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Reader’s Den

Reader's Den: After Claude, Week 3


Thank you for joining us this month in the Reader’s Den, as we continue our year long focus on superheroes and anti-heroes, with the ultimate antiheroine, After Claude's Harriet.

When you think of an anti-hero, who comes to mind? On Wikipedia’s list of literary anti-heroes, which is by no means comprehensive, almost every character listed is male, with the notable exceptions of Gone With the Wind ’s Scarlett O’Hara and Vanity Fair ’s Becky Sharp. I might add Anna Karenina to the list as well.

One thing that Scarlett, Becky, and Anna have in common is that, although morally questionable, they are all charming, beautiful, and alluring to the opposite sex. Harriet, on the other hand, can hardly be described as charming. Physically, we never really get a good sense of what she looks like, because the story is told through her own voice, and she’s not exactly in touch with reality. 

Can you think of other literary anti-heroines that don’t rely on their charisma and sexual appeal? If so, please leave a comment below! And, if you’d like, share your thoughts on why male anti-heroes outnumber females so drastically. Are readers more comfortable with men acting badly, while wanting women to be likeable?

Novelist Claire Messud touched on this idea when she was interviewed in 2013 by Publishers Weekly. When asked if she would want to be friends with Nora, the protagonist in the novel The Woman Upstairs, who the interviewer judges to be not very likeable, she responded, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov?” 

When you read a book, do you need to like the main character? And what makes a good anti-heroine? Emma Jane Unsworth wrote for The Guardian, that it comes down basically to "bad behaviour and unconventional life choices." 

So, is likeability more important for female characters, and for women in general, than for their male counterparts? The absolutely wonderful author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently gave a talk at the  Girls Write Now awards where she said, in part, "What I want to say to young girls is forget about likability. If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability." 

Please leave your comments below, and join us in July for a discussion of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy : Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott! 




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Love Claire Messud's answer

I'm so completely in agreement with her, and with the idea that women authors and characters are held to a different "likability" standard than men. Why is that a goal? Do male writers even consider it? I agree with your Anna Karenina suggestion, and I'd add Bernadette from Where'd You Go, Bernadette? I found her rather hateful, and I think she's an anti-hero(ine).

Thank you, Gwen! Yes, I

Thank you, Gwen! Yes, I really enjoyed Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and I had completely forgotten about that character's total insanity! I just finished reading How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, and although the main character is actually very relateable and totally hilarious, she makes a lot of bad decisions and is far from perfect. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it yet!

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