Women Written as Wicked and Warped

The majority of novels I read are by women, and many of my favorite authors are female. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Colette, Willa Cather, L.M. Montgomery, Daphne du Maurier, Elsa Morante, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, Octavia E. Butler, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, J.K. Rowling, Liane Moriarty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, etc., etc.

So it is with some reluctance that I’m about to discuss female villains in fiction. One reason for this week’s choice of topic is recently reading a novel (The Shipping News) with a rather nasty woman in its cast. Also on my mind is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is among the Trump administration cabinet members almost as awful as Trump himself — which is saying something.

(Heck, just a few of billionaire Betsy’s evil stances include trying to financially gut America’s public-education system, her support of guns in schools, her attempt to end government funding of the Special Olympics, her weakening of protections for victims of sexual assault, her weakening of protections for transgender students, her backing of for-profit colleges that have defrauded countless students, and so on.)

While I don’t have the numbers to prove it (if they even exist), there seem to be many more male villains than female villains in literature — not surprising given the personalities of too many men. For instance, E. Annie Proulx’s compelling Accordion Crimes — which I just read — focuses on the various players of that musical instrument over many decades, and many of them are brutish males.

But there are certainly enough female villains in various novels to do a blog post about them, so here goes…

Another Proulx novel — her appealingly quirky The Shipping News — has a secondary character (Petal) who’s as mean as can be. She resumes sleeping with many men a month after marrying the book’s awkward-but-well-meaning protagonist Quoyle (even doing that in the marital home while her husband is in the next room) and then ups the depravity by sneaking off with their two young daughters AND SELLING THEM. No wonder Quoyle leaves the U.S. for Newfoundland after Petal’s early-in-the-book death…

Another fictional woman from hell is Cathy Ames of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. She abandons the children she had with the hapless Adam Trask (though there’s some question of whether the father is Adam’s half-brother Charles) and gives Adam the good-bye present of shooting him. Cathy then becomes a prostitute before opening her own brothel known for sexual sadism. Too bad she lived too long ago to become a welcomed member of Trump’s cabinet.

There’s also the emotionally distant, self-centered, daughter-abandoning Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland — though I should add right here that MANY more fathers than mothers abandon their children in fiction, and in real life.

Going back to 19th-century novels, we have Sarah Reed — the aunt of the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Sarah is abusive toward her orphaned niece when Jane comes to live in the Reed household, and she eventually ships Jane off to the hellish Lowood school after first falsely maligning her character to the despicable religious hypocrite of a director there (who’s a male — the wealthy Mr. Brocklehurst).

There’s also the criminal Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’ 1866 novel Armadale. But like a number of “villainesses” in literature, the brainy Lydia has some good in her. We’re left with the certainty that if life had given her some breaks, she would have become a much better person.

Returning to 20th-century literature, we have The Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (there might have been a movie version of that novel 🙂 ), the cruel/amoral social climber Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, the tyrannically passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the sadistic/psychotic/author-capturing Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, the tries-to-wreck-the-lives-of-her-friends Zenia in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, the very problematic Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels, and the fake-sweet-on-the-outside-but-sadistic-to-the-core Dolores Umbridge (pictured atop this blog post) in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Who are some of your “favorite” malicious female characters in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s mixed record as an “arts destination” — is here.

Admiration for Novels With Isolation

One way fiction authors can create drama is to put characters who often don’t initially know each other in an isolated place.

I just read Michael Ondaatje’s eloquently written novel The English Patient, which does the isolation thing — and does it well. As World War II draws to a close, the emotionally exhausted nurse Hana is caring for the mysterious, badly burned title character in a remote Italian villa. Eventually she’s joined by her father’s old friend Caravaggio (a maimed, charismatic scoundrel) and the brilliant, methodical, decent bomb-disarmer Kip. Interesting, intense, and romantic scenarios ensue — with secrets revealed, a love affair between two of the characters, and a conclusion heavily influenced by Kip being the one person of color among the four.

Or how about Agatha Christie’s chillingly claustrophobic And Then There Were None? A group of guilty-but-never-convicted people are invited to an island and subsequently killed off one by one. It’s Christie’s most famous novel, the best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of any genre (more than 100 million copies purchased).

Also (partly) set on an island — the rocky If, off the coast of Marseille — is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. When Edmond Dantes is falsely imprisoned there, he eventually meets fellow inmate Abbe Faria — with whom Dantes develops a deep bond. Faria restores Edmond’s will to live and changes Dantes’ whole future by telling him where to find treasure that will fund his transformation into The Count of Monte Cristo and also fund Dantes’ righteous revenge against the men who framed him. (The photo atop this blog post is of me last year next to Dumas’ tomb in the Paris-based Pantheon.)

There are also the luxury-ocean-liner passengers thrown together in Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, which chronicles the capsizing of that big boat and the struggle for survival. Heck, any ship-set novel — such as Herman Melville’s Redburn, Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, etc., etc. — jams a crew together in one place, for better or (often) for worse.

Back on land, we have partygoers taken hostage in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, residents stuck in a quarantined city in Albert Camus’ The Plague, and three initial strangers (including a house-sitter) losing their sense of reality while living in a mansion not theirs in Morag Joss’ Half Broken Things.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about part of my town’s high school being disastrously closed for repairs — is here.

Multitudes of Milieus

Many novels are mainly set in one or two locales, but some have three, four, or more.

Books that literally jump all over the place can be quite fascinating — offering lots of varied cultural immersion. But they can also feel scattered — and authors of such novels might have to do a lot of (too much?) time-consuming research and travel to get things right.

A plethora-of-places novel I recently read was Eduardo Halfon’s Mourning, a partly Holocaust-themed book that bounces (via present and past scenes) from Italy to Poland to Guatemala to the U.S. — all in just 157 pages. A well-written semi-autobiographical book, but rather dizzying to read.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner also goes country-hopping — from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the U.S. back to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the U.S.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s compelling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens in Kentucky before shifting to New Orleans (after Tom is sold to another slave owner) and rural Louisiana. Meanwhile, the book’s Eliza character escapes the South into Ohio, and eventually ends up in Canada with her husband George before they later go to France and then Liberia.

Of course, sea literature often features many places. For instance, Herman Wouk’s World War II novel The Caine Mutiny starts off in New York City, voyages to various parts of the world (including Okinawa), makes a mid-book stop in San Francisco, and then ends back in NYC.

Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket begins in…Nantucket…and later moves to the South Seas, the tip of South Africa, and then Antarctica near the South Pole.

Speaking of Antarctica, part of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes place on that frigid continent. There’s also plenty of time spent in Seattle — even as Bernadette’s “personal assistant” Manjula lives in India.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is mostly “limited” to one country (the U.S), but protagonist Sal really gets around. San Francisco, Denver, New York City, Virginia, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Texas, Mexico City, etc. Road-trip novels can do that — with another example being Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, in which protagonist Jim Nashe drives back and forth across America for a year.

By no means a road-trip novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does put its characters in places such as Minnesota, West Virginia, Virginia, New York City, and Washington, DC.

There’s also Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — in which the settings include New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam before protagonist Theo Decker travels all over the U.S.

Maybe the ultimate example of a saturated-with-settings novel is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — which moves from England to Egypt to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco to New York City and then back to London.

Finally, if you look at book series, the roaming Jack Reacher visits many places in Lee Child’s 23 novels. States such as California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, as well as Washington, DC, and England, France, and Germany.

Of course, some novels and series with geographic gyrations have one character visit various places, while others might have different characters in different places.

Your favorite novels that fit this theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about everything from local litigation to a lucrative liquor license — is here.

Doubling Down on Twoness in Fiction

Two is often a significant number in literature. There can be duality (such as good vs. evil) in a pair of characters, there can be protagonists who are twins, and so on. All this can be fascinating, helping to give a novel a theme and a certain framework.

I read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale last week, and her absorbing gothic novel has a strong focus on twins. In that bookish book (which mentions various classic novels), Margaret Lea is summoned by famed author Vida Winter to write the dying Winter’s biography, and a mystery unspools that includes intrigue about Vida’s twin sister. As we learn early, Lea also had a twin sister — who died young and continually haunts Margaret’s psyche.

Among the other novels with twins, whether they’re major or secondary characters, are Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (Estha and Rahel), Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (the Segundo brothers), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Jackson and Pierrot), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Sam and Eric), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (Fred and George Weasley — a delightful pair, but one is ill-fated), George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (Cersei and Jaime Lannister, who are also — eek — lovers), and even Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). Fred and George are shown with Rowling in the photo above this blog post.

Then there are the also-memorable pairings that don’t involve twins. Mentioning Rowling characters again, there is of course the good-vs.-evil duo of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, who are as different as can be yet have a strong underlying connection.

Mark Twain did the pairings thing twice with the dramatic life switches/role reversals in his novels The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

In Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, there are actually two sets of linked Allan Armadales — four people total!

And although its protagonist is actually one man with a split personality, among the most famous duality depictions in literature is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about developer subterfuge and more — is here.