Why Pamela? Fiction and the Passive Heroine

The passive heroine has made a come-back! This is good and bad.

Fiction is filled with passive heroines. Arguably, there is reason for this; until the last 200 years or so, women in history have had very few rights. But then, for the last 200 years or so, most men also have had very few rights. This didn't stop authors from creating powerful, realistic characters, including women (legalities aside, women throughout history have lived to the fullness of their personalities and situations, not to the fullness of their lives compared to our lives).

Still, I think it is safe to say that just as the 19th century saw a preponderance of "good child" fiction where sweetly children overcame their faults and got a pat on the head, much of history has seen a preponderance of passive fictional heroines.

Until contemporary feminism made this a big no-no. All heroines were supposed to be tough and heroic and outspoken, etc. etc. Romances of the 70's and 80's got criticized for making their heroines too ready to fall at the feet of domineering men.

And I have to admit that 80's romances can be rather grating, partly for this reason and partly because they are so darn humorless.

On the other hand, the "fix"--to create unrelentingly aggressive and "I must be assertive in all circumstances" heroines--was just as grating. I've read romances where my main response was to yell, "Run! Run for your life!" at the hero. Nobody, man or woman, wants to spend an entire marriage being called on his or her slightest remarks for the sake of one-upmanship. Even Elizabeth learns to temper her cutting remarks; she can hurt Darcy a great deal more than he can hurt her.

Now, I believe, we have entered a time when it's possible to understand and respect this: not all couples MUST be the alpha working man paired with the alpha working woman! In general, fictional heroines seem more varied in character--and much funnier. It's as if Jane Austen finally won.

Really won! A great many fictional heroines these days are not interested in jobs or education or self-knowledge (for its own sake); like good 18th/19th century heroines, they are focused on marriage. To justify this, modern writers trap heroines in situations beyond their control:  historical time frames, relationships with vampires, situations where they are unable to change their circumstances. The plot is about survival, not social progress. 

I think there is something fundamentally honest about this. To an extent, possibly due to social role-playing, women still feel somewhat trapped by biology. And possibly men do to, but this post is about women. When Camille Paglia points to modern medicine as the ultimate instrument of equality, she is absolutely right. There's a reason my grandmother told my mother that "birth control is a gift from God." However, Phyllis Schlafly was also absolutely right that telling women to cut out aspects of their biology (such as child-bearing) is a fairly unrealistic solution to the problems of patriarchy and paternalism.

Between these two perspectives (don't be held back by biology; embrace your biology), women have to maneuver cleverly and carefully. I'm all in favor of this. And if it means adopting passive roles now and again, I'm okay with that too.

The downside, from my perspective, is that now that women are allowed to say that they want to be taken care of, the passive heroine has flooded the market. On the one hand, I think passivity is a natural female fantasy: to have someone else do the laundry and raise the kids and initiate relationships. It isn't that they want to be controlled; they just get tired of the work. (I think it is fair to say that women do feel not more of a desire to be responsible--which desire is human and individual--but more of an obligation to be involved. Which is why they get married, so they can say, "I'm sorry, but my husband doesn't want us to go.")

On the other hand, with the surge of passive heroines, you get stuff like Twilight where the heroine is more passive than toast and consequently, more boring than spam.

I've pondered where the line lies between the interesting passive heroine and the boring-as-dirt passive heroine. The first I admire; the second I detest.

To me, Pamela contains a great passive heroine/narrator. Even at the time of publication, critics argued that Richardson's heroine could just remove herself from Mr. B's house (although the critics weren't upset about her staying for feminist reasons; they were upset because Pamela didn't behave like a "good" servant). However, what even Fielding failed to appreciate was how limited Pamela's options truly are. In the 18th century, female servants were supposed to be servile and impoverished or sluts (and impoverished). Pamela doesn't want to be servile, impoverished, or a slut. Her constant calculation of expenses and belongings isn't manipulative; it is desperate. This is the age of no credit cards, no welfare, and no sexual harassment laws where debts could land you in jail.

But the thing that makes Pamela great is not the heroine's lack of options. Her lack of options is a given. What makes Pamela great is the heroine's wit and willingness to defend what she perceives as her core personality.

One of the difficulties with Pamela is how much of the wit is lost in the lecturing. But Richardson was a truly masterful writer. However much he loves to preach, he can't keep Pamela's character from creeping through--and what creeps through is consistent. Behind all the verbiage is a powerful voice that will not be shut up, NOT because Pamela is particularly aggressive (although she is far more assertive than she paints herself) but because her voice comes across as genuine and presents an intelligent, interesting, and passionately held point-of-view.

The genuineness of the voice, to me, is what makes the difference between good passive heroine fiction and bad passive heroine fiction. It isn't about telling people off (which too many romance writers, unfortunately, assume). It's about letting the reader into the heroine's head, letting the heroine speak, letting us see her internal conflicts. And if she is witty about it--all the better.

Here is a list of novels where the heroine, is unable to control her circumstances due to conditions and/or personality (i.e. for all or part of the book, she is a victim), yet still manages to endear herself to the reader and make a life for herself:

Celine by Brock Cole
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Wyrms by Orson Scott Card
Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale


Mathew Park said...

Passive Heroes and Heroins, as a whole, to me are more interesting. Though I am a fan of the much older, HEROIC works, where in the hero (undoubtedly male) is master of his environment, slaughters all his opponents and comes across no set back he cannot overcome ( think mythological: Hercules, Odysseus, basically anyone greek) in modern fiction it just doesn’t work. It to an extent is like watching McGuiver; You know he is going to be able to stop the nuclear bomb with just a tooth pick four ounces of flat coke and the soundtrack to Gone With the Wind; you’re not really on the edge of your seat to see if he will survive.
With Passive characters there is always that looming threat that any looming threat is just going to wipe them out. The difference, for me though is why they are passive. Are they passive by nature? Do they know this nature? There are also more than one type of passivity. You mentioned twilight, so I can as well. I have not read the books but have seen enough of the movies to understand that Bella Swan is someone who lets the currents of others sweep her about, pushing herself along a path she has no control over; more importantly she does not take steps to control it. Jane Eyre on the other hand, yes to some degree she is being pushed by outside forces towards the goal they want her to do, but you always feel that she doesn’t want it. She is not so much passively waiting to see how she will end up, but rather biding her time till she can seize control of the situation ( and yes, sometimes seizing control means walking into the moors haphazardly hoping things are better in the mist)

Kate Woodbury said...

I think passive heroes/heroines can be more interesting than the "I go out into the world and . . . do stuff" hero/heroine. I've always had a yen for the "caught on an island" plot (or, in mysteries, the "murder in a manor house during a snow storm" plot).

My interest lies in the "What if?" factor. What if characters were caught in THIS type of situation? The writer establishes the variables; okay, how do the characters survive/meet the challenge?

I discuss this type of plot in an earlier post, which can be found here.