Women of Fiction With Lots of Ambition

I like to go AWOL: reading novels that star Ambitious Women Of Literature. Those fictional characters are often Admirable while they Work hard to conquer Obstacles in Life — As We Observantly Look. But enough of this Acronym Wordplay Overdose Locus.

Ambitious female protagonists are of course more prevalent in modern literature, as a good chunk of the world has become less patriarchal and countless women have entered previously “male” professions. (Heck, the U.S. will probably elect a woman president in November.) But even long-ago literature has female protagonists impressively pushing against the limits that society places on them. All of which makes for plenty of potential drama in fiction old and new.

Much of my summer reading has featured ambitious female characters. For instance, Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days focuses on twenty-something Australian Edith Campbell Berry as she starts work for the League of Nations in 1920s Geneva. Smart, driven, idealistic, self-analytical, willing to try new things, and sometimes rather annoying, Edith makes her mark in a mostly male milieu — but not without many challenges.

The book I read before that was Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, in which Maggie Fortenberry ambitiously tried but didn’t succeed in parlaying her Miss Alabama title into fame and fortune. Yet, as the novel gradually shows, this kind woman became a success in other ways.

Then there’s I Still Dream About You‘s villain, real estate agent Babs Bingington, who builds a boffo business for a while via a scorched-earth approach. (She came to Alabama from New Jersey, but — hey — there are many non-Babs-ian people in my state. 🙂 )

Other ambitious but not very likable protagonists include ruthless social climber Undine Spragg of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, near-psychopath Cathy Trask of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and determined, manipulative, more-sympathetic-than-the-above-two-characters Becky Sharp of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Having a higher likability quotient is hardworking Gervaise Macquart, who enterprisingly opens her own laundry before tragically being dragged down to life’s depths by her shiftless husband Coupeau in Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den.

On a more positive note, Emily Starr strongly wants to be a writer in the L.M. Montgomery trilogy of Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. She achieves that goal, though her life has plenty of difficulties. Another memorable character driven to write is Jo March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

The young widow title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta also knows what she wants: to be a successful poet (done!) and to bring together herself and the siblings with whom she grew up poor. You’ll be impressed with how the resourceful Ethelberta goes about trying to achieve that second goal.

The likable Thea Kronborg’s ambition is a singing career, and she becomes a renowned opera star in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark.

Another likable and ambitious protagonist is the title character in Robert Haught’s Here’s Clare and Clare’s New Leaf. In the first novel, she runs for governor of California; in the second, her accomplishments include acting work.

Although her quest was supposedly pushed by God more than herself, Joan of Arc was certainly ambitious in taking command of a 15th-century French army. That tale is “fictionalizingly” told in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

Then there’s Hermione Granger, who’s self-driven to be the smartest and hardest-working Hogwarts student in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. AWOL in the sense that she’s Among Wizards Of Literature.

Who are your favorite ambitious female characters?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

33 thoughts on “Women of Fiction With Lots of Ambition

  1. Ambitious women in literature?

    Cleopatra, pre-asp, had big plans for a big empire by Caesar’s side, all undone by Brutus and the Long Knives thrust therein, as well as by the action at Acteon. Lady Macbeth came to mind next, as she was filled with intrigue and devilish designs, but, like the forest, I moved on. I considered a bit about Mildred Pierce, whose story while not quite from Piepans to the Palace, is a sort of Bake Your Way to Better Bungalos affair, and thus qualifies for inclusion under the week’s topic, but such ambition as she had, burning as it might have been, ended up burning her fingers as much as it warmed her, and is, compared to the ambitions of the aforementioned queens,middling stuff of the middle-browed.

    “She Who Must Be Obeyed”: I heard the phrase before I had read it, in a tee vee dramatization of a story out of writer John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey series, itself a group of amusing stories revolving around a garrulous and bibilous barrister whose wife, the She etc. of the phrase, in Leo McKern’s mouth took on such ominous authority. Rumpole was given to coughing up phrases out of old books, and I wondered as to its origin. Eureka! I have found it!

    H. Rider Haggard wrote She in 1887, fresh on the heels of his greatest success, King Solomon’s Mines, and the phrase happens to be the full title of an ageless queen of irresistible beauty, charm and power who muddles the minds of mere mortal men and makes them her thralls– until one of her thralls realizes, and not a moment too soon, that She would rule over England absolutely if She could, and eventually “over the British dominions, and probably over the whole earth, and though I was sure that she would speedily make ours the most glorious and prosperous empire that the world has ever seen, it would be at the cost of a terrible sacrififice.” Now there, I thought, is a one ambitious woman!

    Then I remembered the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur, which is surrounded by a shallow pool, along the perimeter of which are several black stone statues of a seated deity, female human in body, but lion-headed. The statues are but a few of several dozen commisioned on the occasion of a pharoah’s terrible toothache, and are meant to represent the goddess Sekmet, a goddess of terrifying idealism, who, when mankind failed her, became determined to wipe out that failure altogether, so that the very rivers would run red with blood. And she would have done it too, and thought she had done, but thankfully she was tricked into believing her work complete by the simple ruse of much flowing beer, dyed red. Yay beer! say I, and not for the first time. Also, not for the first time, a female’s ambition, that would cover the earth like Sherwin Williams, founders in beer, though most often the beer comes in serving sizes of a single can, such as easily might be held and imbibed while a fresh one is retrieved, by a shiftless male of the husband variety.

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    • Wow, jhNY — grateful for all the great mentions of ambitious women in literature, and your great/at times wonderfully droll wordsmithing to describe them!

      I guess someone like Cleopatra fits into the Mark Twain-depicting-Joan of Arc mold of a real-life person being portrayed — and to an extent fictionalized — in lit.

      And how can I explain forgetting Lady Macbeth except to admit that I often don’t think of plays when I write my columns. 🙂

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      • The Sekmet story is the inspiration, I’m nearly certain, for some of the backstory in Ann Rice’s Queen of the Damned– the parallels are too many to be coincidence. And of course, the Queen of the Damned was likely also inspired by Haggard’s She, and must be counted in our listing of ambitious women in fiction. After all, The QOTD was determined to rule over all the undead, after she had killed 90% of mere mankind. But she was in over her head before she lost it.

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        • Interesting. The only Rice novel I’ve read is “The Witching Hour,” which is quite impressive — and also features a number of powerful women. Some more “together” than others…

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    • Thanks, Bill! That book had quite a profile back in the day, though I never read it. Fascinating story behind its very belated success for anyone who wants to look it up on Wikipedia (I can’t seem to make the link work).

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  2. Funny acronyms. More good books to read. Thank you for the suggestions. I mailed your book yesterday. PO suggested book rate rather than 1st class. Please let me know if it takes too long to arrive, so I can decide what to do for future mailings. Thank you again for purchasing Echoes of Your Choices. sd

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    • Thanks for the kind words, energywriter!

      I look forward to receiving and reading your book. 🙂 Was that book rate “media mail”? If so, that’s how I sent out my “Comic (and Column) Confessional” book. The delivery time varied, often depending on how far away the recipient was. In most cases, it took perhaps four days to two weeks for books to arrive, which wasn’t bad.

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  3. Hi Dave, my favorite woman in the mystery field is Harriet Vane, of Dorothy L. Sayers’, Lord Peter Wimsey series, from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Today there are so many women protagonists in mysteries, suspense and thrille[]=”rs that it’s difficult to name just a few so I won’t even try. Harriet is probably based on Dorothy Sayers herself, having attended the first, or one of the first or the first of an all women’s college at Oxford, and both she and Sayers were successful mystery writers. Harriet also stuck to her principles by refusing to marry her live-in lover, when his proposal only came after they lived together for a while, as though she was on trial (see “Strong Poison”). As you know, Dave, Harriet had to stand trial for the death of her then live-in boyfriend, and handled it all with grace, stoicism, intelligence, and even humor at times.

    It’s somewhat odd that you are bringing up this topic this week, as the book I’m reading right now is “American Heiress,” by Jeffrey Toobin. It’s a non-fiction book about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst back in the early 1970’s and her subsequent transformation to “Tania” of the SLA. I’ve only read about 1/4 of the entire book, but there are so many questions, still to be answered. This is not to say that she was ambitious, but rather that what happened to her was in part because of her wealthy and well-known family. So far, I’m of the opinion that whatever Patty or “Tania” did, it was only because of her family connections and what she did to stay alive. I may change my mind after reading the entire book, but this was my impression back when this first happened.

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    • Thanks, Kat Lib! Successful mystery writer Harriet Vane is a great example of an ambitious female character — and, as you say, she was less “the norm” in her 1930s heyday than she would be today. I can definitely see the semi-autobiographical aspect when compared to her creator, Dorothy Sayers. I’ve read two novels in which the admirable Vane appeared: “Strong Poison” and “Gaudy Night” — both excellent.

      I’ve heard a lot about that “American Heiress” book. Such a fascinating, real-life story.

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  4. Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” had that something special moxie but underlining was quite fragile,vulnerable. Yet her strengths were engaging and memorable as a strong female protagonist.

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  5. Howdy, Dave!

    — Who are your favorite ambitious female characters? —

    With you already claiming the French title character of Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” and the English Becky Sharp of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” I will submit for approval the all-American girl wonderfully introduced as Miss Wonderly at the outset of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”:

    “She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.”

    Regardless of her smile’s appearance, Miss Wonderly herself proved to be about as timid in seeking her ambitious objectives as the supposedly shy woodland creatures known as white-tailed deer that chomped down on the bluish glittering rhinestones of my ruby-red corduroy shirt cuffs about 35 years ago at the Popcorn Park Zoo in Forked River, N.J.

    Hammett: The only writer of his generation who made Ernest Hemingway look like Thomas Wolfe.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Very nicely stated, J.J., and a great last line! It’s almost always interesting when a character doesn’t necessarily look or seem ambitious, but is.

      And, yes, that deer knew what it wanted (bling!) at the Popcorn Park Zoo. 🙂 Glad it settled for inanimate objects rather than biting the humans themselves…

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    • Thank you, Robert, for the kind words and the cleverly composed second line!

      After reading your comment, I remembered that your “Clare” novels fit right into my column. So I revised it to include those two books. Clare is certainly an ambitious (and very likable) character. 🙂

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  6. Even worse than any mentioned here is Ellen Harland in Ben Ames Williams “Leave Her to Heaven,” the story of a deadly daddy’s little girl. After his death, she meets a writer who reminds her of her late father, and marries him. She cannot bear it if he pays attention to anyone else or if anyone else is close to him. She lies, schemes, and even kills his crippled young brother by allowing him to drown in a lake. I sneak-read this book by flashlight, under the sheets, when I was about 15. My mother would’ve killed me if she knew and I hope she isn’t reading this now.

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    • Wow, Maggie, that sounds like quite a potboiler! I see from a Web search that the novel also inspired a “noir” film released in 1945. A good way to end World War II… 🙂

      Many of us read books (and did other things) we wouldn’t have wanted our parents to know about! Which might not have pleased said parents, but certainly was welcomed by flashlight manufacturers…

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  7. Madame Bovary is probably my favorite ambitious female literary character. She seemed hardly to enjoy her successes before dissatisfaction and frustration set in and she reset her goals once again. She gave new dimensions to the word “greedy,” for nothing made her happy except more. More attention, more clothes, more house, more furnishings, more social acceptance. She certainly got her comeuppance though, when she finally fell in love with a handsome, wealthy, society gentleman who, alas, was more like her than she reckoned. It was not the I love you kind of love, but the addictive, compulsive, destructive kind. In the end, the only relief she got was through suicide by arsenic. Painful and permanent.

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    • Emma Bovary was indeed VERY ambitious in her way. Your description of her and her actions was outstanding. Thanks, Maggie!

      Definitely some memorably “driven” female characters in 19th-century French literature in addition to Flaubert’s protagonist.

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  8. Hey Dave, the only issue I have with your post is your referral to Cathy Trask as “near psychopath”. Actually, I think Cathy is full speed ahead psycho and she begins early with the murder of her parents. There’s never an ounce of compassion in her heart or her head as I recall in that entire novel.

    Meanwhile, the most ambitious females in literature that I have come across in recent years exist within another world–Westeros, to be exact, in George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series. We have an entire crew of women who have to be ambitious to even survive in such a brutal world. First off is Daenerys Targaryen, the only known surviving Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne. Never mind that her father was a mad king psychopath. Daenerys is going to be a kinder, gentler, legitimate ruler, even if she has to burn hundreds of people alive that stand in her way with the help of her three dragons, the only known examples of the species left in that world. She does liberate several slaves along the way of course so she could be seen as a female Martin Luther King with a touch of Attila the Hun thrown in. Then there’s Cersei Lannister, wife of the murdered usurper of that mad king’s throne and ruthless in her attempts to control the throne by any means necessary through children, religious fanatics, giants, whoever she needs to employ to get her way. Then there are the Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya, orphans after both of their parents have been executed/slaughtered, ambitious through the sheer necessity of survival. If you’re a woman and powerless in such a world you often have to take extreme measures simply to stay alive and semi-independent. There are a few more but those are the big four of that series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You may be right, bobess48. I used the “near” because Cathy still functions in society on some level in Steinbeck’s novel. But she’s clearly evil, and rather nuts.

      And thanks for the great examples from the “Song of Ice and Fire” series that inspired TV’s “Game of Thrones.” From your excellent descriptions, definitely several strong, ambitious women!

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