Reading classic literature is like traveling back in time, to live the life of someone who lived during a particular period in time, witness great battles, rise, and fall of great empires and that of men and women, to see how human mind though now evolved faces the same dilemmas of life from birth until death. Many of these classics enshrine within themselves the soul of a generation and serve as a cornerstone in the history of literature. Their narratives have broken traditions and questioned established ideas and notions. For a reader, they challenge us to transform written words into reason and to appreciate and seek meaning in life.
The portrayal of women in literature from ancient times to the present aptly articulates how women have been treated in society. Women were and are still considered inferior to men and many authors (mostly male), who were beyond doubt biased in their portrayal of women couldn’t desist themselves from describing strong dominance women characters left on their male counterparts even in a highly patriarchal narratives.
Now what comes to our mind when someone says “Strong Powerful Women”? To me, it signifies a bold fearless woman with courage and will to speak from her heart, what she believes in, and one who refuses to play by the traditions and behave in the manner she is expected. These characters have a strong identity, potentiality to face and learn from difficulties, take responsibility and accept mistakes. It doesn’t matter if the character is a goddess, a queen or a handmaid, their voices are loudest, and their actions define the plot, without them the story crumbles and stagnates. From little Matilda to wise Headmistress Minerva McGonagall, women have shaped some of the greatest characters in the literature of all genres.
Powerful women characters have influenced the narrative of even the most ancient texts ever found. Shamhat, a temple prostitute plays a crucial role in taming “Enkidu”, persuading him to accompany her to the city of Uruk and confront mighty Gilgamesh. Enkidu eventually dies midway in the epic, when he insults (yet another woman) a woman goddess “Ishtar” by hurling a chunk of meat of a bull from heaven, which he and Gilgamesh had just slain; signifying that the women can be both undeniably perfect and invigorating as well as the most pernicious enemy.
Similarly, despite historians fixating mostly on the bravery of Achilles and Hector, the role Helen, Andromache and Briseis play and their relationship with their male characters serves the basic theme of Homer’s “Iliad”. Cursed by women goddess Aphrodite, Helen is seen as the primary reason for war by people around her, but she nevertheless serves as the strongest force in the epic which is mostly a male-dominated world but whose destiny is initiated, affected, and inspired by women. The women characters of Helen and Andromache serve as shadows of their husbands Paris and Hector who are sympathetic and considerate. Perhaps even the author acknowledges that despite being emotional and trivial, it was impossible to imagine a world without women, whose existence was necessary for their own existence.
In yet another of Homer’s celebrated work “Odyssey”, women’s role is vital and every woman character is unique in personality, intentions, and relationship towards men. Role of women in the epic is unique in a way that almost all women, whether Penelope, Arete, Circe, Calypso, or Athena, all are different, but each one of them helps define the role of a woman as a goddess, seductress, and a faithful wife. Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, in particular, is found to be not only blessed with strength, independence and cunningness but also loyalty, submission, and fertility, imperative of an ideal classic woman.
The Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, although written by men in an entirely patriarchal society describe women as pivotal characters. Sita followed Rama to the forest as any devoted wife would have. Later, when Rama refused to believe her innocence, Sita decided never to return to Ayodhaya as any prudent woman would have done, to stand for what was right. In Mahabharata, Draupadi, wife of the Pandava brothers is known for her character which defies societal norms of even modern times. Her unforgiving nature and zeal for revenge laid the foundation of several pivotal events. On the contrary, women have also been depicted as the Witch in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as bitter harsh Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and utterly disappointing Daisy in The Great Gatsby.
These strong and powerful female characters despite being sometimes disdained in the narrative often stay long with readers because most readers can relate their empathy, passion, kindness, adaptability, faith, and courage in almost every woman around them, right from their daughters to wives, sisters and mothers. Even in Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s most depressing work, the character of Anna, despite her numerous flaws deals boldly with love, passion and jealousy; and in times of personal and marital perplexities, retains her motherly love for her son. To me, these women characters in classic literature, from utterly perfect goddesses to flawed Countess (Anna Karenina), offer remarkable insight. Their character in these work of fiction are no different from what they would have played in real life. Their courage, tolerance, devotion despite the oppression that has never ceased to exit, continue to resonate throughout history. Similarly, Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” serve as an insurrection against traditional roles defined for women by Christianity.
One more prominent character that comes really close to the definition of “Strong Powerful Women” is that of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. A young orphaned girl usually submissive, redefines how women are supposed to behave, think, and act. Jane showed courage, maintained her dignity and self-respect even in times of crushing grief. Surviving a cruel aunt and heartbreak by Mr. Rochester she never lost hope or her morality.
How these strong powerful women characters act, react, behave in patriarchal society makes femininity persuasive to young women. A thorough analysis of many of these characters reveals that most of them aren’t too emotional as one would expect women to be. They strengthen the idea of sexual freedom, empowerment, and equality in society.
“Alice in Wonderland” was written by Lewis Carroll during the Victorian era, where women were expected to be reverent, complaisant, clement, and contented. A seven-year-old Alice redefined how a little girl who also happened to be curious adventurer, mustered strength and courage to face her fears and obstacles. In Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, Wife of Bath expresses thoughts on marriage and women freedom which were never heard of in the middle -ages. Her idea of how women should be in ultimate control of the house laid the foundation of many similar characters who carried forward the beacons of gender equality.
All in all, despite deliberately defining female characters as weak and laying emphasis on their inferiority to men, for an ideal society allowing women to contrive their identity freely and without unjustifiable smirching should be a core concept. The ideas these remarkable women characters internalize are essential for the destruction of stereotypes and removing the equality roadblocks for women and isn’t that’s why we read literature, especially those which have been around for ages?
I am a free human being with an independent will.” -Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre