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.