Recently I got an ad from The New York Review of Books featuring “headstrong women” paraphernalia in their Readers Catalog (pillow covers, tea sets, necklaces, that kind of thing). They meant “headstrong women” of literature such as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein—women who took their lives into their own hands, I suppose.
Because I had just finished Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, that email got me thinking about “headstrong” female protagonists. I can’t really say that Marjorie is headstrong. In the end she turns out to be quite conventional, at least externally, ultimately the poignant and ephemeral embodiment of a young man’s fantasy.
What on earth does headstrong mean anyway?
Still, Marjorie is in many ways a woman with a mind of her own, or at least a mind we got to see in depth in the novel. Does that make her “headstrong”? Perhaps what people call “headstrong” in women is a quality simply known as independence, or integrity, in men. In women such qualities often take on a more pejorative tone, connoting stubbornness and defiance. This is a connotation that only subtle subversives (aka readers of the New York Review) would sardonically regard as a virtue worth posting on, say, a tea set.
I prefer to think of “headstrong” as meaning memorably and complicatedly independent–at least if we are going to glorify it. Using this definition, one would hope that all protagonists of any gender, particularly any worth writing about, however, would be headstrong.
Definitions aside Marjorie is indeed headstrong, i.e., a memorably strong and complex woman, to the point that when I closed the book I started thinking about other headstrong female protagonists. Many of these women are also eponymous: Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre. Another favorite of mine, not eponymous but equally headstrong, is Becky Sharp In Vanity Fair. I even wrote one of my college application essays about her.
Who is your favorite “headstrong woman” in literature?
All this made me curious if other readers had favorites among the “headstrong” women of literature. Or, more to the point, if they had favorite female protagonists memorable for their fierce independence, passion, and dedication.
If you have a favorite, please share her name with me and explain why you think she’s “headstrong,” You can reach me via the comments section below, the contact form on my website, my Twitter account (@terraziporyn), or the Late Last Night Books Facebook page. I’ll share the results in next month’s blog.
Meanwhile I’m off to order that tea set.