Despite my friends’ accusations that I only love “horribly depressing stories,” I find an immense source of beauty in a novel that leaves you in tears—and not necessarily tears of joy. My favorite books have a strong, stubborn, wonderful, “fallen” woman as their heroine. I use the word “fallen” loosely—it’s not necessarily fallen from grace or from moral codes, but mostly just fallen from perfection. In other words, they are not your typical, princess-like heroines.
I believe that there is sometimes more beauty to be found in flawed relationships and human frailties than in perfect, happy endings, because it is real. In these pieces of fiction, I find examples of hope, grace, and beauty amid the difficult journey of life. Each of the following heroines is tragic and imperfect in her own way, but through the story of each, we can glean valuable lessons about life and love.
When I decided to use Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina, as the primary source for my senior thesis in college, everybody except my thesis adviser thought I was crazy. Why would I choose to study one of history’s most depressing novels about one of the most depressing topics—adultery? (I don’t know, maybe because many consider it to be the best novel ever written? But I digress.) As it happens, there were certain moments in writing that monster paper in which I considered myself a bit crazy. I would be confused, disappointed, and even angry as I watched Anna and Vronsky live their lives selfishly, without regard for themselves, each other, or their families.
Anna is a miserable woman, although she can put on quite the facade, and it made me ache for her. Anna deals with love, passion, despair, doubt, and jealousy, sometimes well but mostly quite poorly, and I found myself learning from her mistakes. I love the line in this novel, “I think that to find out what love is really like, one must first make a mistake and then put it right.” This is a beautiful reminder.
Despite her numerous flaws, there is still goodness and beauty within Anna, shown in tender moments with her son, who awakens her conscience and innate motherly tendencies. In addition, the characters of Levin and Kitty serve as foils to Anna and Vronsky, and they paint a portrait of true, selfless, beautiful love. Still, they have their own personal and marital problems, which is somehow encouraging. In Anna Karenina, even the best couple isn’t without shortcomings!
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a remarkable story, and there is something magical about Scarlett O’Hara. She is such a complex character and yet so simple. She desires to be desired, and she is about the most stubborn and difficult woman I have ever encountered in a novel. I would never want to excuse or glorify much of her behavior, yet I also cannot help but pity her at times. She is completely spoiled as a girl, which makes things all the more difficult for her when she is faced with real trials during the Civil War. Ultimately her headstrong determination is both her greatest weakness and her greatest strength. You root for her as she leaves her past behind and learns how to grin and bear it.
As Mitchell writes, Scarlett “knew that no matter what beauty lay behind, it must remain there. No one could go forward with a load of aching memories.” (Spoiler!) There is no happily-ever-after in this novel either, but it is all the better because of it. Scarlett gets exactly what she asks for, and even though it may not leave the reader completely satisfied, you know that she is going to be okay. “After all, tomorrow is another day!”
Another extremely long and depressing novel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is one of my absolute favorite examples of good triumphing over evil. While the novel focuses on the mentally unstable and morally depraved character of Raskolnikov, there is another character who is absolutely essential to the change of mind and heart of Raskolnikov, and this is Sonya. Raskolnikov commits an unimaginably heinous crime, and he is wracked by guilt to the point of becoming ill as a result. While Sonya has committed no such crime, she is a woman who is shamed by society after poverty forces her into prostitution.
Despite her position in life, Sonya remains joyful, kindhearted, and full of compassion for others, especially for Raskolnikov. She is a flawed, one would say “impure” woman, but she begins a completely pure relationship with Raskolnikov. When Raskolnikov confesses his horrendous crime to Sonya, she does not flee, but rather, tries to help him. “We shall go and suffer together, and we shall bear our crosses together,” she assures him. It is through her that Raskolnikov’s eyes are opened to the truth and the possibility of redemption.
Required reading in almost every high school in America, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter tells the sad tale of a woman who commits adultery and pays dearly for her sin. Hester Prynne is literally referred to as a “fallen woman” in the novel, and she is completely shamed and ostracized by her community. While all of the women I’ve discussed are rejected by society for their sins or faults, none are rejected quite so harshly as Hester Prynne. She lives a very hard and lonely life as a consequence of her sin.
The one comfort and joy in her life is her daughter, Pearl. This book is filled with such beautiful symbolism, and I love how Hester’s sin results in a precious “Pearl”—a reminder that there is still goodness and beauty to be found in human imperfection. She is capable of real emotions and real love. She suffers greatly, but her suffering makes her more aware and respectful of the suffering of others.
Hester’s world tries its best to tear her down, but she still finds the strength to hold her head up and not succumb to complete depression. Over time, Hester changes the meaning of the scarlet letter “A” on her breast. As Hawthorne describes the scarlet letter A later in the story, “they said that it meant ‘Able’; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.”
Kristin Lavransdatter of the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy is one of my favorite women in literature, even if one of the most flawed. Passionate, stubborn, determined, and beautifully complex, Kristin is the archetypal female. Set in 14th century Norway, this classic set of novels by Sigrid Undset tells the story of a fallen woman’s life and the beauty in getting back up time and time again to live life as best one can. Kristin Lavransdatter reveals the values of faith, family, and perseverance getting through the hard times in life.
This profoundly beautiful series greatly deepened my appreciation for my own life. Kristin taught me that even if your life is full of pain and suffering, you cannot waste it with regrets and bitterness. You must still acknowledge the beauty and blessings in your life and find peace. As Undset writes, “Everything happens as it is meant to be.” Sometimes Kristin hates herself and those closest to her (namely, her husband Erlend), and other times she is full of repentance. In the end, however, she recognizes the beauty in her life.
To me, while these stories may be sad and feature flawed heroines, they still offer remarkable insight. Not unlike one of the saddest books in history, Anne Frank’s autobiography. If anyone had a reason to give up on life and the goodness of mankind, it was Anne Frank, yet, as she writes in The Diary of a Young Girl: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne, as an especially strong real-life heroine, reminds us that as long as there is some good to be found in the world, it is worth fighting for. Here's to seeking stories that resonate and inspire.
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