Heroines for Our Time
Just as Maria Tatar’s wonderful book, The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, led me to read in a new way, it has inspired me to try to write a book review in a new way. I’ve been sitting here puzzling over the task, wondering whether I need to summarize her argument. I rarely experience anything that could be described as writer’s block, but the prospect of going through the book to summarize, as in a standard book review, left me uninspired.
But then I thought, Tatar herself has offered us a fresh view of heroism, why not approach the task of reviewing her work in a fresh way? So I’m just going to talk about what I found interesting. If these things interest you as well, perhaps you’ll borrow or buy a copy of the book yourself.
For me, much that was intriguing and exciting about Tatar’s work was her broadened definition of “literature.” It does seem obvious, having read Heroine, but she takes books that have been read and loved by generations of girls and young women seriously, even if those books have been ignored by critics and academics. And these books are often books that feature female heroes or heroines (I have mixed feelings about use of the feminine form—on the one hand it is a celebration, but I wonder if it will someday be obsolete, like “poetess.”) Books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. Books like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Books like those in the Nancy Drew series! Books that had a big impact on me, and obviously on many others, given their sales figures and the numerous film adaptations, but that I never had the opportunity to “study” as works of literature. That in itself was a gift from Tatar—the feeling that books that I have liked are important.
Tatar talks as well about Scherezade, Margaret Atwood, and Charlotte Bronte, and Wonder Woman. I especially like that she questions the idea of women becoming heroic by adopting the behaviors of masculine “heroes” in characters such as Lisabeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. I suspected that that novel offered readers who wanted it an excuse to wallow in graphic depictions of violence against women by indulging in a revenge fantasy. I much prefer Tatar’s depiction of feminine heroism, exemplified not only in literature but in the #MeToo movement, as marked by a search for truth and a determination to tell stories that will reveal the truth.