Someone once asked me, if I could force everyone on earth to read one book in order to make the world a better place, what book it would be. The answer was easy, and it’s only gotten easier with time: Watership Down, Richard Adams’ epic novel about bunny rabbits (seriously), the extravagantly tattered paperback I’ve read over and over since I was nine, following a group of rabbits as they travel to a new home and found a new society. It’s purportedly for children, though Adams makes no perceptible effort to simplify his prose for younger readers; and anyway, lately it seems like Americans could use a grade-school-level lesson in civic values. Suddenly so many of us seem willing to trade away long-standing principles of democracy in exchange for a false sense of security from terrorism, or from the imaginary Mexican rapists supposedly pouring over the border. Those principles are so interwoven in the fabric of our daily life that it’s easy to take them for granted; rereading Watership Down always reminds me what a struggle it is to shape a healthy society out of chaos.
…a gulf had opened between them over which they looked at each other with eyes that were on either side a declaration of the deception suffered. It was a strange opposition, of the like of which she had never dreamed–an opposition in which the vital principle of the one was a thing of contempt to the other. It was not her fault–she had practised no deception; she had only admired and believed. She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end. Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and where it served to deepen the feeling of failure.
–Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
I think of a man, and take away reason and accountability.
Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
I’ve had dozens of moments when I’m reading an otherwise great book and a woman says something, or does something, that jolts me out of the world I’ve been inhabiting and reminds me that the author has his own particular notions of women, and not necessarily correct ones. From female characters who fulfill some male fantasy of what women should be like (hot, mostly), or who have no depth at all beyond their looks, to those who have one highly stereotypical personality trait whereas male characters are fully-rounded: the sins committed by authors of all stripes against female characterization are varied, and unfortunately, still frequent.
Sometimes it seems that the feminist internet has rightly given up on even encouraging men to write women at all; if we want a great female character, we assume we’ll need to read Chimamanda Adichie, Willa Cather, Claire Messud. But every once in awhile, a gifted male writer will come along who has an understanding of the unique power structures that affect women, but also is capable of infusing the same vision of humanity into his female characters as he does into his male characters. Here are a few of my favorite female characters written by men. Comment below to share your favorites! (Or to rant about the worst failures. We love rants here at Adversion.)
Aaliyah Saleh, An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine
The inspiration for this post, Aaliyeh is the mid-seventies woman with blue hair who narrates Rabih Alameddine’s novel.
A commotion at the door. It is Christophe. He cannot enter in the ordinary way; he treats doors as his foe.
When it became de rigueur a few years back for every book club to sweat over the first two installments of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and its dense prose about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, I had no interest in joining the crowd. (This was mostly due to a general lack of interest in history about which I should probably feel more guilty than I, in fact, do.) But an article in the NYRB excerpting Hilary Mantel’s directions to the actors in the stage adaptation changed my mind.
A great moment from Jane Austen’s Persuasion:
Immediately surrounding Mrs Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.
In noticing what a lovely scene the family makes, the narrator steps back to a frame of observation that parallels ours as readers—admiring the artistry with which the scene was assembled—such that the statement can’t quite be distinguished from Austen reflecting approvingly on herself. It’d be insufferable, of course, if the scene weren’t perfect, but it is, and the flourish sits gently on top: “a fine family-piece.”
“What really expresses people? The things, I’m sure, that they have obsessions about: keep wearing or using, or fuss when they lose, or can’t go to sleep without. You know, a person’s only a person when they have some really raging peculiarity…”
–Dinah, The Little Girls (by Elizabeth Bowen)