I’m re-reading “Vanity Fair,” by William Makepeace Thackery and again, I’m amused by Becky Sharp’s schemes and antics. The “novel without a heroine” – as Thackery subtitled it – inspired me to dedicate a blogpost to some of the literary anti-heroines out there. Most of the literary classics, as well as contemporary fiction, containing a female protagonist, features a heroine in the truest sense of the word. She is intelligent, strong, beautiful, moral, and she often learns a lesson in the duration of the tale. Elizabeth Bennet, Margaret Hale, Helen Huntington Graham, Jane Eyre, and Cassandra Mortmain are just a few of my favorite literary heroines.
An anti-heroine is defined as: a female central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.
Anti-heroines in literature are rare, but they do exist and though they may never learn their lessons, there are things we can learn from them.
Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair)
The daughter of an art teacher and a French dancer, Becky Sharp is determined to get ahead in life no matter what the cost. After years at school, it is decided she will be a governess for the respectable Pitt family. Becky, on the other hand, has no interest in caring for children or teaching, so she sets her cap at a school chum’s brother, Joseph. When that falls through and she goes to work for the Pitt family, she gains the favor of both the father and son, and later marries the son. What follows is a life of intrigue, deceit, seduction, and adultery. When Becky has a son, she neglects him and when her husband dies, she simply plots her next move. Later, she does marry Joseph and after a short union, in which he dies under suspicious circumstances, she has the financial security she always longed for and continues on with her hedonistic lifestyle. Becky displays no remorse for the wrongs she commits and never shows love for anyone other than herself. There is no redemption for Becky, nor does she desire one.
Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina)
Anna Karenina is in a loveless marriage to the pious and moral, government official Alexei Karenin and is content enough to devote herself to mothering her son…that is she meets the dashing Count Vronsky. Vronsky ignites a passion within her that she didn’t know existed and they embark on an affair. Anna and Vronsky want to marry, but Alexei refuses to grant a divorce and wants to reconcile. Anna and Vronsky have a daughter and though Alexei forgives Anna and is willing to claim the little girl as his own, Anna and Vronsky leave and live openly together, despite society’s disapproval. As a single man, Vronsky is not condemned for his actions where as Anna, as a married woman, is scorned by all good society. Overtime she becomes increasingly nervous and suspicious that Vronsky has another lover and feeling forsaken by all, she takes her life. Unlike Becky Sharp and many of the other anti-heroines, Anna is not conniving and she is genuinely a good person who loses her way, and her life spirals out of control.
Scarlet O’Hara (Gone With the Wind)
Sixteen-year-old Scarlet O’Hara’s world is turned upside down when the Civil War begins and life as she knows it in the South ends. Simultaneously, the man she loves, Ashley, marries another girl and to ensure she isn’t left behind, she marries on a whim. Soon widowed and with the tide of war turning against the South, Scarlet must scrape and plot and do everything in her power to preserve her family, her family’s home, and herself. If that means killing a Northern soldier, stealing her sister’s beau, or attempting to seduce the handsome but immoral Rhett Butler, then so be it. When Scarlet manages to have financial security and a small measure of happiness with Rhett, it isn’t enough. Her heart still pines for Ashley and she winds up breaking Rhett’s heart and then her own. Scarlet does learn her lesson, however since the story is ending, it seems too late. But Scarlet wouldn’t be Scarlet if she gave up easily. Tomorrow is another day.
Cathy Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)
Cathy Earnshaw finds her soulmate in her foster brother Heathcliff, but the love they share eventually destroys them both. Children of the moors, they spend every free moment they have playing on the land of Wuthering Heights. The wild little sinner has no interest in heaven… in facts, she believes she’d be miserable there and cast out. Wuthering Heights is her heaven. On becoming acquainted with the Linton family, Cathy distances herself from Heathcliff and endears herself to Edgar Linton, with the intention to marry him. She may love Heathcliff and he may be her soulmate, but to be with him would be a degradation. Her marriage to Linton could elevate Heathcliff’s position and secure her own place in society. Heathcliff disappears for three years and on his return as a wealthy gentleman, he methodically enacts his revenge on Cathy and all who have wronged him. Between Heathcliff’s hatred, her own ill health and unhappiness, she dies and leaves a daughter behind. However, Cathy’s ghosts continues to haunt Heathcliff until they are reunited in the afterlife. Even in death, Cathy can’t rest in peace, nor will she allow anyone else.
Lady Susan Vernon (Lady Susan)
Lady Susan Vernon is a young widow who often finds herself displaced from one home and then another, to no fault of her own. In a series of letters to her friend Alicia, Lady Susan tells her woes of how her daughter Frederica refused the offer a marriage from a wealthy Baronet. If only Frederica would marry Sir James, then she and Lady Susan would be cared for! When Lady Susan goes to stay with her brother-in-law, she carries on a flirtation with young De Courcy, as well as an affair with the handsome married Manwaring, and continues her machinations to marry her daughter off to Sir James. Lady Susan’s true colors are revealed but with some quick scheming, she secures Sir James for herself, leaving Frederica and De Courcy to fall in love. Lady Susan is quite possible the most successful anti-heroine because she is never brought too low, she faces little scorn, and in the end, she makes a triumphant match for herself.
So, who is your favorite anti-heroine?