For too long, complex narrative arcs have been distributed unevenly. Our evil villains and deeply flawed protagonists have been almost exclusively male. When women do get a look-in, it’s often tokenistic or cliche (the trope of the overbearing mother, written in solely to justify a young male character’s anti-social behaviour, for instance). Women, the “gentler sex”, are almost always portrayed as merciful and nurturing. When they aren’t, their tactics for evil are usually reduced to “feminine wiles” – only men have been allowed to be violent, cruel, and unfeeling.
However, with growing awareness of that imbalance has come a growing demand for “bad women” in literature: women who are mean, ugly, ungrateful, indulgent, deviant, and different. Just this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Girl On The Train, narrated by a notoriously unreliable and unlikeable black-out alcoholic. I love seeing this particular pendulum swing back!
Now, I don’t mean to imply that all fiction prior to the 21st century was a barren landscape of retiring women. In fact, some of my favourite bad women are buried way back in the canon of the classics. It’s just that they were so infrequent as to be almost invisible. Finally, some of them are starting to see the light of day. In celebration of that, I’ve put together a list: the best “bad women” in fiction.
From Matilda by Roald Dahl
This is the first example that I can recall from a book of my childhood, the incomparable Matilda. Miss Trunchbull struck fear in the hearts of children everywhere. She was a cruel and exacting despot, ruling with the iron fist over Matilda’s school and standing in stark contrast to beloved teacher Miss Honey. “The Trunchbull” laughed in the face of the maternal sensitivities often written onto female characters by default; she openly hated children (“I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting, they are the bane of my life”) and found increasingly creative ways to punish and torture them. I was terrified of her as a child, but the older I got the more I came to appreciate and respect her violation of the “rules” for women. She was ugly, brash, fiercely un-maternal, and she did not give a fuck what anyone thought.
Rebecca “Becky” Sharp
From Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Admittedly, I didn’t love Vanity Fair. The first few hundred pages were good, but the rest was a total snooze-fest. The only redeeming feature towards the end was Becky Sharp, the cunning, manipulative social climber. Granted, she definitely used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted (Thackeray was a man of his time, after all) but at least she was completely unapologetic about it. She had no compunction about luring men into her trap, and standing on their shoulders to get to the top of the social ladder. Becky wasn’t afraid to do the “wrong” thing; perhaps not a universally admirable trait, but in this case it got Becky a far happier ending than any of the other miserable sods in Vanity Fair. Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.
From Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Emma Bovary had the audacity to become intolerably bored with the banal domestic life that her society had deemed “appropriate” for her. Over the course of Madame Bovary, she descends into a spiral of alcohol, adultery, and debt, culminating in her suicide. I suppose we could call her selfish and shallow; after all, she puts a hell of a dent in her husband’s finances to buy herself pretty things. But a more sympathetic reading shows her to be a caged bird, beating her wings and struggling to get free from her stifling, prescriptive life. As far as “bad women” go, she was the first one to make me think “There but for the grace of God”…
From Sula by Toni Morrison
It takes a while for the character of Sula to emerge in Morrison’s critically acclaimed book Sula, but it’s worth the wait. Sula completely disregards every expectation of a woman in her position, and openly rejects the social conventions so determinedly upheld by her community. She defies gender roles, she is promiscuous, she is “disfigured” by a birthmark, and she is, above all, deeply independent. Sula has been hugely influential in the development of feminist literary criticism, and the titular character is something to behold.
Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo
From My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Lila from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a bad woman in the making (a “bad girl” I suppose). Admittedly, she is very beautiful and charismatic, which buys her a certain kind of privilege, but she is also cruel, irreverent, manipulative, and overtly sexual. In the context of a poor town outside of Naples, Lila’s self-determination and bravery is all the more commendable. Over the course of the rest of the Neapolitan novels, her relationship with the narrator Elena – and her relative “bad”ness – ebbs and flows, but at the end of the day, she’s bad but brilliant, all the way through. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Countess Ellen Olenska
From The End Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The “badness” of women is a relative concept, of course. Countess Olenska’s indiscretions in The Age of Innocence might seem laughably benign to us today, but in her own time she was the height of scandal. The way that she spoke, her unconventional tastes, her lack of concern for social convention (clutch my pearls!), and her willingness to think for herself set her apart from the society wives of New York in the 1870s. Wharton wrote Countess Olenska masterfully, combining her brazenness and her tolerance with a deft hand. A bad woman ahead of her time! Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.
From Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Fun fact: Tolstoy originally wrote Anna Karenina as a hideously ugly woman, in hopes of making the reader find her as disgusting as he initially did. As he wrote, he found her more and more redeemable, and that’s how she ended up a great beauty. In almost every other respect, though, she remains a bad woman. She seeks love in an affair outside of her marriage, and neglects her children (the “baddest” thing a woman can do). She indulges her own whims and desires in a way that Tolstoy intended for us to find repugnant, but there’s something irresistible about a woman who so determinedly sets fire to her own life. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.
I must add a couple of honourable mentions: Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, and Irene Adler of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both worthy of the respect we should afford to all bad women. Are there any others I’ve missed? Who are your favourite bad women in fiction? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
July 13, 2018 at 9:00 AM
Lydia Gwilt from Armadale by Wilkie Collins springs to mind. As he was writing his novel in serial parts, her diary was inserted at one point and took over the narrative more and more, such a compelling character was she. Plus she has the perfect name for a villain.
July 13, 2018 at 12:01 PM
Ooooh yes, she’s a good one!!! Nice job 😉
July 13, 2018 at 12:57 PM
Scarlett O’Hara is my favourite bad woman in fiction. She’s selfish, uncaring, in love with a married man for the whole book and not a very good mother. But she’s also courageous, resourceful and a fighter. For all her ‘bad’ qualities, I can’t help but admire her. I liked your list as well.
July 14, 2018 at 10:15 AM
YES!!! She is so self-involved, even during the war with the world falling apart around her, and yet she saves the day, and saves herself, every time. I found it so refreshing to see a non-maternal woman in that role, too – sure, she loved her kid, but she wasn’t cut out to be a mother, and that was abundantly clear. Excellent call, Jane! 😀
July 14, 2018 at 6:45 AM
Great Post and great list. With that I still need to read some of these books. I would add Lizzie Eustace of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds. She really was a magnificent literary creation.
July 14, 2018 at 10:20 AM
Ooooh, another excellent addition, Brian! I’m really glad I made this little list, I’m getting some great suggestions for more bad women, perhaps they’re not quite as rare as I first believed? 😉
July 15, 2018 at 4:03 AM
Oh I LOVE this list! My favorite thing about Reese Witherspoon is that she is dedicating her life it seems to making movies and TV series exclusively about mean dysfunctional women. It’s the best.
July 15, 2018 at 1:12 PM
YES!!! She is doing a fantastic job. I saw her once giving this amazing speech where she said she was sick of watching movies where a woman turns to a man and says “What do we do now?”, because she has never seen that happen once in real life – all the women she knows and loves are the ones saying “THIS is what we’re going to do now”, and that was the impetus for creating her production company. Seeing women on screen who are mean and dysfunctional, but also powerful and determined, is amazing! <3
July 19, 2018 at 12:59 PM
This is a great list. Miss Trunchbull was so terrible, and so well cast! On the surface, she seems like the wrong person for the job, but she might’ve considered herself the perfect person, if said job involves freedom to bully many sensitive young hearts and get away with it. I read Vanity Fair years ago, and remember thinking Becky was ahead of her time in being unscrupulous to do what she thought best for herself. Apart from Anna, I haven’t read those other ladies, although I know them well by reputation. I like your summaries, and look forward to more.
July 19, 2018 at 3:52 PM
Oh, Paula! My Brilliant Friend is a *must* read for you then! I finished it just recently, my review’s coming soon, but Lila is a force to be reckoned with and MY GOODNESS THE WRITING – I can honestly count on one hand the number of times a book has captured me like this. Highly recommend it for you, I think you’d be equally blown away!!
July 23, 2018 at 9:52 PM
That’s so cool, I must take you up on that. Sadly, I walked past a copy of My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name (I think) at the second hand shop, while I was doing a self-denial thing, and trying to save money. I wished I’d gone back for them several times. But now you’ve given me this recommendation, I’ll find a copy somehow 🙂
July 24, 2018 at 10:44 AM
Yep, The Story of A New Name is the second one in the Neapolitan series (I think). I’m going to be going through and reviewing the rest of the series once I’ve made it through this List (so in about a century or so hahaha). That book-not-buying regret is the worst!! Got my fingers crossed you come across another copy v.v. soon! <3
July 21, 2018 at 4:42 AM
Man oh man I’ll never forget the fear Miss Trunchbull struck in my heart as a kid! It’d be a fun experiment to go back and reread Matilda now and see if I feel any differently!
July 22, 2018 at 10:39 AM
I must say, the older I get, the more I start to understand and even (gasp!) relate to the “evil queens” that scared me as a kid. The Wicked Witch of the West is one – I’m still horrified by what she did to Toto, but I can kind of understand her rage. Some kid drops in from Kansas, kills her sister, then takes off with her birthright… doesn’t seem fair. Let me know how you go with Trunchbull 😉