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?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.