Literary Heroines Through the Years

The heroine role in literature is one with a long and complex history. Traditionally, myths and folk tales have tended to focus on male heroes. Although some of these ancient stories do focus on female characters – the myth of Arachne the Spinner deals entirely with interactions between a goddess and a human woman, for instance – it’s rare to see a woman truly taking on a ‘hero’ role in these tales.

Thousands of years on from legends like Arachne’s, how much has really changed? The social role of women in much of the world has been transformed over the centuries, giving many women far more freedom and more opportunities in life – how much does our fiction reflect this change?

Heroines have, of course, appeared in literature through the centuries. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is one of the most developed characters in his Canterbury Tales, and perhaps his best known story. Shakespeare is well known for writing vivid, compelling female characters – though most of his plays centre around male protagonists, there are notable exceptions such as Rosalind, who drives most of the action in As You Like It, as well as more tragic heroines like Cleopatra and Juliet.

Over the next few centuries, as more women became literate and began to write novels themselves, a new breed of heroine started to emerge. Writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë created memorable female protagonists like Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre. Though these women were certainly complex, interesting characters, their lives and stories tend to focus mostly on romance and marriage – reflecting the needs and priorities of real-life women in that era, who often risked a lonely and destitute old age if they could not find a husband to support them.

Modern heroines, now, have a lot more options. With more possibilities opening up for women in the real world, fictional heroines reflect this new freedom. Though romance-based genres are still popular – the best-selling Twilight series features a heroine whose main storyline revolves around her love life – female characters now appear in plenty of other roles. The immensely popular Hunger Games books, for instance, feature a determined, resourceful young heroine doing what she can to oppose a corrupt state; the Song of Ice and Fire series (televised as Game of Thrones) portrays various heroines in its large ensemble cast who have many concerns other than their love lives, and Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, uses her skills as a researcher and hacker to exact revenge on her abusers.

Though female heroines have been around as long as literature has, until recently their roles were more limited – though there were exceptions, many heroines were cast only in specific archetypes such as ‘wicked witch’ or ‘lovelorn maiden’. As the possibilities for women in the real world have increased, so have the options for fictional heroines – a trend which looks likely to continue and expand in years to come.

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