What classic literary character would you want to take you on a candlelight dinner? Comment below with your choice.
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Our understanding of feminism has evolved over the course of the many years since the term was first coined in 1848. After the first Women’s Conference was held in Seneca Falls, we were introduced to this very important social movement. Originally used as a platform to work towards greater social changes such as abolition of slavery and the Temperance movement, feminism has in and of itself become something even greater than that. While we’re on the topic of feminism, let’s take a look at some strong female literary characters whose existence came about before the advent of this movement.
1. Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
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Published in 1847, only a year before the movement was christened, is the novel Jane Eyre. The novel’s title character, Jane, is quite literally a “plain Jane” whose life is lived very simply and modestly. Jane is a woman who has been thrown curveballs at every turn, yet she remains strong-willed and pleasant throughout. She is quiet and reserved, yet her ability to gracefully maneuver around difficult circumstances shows immense courage and emotional intelligence. She believes in moral fortitude, and falls in love with a man she cannot be with because of an unfortunate bout of legal luck. When he suggests they run off together so that their love can continue despite the legality of the situation, she runs off alone. She values her convictions, beliefs, and morals far more than her emotions and this passionate love, and that makes her a true force to be reckoned with.
2. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
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Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and tells the story of the two Dashwood sisters: Elinor and Marianne (“Sense” and “Sensibility,” respectively). All Jane Austen novels feature strong, female protagonists so it was difficult to choose a single title, but I think this one exemplifies the tenants of what makes a person strong. Elinor is a woman who demonstrates responsibility and a strong love for her family. She continuously sacrifices her own desires and wants for the well-being of those to whom she is tied by blood. Her sister becomes romantically involved with a man who treats her poorly because he is selfish and greedy, and she falls into a deep state of depression. Elinor is eventually able to help her sister recover from this heartbreak, and in turn Marianne learns a valuable lesson on the subject of good sense.
3. Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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Okay, okay. I went back on my word and chose a second Jane Austen novel, because how can one compile a list of early feminist literature and not include Pride and Prejudice? Published in 1813, it tells the story of a girl named Elizabeth Bennet whose close relationship with her father echoes the values she holds true to her heart. She is stubborn and stands up for what she believes in, and this tends to get her into trouble. Her mother wishes her to marry a man she does not love to help save their home, but she cannot agree to such a decision because every logical cell in her brain stands against the union. She meets a man named Mr. Darcy, whose cold and seemingly harsh nature strikes a flame of hatred for him in her. Of course, the two characters eventually work their way through the pride and prejudice embedded in their hearts, and hate gives way to love.
4. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ft. in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
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While technically not a novel itself, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” takes place within the collection of The Canterbury Tales penned by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English somewhere between 1387 and 1400. Chaucer’s tales feature a group of people on a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of the martyr, Thomas Becket. Along the way to Canterbury, the group of people elect to tell stories, and this is how the reader encounters the Wife of Bath. Because of how old the text itself is, it’s difficult to fully determine what Chaucer’s intention was behind this character, but she essentially believes herself to be the foremost authority on marriage because of the statistical evidence she provides: her five separate marriages! She explains that she used sex as a tool to get what she wanted from her husbands including money and possessions; that she would tease her men with the promise of sex until she was given what she wanted. While her position as a feminist can be argued in either direction, it is at least quite clear that the Wife of Bath is a woman with a strong and fiery personality and stance.
5. A Declaration of Sentiments by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, principally
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As a way to close a list on proto-feminist characters in literature, I’m diverting from the initial path to include this important document signed in 1848, and the cast of characters is all women across time and space. This is the document that was signed all of those years ago at the convention held in Seneca Falls, and A Declaration of Sentiments is an important and worthwhile read for anyone who wishes to understand the very early history of the feminist movement. The primary author of the document was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she modeled its language and style after the Declaration of Independence. It provides a detailed list of sentiments that the 68 women and 32 men who signed the document believed important for progress to continue. The document itself certainly caused much controversy, but helped push forward the human mindset so that the suffrage movement could eventually take place.
Our world has changed greatly since 1848, and feminism has changed with it. But at the end of the day, what remains true and valid is that we the people have found friends and like-minded allies in our favorite literary heroines. There are a vast number of feminist figures who did not make it to this list, but these are the ones that had the chance to exist before Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped to give them a voice and a cause to fight for.
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Oh, Lord Byron. What beautiful poetry and prose you provided us at the height of the Romantic movement. Poems like Don Juan, “She Walks In Beauty,” and “Prometheus.” But what else have we inherited all of these years later from your words and personality? The Byronic Hero—that’s what. What is the Byronic Hero exactly? Oh, he’s a character who embodies the tell-tale signs of an anti-hero. He’s exceedingly brooding, tends to dwell in isolation, exemplifies traits of arrogance, and yes, he of course is an intensely enigmatic figure of romance for our literary heroines in the works in which he appears.
When I was a wisp of a thing in my high school days, I was immediately drawn to the classics. Like most teenagers, I was angst-ridden, and felt alone in the world. So of course I fell deeply for these silent and brooding characters. In a manner that would send my fifteen-year-old heart floating up to the heavens, here’s a list of some of my favorite Byronic Heroes.
1. Edward Fairfax Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Perhaps one of my favorite characters in general, Rochester is a deeply mysterious figure to our title character, Jane Eyre. Jane takes up a position as governess on Rochester’s vast estate, Thornfield Hall, and what begins as a friendship soon becomes a relationship of passion and love. Jane is strong and independent, and she fights against the love she feels for her employer, but Rochester continues to torment and tease her. Of course, owing to his Byronic nature, Rochester has some…skeletons locked away in an attic tower that Jane is absolutely forbidden from entering. This past and the mistakes he made in his youth cause Rochester great pain and suffering, and despite the mutual love, respect, and devotion the two characters feel for one another, Jane cannot reconcile his transgressions, and she leaves him. Sadness.
2. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Arguably much less appealing than her sister’s character of Rochester is Emily Bronte’s version of the Byronic Hero, Heathcliff. Heathcliff is the adopted son of a man named Earnshaw, who found him alone on the streets during one of his journeys away from his estate, Wuthering Heights. When he returns home with the boy, he introduces him to his biological children: Catherine and Hindley. Hindley resents Heathcliff, but of course Catherine and her adopted brother develop a strong bond with one another. The story progresses, everyone grows older, and Catherine and Heathcliff develop an intense passion for one another. Of course, things do not work out for the two lovers, and Catherine chooses a man of much more respectable means to be her husband despite the love she feels for Heathcliff. This destroys Heathcliff’s mind, heart, and soul and he seeks vengeance upon all who wronged him, but never does his obsessive love for Catherine fade. Catherine also continues to love Heathcliff because she believes they are bound together by forces unknown, but owing to duty she continuously spurns him.
3. Claude Frollo from Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo
Unlike Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo’s original 1831 novel depicts his characters in a much darker light. A major change from this novel to film is the character of Claude Frollo. Understandably, Disney rewrites his character from priest to judge due to the lustful urges he feels for the the beautiful dancing gypsy girl, Esmeralda. This unfortunate change, however, turns him into a villain and not the antihero that he truly is. In the novel, the man is torn apart between his unfailing devotion to the Church and to God, and a fiery lust he never recognized in himself before. Truly, he is not a sinister man, but his inability to reconcile his very human desires destroys him and almost every other character linked to him.
4. Severus Snape from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Undoubtedly a Byronic Hero due to the unfailing love and devotion he continues to feel towards Lilly Evans-Potter “after all these years,” and the dangerous position he places himself in because of that love is Snape. His life is an unending tragedy from start to finish: an abusive and unhappy upbringing, relentless teasing from bullies, and a failed romance/friendship with Lily due to misguided direction from his peers which ultimately results in her death. He atones for his sins and his actions by vowing to protect her son’s life against Voldemort despite his complete hatred for the boy, and he places his own life in mortal danger to do just that. His life is nothing but pain and heartbreak, and for that he is one of my favorite modern-day Byronic Heroes.
5. The Monster from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Technically, Victor Frankenstein and the Monster are both Byronic Heroes, but I was always drawn to the Monster. The Monster is created by Victor Frankenstein, a man of science who salvages the parts of corpses to construct this creature. Immediately upon awakening the nameless monster, Frankenstein abandons him for he is disgusted by the nature of having played God, and for his monstrous form. The Monster is actually quite intelligent and capable of a vast spectrum of emotions, and he truly does attempt to fit into society. The Monster, on his own, befriends a blind man who is incapable of judging his harsh appearance until his seeing-children enter the situation. They see the tragic creature, and cast him away, screaming and hurting him. The Monster no longer tries to conform to societal standards, and becomes quite bitter and hostile to the rest of the human race because he sees there is no place for a creature whose appearance is so starkly different from the rest of mankind.
Honorable Byronic mentions: Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Erik from The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux; and Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexendre Dumas.
So there you have it. A fairly comprehensive list of some of the most emo boys in literature!
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Even 150 years after Charlotte Brontë’s passing, her influence in literature continues to grow. In particular, the story of Jane Eyre and the orphan girl’s search for individuality has inspired various fictional adaptations totally worthy of your time. From spin-offs to modern retellings, all 7 of the books below draw inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s timeless classic.
1. Jane by Aline Brosh McKenna and Ramon Perez
Via Ramon Perez/Boom! Studios
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Aline Brosh McKenna is working with artist Ramon Perez to create a modern graphic novel adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’. Set in the dazzling New York City, this retelling is simply named Jane. Our heroine embarks on her personal search for a sense of identity in a new world as an art student. When she finds herself in love with someone with a dark secret, she must do what is morally justified in order to remain true to herself. Published by Boom!’s Archaia imprint, Jane will be released September 13th in comic book stores, and September 19th in bookstores. For pre-orders, click here.
2. The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Via Simon & Schuster
In Catherine Lowell’s debut novel, Samantha Whipple is the last surviving descendant of the Brontë family. Her father, who passed away when she was 15, was always obsessed with his ancestors and their legacy. Now Samantha is at Oxford and hoping that studying about the Brontë sisters will lead her towards the rumored family fate. During her study, copies of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey appear at her doorstep. These mysterious copies were rumored to have been destroyed during the fire that took Samantha’s father’s life, but why are they showing up once again?
3. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Set in the Caribbean, Wide Sargasso Sea travels across the ocean and back in time. It follows the story of a woman locked in an attic, and how she ended up there. Rhys’s writing style resembles Virgina Woolf’s in that she reveals the inner thoughts of her characters through a stream of consciousness. Beginning from Antoinette Cosway’s point of view, the Creole heiress who is forced to marry the Englishman and leave the only place she’s familiar with, the story then shifts to Rochester’s perspective, offering insights into their lustful voyage. For fans of Jane Eyre, this fantastic prequel is a must-read.
4. Jane Steele: A Confession by Lyndsay Faye
Via Penguin Random House
This is the reimagined telling of Jane as an orphan who has given in to her passionate side, becoming a serial killer. Literally named Jane Steele, our heroine becomes a hedonist determined to take revenge on those who’ve mistreated her. Growing up in a troubled family and forced to attend a grim school, she murders her tormentors and leaves their corpses behind as she flees for a new haven. According to Cosmopolitan, this adaptation of Jane Eyre “gets a dose of Dexter. In a story that’s equal parts romance, thriller, and satire, the Brontë heroine is made over into a fighter with a shadowy past.”
5. Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier
If you recall Brontë’s compelling style of first-person narration, you must remember the chapter that began with “Reader, I married him.” This line became the title of this compilation of stories written by some of the finest feminine authors. Writers include Tracy Chevalier, Francine Prose, Elizabeth McCracken, Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Audrey Niffenegger, and more.
6. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
In an alternative 1985, the Crimean War has dragged on beyond 130 years, and Wales has started to self-govern. Amongst chaotic times, literature is England’s cultural heritage most prone to external threats. When the Third Most Wanted criminal, Acheron Hades, starts to steal characters from literary works and demanding ransom, Detective Thursday Next steps in. He’s on the case when Jane Eyre is kidnapped from her own novel. If you are a fan of speculative fiction, then this one should be added to your shopping cart now.
7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
When a nameless woman marries a bewitching widower, she moves to the Cornish coast and starts to live her life as the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter. The former wife, Rebecca, died of a mysterious cause. Despite her passing, Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, refuses to accept the second wife’s role in the family, and displays contempt that torments her. If you enjoyed the book, you must also watch Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation starring Joan Fontaine and the brooding Laurence Olivier.
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