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Males still make up an uncomfortably large majority of published authors; perhaps this, along with many other factors, contributes to the dearth of strong female characters in literature. But regardless of causation, the truth is still evident: heroines have been woefully underrepresented over centuries of literary development. There are, however, some female characters who serve as positive representations of women and their potential, both new and old: notably Jane Eyre, from the novel of the same name by Charlotte Brontë, and Hermione Granger, from the modern classic Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Both heroines typify not merely females perceived as heroes within their own gender roles, but females perceived as heroes by anyone’s standards. Despite their obvious similarities and their successful attainment of the same goal, though, the disparity between the two characters and the worlds they come from shows just how far females have progressed in literature today.
In much of classic literature, the main female characters some might consider “heroes” are not truly heroes at all. They are instead merely women who do exactly what women are supposed to do: fall in love, have children, keep house, and obey their husbands. Some of the most prominent female characters in literature fall into this category; for example, Penelope, Odysseus’s wife in the Odyssey, may be seen as strong and brave, but in truth, Penelope is lauded as a heroine merely for staying true to her husband during his long leave of absence. Blind loyalty was meant to be her saving grace in this monumental epic, her defining characteristic. She was unable to deal with the suitors on her own, so she simply remained loyal to Odysseus, and when he returned all her troubles were lifted and she could live happily ever after. True heroes, male or female, should play a role in their own destinies; Penelope did nothing of the sort.
This same concept applies to Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello; throughout the entire play she was subordinate to her husband, doing as he asked, staying loyal to him though he treated her poorly. Despite the fact that he eventually kills her, she is considered a heroine because she forgave Othello in the end. But is this what a true heroine should be? Entirely submissive to the point where she forgives her husband for his fatal distrust? Even the supposed heroines many young girls look up to today, the fairytale princesses, are considered heroes because they find the prince of their dreams at the end. Ariel from The Little Mermaid completely changes herself to be a feasible love for Prince Eric, sacrificing her voice, the very essence of her being, to do so. Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty is completely at the mercy of a man to come and kiss her and wake her from her century-long sleep. Are these literary heroines really worthy role models for women? Each of them succeeds in attaining nothing more than what is expected of women, and none manage to break out of the binding gender stereotypes that were so prevalent in their societies.
This predicament grows even graver; many times major female characters are placed only to serve as temptation for the true male heroes of the work. In Sir Gawain and the Green Night, Sir Bertilak’s wife is deemed so insignificant that she is not even given a name of her own; she is instead defined by her marriage to the lord, and her sole purpose is to tempt bold, courageous Sir Gawain to give up his virtue. In the Odyssey, Calypso is meant to do nothing other than tempt weary male travelers to forgo their goals and stay with her forever. Then most notably, Helen of Troy in the Iliad is quite literally placed in the epic to serve as an object of lust, to tear heroes apart in their desire to claim her for their own. She has no true essence; she is merely there to be coveted. Such has been the case for many prominent literary females throughout history; very few manage to rise above this stereotype. These women cannot be seen as heroines, yet they appear so often at the forefront of many stories.
When women aren’t serving as temptresses themselves, they’re often depicted as prone to temptation, unintelligent, foolish, and below men not only in societal status, but in mental capabilities as well. Perhaps the most renowned example of this is the Abrahamic creation myth itself; the blame for the fall of humanity is placed solely on the shoulders of Eve, our very first heroine, for being overly curious and allowing herself to be easily tempted into devastating disobedience. This relays an obvious message that the woman is to blame for sin, the woman is to blame for the loss of paradise. But this depiction of women does not cease with ancient stories; Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is portrayed to be of such weak mind that worry over whether or not Hamlet loves her drives her to complete insanity, which eventually moves her to kill herself. And lastly, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby is the epitome of a fickle, shallow, ditzy woman, choosing wealth and security over passion. Her foolishness when driving the car back from New York causes Myrtle’s death. This recurring stereotype, in which women are seen as careless and daft, making all sorts of messes that men must clean up, does nothing for the image of women in literature or in real society. If these are the heroines we look up to, we must truly question our perspective.
There are, however, a select few heroines worthy of our attention and praise, namely because they do manage to break free of the stereotypical mold of women and attain success and prosperity as a result of their own actions, rather than under the protection of a man. Heroines like these are becoming more and more numerous in present day, but they did begin to make an appearance a few centuries ago as well. Jane Eyre, a 19th century heroine, and Hermione Granger, the more recent, bushy-haired best friend of beloved Harry Potter, present enlightening images of strong female characters past and present. There are some key similarities between both their stories that illustrate why these two are such positive heroines. First, both have received an education, something seen as commonplace now but was unfortunately quite rare for women not too far in the past. Much of the beginning of Jane Eyre takes place at Lowood, the school for orphaned girls where Jane was sent when she was ten, and where she spent her life until age eighteen learning and eventually teaching herself. Jane emerges from Lowood an apt reader and writer, proficient in French, an excellent artist and musician, and, most importantly, able to reason and think for herself. At Lowood, she has learned that through her own efforts she can achieve success, something most women of her time never had the opportunity to experience. Jane’s appreciation for education extends even further into her life, when St. John offers her a position running a school for impoverished children who would not otherwise receive an education. Education is obviously a major part of the life of Hermione Granger as well; her intelligence is one of her greatest defining characteristics throughout the series of books. She’s quick-witted, well read, logical, clever, and resourceful, and oftentimes her brain is her saving grace in life-threatening situations. The vast majority of her story takes place at Hogwarts, her school, where she excels in practically all subjects and soars far beyond everyone else as a result. The importance of education in the lives of both these women and the way it has shaped their growth plays a huge role in their success as heroines, and relays messages to readers detailing the infallible power of an educated woman.
One of the most common components of all hero stories is a struggle to overcome difficult familial situations; though in markedly different ways, both Jane and Hermione are burdened by their family and lineage and forced to rise above and become autonomous. Jane, of course, was orphaned, and had to endure years under the care of an aunt who did not love her, amidst cousins who treated her poorly. Once sent off to school, Jane’s aunt cut off contact with her, leaving the young girl all on her own—but she was better for it, in the long run, because she learned to be independent, a quality necessary to some extent in all heroes. Hermione’s situation is certainly a bit different, but still leads to the same outcome. Her parents are loving and nurturing, yes, but because they are muggles, she is different from them in many significant ways. Because of their non-magical blood, they could not be allowed to play a role in Hermione’s new life; she had to forge her path for herself, without much support from her family who, despite good intentions, simply could not understand the struggles she faced in the wizarding world. In addition, Hermione’s familial situation—being muggle-born, or a mudblood—brought all sorts of maltreatment from self-righteous purebloods upon her, and gave her much more to overcome than if she had come from magical ancestry. This runs parallel to Jane’s difficulties; as an orphan, she was always completely at the mercy of her caretakers. Though perhaps she would have done even better at a different school where life was not as harsh for students, as an orphaned young girl Lowood was one of her only options. An orphan with little financial means could never have the same opportunities as a young girl from a well-to-do family. Both heroines had to conquer the obstacles presented to them as a result of their family circumstances with little help, but as is the case with all heroes, emerged the better for it; the independence and strength acquired through these trials would prove to be invaluable assets as they faced daunting tasks and perilous decisions later on in their stories.
To truly be considered progressive heroines, Jane and Hermione needed to surmount the female stereotype of subordination to males, and both did just that. Neither allows men to control her; the nature of both their personalities prevents this from happening. At all times, Jane aspires to be Mr. Rochester’s equal, and rather than grow angry with her for this, Rochester admires it about her. When she refuses to be his hidden mistress and leaves him, she shows she has no desire to be constantly at his mercy. Hermione, though her two best friends are male, is very often the driving force behind the magnificent trio; when Harry and Ron are at a loss, unsure of what to do next, Hermione takes charge and leads them in the right direction. She never becomes a follower, sucked into the wake of Harry’s fame and notoriety; in contrast, Harry owes much of his success to her guidance. Both Hermione and Jane make a point to be the architects of their own life, rather than be controlled by any man; a woman cannot break free of conventional gender roles until this has been accomplished.
As previously discussed, authors place many female characters in literature solely for romantic purposes. Both Hermione and Jane, however, challenge this; while both are faced with the tantalizing prospect of giving in to their emotions and allowing romance into their lives, they do not let it get in the way of their ultimate goals. Jane is intent on going through life preserving her integrity and freedom, and though she has always loved Mr. Rochester and the idea of spending her life with him, she is aware that to do this and forgo her values would be wrong. Once she learns of the existence of his former wife, she cannot bear to live as his secret mistress, and instead gives up both the comfort of her life at Thornfield and the man she has come to love in order to protect her freedom and preserve her principles. Hermione clearly develops feelings for Ron as the series draws on, but never acts on them because she knows she has a greater purpose than petty romance. The most notable representation of her strength and resolution in pushing this love to the side is when she chooses to remain with Harry on his horcrux hunt, rather than leave to be with Ron whom she already loves as more than just a best friend. Hermione knows that, at that moment, she is needed to help defeat Voldemort and ensure the longevity of wizards and muggles alike; she chooses this over romance for the time being, and rightfully so. The strength required to forgo love in favor of duty in both of these women is exemplary and admirable, and displays to readers that women have a higher purpose in life than merely falling in love and getting married. The best heroines must make choices for the greater good; if love is true, it will be there when they return.
However, there are some clear differences between Hermione Granger and Jane Eyre; the vast difference in publication eras may account for this. Regardless, these differences illustrate how far females in literature have progressed over the course of the last few centuries. For one, despite her strong countenance and fierce determination, Jane’s options are always limited to feasible lifestyles for a woman. After she finishes her schooling at Lowood, there are very few options for Jane: either continue to teach and perhaps become a school administrator or hire herself out as a housemaid or governess. She chooses the last option from a very sparse pool of choices, hoping that she will be able to experience something new and different. But this low career availability represents what life was like for a woman in the nineteenth century, and Jane Eyre, though a heroine, is no exception. Hermione, however, knows from the first time that she sets foot in the Hogwarts castle that entire world will be open to her once she leaves school. She could work for the ministry, become a Hogwarts professor, work in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade, start her own wizarding talk show, or even take a job in the muggle world, which she would be well prepared for based on her early upbringing. In this universe, women have all the same opportunities as men; there is very little inequality among witches and wizards, perhaps even less so than in our own present-day society. Hermione is fully qualified for every position her male counterparts are. This difference comes as a result of the gradual shift towards equality women have experienced in the past century; literature has slowly reflected these societal changes as well.
Also important to note is that the very nature of their heroic undertakings is quite varying. Hermione has a much grander purpose as a heroine than Jane, and that is evident from the start of her various quests. This young witch is faced with a task that would be daunting for any hero, male or female: help her friends save the entire wizarding world from a dark villain. Her wit, bravery, and loyalty is tested time and time again as she’s thrown into perilous situations with Harry and Ron, and many a time her own life is in jeopardy. The stakes aren’t as high for Jane, who is merely trying to preserve her own freedom, integrity, and principles, and do what she believes is right. The tests Jane faces are fewer and not as dangerous or trying, even though as a true heroine, she does navigate them masterfully. They are heroes in different ways, but Hermione is fighting battles on a much larger scale: this could suggest that in present day, women are viewed as more capable than they were in the past.
Along these lines, Hermione is also forced to make greater sacrifices. At the very beginning of Deathly Hallows, Hermione makes the conscious and informed decision to wipe out her parents’ memory in order to protect them, and for the sake of the cause for which she fights. A choice like this was no doubt the fruit of many sleepless nights; how would any other seventeen-year-old girl be able to cut herself off from her parents in such a way? At the time, she must have confronted the very real possibility that she would never see them again, and they would never remember their daughter. In addition, throughout the course of her story she is forced to watch many she loves die, many who have aided her and her friends countless times in the past. Despite these deaths being thrown in her face, she is expected to maintain the strength and resolve necessary to keep going like the true heroine she is. Jane’s one true sacrifice occurs when she leaves Mr. Rochester, who she loves, because marrying him at the time would have gone against everything she believed in, but in truth this pales in comparison to all the sacrifices Hermione makes. Yes, Jane leaves the man she loves, but both she and Mr. Rochester remain well, and she always has the option to return to him should she change her mind. Hermione never once has that luxury, not when fighting a battle and watching her loved ones die.
Though these differences are real and prominent, they are not to suggest that Jane is not a true heroine in her own right. Jane Eyre serves as a significant hero for women of her time period; most would never have the courage to do what she does, to make the choices that she makes. She successfully challenges the societal belief that women are defined and controlled by the men they marry, forced to submit at all times and always act as their subordinate. A hero is someone who does denounce existing norms and display their strength and willpower, and Jane certainly falls into that category, serving as a beacon for oppressed women everywhere. But the truth of the matter is that in the end she ends up with the man, and it appears that safely being loved by Mr. Rochester was her true goal all along; it just had to be done on her own terms. In the case of Jane, this love is her prize. Though Hermione does end up with Ron in the end, it’s only after succeeding in accomplishing what she set out to accomplish. Her prize is hers and her loved ones’ freedom; falling in love with Ron is only an added reward. Hermione’s successes represent the much more recently developed notion that women have a greater purpose than simply romance; while Charlotte Brontë may have attempted to do this to an extent, the constraints of the society she lived in couldn’t truly allow her to; through Hermione, J.K. Rowling is far more successful in this endeavor.
In the future, there is even more room for expansion on the roles of heroines in literature. As more and more female writers emerge onto the literary stage, a larger number of strong female characters will undoubtedly accompany them. There have certainly been a lot more over the past few decades: Katniss Everdeen, Mulan, Tris Prior, and Lyra Belacqua have all shown up recently, to name a few. But the world needs more of these progressive heroines in order to stamp out any last existing mindsets of inequality. Women are intelligent, capable, and good for much more than just romance, and through literary heroines such as Jane Eyre and Hermione Granger, influential authors have been able to prove that.
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