When I’m going through something (whether it’s a good or bad life event), I often look to fictional heroines’ lives in books to see how they handled whatever it was they were going through. It gives me some sort of comfort, makes me feel less lonely. I think it also gives me hope that if I’m faithful to live out what I’ve been called to, good things will come out of the situation. It also helps lift my head a little higher, knowing that a stressful situation can be an opportunity to live out a heroine’s life (for as we all know, there are no heroes without conflict).
At the same time, comparing myself to some fictional characters can make me hang my head with guilt and shame that I’m not living up to what I think should be. At this point, I guess it’s important to remember that they are only fictional characters in a book. They’re not living in my shoes, and no one is perfect. But still, fictional characters can always teach us something.
Have you ever read a book that you absolutely loved because you identified with the realistic heroine, only to read a one star review about it online where it was criticized because the main character was ‘too whiney’? That just irks me. I happen not to like stories where the characters are perfect, never have anything to learn, always respond graciously to all circumstances (it makes me feel as though she’s in denial), and are greatly rewarded for all their good behavior in the end. Basically they are unchanged by the end of the story. I dislike these ‘good girls’ mainly because I know I can never be that, and so I can’t identify. Humans are more complex than just all good or all bad.
But there are many heroines who are so in the true sense of the word. They start out with character flaws. They end with character flaws (hopefully fewer). But somewhere in the middle, they struggle and fail and journey and are refined because of it all.
I think this is why we enjoy Jane Austen’s characters so much (particularly Emma and Lizzie). I heard someone once say they didn’t like “Sense and Sensibility” because they didn’t like Marianne Dashwood. She probably wouldn’t look so bad to us if she didn’t have such a glaring contrast to be compared with in her sister Elinor. I always kind of felt a kinship with Marianne, partly because she’s probably the one Jane Austen character I’m most like. It’s true she has much to learn. She is all about romance and emotions and is so easily led by them. Consequently, she cares little for the feelings of others. But she learns the hard way and does learn to be more self-restrained in the end. She learns to value people by their virtue, as opposed to their words and passions. Only then does she enter into a happiness that she might have otherwise missed: a future with the honorable Colonel Brandon, who has also suffered through much.
Having recently finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South,” I am struck by such a wonderful heroine as we find in Margaret Hale. She could have easily been written as a ‘goodie-goodie’, and I think that would have completely ruined the story. But instead, she is human. She has very strong, prejudiced opinions, treats those whom she disagrees with in a disdainful manner, and even lies to the authorities out of fear. Margaret finds it isn’t so easy to be a heroine:
“…she remembered promising to herself to live s brave and noble a life as any heroine she ever read or heard of in romance, a life peur et sans reproche; it had seemed to her then that she had only to will, and such a life would be accomplished. And now she had learnt that not only to will, but also to pray, was a necessary condition in the truly heroic. Trusting to herself, she had fallen.”
Throughout the course of the story, Margaret undergoes a lot of fiery trials. I don’t think I could have had the courage to endure it. At one point, she is so overwhelmed that she has a breakdown and needs time to process and heal. But by the end of the novel, we see a strong, shining heroine with much different views than the ones she held at the beginning.
I guess it isn’t so much how perfectly a person endures, –it’s the ones who are willing to learn and be changed for the better that makes a hero or heroine. Not everyone comes through tough circumstances the same way. Some take the easy road into bitterness and negativity. But we don’t call those people heroes.
I think of Fanny in “An Old Fashioned Girl,” by Louisa May Alcott. No, she is not the main character the title is talking about. In fact, in three quarters of the book, she is the contrast to the ‘good’ old-fashioned girl, Polly. If you’ve ever read this story and you’re like me, you probably saw Fanny as an annoying girl you’d like to slap. But something happens in a sort of climax of the tale. Her previously well-to-do father loses all his money, and although this is devastating to the family, it forces Fanny to brush up on some qualities she didn’t know she had. She becomes more compassionate, less selfish, more creative, and her loyalty and hard work shines through. Other people of like-noble characters are attracted to her and want to be around her. Who would have thought at the start of the book that annoying Fanny could be such a heroine!
I guess that means there’s hope for me.
What are some of your favorite imperfect heroines?