The Best Female Characters in Literature

“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Jane Austen, Persuasion

Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Mary Lennox holds a special place in my dear heart. Her growth from an unloved and neglected child to a self-assured, optimist and, yet, persistently stubborn character is an arc that I find especially relatable. 

At the start of The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox was a moody, unsociable, self-absorbed, strong-willed and, some might call her, a rather impolite character. Frances Hodgson Burnett brilliantly explores the nature v nurture debate, and it is clear that Burnett is staunchly inclined towards environmental variables from childhood experiences contributing towards the resulting personalities of children and young people. Mary Lennox is a product of her environment; the neglect at the hands of her parents and the resulting absence in their daughter’s life was clearly felt by Mary. This is demonstrated by the string of Ayah’s whom Mary Lennox developed little to no sense of attachment and warmth for. It could be largely assumed that Mary had rejected her Ayah’s the way her parents had rejected her. Her gloomy disposition is a very human and natural reaction to her parent’s lack of love.

Once she arrives in England, settles down and discovers the titular secret garden, she also discovers the unkempt garden locked inside her heart that needs considerable tending to. Both the literal garden and her own metaphorical garden are, finally, properly cared for and cultivated by Martha and Dickon Sowerby. By the end of The Secret Garden, Mary is undeniably happier, more positive and friendly, but, thankfully, never relinquishes her wonderful stubbornness and brutal honesty. 

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Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre like Mary Lennox is a victim of a tumultuous childhood and like Mary, Jane suffers mistreatment and child abuse, and, as a result, is quite naturally an unhappy child. Once Jane Eyre meets Helen Burns at Lowood Institution and the pair become best friends, we see Jane become a kind, intelligent and self-assured young person. 

Jane faces challenges against her moral and spiritual sensibilities at Thornfield Hall. To a casual observer, Jane appears to be a meek and dutiful governess, but underneath her layers of self-repose and calm exterior lies a woman with a strong set of values who refuses to be intimidated because of her class or gender. Jane Eyre stands her ground when Edward Rochester aggravates her and faces him as an equal. Jane refuses St. John’s proposal and challenges the idea that a woman should not refuse marriage in the absence of love and the impropriety of accompanying St. John to India to aid him in his missionary work.

Whether or not Charlotte Bronte intended her to be, Jane Eyre is a role model for many women. Jane Eyre reminds readers that our class and gender should not prevent ourselves from asserting our right to be treated as an equal, that we should not bow down to the pressures of our gender. 

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Jo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Jo March is a character that we relate to when we’re young, rebellious and more free-spirited. I find that once many women reach their mid-twenties, Jo is no longer relatable, and, instead, Meg March, the sensible, caring and down-to-earth eldest of the four March sisters now becomes the character that they relate to. In my case, not so much. Jo remains the character that I will always relate to. 

From the beginning of Little Women, Jo March is a feisty, strong-willed, unconventional, creative, and socially awkward (and, at times, socially inappropriate) character. She’s prone to reacting harshly – when Amy March burns Jo’s manuscript (which, incidentally, is harsh in itself!) and as a result, Jo turns a blind eye which results in Amy narrowly missing death. Valuing authenticity, she fails to recognise the importance of strengthening her relations with her wealthy great-aunt and thereby misses an opportunity which costs her a trip to Europe. As if bowing to the authorial pressures of getting published, she resorts to writing sensational novels betraying her sense of intellectual and moral rigour until Professor Bhaer reminds her of her writing potential.

Jo March is a character who knows herself well (rejecting Laurie’s proposal!), and a character with as many flaws as she has strengths which make her a very realistic and all the more real. 

An honourable mention to Amy March, a character whom I hear, that the 2019 Greta Gerwig adaptation of Little Women, has finally delivered justice to. Amy has often been reviled, like Sansa (see below!) for her unglamorous (to contemporary readers’) femininity, but her femininity is a courage and her strength and, let’s not joke, Amy March is a true go-getter.

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Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“Anyone as selfish and determined as you is never helpless.” Husband-stealing attempts aside, Scarlett O’Hara perfectly epitomises unhindered entrepreneurial spirit and perseverance.

Despite her dubious morals, Scarlett O’Hara saves Tara and her family from being cast out of their home, and is unafraid to do whatever it takes to ensure her comfort and safety. Scarlett is stuck between a rock and a hard place when she decides to steal Frank Kennedy from her sister, Suellen, but it’s difficult to hold it against her as her marriage to Frank Kennedy ensured the safety of Tara and the O’Hara and Wilkes family which a marriage to Suellen could not have provided.

One of my all-time favourite scenes in literature is Scarlett envisioning a fashionable and elegant dress from Tara’s velvet curtains. It’s a moment which succinctly captures Scarlett’s opportunistic and resourceful nature and solidified her in the ranks of the best female characters in literature.

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Arya Stark and Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin

Yes, it is possible to be fans of both the Stark sisters. Shocker, I know.

I love Arya. She’s street-smart, determined, free-spirited and knows exactly who she is and exactly what she wants – what happened in the House of Black and White served as a stark reminder to Arya to remember who she is. We see Arya struggle to combat blind, but her relentlessness and dream of becoming a warrior as great as Visenya is finally realised. She fought, she lost, she got back up and fought again, and she won. And it was beautiful to see Arya finally letting go of her kill bill and to embrace the adventurer within her. I envy her final scene in Game of Thrones which was a striking comparison to Moana’s journey. 

Sansa, at the start of the series, holds close to her femininity and romantic ideals. She’s gentle, compliant, traditional and butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. From a pawn to a player, Sansa emerges at the end of the series with immense womanly courage, diplomatic, shrewd, an excellent and thoughtful administrator and loyal to the North and its subjects. She realises her brother’s dream of an independent North and through carefully winning the love and loyalty of the Northerner’s becomes a worthy Queen of the North. She’s the best they could ask for.

Sansa Stark was widely criticised, in the earlier seasons, for failing to take control of her circumstances and much comparison was made to the verbally adept and ambitious Margaery Tyrell. The context the two characters operate on was largely misinterpreted. Margaery came with the power and wealth of Highgarden, the Tyrell army, a skilled fighter and devoted brother in Loras Tyrell, and with ample guidance from Olenna Tyrell. Though Joffrey was violent and reckless, he understood the full measure of the role the Tyrell’s played in delivering support to the Lannister reign and was careful to not risk their much needed support. Whereas, Sansa having been raised in a morally upright and honest environment, which is also reflected in the characters of her parents Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully, was perfectly innocent to the politics in King’s Landing and kept in the dark by Ned as to the true dangers of their situation unlike Arya. As a result, Sansa was woefully unprepared to understand the realities of the game of thrones. 

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Ginny Weasley from the Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling

Ginny Weasley is one of the few characters I can imagine a friendship with. She’s sporty, fun, confident, an optimistic realist, sarcastic, honest, brave and stands up for her friends even when it might not be considered the popular thing to do. Ginny Weasley boasts an endless list of amazing attributes. One of my favourite Ginny Weasley moments is Ginny standing up for Luna Lovegood who, as readers could tell, had become so resigned to the bullying. It was heartwarming to see someone finally have the courage to stand up for Luna Lovegood, and it’s a trait that she shares with her brother, Ron Weasley and the wonderful Neville Longbottom. Here’s to Ginny Weasley, an absolute firecracker.

#damnright

Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Last but not least – the ‘Girl on Fire.’ Katniss Everdeen is the ultimate guardian; sensible, practical, cautious, grounded, responsible and resourceful. She isn’t fierce in a glamorous way, but she’s fierce in her love and compassion to others. Katniss volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place, throws a middle finger up to social politics and befriends the elderly and children, and she sees Peeta’s worthiness even when he can’t see it in himself. She is a survivor, she understands that she has to be cautious with her words and in her actions like our dear Sansa Stark keeps her true feelings to herself until it becomes safe enough to do so. Katniss Everdeen concludes this list as one of the best female characters in literature.

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Who are your favourite female characters in literature? Are you a fan of these characters? Would any of these female characters feature in your list? And who is your favourite March sister? Let me know in the comments!

Sophia Ismaa

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5 Comments

  1. I have not read Secret Garden for ages. It´s definitely time for a re-read I hardly remember it Little Women opens up differently every time when you read (like most good books). I´v become to love and appreciate all March sisters. Meg was the one who I had the hardest time to connect with when I was younger and now she is one of my favorites. Luna and Tonks are my favorites in Harry Potter books. It is pretty awesome that we have all these wonderful literal heroines.

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    1. Same! I reread it years and years ago, but I’m worried that rereading it right now would take away the magic! Little Women is one of those wonderful books where every reread reads so differently depending on what stage you’re at in life! ☺️ Meg isn’t the fanciest character, but she’s the kinda person that society needs and loves – steady, warm and reliable. Tonks is lovely too! And Luna has so much compassion and empathy that it really inspires us all to be better. 🙂

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