Every reader knows what a good hero should be, whether the hero is from classical antiquity like Odysseus or a contemporary hero like Harry Potter. The hero is expected to charge into battle, outsmart the enemy, and win the girl. While there have been some shifts in the presentation of the hero, at the core, the hero is the same throughout literature. Joseph Campbell, notable American mythologist, wrote an entire book about this called The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
But what about the heroine? Sometimes she is lumped in with the hero when people claim that ‘hero’ is a gender neutral term, but all that really does is say that a female protagonist is not special or different in any way than the male protagonist. Well I believe that the heroine is both special and different from the hero, and so for my senior thesis at The King’s College I researched the development of the heroine in western literature. One semester and 50 pages later, I had my thesis, which I am now turning into a series of blog posts. Obviously, I will not be able to provide the same depth in a series of blog posts, but I will do my best.
Before I go into actually works of literature and analyze the success or failure of different heroines, I should outline what I have found to be essential characteristics of a true heroine. There are going to be differences in the personalities and characteristics of different heroines, but what I am going to outline are what I believe are essential, if not exhaustive, characteristics that a female protagonist should possess.
Essentially, it comes down to this: the heroine must drive the plot of her own story without sacrificing her feminine identity. The heroine must be the protagonist of her own story. She also must be feminine, or any distinction between the hero and the heroine is lost. In order to investigate this claim, my next post will be about the ‘feminine identity’ in order to determine whether or not a heroine has compromised this or not. After a look at femininity, we will turn to literature. Throughout western literature, there are many examples and trends in the development of the heroine. For my blog posts, as in my thesis, I will limit the scope of these developments to British literature from the 17th to 19th centuries while tracing the development of the heroine from Medieval to early modern England. Here is the trend or development that I noticed…
In the middle ages, the heroine maintained her feminine identity, but failed to drive the action of her own story. She was a passive, rather than active, character. This heroine is represented in the character Rowena from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. In response to this, two different types of heroines developed—the sexualized heroine and the masculine heroine. The sexualized heroine developed in response to the suppression of female sexuality of the Middle Ages. This heroine was assertive, but she compromised much of her feminine identity in order to do so. Moll Flanders, the titular character of Daniel Defoe’s novel, represents this kind of heroine. The masculinized heroine rejected her femininity entirely in order to become an active character, like Rosalind in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This tension in the heroine’s character, the tension between being assertive and retaining her femininity, was not resolved until the 1800s with the publication of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre. Jane represents a true and balanced heroine, driving the action of her own life while maintaining her feminine identity.
For more on the heroine: