The Heroine Part 3: The Damsel in Distress

ImageIn my previous posts I’ve discussed how throughout western literature the heroine struggles to balance her ability to drive the action of her own story and maintain her own feminine nature. Then I discussed some of what a feminine nature includes—faithfulness, compassion, kindness, love, etc. Now we come to analysis of our first literary heroine, starting with the medieval heroine Rowena from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe. And yes, I am aware that Ivanhoe is not medieval literature, but it is acknowledged as an accurate representation of medieval society, and Rowena is a perfect example of the medieval heroine, or the damsel in distress, because she is passive. She doesn’t perpetuate any action in the story. Her passivity is the result of several medieval influences, including the Catholic Church, courtly love, and chivalry.

The Catholic Church, a looming influence in medieval society, dictated that there were two roles for women to take—that of the Virgin Mary or that of the sinner Eve. What’s the common thread there? Sexuality in two extremes. Sexuality was a dangerous thing in the Middle Ages, and it was inextricably connected to women. If women embraced it, they were accused of seducing men, much like Eve seduced her husband Adam into sinning in the Garden of Eden. Woman only had one option, then, to reject sexuality in its entirety and follow the path of Mary the Virgin Mother of Christ. This suppression of sexuality played an important role in the sexualization of the heroine, but more on that later. The point is that sexuality, or chaste sexual virtue, was all that define a heroine in the Middle Ages.


“The Accolade” by Edmund Leighton

Rowena serves as an object of praise and desire for the men in the story, notably the hero Wilfred Ivanhoe and the villain Maurice De Bracy. De Bracy even compares her to other objects, saying that she is “a rose of loveliness, and a jewel of wealth; the fairest among a thousand, a bundle of myrrh, and a cluster of camphire.” De Bracy also calls Rowena the queen of his heart, elevating her to the rank of royalty. This resembles the medieval institution of chivalry, which placed women on a pedestal of virtue and nobility. Throughout the novel, Rowena is left on her pedestal, unable to do anything but wait to be rescued by her hero.

So Rowena fails part one of the heroine test—she fails to drive the action of her own story within the novel. She does, however, pass the second part of the test by maintaining her feminine identity. She is faithful to the love of her life, Wilfred Ivanhoe, saying, “My voice shall be heard, if no other in this hall is raised in behalf of the absent Ivanhoe. I affirm he will meet fairly every honourable challenge. Could my weak warrant add security to the inestimable pledge of this holy pilgrim, I would pledge name and fame that Ivanhoe gives this proud knight the meeting he desires.” De Bracy’s claims of her virtue are accurate. She is also compassion, showing kindness to the other female character in the story, the Jewish Rebecca. Rebecca remarks, “There reigns in [your countenance] gentleness and goodness.”

Rowena demonstrates feminine qualities that are admirable, and in that she is a good example of a heroine. However, she proves to be completely passive, and so she cannot embody a true heroine.  She sacrifices her assertiveness in order to maintain her femininity. As we will see, our next to heroines did the opposite, sacrificing their femininity in order to achieve self-assertion.

For more on the heroine:

Part 1: An Introduction

Part 2: The Helper

Part 4: The Sexualized Heroine

Part 5: The Masculinized Heroine

Part 6: Poor, Obscure, Plain, and Little

Part 7: Why It Matters


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