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Heroines I Hate

I've taken a break from my WIP to write a collection of short romances set in the 1890s (the aforementioned "trashy" piece being one, followed by some nine others with varying degrees of fluff). The best thing about short stories is that I can stuff in a whole lot of ideas all at once, and clear some space in my head for some more substantial efforts. The worst thing about it is that I have to make each of those ideas distinct enough to warrant an entire piece all to themselves.

As I come up with new characters for each, it occurs to me that I may easily fall into the trap of writing about the same people repeatedly. Their coloring and ages may be different, but there are only so many variations of "adorable" I can work with. So far I have silly adorable, rebellious adorable, and ineffectually manipulative adorable. I'm thinking of hopping over to tragic, clingy adorable for the next one. As for heroes, I pretty much just pick any point along the spectrum of gentleman to rogue and run with it. So I've been thinking about my characterizations a lot lately, which of course leads to reflections on my influences.

Come to think of it, there are very few classic heroines I actually like. Emma Woodhouse is a Georgian Mean Girl, but she's ridiculous enough to get attached to. Jane Eyre is more than a bit hoity-toity, but she's more individualistic and honest than anyone else you'll find in a romantic 1847 novel. And Dorothea Brooke gets props for turning from insufferable to suffering, and finally into a decent, courageous human being (though I try to shake off that unfortunate halo of martyrdom). Other than that, most heroines of significance, not to mention the myriad of insignificance, have some trait or another that turns me off. For example:

Elizabeth Bennet

I must have read Pride and Prejudice a dozen times when I was in high school. So charming! So romantic! But when you get down to it, Elizabeth Bennet is a bit of a biatch. Unlike Emma, her failings are downplayed by her playfulness and intelligence, which makes her seem like a better person than, I believe, Jane intended her to be. She scoffs at superficial conventions, for sure, but how on earth could she be so dense about the slimy Wickham? And how can she think of and joke about her own family members like dirt, no matter how much smarter and more refined she is than the rest of them?

Taken exactly as she is on the page, Elizabeth Bennet makes a fine, flawed protagonist. But she's been absorbed and warped across generations into their versions of the modern ideal, to the point that we're supposed to adore her as is. Fun, she may be; adorable she is not.

Catherine Earnshaw/Linton

Does anyone actually like Wuthering Heights? We all read it, we all get sucked in to the Gothic ambiance and the period melodrama and the allure of the whole crazy cast, but does anyone really like it? I'm not even sure Emily wanted us to like it. She wrote a book about a despicable place filled with despicable people. The "hero" strangles puppies, for God's sake.

So anyway: Catherine Earnshaw. She's feral. She's insane. She's a vain, conniving witch. But all that would be perfectly fine if she wasn't so darned incomprehensible. Generally, when one cares so little for the opinions of other people that she runs around the moors with a gypsy boy, falling periodically into deadly fits of rage, she does not suddenly up and transform into a lady overnight and marry a man for being wealthy and respectable. What do the men in that triangle see in her, exactly? Heathcliff, I understand: she was pretty and nice to him when everyone else preferred to kick him in the gut. But Edgar? Even after the Lintons domesticate Cathy, she still gives the impression that she sharpens her claws on the furniture. He ought to have been relieved that she succumbed to an ambiguous illness of the mind, before she ate their own children.

Catherine makes the list not because she's a lunatic, but because she's an unsympathetic lunatic. Such wasted potential.

Countess Olenska

The Age of Innocence is one of those rare books that I love, but I hate everyone in it (unlike, say, The Great Gatsby, in which I hate the characters and the book overall. Yes, Gatsby, we get it, you're striving fruitlessly for the plastic American Dream. So shoot yourself already. Or, you know, wait for someone else to do it for you; that works too). Newland Archer is a selfish, spineless cad, and everyone around him seems to exist simply to make each other miserable. But Countess Olenska really gets my dander up.

Ellen is supposed (at least to Newland) to represent everything a Victorian woman couldn't be: liberated, overtly sexual, with a working brain. In actuality, she's much weaker than her grovelling lawyer lover. She spends the entire book letting people gossip about her, brew misconceptions about her, and push her around, whining that she didn't divorce her abusive husband because Newland told her not to, and she would feel so awfully bad about sleeping with him when he's married. Then she runs away just because his wife flutters her eyes and talks about babies. Decades later, she sits in her Paris apartment like a princess in a tall tower, waiting in vain for her knight to come up to visit. In essence, she's just as useless a product of New York high society as May, only without the gumption to lay claim to what she wants. So why are we supposed to consider her the forward-thinking one? Because she spent time in the wilds of Europe and wears colorful dresses instead of May's virginal white?

I'm pretty sure I'm allowed to complain about Ellen because Edith, clever girl that she is, didn't intend for her to be a "real" heroine anyway. The book isn't about some star-crossed love affair; it's about Newland questioning, pushing, and finally accepting the boundaries set by society. It's more important how he conceives of Ellen, as an icon of everything just out of his reach, than how she actually acts. Since they were tragically separated in the end, he can live out his respectable life, always dreaming of her as "the one that got away." Thank heavens he didn't follow through with his impulse to run off with her and, after the rosy effect of infatuation washed away, find that she was basically dull.


Anonymous (February 10, 2012, 10:01 am)

your critique is more interesting (and adorably honest) than the characters themselves, and than other critiques. Good marksmanship.

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What is the first letter of "Maryland"?