5 Unconventional Heroines From Classic Literature

By Trailer screenshot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most talked about elements of classic literature is the protagonist, or hero and heroine. In this article, we explore five heroines from classic novels. Each of these women might be unconventional in some way, but their very "otherness" is in many respects what allows them to be heroic.

Countess Ellen Olenska From "The Age of Innocence" (1920) by Edith Wharton

Countess Olenska is one of our favorite female characters because she is the embodiment of strength and courage. In the face of perpetual social attacks, from family and strangers alike, she keeps her head held high and lives for herself, not for others. Her past romantic history is the gossip of New York, but Olenska keeps the truth to herself, despite the fact that revealing said truth might actually make her appear "better" in others’ eyes. Still, she knows that private things are private, and that people should learn to respect that.

Marian Forrester From "A Lost Lady" (1923) by Willa Cather

This is a funny one for me, in that I see Marian as a feminist, though she really isn’t. But she is. If we are to judge merely on appearances and examples, it would seem as if Marian Forrester is, actually, quite old-fashioned in terms of gender roles and female submission. Upon close reading, though, we see that Marian is tormented by her decisions and does what she must do to survive and to keep face amongst the townspeople. Some may call this a failing or believe her to have “given in,” but I see it quite the opposite – I find it courageous to continue to survive, by any means necessary, and to be smart enough and clever enough to read men the way she does, to adjust to circumstances as she can.

Zenobia From "The Blithedale Romance" (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Ah, the beautiful Zenobia. So passionate, so strong. I almost like Zenobia for demonstrating the opposite of what Marian Forrester demonstrates in "A Lost Lady." Throughout the novel, Zenobia appears to be a strong, modern feminist. She gives lectures and speeches on women’s suffrage and equal rights; yet, when confronted for the first time with real love, she shows a very honest, touching realness. She, in a way, becomes prey to the very symptoms of womanhood which she had been known to rail against. Many read this as Hawthorne’s condemnation of feminism or as commentary that the project is fruitless. I see it quite differently. To me, Zenobia represents an idea of personhood, not just womanhood. She is equal parts hard and soft; she can stand up and fight publicly for what is right and yet, in intimate relationships, she can let go and be delicate. She can want to belong to someone or something. This is not so much female submission as it is romantic idealism, and it poses questions about the nature of public and private spheres.

Antoinette From "Wide Sargasso Sea" (1966) by Jean Rhys

This re-telling of the “madwoman in the attic” from "Jane Eyre" (1847) is an absolute must for anyone who enjoyed Charlotte Brontë’s classic. Rhys creates an entire history and persona for the mysterious woman whom we see or hear little of in the original novel. Antoinette is a passionate, intense Caribbean woman who has the strength of her convictions, and who makes every effort to protect herself and her family, to stand up to oppressors. She does not cower from violent hands, but thrashes back. In the end, as the classic tale goes, she ends up locked away, hidden from view. Still, we get the sense (through Rhys) that this is almost Antoinette’s choice — she would rather live in seclusion than submit willingly to the will of a “master.”

Lorelei Lee From "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1925) by Anita Loos

I simply must include Lorelei because she is absolutely hilarious. I suppose, speaking just in terms of the character herself, Lorelei is not much of a heroine. I include her, though, because I think what Anita Loos did with Lorelei, and with the "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"/"But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes" duet, was incredibly brave for the time. This is a reverse-feminist novel; the parody and satire are over-the-top. The women are incredibly selfish, stupid, ignorant, and innocent of all things. When Lorelei goes abroad and runs into Americans, she is simply delighted because, as she puts it, “what’s the point in traveling to other countries if you can’t understand anything the people say?” The men, of course, are gallant, chivalrous, well-educated and well-bred. They are good with their money, and the women just want to spend it all (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). Loos hits a home-run with little Lorelei, knocking New York high society and all the expectations of class and women’s “station” on their heads.

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Burgess, Adam. "5 Unconventional Heroines From Classic Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/unconventional-heroines-738330. Burgess, Adam. (2020, August 25). 5 Unconventional Heroines From Classic Literature. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/unconventional-heroines-738330 Burgess, Adam. "5 Unconventional Heroines From Classic Literature." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/unconventional-heroines-738330 (accessed March 23, 2023).