When it comes to Western history and literature, women have been portrayed as characters ranging from the angel in the house to the mad woman in the attic. Every writer in Western literature, more or less, has had a woman as the subject of their inspiration, their desires or – their misogyny. Powerful women characters in the area are many; here’s a look at some of the most powerful women who have played pivotal roles in the trajectory of Western literature.
Charlotte Bronte’s iconic ‘ordinary’ woman – Jane Eyre – has been the subject of many writers’ inspiration and the receiving point of many others’ criticism. Bronte’s eponymous novel – ‘The Autobiography of Jane Eyre’ – gifted to the world a character who was powerful without being beautiful in the conventional sense of the term. Jane Eyre suffers greatly during the course of the book, but doesn’t play a damsel in distress always has herself to bounce back on. With her grit, guts and sheer determination, Jane Eyre comes across as one of the most powerful women in Western literature.
The Wife of Bath
Geoffrey Chaucer’s creation, The Wife of Bath, is undoubtedly one of the most influential characters in Western literature. Dating back to the 14th century, this woman is an icon of women empowerment – no matter how otherwise brazen she might seem. Five of her husbands die under mysterious circumstances and the woman is as unfazed as one can be. She argues, interprets misogynist texts her own way, leaves one shocked at her unabashed display of feminism.
Helen of Troy
Probably the longest of all battles in mankind, the Trojan War, has its reason embedded in this woman – Helen. The wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, when abducted by Paris of Troy, brought about a war which led to fathomless loss and destruction. Helen was the daughter of Greek gods Zeus and Leda, and the most beautiful woman in the history of mankind.
Medea was the granddaughter of the Greek sun god Helios, and when it comes to emanating radiance and power, there’s no one who can come even remotely close to her. When her husband leaves her for another woman, Medea unleashes her wrath. The Greek writer Euripides immortalised Medea in his eponymous play.
Portia is one of the most intelligent, mature and prominent heroines in William Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. She plays a pivotal role in the playwright’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ wherein she assumes the guise of a man and saves Antonio from the shrewd schemes of Shylock who wanted a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio’s body. Portia’s arguments help save Antonio’s life and her ‘pound of flesh without a drop of blood’ is a phrase that has now become one of the oft-quoted ones in English literature.
JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, though not really famous for its portrayal of women, does boast of a very powerful one. Eowyn, the woman who killed the witch-King of Angmar, is sure an embodiment of power in herself. Her undying quest to defend her countrymen leads her on to take up the guise of a man and she follows her friends into battle.
The last Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra is a woman for whom, Antony – one of the three pillars of Rome – recites: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the rang`d empire fall! Here is my space.” Immortalised in literature by William Shakespeare, Cleopatra will forever be remembered as the woman who could control an empire as powerful as ancient Rome from her seat in Egypt – thanks to her besotted lover Antony.
The bevy of powerful women in modern English literature is incomplete without the mention of the “bossy, swotty” Hermione Granger. One of the three lead protagonists of JK Rowling’s beyond-successful Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger is one girl who is a tough match for any mortal – muggle or magician! She is the best when it comes to academics, her intelligence is such that people can’t even begin to imagine its range and she leaves no stone unturned when it comes to friendship. An epitome of power – this Hermione Granger is!