What exactly is a female hero — ie, a heroine? In this post and the next, I’ll put forward two possible models.
Today: The model of Hester Prynne (above, with her baby Pearl) and Demeter (below).
Even though one is a character in 19th-century American fiction and the other a Greek goddess, you may, by the end of this post, agree that they tap into the same archetype of female heroism.
So far in this series exploring heroism, we breezed through all sorts of mythical and timeless heroes, both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian). The presumption has been that they are all different and yet all the same, because they tap into archetypes of human storytelling (this is called the Monomyth theory).
But along the way we repeatedly slammed into the “problem” of women. Is there a female version of heroism?
(We’re not, by the way, just talking about an individual being brave, or admirable, or good. You can be all of those things and yet not be a hero.)
I engaged the topic with an opening salvo on Joan of Arc, but the prodigious debate that ensued in the comments taught me, and I think all of us, that we were in an intellectual cul-de-sac. We need an entirely different way of approaching the topic of feminine heroism. We cannot just graft male archetypes onto female protagonists to declare them heroines.
Female as opposed to male heroism
Implicitly, the monomyth relies on male archetypes of heroism:
- A young man proves himself to be unusual in some way, usually by passing a test by, or for, or against, his father. (For example, Theseus moves the boulder to find the sword left there by his father, King Aegeus.)
- The lad then receives a call to adventure, and follows it.
- He leaves society in an act of autonomy and individualism, crossing thresholds (for Theseus, the dangers along the road to Athens) to emphasize this separation.
- He meets women along the way, but they are probably temptresses, femme fatales or helpmates (Ariadne, for Theseus).
- He finally succeeds in his quest (in Theseus’ case, killing the Minotaur, liberating Athens), and
- returns to society, bringing it a boon (Athenian democracy).
(Now you might be able to see why I looked into the story of Joan of Arc, even though she was a historical rather than mythical character: her journey hewed closely to these male archetypes.)
A female version would look quite different. Meredith Powers apparently explored this in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature. I haven’t read it, but I listened to some lectures on mythology by Grant Voth, which he bases on Powers’ book.
Here, according to Powers and Voth, are the differences:
- Instead of some tense situation between father and son which marks the son as hero, it is now the deep connection between mother and child, and probably mother and daughter, which marks the mother, not the daughter, as the heroine.
- The ‘call to adventure‘ takes a totally different form than for men. It is probably some oppressive inflexibility in patriarchal society that threatens the mother/daughter dyad.
- In answering the call, the heroine does not leave society in an act of (male) individualism, but stays within it. As Powers puts it: “alone, apart, she accepts herself as a living critic” of her society.
- The heroine then form new bonds of solidarity with other women and
- also gives a boon to society in the process, a civilizing gift of a communitarian nature that is good for the group.
Example 1: Demeter and Persephone
Demeter was not, of course, a heroine but a goddess, but for Powers she establishes the archetype. Demeter (the Romans called her Ceres, whence our word cereal), was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She was the sister of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.
The love between mother and daughter is our archetypal starting point. So what is the call to adventure?
It comes in the form of a deal between her brothers, Hades and Zeus, whereby Hades is allowed to abduct Persephone and take her as his wife in the underworld. This is classic patriarchy: Zeus is the mightiest of the gods as well as Persephone’s father; Hades is Persephone’s uncle.
Demeter is beside herself with maternal grief and for one year becomes barren — meaning that the crops fail. Her brother Zeus realizes that he has destabilized Olympian society and tries to placate her.
But Demeter does not accept the abduction. Nor, however, does she confront or attack Zeus or Hades in a test of power. Nor does she exile herself from the Olympian family. She stays within it.
As she does so, she wins the solidarity of other women, including her (and Zeus’ and Hades’) grandmother, Gaia, and mother, Rhea. Together they sway the men to soften their stance.
Finally, they reach a compromise. Persephone is to spend half of each year with her mother and half with her husband. The first half becomes spring and summer, the second becomes autumn and winter.
Thus Demeter gives her boon to the world: It is called agriculture, and introduces the rhythms of fertility, where every death (Persephone’s departure) leads to a rebirth. Everybody is better off.
Example 2: Hester Prynne
Those of you who are American and have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, probably already see how its heroine (for that is what she is!), Hester Prynne, is really a Puritan Demeter.
Hester bears a child, named Pearl, out of wedlock in 17th-century Boston. This makes her an adulteress, so she must wear a prominent and scarlet letter A to bear the public shame.
Here, too, the archetypal love between mother and daughter is our starting point. And again, the call to adventure arrives from an inflexibility of patriarchal society: the community demands to know who Pearl’s father is. Hester goes to prison, then stands for hours on a scaffold in Boston. But she accepts the call to adventure: she does not divulge the father.
Again, Hester is, in Powers’s phrase, “alone, apart, a living critic of society.” She embroiders the Scarlet A as though to emphasize it. She does not leave Bostonian society (although she will later go to Europe before coming back). Nor does she attack it.
Instead, she reaffirms the act that created her daughter and the relationships around it.
And she changes society in the process. Years later, she returns to Boston with her boon. She does charitable work. Society now respects and admires her. Everybody is better off.