“It’s Frustratingly Rare to Find a Novel About Women That’s Not About Love” says The Atlantic. As always when I find people attacking women writers and their subjects, or female characters and their interests, I was indignant and bothered when I first came across this article. When the initial anger passed, though, I stopped to think about whether there was any truth in this statement or not. What I discovered is that there is not. There is just about the same amount of romance in a book featuring a female protagonist as there is in a book featuring a male protagonist (for the most part – romance novels are obviously excepted).
The way I see it, there are two ways to approach this question. The first is to assume that when the writer says “About Love” she means the book is exclusively about love – enough so that it can be classified as “romance”. The other way to look at is that “About Love” simply means that a large portion of the story is devoted to romance, but it is not the main focus of the story. I’m going to talk about both these interpretations to show just how wrong The Atlantic is.
Let me list out 12 books I’ve read recently which feature both male and female protagonists, and are written by both men and women. I think that I have quite varied taste, and an open mind, when it comes to books, so I’m fairly confident that I’ve made a reasonable selection. (I’m limiting the books listed to those published in the last 200 years, simply because society before then was much more patriarchal than it is now).
Going with the first method (the main focus of the novel is love), then:
- 1984 (George Orwell) – fail
- The Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk) : pass
- The Other Boleyn Girl (Phillipa Gregory) : fail – while the main character of this book, Mary, does love the King, the larger focus of the book is not her romance (or lack of romance). It is her relationship with her sister, her family’s ambition, and her ultimate decline in the court (hence the title).
- Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) : fail – Kathy and Tommy’s journey together is a vital part of this story, but ultimately, the story is about the society they live in and how this affects Kathy personally.
- Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) : fail – this story is, more than anything, a coming of age story
- Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) : fail – I already know that I’m going to be disputed on this matter, but hear me out. If Jane Eyre was a love story, the sections on her life with her Aunt Reed and her experience at Lowood would have been much briefer, believe me. This novel truly is a bildungsroman, so it fails this first test, albeit the fact that the person who helped her realize who she was may have been a man.
- Out of Africa (Karen Blixen) : fail – again, this will be disputed (and the movie adaptation doesn’t help), but the love aspect in this book was so insignificant it is barely worth mentioning. It is much more about Karen’s experiences in Africa, and her relationships with the people and animals she finds there.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) : fail – this is not a love story. But because the protagonist is male, I’m almost positive everyone will agree with me (whereas most people are happy to jump to the conclusion that Jane Eyre is a romance novel simply because the protagonist is female, when it is just as much a coming-of-age story as The Perks of Being a Wallflower is)
- The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) : fail
- Atonement (Ian McEwan) : fail – keep in mind that this is the story of Briony, not the story of Celia and Robbie. I think the point of the story is quite evident in the title of the book.
- Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) : fail – again, many will argue about this, but this is a story of a woman who has to live with the decisions she has made. Men do shape her decisions, yes, but this is an internal journey for Anna, not “about love”
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) : fail – there are many interpretations of this novel out there, but to me, The Great Gatsby embodies the American Dream, wanting something you have, and the difference between reality and dreams. Not a love story.
The only novel that passes this first criterion (the focus of the story is love) is The Museum of Innocence, which is both written by a man, and features a male protagonist.
Okay. On to the next case: the story features love prominently, though it is not the main focus of the novel. I’m going to use the same list of books.
- 1984 (George Orwell) : pass – Winston’s relationship with Julia is substantial enough to qualify as a love affair.
- The Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk) : pass
- The Other Boleyn Girl (Phillipa Gregory) : pass – Though, you should remember, the book is set in 16th century England. Women are raised to think that their lives revolve around men.
- Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) : pass – Kathy and Tommy’s romance does help Kathy shape her views and thoughts about the world around her and her ultimate fate.
- Great Expectations (Charles Dickens) : pass – Pip waits for Estella for a good ten years, if not more, and his interest in her only cements his place in society.
- Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) : pass – For all I said about this book not being a romance novel, Jane’s love affair with Rochester does play a huge party in the story.
- Out of Africa (Karen Blixen) : pass
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) : pass – for all that The Atlantic said about heroines being supporting characters in their own stories, I’d almost argue that Sam was the lead in this book. She shapes Charlie’s life and experiences so much that it’s hard to argue that Charlie has the sole claim to the title of “main character”
- The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) : pass – although I’m not sure Howard Roark can actually feel love.
- Atonement (Ian McEwan) : pass
- Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) : pass
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) : pass
Guess what? Every single novel on the list passed. Out of the 12 books, 6 have female protagonists, and 6 have male protagonists – regardless, love plays an important role in each book. Why? Because love plays an important role in life. It’s frustrating when people refuse that men are often searching for love, because they are too. It’s a human instinct and almost a societal requirement.
And even after all this, if you aren’t convinced, here are some honorable mentions of books with female protagonists that lack a substantial ‘love’ angle: The Help (Kathryn Stockett), The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee – does this count if the main character is only 6 years old?), The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy), and The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield). The list is limited by my own reading list, but I’m sure there are many more such books.
I think the writer overplays some of her points. “These female characters had love stories of heartbreak, but no stories of solitary self-discovery.” That’s a misleading statement, because there’s no such thing as ‘solitary self-discovery.’ No man is an island, and we are all the product of the people around us. Of the novels I’ve listed, I’d say about half were stories of self-discovery – and those include books with a female protagonist. Even stories with male characters on the path to self-discovery are not totally solitary – I’d say a huge part of Holden Caulfield’s journey was shaped by his younger sister, Phoebe. And she may not be a love interest, but what about The Great Gatsby? Jay Gatsby as we know him today would be a totally different person without Daisy.
Now I’m not arguing with everything the writer of the article says. I realize that there are still many problems with the way women are perceived in our world, and that, like it or not, we still live in a largely patriarchal society.
But don’t invalidate the books we cherish and love by saying that the women in these books are motivated solely by a desire for marriage and children. Don’t discredit the whole of our sex.