top 5 female characters from literature

Happy International Women’s Day!  In honor of all the badass ladies out there (and because I apparently don’t read enough fantasy or sci-fi to participate in this week’s Top 5 Wednesday), I decided to make a list of my top 5 favorite female characters from literature.  (Note: this was very difficult and I will probably change my mind in ten minutes, but here we go.)


409207Sansa Stark
(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin): Sansa is a character who’s incredibly close to my heart (and not only because I once commented on a buzzfeed article defending her and received an absolutely shocking amount of vitriol from the male nerd community who felt I was infringing upon their right to attack a fictional traumatized teenage girl).  I see a lot of myself in Sansa, the good and the bad, the quiet strength and also the overly idealistic tendencies.  What makes Sansa such an important character, I think, is that she’s able to navigate this violent and patriarchal society while also retaining her sense of self: she matures, but she never becomes hardened or loses her kindness, which is all too often represented as a naive quality which needs to be outgrown in order to survive.
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harper-perennial-editionEsther Greenwood (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath): I only read The Bell Jar a year ago, and was overwhelmed by the extent to which I related to Esther.  I think there’s a lot that every 20-something can relate to, that crushing anxiety that comes with a lack of life direction.  But what’s so important about Esther is that while the bildungsroman genre has traditionally been dominated by the male narrative (The Catcher in the Rye, Of Human Bondage, Huck Finn, etc – all great books, but still), The Bell Jar manages to provide a candid exploration of the female experience of mental illness, sex and sexuality, and navigating new adulthood.  Somewhat a stand-in for Plath herself, and somewhat a stand-in for all young women, Esther remains a seminal character for the influence she’s had on the coming of age narrative.
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imgCathy Ames (East of Eden by John Steinbeck): In contrast with characters like Sansa who I admire for their goodness, Cathy is terrible.  But as a character, that’s what makes her so great.  There’s something undeniably compelling about this character who’s described to have been born without a conscience, who murders her parents and shoots her husband without a second thought.  And I don’t even consider either of those spoilers, as they happen so early in the book – there’s still so much more to come.  I can’t think of a character, male or female, who can match Cathy for ruthlessness, and yet, by the end of the novel, I found myself strangely moved and affected by her.  Love her or hate her or love to hate her, she’s utterly unforgettable.
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51-fmbtiw9l-_sx327_bo1204203200_Clytemnestra (classics): Narrowing down my classics lady between Clytemnestra, Helen, and Medea was easily the most time-consuming part of compiling this list. (Honestly, if this list were a bit more truthful, I’d probably have included all three of them, but that would get boring to read.)  I decided to go with Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and mother of Orestes, famous for murdering her husband after his homecoming from the Trojan War, in order to avenge her daughter who Agamemnon had sacrificed before sailing to Troy.  The exciting thing about Clytemnestra is that in a very patriarchal society, she exists outside traditional gender roles: she rules over Mycenae in Agamemnon’s absence, she speaks in public (a very male-dominated sphere), and she not only orchestrates the plot of her husband’s murder, but she enacts it herself, according to Aeschylus and Euripides.
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Rebecca de Winter (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier): She’s not really even in the book, and yet she’s one of the most famous characters from 20th century literature.  Honestly, what an icon.  Everything we know about Rebecca, the dead wife of Maxim de Winter, is hearsay, as we follow the second Mrs. de Winter trying to navigate her new life at the luxurious but lonely Manderly estate.  Everything our narrator does is compared by the other characters to Rebecca, who begins to take on a mythologized form – but it turns out the real Rebecca was even more fascinating.
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It was hard narrowing down this list!  Who are some of your favorite fictional ladies from literature?
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11 thoughts on “top 5 female characters from literature

    • Thank you! I’d definitely check out The Oresteia by Aeschylus! House of Names by Colm Toibin (published in May) also focuses on Clytemnestra, I had very mixed feelings about that book overall but the depiction of Clytemnestra was fantastic.

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  1. Wow I haven’t read four of these, I really need to get on that! I’m really impressed that you managed to narrow this down. I feel like I’d need a bracket and a few weeks to pick favourite female characters from books.

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    • IT WAS SUCH A STRUGGLE. The fact that I really had nothing better to do at work helped. Highly recommend all 4 of the ones you haven’t read though!! Especially The Bell Jar, I think you’d really like it.

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    • Thank you! It really is amazing. I was trying to narrow down my list and Rebecca stood out so vividly in my mind. It’s crazy that a character we never actually meet can leave such an impression.

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    • Agreed completely! Her kind of strength is so important and so undervalued. People always say ‘she wouldn’t last five minutes in Arya’s shoes’ which is completely true because she’s not able to physically defend herself the way Arya can, but it’s equally true that Arya wouldn’t last five minutes in Sansa’s shoes. The ability to appear as though you’re going along with everything while still quietly resisting, manipulating the things you can while keeping your head down is such an important skill in this world. The only reason Sansa’s stayed alive this long is her own intelligence and her own quiet strength. I love her so much!

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      • Yes! People seem to hate her because she uses her femininity to fight from within, and you know, people don’t like femininity…they’d much prefer someone who’s able to “play with the boys” like Arya. Yes, Arya is awesome, but I find Sansa’s journey far more interesting.

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