The Hero’s Journey is a common narrative trope that has its roots in ancient mythology and lore: very simply, the Hero sets forth on an adventure and through a crisis or battle is changed (think: Odysseus, Beowulf, King Arthur.) We tend to think of the Hero as a man, someone who conquers through violence, overcomes the temptations of evil women, and returns a leader – a patriarch. But literature has had its share of women heroes in abundance: Jane Eyre, Hester Prynne, Katniss Everdeen.
But what of the books that tell a quieter story, and diverge from the traditional hero’s narrative? What of the books that are quietly radical because they tell stories of the inner lives of women, women who are flawed, women who are powerless by circumstance, women who are mean, women who dream, women who refuse to be bound by society’s expectations?
These books exist, though they’re not usually considered as canonical as those that revolve around men and their battles. But, they are all the more revolutionary because of the way they dare to delve into the most feared and mysterious part of a woman – her psyche. These books tell the stories of women who challenge society’s idea of what a woman should be. Here you will find women who are not defined by their role as mother, daughter, sister, or wife. They are, simply, themselves. And in this way they are challenging, and thrilling.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Though less famous than Bronte’s portrait of the poor, obscure, plain, and little Jane Eyre, Vilette might be her greatest novel, daringly feminist for its time. Published in 1853, the novel follows narrator Lucy Snowe as she leaves behind a traumatic childhood in England to become an instructor at a French boarding school. The novel is most notable for its perceptive insight into Lucy’s interior mind and life. She is, like Bronte herself, a woman who refused to be confined by the conventions of her time. Buy it here.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
I read Gaitskill’s collection of lascivious short stories in high school, and she quickly became my literary idol. I churned out a series of angsty, faux-Gaitskill stories of my own, which were bad because, a) I was a suburban virgin and, b) I didn’t understand yet that what set these perfect pieces of writing apart was not sex, drugs, or poor decision-making. Rather, it was the author’s refusal to allow her women characters to be anything but whole. I’ve read Bad Behavior many times since entering adulthood, and I understand now that the “unlikability” of her characters doesn’t make them unique or novel. It makes them normal, like you or me. Buy it here.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
First published in 1979, Kindred is a science fiction take on the modern slave narrative. It’s similar in some ways to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (time travel, genre hopping) but somehow even better. Butler gives us Dana, a Black woman in California in 1976 who suddenly finds herself transported back in time and space to Maryland in 1815 where she saves a white boy from drowning. Kindred is unsparing in its descriptions of race and violence, and Butler renders Dana’s journey with such emotional acuity that the physical experience of reading the book can oftentimes be painful. And that’s the point. Buy it here.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
It’s safe to say that we are only slightly more comfortable with the idea of female infidelity than people were when Chopin published The Awakening in 1899, which explains the book’s longevity in the feminist canon. Edna Pontellier, trapped in a stifling life as a mother and wife, escapes domesticity to pursue her desire to be an artist. The radical aspect of the text remains, more than one hundred years later, and Chopin’s lush imagery encourages the reader to (gasp!) empathize with Edna rather condemn her. Buy it here.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
If you’ve ever used the term “gaslighting,” you have Charlotte Perkins Gilman to thank. While the phrase itself didn’t originate with her 1892 novella (that credit, as author Rachel Vorona Cote recently explained to R29, is often given to a 1938 play Gas Light), the feeling it describes — that someone is deliberately making you question your sanity — has never been more clearly explicated than here. Rooted in the medical establishment’s distrust of women as “reliable custodians of their own body,” The Yellow Wallpaper’s postpartum narrator is confined to a room by her estranged husband for what he calls her “nervous depression.” She’s instructed to quiet her mind (no books, no writing, no thinking), and is driven insane trying to prove her sanity. It’s no wonder that The Yellow Wallpaper has become more popular than ever in the era of Trump and #MeToo. Buy it here.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 as the feminist and anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The novel is told from the perspective of Bronte’s “madwoman in the attic,” Antoinette Cosway, who has been given away in an arranged marriage to a very different Rochester than Bronte fans recall. He renames his Creole wife Bertha and confines her to the attic of Thornfield Hall where, as her sanity slowly erodes, she burns it all down. And by it, I mean the patriarchy, not just Thornfield Hall. Buy it here.
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 novel is the communist, genderqueer manifesto you need in your life. Jess Goldberg, born in the 1940s in working class Buffalo as a biological woman, begins questioning their gender as a child. Readers follow Jess’s life as they search for identity; survive rape, abuse, and heartache; and finally achieves a measure of hope as an activist. Feinberg’s finely tuned examination of the intersection of gender and class — Jess is a union organizer and factory worker — is a call to action against injustice and intolerance across all lines. Buy it here.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza Cordero is a young Mexican-Americna girl growing up poor in Chicago. Her story, rendered through a series of lyrical vignettes that alternately float through your hand and punch you in the gut, captures both the universal pathos of childhood, and the specificities of life as a Latinx girl moving into womanhood.
“The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours,” Esperanza explains, early on in the book. Cisneros herself understood personally the feeling of otherness, and in this slim novella she gives voice to the push and pull of wanting to escape circumstance while also honoring heritage and identity. Buy it here.