A Range of Role Reversal Reads

Roll reversals! When you eat a roll from the bottom up. Actually, my topic this week is ROLE reversals…in literature.

There’s plenty of potential drama in those reversals — including how the protagonists act in the unexpected/unfamiliar situations they find themselves in, and how other people react to those characters. 

Perhaps the best known example of a role reversal in fiction is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, whose two main characters dizzyingly switch stations in life. But role reversals can be more realistic and recognizable.

In a novel I recently read — Kristin Hannah’s heart-wrenching, masterful Home Front — Jolene is deployed as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War while her attorney husband Michael remains on the…home front…to take care of their two daughters. A somewhat unusual gender reversal. Of course, many women are now in the military, but the novel is set nearly 20 years ago and there are still many more cases where the man is the member of the couple overseas.

Jolene and Michael’s marriage is already on shaky ground before the deployment, partly because Michael opposed the Bush administration’s unnecessary, disastrous invasion of Iraq, even as Jolene was a pilot in the National Guard. Then, something happens to Jolene in the war zone that makes things REALLY challenging. Ms. Hannah certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the situation. 

Another recently read novel — Mary Robinette Kowal’s absorbing The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars — continues the alternate-history story of female American astronaut Dr. Elma York into the early 1960s, a time when all real-life American astronauts were men. All white men, too, while Kowal’s fictional crew to Mars includes several women and men of color. They experience plenty of bias from one racist crew member, but they’re there.

Herman Melville’s gripping 1855 novella Benito Cereno is set on a slave ship where a very clever and intricate role reversal has taken place. Another example of how Melville was one of the few 19th-century authors to give characters of color significant roles and some three-dimensionality — as he did with Queequeg four years earlier in Moby-Dick.

A time-travel novel with quite a generational reversal is Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, in which a granddaughter and grandmother involuntarily switch bodies and the years they live in (1978 and 1900). Major culture shock for both.

Also a role reversal of sorts is when novels make animals the main characters and humans the secondary ones. Various examples of this, with the two I read last year being Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (featuring cats) and Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris (starring a horse and other critters).

Your thoughts about, and examples of, 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local legal expenses controversy and more — is here.

112 thoughts on “A Range of Role Reversal Reads

  1. (Spoiler alert) In Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” the dissolute Sydney Carton who died in the place of the respectable Charles Darnay is a well known example of role reversal in a classic novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave, This is about treatment of mentally disabled people.

    Flowers for Algernon is a short story by Daniel Keyes.
    Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence.
    The story is told by Charlie Gordon, the first human subject for the surgery.
    Raises the ethical question of how to treat a human soul.

    Charlie wrote his day to day progress , his life changes, but was not able to communicate with other human souls.
    The experiment had its major flaws.

    Later the mouse and Charley lost his progress and was back to his previous form.

    There was a Movie starring Cliff Robertson as Charley.
    Music by Pandit Ravi Shankar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bebe! That’s a great example of a role reversal — Charlie (temporarily) gaining a high-functioning intellect. An excellent, poignant novel. Never saw the movie version. I didn’t realize Pandit Ravi Shankar — who of course was a visitor to your home 🙂 — did music for that film!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave I`ve seen the movie on TV decades ago, my heart bled while watching the movie.

        While in KS I used to volunteer in a respite programme once a week in the evening to give parents an evening off. They were all fun , doing arts, crafts, songs , dance and what not. Some were in border range and some had severe handicaps.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I did hear “Charly” was an excellent, heartfelt movie. Bebe. (Not sure why the protagonist’s name was changed from Charlie in the book to Charly in the film.)

          And that was excellent volunteer work you did in Kansas! I’m sure the parents were VERY grateful for the break. I remember when caring for my late first daughter how much of a relief a very occasional evening off was.

          Liked by 1 person

              • Interesting…:)
                I perhaps mentioned to you before Ravi Shankar was coming, I was so nervous, I started cooking so much fish, Chicken and what not.

                Then he called to tell me he is a vegetarian , only 7 up as a drink.

                He was so kind, we hardly had any money then, and ran to KMart to buy a 35 MM Camera.
                The rest in History, spend 3 days off and on with Him , to see the Plaza Light ( pre-thanksgiving ) in our half broken car.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I found that in Russian novels, different translations tend to spell the same characters’ names differently. Even Russian authors and historical figures sometimes have different spellings for their names in English. I think the reason is that the Russian language does Not use the Roman alphabet.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. Would Daphne du Maurier’s
    The Scapegoat count ?

    Pedantic kid, I had a problem with The Prince and the Pauper. Memory problems ? Poor, multiple deprivation, Tom Canty wouldn’t even smell right, but who’d want Henry VIII as a dad ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther! I haven’t read “The Scapegoat,” but from looking at an online summary it definitely counts!

      As for “The Prince and the Pauper,” it was indeed not one of Twain’s top works. But I thought it had its moments. And NO ONE would want Henry VIII as a dad. 🙂


  4. Hi Dave, as I mentioned in my comment to Rebecca, initially I couldn’t think of a single book but now I have a few for you. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge where Katy ultimately takes on the role of the mother of the family even though she is a teenage girl. In I am David, David takes care of Maria and rescues her from the fire in the manner of a much older man. Living in a concentration camp all his life has stripped him of his youth. In Great Expectations, the roles of Joe and Mrs Joe are reversed with Joe being the more nurturing and loving figure and Mrs Joe being quite determined and ambitious.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hmmmm…. a topic that’s got me putting my thinking cap on alright! Kristin Hannah does it again, I see. I’ve never read Home Front, although I’ve read several of her other books. I’ll have to add this one to my list. Would Brit Bennet’s “the Vanishing Half” count for this? Since it follows two black sisters -one of whom passes herself as white?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, Kristin Hannah is an impressive writer. I’ve only read two of her novels (also “The Nightingale”) but will read more when I get a chance. And, yes, a Black person passing as white (a potentially understandable thing in a racist world) is an excellent example of a role reversal of sorts.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. This is a great theme to think about, Dave. Perhaps in a close-but-no-cigar entry, I think of Watership Down. Although, I’m not sure there’s enough human interaction. A book I would put in this category, is The Twenty Elephant Restaurant. It’s a children’s book, but one that adults would enjoy reading. It’s about a man and a woman – the roles aren’t reversed, but the woman is often the decision maker. Of course, the stars end up being the twenty elephants who help build the restaurant, cook, dance, drive the truck, and sell hot dogs.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I hope the following mentions fit your theme re role reversal: Jeanette Winterson’s The Powerbook, where you enter a story as yourself, but leave as someone entirely different; Melvin Burgess’s young adult fiction novel Lady: My Life As A Bitch about a teenage girl who turns into a dog; Kafka’s Metamorphosis from human to insect, and, of course, Shelley’s Frankenstein from human to humanoid; Dickens Great Expectations with Pip, the orphaned child and blacksmith’s nephew, to Pip the educated gentleman. Great post Dave. Thanks Susi.

    Liked by 3 people

      • Another role reversal though not of the print media variety: Speaking of kafkaesqueness…hee, hee…Tucker Carlson, Fox news smirking Judas, has been fired. As Kafka would say: “It’s only because of their stupidity that they are able to be so sure of themselves.”

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Dave,

    I’m currently reading Dorothy L Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” which is set in an all women’s college. Even the people running the school are women! And they’re called Deans and Wardens, and not female Deans and Wardens, which is nice. The main character even makes a comment about how silly it is to put a person’s gender in front of their job. Pretty impressive stuff from Sayers considering it was written in 1935. It definitely reads as something much more modern than that and I’m very much enjoying it so far.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susan! Excellent example! I’ve read “Gaudy Night,” and enjoyed it a lot. And, yes, for a novel published 88 years ago, it was ahead of its time with its setting and all the prominent, accomplished female characters. Just like Dorothy L. Sayers was ahead of her time with her writing skills, other talents, and brilliant intellect.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am a huge fan of Gaudy Night, and I agree that it’s an excellent example of role reversal for its time, also in the way that Lord Peter stands in defense of women’s scholarship. Not to mention everyone being so shocked that Harriet has had an affair, because she is an unmarried woman.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. The Prince and the Pauper is the main story I would know. Funny, I did not know Mark Twain wrote it.

    Although I haven’t read a book about it, I’m sure there are now many stories out there about a man becoming a woman, or vice versa.
    This has got to be an ultimate role reversal.

    Lol! Back to Joy, and “The Housekeeper”. There is a role reversal that ordinary people experience all the time.
    This is when parents age, and cannot take care of themselves anymore. Now the child takes care of the parents. The child is the parent. The parent is the child.

    Neat topic, Dave!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Resa! I don’t think “The Prince and the Pauper” is one of Twain’s best novels, but it’s not a bad short read.

      And, yes, a woman or man transitioning to the other gender is indeed an ultimate role reversal. I hope we’ll see a lot of novels starring trans characters in upcoming years.

      Last but not least, the child sort of becoming the parent as the actual parent ages is definitely a huge role reversal. Glad you mentioned it. Wish I had thought of it when writing the post; there are (not surprisingly) many novels with that scenario, which we also see so often in real life.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. As you know, Dave, I have been researching the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s First Folio. And since today April 23, (1564) is considered, although not fully confirmed, his birthday, (and also the date of his death in 1616) I thought that I would write about a few of the many role reversals in his plays.

    It is a well known fact that Shakespeare’s plays involve complex characters and intricate plotlines. He enjoyed including role reversals in some of his plays. In “Twelfth Night,” the character Viola disguises herself as a man and takes on the persona of Cesario. This allows her to navigate the world more freely and explore her feelings for Duke Orsino. In “As You Like It,” the character Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Ganymede. This allows her to interact with other characters in a different way and ultimately leads to her finding love with Orlando.

    Role reversal is not limited to gender in Shakespeare’s works. In “King Lear,” the character of the Fool takes on a more serious and wise role than his name would suggest. He serves as a voice of reason and insight for the other characters, despite his seemingly foolish exterior. In “Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth takes on a traditionally masculine role as she encourages her husband to pursue his ambitions and seize power. (Loved getting together with Cat & Shey for The Witches Chant)

    Thank you for a great post, Dave. I look forward to coming back for the follow-up conversation. I will end with one of my favouite quotes by William Shakespeare!

    “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
    William Shakespeare,The Tempest

    Liked by 5 people

  11. I hope you don’t mind my using my own work as an example, Dave, because I tried to do this in my own Polizei Bern mysteries, PESTICIDE (2022) and SONS AND BROTHERS (2023). The senior homicide detective in the novels, Giuliana Linder, is a woman in her mid-forties, and her assistant, a man ten years her junior, starts out by looking up to her as a mentor and ends up falling in love with her. These things happen more and more often in real life, so why not in books?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Kim! I’m glad you used an example from your own work, and a great example at that! And your comment’s last line — “These things happen more and more often in real life, so why not in books?” — is spot-on. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Role reversals seems to me a very interesting and actual topic, Dave, which makes me, of course, immediately think again of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain, showing us that this highly important part of our body is not something with which we are born, but that it can continuously be molded by culture. This means that women just as men can become, for example, scientists! Many thanks for having brought up this interesting topic and your recommendations:)

    Liked by 6 people

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