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10 of the Most Powerful Female Characters in Literature

[Editor's note: In celebration of the holidays, we're spending the next two Tuesdays by counting down the top 12 Flavorwire features of 2012. This post, at #12, was originally published March 3rd.] Since March is Women’s History Month, we’ve been thinking a lot about the women who have had positive and lasting impacts on our lives — and perhaps not surprisingly for a bunch of literary geeks like us, we’ve realized that many of them are fictional. For all the hullabaloo about the dearth of strong female characters in modern culture, thankfully there are some wonderfully powerful, kick-ass maidens that have inspired us with their strength, self-discovery, and incredible brilliance over the years. Click through to see our list of ten of the most powerful female characters in literature, and then be sure to pipe up with your own suggestions — we’ve chosen the ten who resonate most deeply with us here, but since there are many more than ten strong ladies in literature (thank goodness), we want to know which ones blow you away on a daily basis.

Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre

One of the earliest representations of an individualistic, passionate and complex female character, Jane Eyre knocks our socks off. Though she suffers greatly, she always relies on herself to get back on her feet — no wilting damsel in distress here. As China Miéville wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.”

Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter series

In the Harry Potter books, Hermione starts as an insufferable know-it-all, blossoms into a whip-smart beauty who doesn’t suffer fools (except Ron), and ends up as the glue that holds the whole operation together. Hermione’s steadfastness and sheer intelligence (plus the fact that she’s the only one who has ever read Hogwarts: A History) save her two best friends time and time again, and she’s the only one of the three never to wholly break down in a crisis. Intelligence often translates into strength, but only when wielded by a steady hand — and Hermione just happens to have both, and compassion to boot. That’s our kind of girl.

The Wife of Bath, The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer didn’t mean to make the Wife of Bath as big of a character as he did. Early drafts show that her role was meant to be much smaller and more one-dimensional, but somewhere along the line, Chaucer became enamored of his female creation, and eventually her prologue ended up twice as long as her tale. The Wife of Bath is lewd and lascivious — but behind all the dirty jokes, she’s making an argument for female dominance and a woman’s right to control her body, using her considerable rhetorical skill to simultaneously underscore and attack the anti-feminist traditions of the time. Not too shabby for 14th century literature.

Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games trilogy

Sure, Katniss annoys us to no end with all her boy-related waffling and wailing, but any girl who can shoot like that deserves a place on this list. Not to mention the fact that she survived not one but two 24-person fights to the death, one of which was designed specifically to kill her. We’re just saying.

Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter

Though Hester Prynne, who is condemned by her Puritan neighbors for having a child out of wedlock, is sometimes seen as a victim, she manages to survive with dignity and faith throughout, which we think makes her pretty darn powerful. NPR has described her as being “among the first and most important female protagonists in American literature. She’s the embodiment of deep contradictions: bad and beautiful, holy and sinful, conventional and radical… [she] can be seen as Hawthorne’s literary contemplation of what happens when women break cultural bounds and gain personal power.”

Éowyn, The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Though Tolkien’s novels aren’t exactly known for their female protagonists, who could be more powerful than the woman who killed the Witch-king of Angmar? A shieldmaiden who is itching to defend her countrymen from the first minute we see her, Éowyn disguises herself as a man to follow her friends into battle. Bad guys should be careful making statements like “No living man can kill me” when they’re fighting ladies.

Lyra Silvertongue, His Dark Materials trilogy

Not only is she the instrumental piece in a literally cosmic war, the unruly and headstrong Lyra, who is twelve years old at the beginning of the trilogy, can do something no one else can: read the alethiometer, which tells her the truth of the present and future. She wins the hearts of those around her through her strong convictions, and earns the name “Silvertongue” after using her wits to fool the unfoolable. After all, words are the most powerful weapons of all.

Janie Crawford, Their Eyes Were Watching God

A remarkably independent woman, Janie Crawford’s strength is in her ability to keep on going, no matter what her life throws at her, and to uphold her dignity throughout. She challenges the conventions of who should love whom and what leads to a happy life, her experience leading her on a journey towards an acute self-realization.

Hua Mulan, The Ballad of Mulan

Though you may know Mulan best from the Disney film, she was originally imagined in the 6th century Chinese poem The Ballad of Mulan and has since been reinterpreted in various literary and non-literary forms. Unlike in the Disney version, which features a bumbling girl trying to be a soldier, the traditional figure is a totally bad-ass seventeen year old, already a martial arts and weapons expert — just things she picked up on the side because she was too smart to be totally happy with her life of weaving. She goes to war in place of her father, wins all over the place, and then comes home and returns to her normal life. No big deal.

Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series

The powerful female protagonist of the hour is also one of the strongest women on this list. A world class computer hacker with a photographic memory, she’s also the survivor of an abusive childhood, which makes her a fiercely anti-social heroine with a violent streak. Characterized by many as a “feminist avenging angel,” Lisbeth’s brutality is nothing to aspire to — but she sure gets the job done.

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