Photo credit: Elena Mudd
They were independent.
I mean, they were really
independent — more so than most adults. Harriet Welsch, in Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy
, had her friends Sport and Janie, and of course, she loved her nanny, Ole Golly, but she was happiest when she was snooping solo on her daily afternoon rounds. Solitude is, of course, what made her adventures possible: Harriet taught me that many worthwhile activities, like hiding in a dumbwaiter to spy on divorcées, or writing up those adventures afterwards, are best undertaken alone.
Lots of other childhood heroines were like this. Anastasia Krupnik was a solitary weirdo. In E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
, Claudia Kincaid grew so tired of the unsophisticated tedium of Connecticut suburbia that she convinced her younger brother Jamie to run away to Manhattan and take up residence in the Met. On their adventure — and let’s be real, it was really her
adventure — Claudia never got homesick. This, when I was little, was my favorite part of the book.
They were incredibly hardworking.
Childhood literary heroines were never idle. Often this is, of course, because they grew up in the era of child labor. Laura Ingalls was always sweeping, airing out the bedding, fetching water; when she turned 15, she earned 25 cents a day sewing buttonholes in town, and soon afterwards, she was teaching school, helping to put her blind sister Mary through college. Francie Nolan, in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
, started selling junk with her brother Neeley when she was 11. After eighth grade graduation, Francie kept working — her earnings made it possible for her brother to get the high school education that she deserved.
These girls were required to work for reasons you wouldn’t wish on anyone. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
, Jo March worked as a companion to her crotchety Aunt March, stabilizing her family amidst her father’s absence during the Civil War. She sent her income from working as a governess and writing pulp fiction back home to her family so that her sickly sister Beth could go to the seashore. But still, reading these books, you always got the sense that these girls would be equally industrious if they were alive in the 21st century — they’d be too oriented towards life’s possibilities to waste much time.
They savored small physical pleasures.
Remember how Ramona, in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Her Mother
, squeezed an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink, just because she wanted to know what it felt like? (Is this still the most indulgent thing I can imagine doing? Maybe?) Remember how little orphan Mandy
, from Julie Andrews Edwards’s book of the same name, drew a near-orgasmic delight from finding her secret cottage, making tea, sweeping the steps, stocking the place with snacks? Remember how Betsy Ray, from Maud Hart Lovelace’s perfect Betsy-Tacy
series, felt lost in bliss when she was writing in her tree, or making hot cocoa, or experiencing the simple magic of eating a meal outside? Harriet Welsch had her tomato sandwiches; Laura Ingalls had the pig’s tail, and the feeling of riding a horse full-tilt across the prairie, and the delectation of choosing new fabrics for your dresses, and the sensual satisfaction of a butter mold with a strawberry on top.
They understood that growing up would put an end to much of what they loved most.
There’s a scene in By the Shores of Silver Lake
in which Laura Ingalls and her cousin Lena discuss the recent marriage of a 13-year-old girl at a nearby homestead. “She’s silly!” Lena says. “Now she can’t ever have any more good times.” Laura, after a little more of this conversation, “wanted to forget about growing up.”
These conversations recur among our childhood literary heroines, who were happy to frankly identify a type of constriction in female adulthood that female adults themselves tend not to discuss in such a direct way. At 16, Meg March tells Jo, age 15, that she’s “old enough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better.” Jo protests: “It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!” She knows that growing up means assuming the mantle of performing and enacting femininity: it means being sweet, being ladylike, getting married, having children, subsuming your needs to the needs of everyone else.
Teenage heroines are defined and often doomed by their relationship to men.
When literary heroines — or perhaps, when girls — get older, they begin to be defined by their physical, romantic, and sexual desirability. This is a nightmare, as teenage heroines tend to know. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar
, Esther Greenwood has to fight off a young man who tries to rape her in the garden at a country club dance; she gets fitted for a diaphragm, and tells the doctor that she’s “got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.” In The Virgin Suicides
, by Jeffrey Eugenides, the five Lisbon sisters are locked up in the puritanical jailhouse their parents created for them, turning into sex objects and wanting to die.
In Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games
, Katniss Everdeen was plunked into a love triangle that determined her destiny as much as the dystopia she was born into, which also required her to make herself visually appealing to a nation in order to escape death. Don’t even get me started on Anastasia Steele and Bella Swan. Must love and sex always be so dramatic and so little fun?
Things got even worse as our literary heroines reached adulthood.
Literary heroines start off brave and plucky, then become blank and depressed and desirable, and then, when they’re adult women, they’re bitter, and often, by the end of the book, dead. Think about Emma Bovary and her arsenic, Lily Bart and her arsenic, Anna Karenina and her train, Edna Pontellier and her leisurely walk into the ocean. Of course, I love Madame Bovary
and The House of Mirth
and Tolstoy’s great doomed-love story and The Awakening
. But for a long time, I couldn’t get past my irritation that seemingly every great 19th-century novel hinges on the historical inability of women to have a stable life without the patronage of men.
Now I’m grateful to these stories for exposing the inner workings of this problem long before there was sufficient political will to address it. And today — even though it’s possible for our literary heroines to get jobs and divorces — fiction still wrestles with the same questions. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation
, everything in Elena Ferrante’s oeuvre: these are novels about what it means to wrest your identity from the structures of male power even while you live inside them.
I didn’t understand, for a long time, why the literary heroine’s journey was like this.
The stories we live and the stories we read are inseparable. It took me until recently to figure out that my irritation at the literary heroine’s trajectory is the bedrock for how I understand what’s lacking in our culture. It makes perfect sense, after all, that brave girls and bitter women are so concentrated in literature: we haven’t made enough space for them in the real world.
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is a staff writer at The New Yorker
. Raised in Texas, she studied at the University of Virginia before serving in Kyrgyzstan in the Peace Corps and receiving her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. She was a contributing editor at The Hairpin and the deputy editor at Jezebel, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine
, Grantland, Pitchfork, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn. Trick Mirror
is her first book.