Beyond “Bad Girls” – Great Antiheroines of Literature

Lisbeth SalanderGone Girl‘s Amy Elliott-Dunne; Rachel Watson from The Girl on the Train: these are just a few of the latest in a long line of compelling antiheroines stretching back to the dawn of literature. Here are some of our favorites from the past few millennia.

For all their democratic ideals, the Ancient Athenians had a terror of strong women. Witness Medea. Was Jason madly in love with her, or was it just her Golden Fleece? He learns the hard way not to leave a witch in the lurch. For two strikingly different modern takes, try Crista Wolf’s Medea: A Modern Retelling or David Vann’s Bright Air Black. And then there’s  Clytemnestra. Aeschylus’ play may be called Agamemnon, but it is his bloodthirsty wife-cum-widow who steals the show. To be fair, her husband sacrificed their daughter, and then went away for a decade; it was never going to be a warm homecoming. Colm Tóibín provides a haunting, poetic retelling in The House of Names.

The English seem a little more smitten with their rule-breaking heroines. Think of the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a strikingly well-rounded character who seems to know exactly what she wants out of life: a good man – or five. Then there’s Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, the audacious woman whose racy exploits and no-holds-barred approach to getting her own back in a world dominated by manipulative men set a standard for assertive heroines to follow, from the Marquise de Merteuil to Anne Elliott to Becky Sharp.

As the 19th century progressed, things took a decidedly tragic turn for independent women. Just ask to Dorothea Brooke (trapped in a loveless marriage), Emma Bovary (swallows arsenic) or Anna Karenina (steps in front of a train). Yet for every Hedda Gabler (in the piano room, with a dueling pistol), there’s a Nora Helmer (walks out, slams the door behind her). By the 20th Century and the mass appeal of the spoiled yet indomitable Scarlett O’Hara, strong female protagonists are fully back in charge, this time many of them created by women.

Sula Peace, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, is in many ways a literary descendent of Mitchell’s O’Hara. Fiercely independent with no regard for social norms and expectations, she is vilified and shunned, and yet refuses to bow down to convention and exerts a strong and enigmatic force on those around her. Zenia, the titular femme fatale of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, may be the most legendary female monster since Grendel’s mother. Devious and deceptive, she is various described by the women who’ve lost their men to her as ‘soulless,’ a ‘cold and treacherous bitch,’ and a ‘lurking enemy commando.’  For all that, she’s one of the most fascinating of Atwood’s characters, and the one the author says that – as a fellow “professional liar” –  she most identifies with. Of course crime fiction is replete with dangerous women, but few more cooly destructive than the ravenous, anarchic assassin who slices through the cold heart of Jean Patrick Manchette’s unforgettable 1977 noir thriller Fatale. Literally rolling in banknotes and drenched in the blood of men, she is a cool corrective to a corrupt world, doing for capitalism what Clytemnestra did for kingship.

Who are some of your favorite fictional antiheroines?

     – Posted by David W.

One thought on “Beyond “Bad Girls” – Great Antiheroines of Literature”

  1. Miriam Black! We first meet her in Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – she’s a complete mess and an epic badass! There are 6 books in the series; final one just came out last week.

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