painful for women who aspired to anything beyond the allotted norms of their station in life.)

    Modern female authors are doing a better job but sometimes you have to venture outside the bounds of the best-sellers list to find female characters who stand up and ring true. Here’s my short list of favorite novels and authors who present strong female characters:

    Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia & Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad – both books are retellings of epic Greek Poetry with the women as their focal point. Both authors do a good job of getting inside the heads of characters living in oppressive societies and grappling with the challenges self-preservation (or preservation of home/family/society) from within their limited sphere of power.

    Barbara Hambly writes both Sci-Fi Fantasy and Historical Mystery full of believable, well rounded male and female characters. Partnerships between her characters are rich and empowering. There’s no subjugation of either sex and women take the lead when advancing the plot line at least as often as men.

    Terry Pratchett has always had a strong cast of progressive women in his Diskworld books but the Tiffany Aching series within the Diskworld universe and the independent novel, Nation, are particularly wonderful for their women.

    Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale – an astoundingly beautiful novel. The lead females are autonomous, intelligent and compelling.

    Hugh Howey’s Wool series – a dystopia where women and men suffer and triumph more or less equally. His prequil series, Shift, portrays a slightly more misogynist society – ours.

    Thanks for an interesting topic. I’m looking forward to reading other responses later today.