Women in literature often seem to be there solely in support of a male lead. There are few writers who are really able to understand and detail what’s going on in a woman’s mind — especially when it comes to difficult topics such as sex, rape or severe depression.
The four stories below break that mold. They show women as the complex creatures they are, thus proving that the female experience can carry a story with or without a male’s point of view.
If you’d like your literature to paint a realer picture, pick up one of the following books:
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
In this dystopian novel, which takes place in the imaginary totalitarian state of Gilead, Margaret Atwood presents a society in which gender roles have returned to their traditional roots. Women are not allowed to vote, read or write; instead, they only focus on breeding.
The voice of the protagonist is heard from inside her secret diary as she describes her life as a woman ruled by men, living in constant fear of death. The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s most powerful novel, and it could just be one of the best fictional stories that you come across.
2. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir is considered by many to be the mother of feminism. Not only was she was one of the first to openly oppose the traditional gender roles that society imposed on women, but she also was the first to theorize that you do not become a woman by birth — you are instead shaped through process.
The Second Sex begins with de Beauvoir’s statement that men oppress women by characterizing them as “the other” sex. She then goes on to discuss women’s role in history, as well as in the ancient myths that routinely made men the subject and women the object. Throughout her book de Beauvoir recognizes the difficulties of pursuing equality, not only in a woman’s relationships with men, but also in everyday life.
3. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
This classic play explores relationships between men and women, rape and mental illness. Set in New Orleans in the 1940s, A Streetcar Named Desire details the abusive relationship between Stanley and Stella Kowalski when Stella’s sister Blanche Dubois moves into their tiny apartment with them.
The play is a depiction of the animal-like characteristics of men and women, as well as their need for companionship and passion. Williams uses devices such as lighting and music to bring out the reader’s emotions and set the tone of a dramatic play that shows just how a man can take control of a woman’s life and victimize her for the rest of her life.
4. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This brilliant short story centers on a depressed woman who moves to a summer house in the countryside with her husband in order for her to heal. Even though her husband is a doctor, he does little to help her; instead, he foreces her to stay in her room all day.
As a result, the woman becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper on her bedroom walls. The wallpaper dominates her thoughts and imagination as it begins to resemble women trying to break free inside of it — she sees herself in these designs, too.
Female leads are regularly misrepresented in literature — not in terms of what they go through, but how the authors depict their hardships. All four of the above authors have figured out how to portray women. Through their works, they have shown that women can be active and interesting protagonists if you bring out their true nature and give an honest account of what it’s like to be a woman.
What are your favourite stories that feature a female lead? Let us know in the comment section below!
— Thisvi Papanastasiou