Scarlet O Hara (Gone with the Wind), and Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) remain among the most popular female protagonists of literature. They have been admired for centuries not as much for their beauty, as for the fiery temperament they possessed, which taught them to stand for their rights and speak out their minds; at an age which expected anything but vociferousness and sermons on righteousness from women! But there were others too, who have been admired for their dexterous handling of life’s vagaries with a facade of stoic calmness and taking all troubles in their stride with heroic certitude! They make you fall in love with life over and over again with their compelling, charming way of weathering the storms of life.
Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre: In an age when poetry ruled the literary minds, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre revolutionized the art of fiction. Jane Eyre is not a pretty looking dame who has been taught the finesse, etiquettes and the coquetteness so common for the girls of her age, but she is a strong, individualistic, passionate woman with an almost spiritual psyche who does not take the brutalities of her aunt submissively, but gives a piece of mind to her when she leaves for Lowood. She rises above her Gothic surroundings, difficult circumstances and distressing company to prove her mettle as a survivor who is morally, intellectually and anesthetically venerable. Though the novel became very popular, the character of Jane Eyre remained shrouded in obscurity and could not get as much limelight as her contemporary heroines, partly because she was more real and uninteresting than the majority of fictional dames of her time.
Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter: Hester Prynne, the beautiful heroine of The Scarlett Letter is one of the most convincing results of Nathenial Howthorn’s literary contemplation on why aberrations occur in a society bound in rules and morals. She is accused of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for the rest of her life. But Hester bears the barbs with calmness, and neither reveals the name of her love child’s father, nor does she let the society know about the husband who deserted her and was responsible for her predicament. At a time when adultery often invited death as punishment, Hester had the courage to own her act and give birth to a child out of wedlock. In the words of famous American novelist John Updike, “She’s an epitome of female predicaments. … She is a mythic version of every woman’s attempt to integrate her sexuality with societal demands.”
Lucy Snowe (Vilette): Charlotte Bronte introduces Lucy Snowe as a girl who is plain looking with practically no appealing accomplishments. She is friendless and forlorn and knows how to restrain her feelings and emotions. Lucy secretly loves handsome and gentlemanly Dr John since her childhood, but accepts the proposal of Paul Emanuel (but does not marry him!) who is a male chauvinist and a staunch Catholic who tries hard to convert Protestant Lucy, but fails. Lucy is practical and is not ready to break norms for unreachable dreams and unworkable ambitions. She is one of the most sensible heroines of English literature and has been rightly described by critics as a quiet observer for the most part of her life who truly breaks free of the expected domestic fate.
O-Lan (The Good Earth): Anyone who is unable to bear pain must think of O-Lan. O-Lan’s strength and tenacity shocks the reader at every stage. She is her own mid-wife when she gives birth. Yes, she does it all alone, from cutting the umbilical cord to cleaning the blood strewn room! Her strength will make you shudder; her suffering will make you pensive! O-Lan is the lead character of Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth. She is a slave who is set free when she marries the protagonist Wang Lung. She impresses her husband’s family with her cooking as she claims, she was a kitchen slave. She turns into an expert beggar when the family lands in penury. O-Lan works hard as a labourer and compensates in every way for the lack of beauty in her features with her labour and talent. She is hurt when her husband marries a prostitute and brings her home. But she loves her house and is not ready to let him spend money even on her own illness when it can be used for buying land! She languishes and dies, and rants about her ugliness “”I am ugly and cannot be loved” continuously. But her worth is proved after her death when the family falls apart and the money is lost-because O-Lan, who could have preserved it, is gone!
Wife of Bath (The Canterbury Tales): Wife of Bath is one of the most developed female characters of the middle -ages and Chaucer gives her full freedom in expressing her thoughts on marriage and the rights of women. She is perhaps among the first liberated women in literature who unabashedly speaks her mind and asserts that the head of the house should always be a woman as a man cannot match her in anyway. And she does not care if it sounds scandalous and heretical. She is the first blaze of gender equality which gradually takes form of so many subsequent characters in literature.