Buckle up for a ride through some irreverent, snarky, and generally Not Very Nice batch of messages I wish I could send to the heroines of classical novels.
I know some literary figures better than I know my friends. My mother raised me on books and so I grew up alongside fictional girls and women who inspired, educated, entertained and, yes, provoked me. I’ve changed throughout the years and I’ve always returned to them to see how they changed, too. Believe me, the Anna Karenina you read about in high school is not the same Anna Karenina you encounter at thirty.
And sometimes, I just want to reach out to these beloved characters and say, girl, wtf???
Nevertheless, it was their mistakes that made them into fully realized human beings. Better yet, their foibles have helped deepen and ennoble the minds of generations of readers. Having known these chicks all my life, I’ve come to cherish and admire them all. And, hopefully, understand them just a little. I consider each a guide and a friend.
Well, all except Dorothea Brooke. She’s just completely awful.
1. Emma Woodhouse from Emma by Jane Austen
Oh, Emma. I don’t even know where to begin. Is it your self-delusion? Your conceitedness? Your patronizing condescension to people who aren’t rich or hot? Ooooh, I know. Maybe it’s your determination to marry off your poor BFF Harriett to a gold-digging snob who doesn’t even know she exists, nearly ruining her life in the process. And when hitching Harriett to Mr. Elton doesn’t work, you try to marry her off to Frank Churchill. Only he doesn’t care about her, either. So, natch, you think, hey, how about that young Mr. Coxe? He’s a lawyer and that makes him a catch. Listen to me carefully, Emma: Leave. Harriet. Alone. Step away from her love life and go make your dad some gruel.
2. Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
This is going to absolutely astonish you, but you are not as cool as you think you are. Hear me, Brett? You are not that cool. I don’t even care that you have “curves like the hull of a racing yacht” (???). All you do is buy clothes and drink and party and blow money you never earned. You’re really just an Instagram influencer, posting filtered #nofilter #blessed pics of your manicure. You are not strong and independent. You’re a spoiled jerk, completely dependent on the validation of men you don’t even respect. Taking off to Spain with Cohn, who has self-esteem issues and is naive enough to love you? So not cool. And doing it while engaged to Mike, who’s also naive enough to love you? Even less cool. And then you complain to Jake that you’re depressed: “Darling, I’m so miserable.” Well, darling, maybe that’s because there’s more to life than being sexy.
3. Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
There was only one page on which I didn’t like you. Let’s talk about Joe Starks. Sure, he was flirty and sexy when you met, but then he became arrogant and controlling and ultimately abusive. Why on earth did you stay with him for twenty years? You left Logan after, like, a week, and he wasn’t even that bad. He was just bossy and you told him to quit that shit stat. But Joe actually yelled at you and was super possessive for years and you just stood there and pretended it’s all good. But when he’s on his deathbed, you suddenly decide it’s a great idea to discuss how he’s been a worthless human being all his life? Everything you said is true, of course. But Janie, the man is dying. He’s is horrible pain and he’s croaking for you to please just go away while you keep listing all the ways he sucks until he literally dies. Um. Maybe now is not a good time? Telling him all this stuff isn’t just pointless because it’s way too late, it’s also kind of mean. There’s a lesson here for all passive-aggressive communicators who sulkily “I’m fine” their way through life: don’t wait until people are in the exact middle of kicking the bucket before finally speaking up and admitting you’re mad. But, hey, at least you got to keep the store, amirite?
4. Anna Karenina from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
So. Many. Questions. Why did you marry Karenin? Why did you lie to poor Kitty? Why did you lie to poor Dolly? Why are you friends with Backstabby Betsy? Why are you so obsessed with trying on dresses? Why don’t you love your daughter? Why did you abandon your son? Why did you become a possessive control freak? What let you to the conclusion that drugs and suicide are the answers to first world problems? And omg why why WHY didn’t you divorce Karenin? You complained for like fifty million chapters about how desperately you wanted to divorce DH so you could gallop off into the sunset with Vronsky. Then Karenin finally realized that once a cheater always a cheater and was all “Kk cool let’s just get a lawyer up in here to finalize that divorce right quick,” and Vronsky immediately barges in looking fine with the sunset gallop all saddled up and ready to go and you… said no??? (*insert confused cat gif*) But why??? I don’t understand. Nobody understands. You’re insane. Yes, we know, society is stupid and treated you like dirt. But you’re insane.
5. Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Your life is one endless champagne brunch, isn’t it? That’s you over there, presiding over the vegan, gluten-free avocado toast in a white Ferragamo dress, idly examining the 20-carat diamond boulder on your dainty finger. You just had your hair done. Your toenails are painted a tasteful Essie Nude. You have a massage booked for 3 p.m., followed by a hot yoga sesh at the boutique studio downtown. Let’s toast to your hydrofacial ending in time for you to pick up Skylar from the groomer’s. Then it’s drinks with the girls at the swank new jazz lounge. Is your name on the guest list? You’re smirking. It better be. Yes, we all envy you, Daisy, but much less than you think we do. And definitely much less than we dislike you. Your husband is evil. You murdered poor Myrtle. And you know what? Gatsby could have done better. Daisy? Are you even listening?? Oh nooes is that a split end?!
6. Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch by George Eliot
Confession time: this one’s about Dorothea rather than to her because I refuse to speak to her. She is the only character on this list whom I actually cannot stand. I think it’s partly because we’re supposed to be soooo enamored with her. Eliot certainly is. Every other paragraph we’re reminded that Dorothea is so noble! So good! So compassionate! So self-sacrificing! Why, because she sits in her fancy mansion and draws pretty cottages for poor people?? Who’s going to build those cottages, Dorothea? Have you thought about that? Of course not. Unlike Mary Garth, who wants to become a teacher, Dorothea doesn’t actually ever do anything. She just makes plans and cries a lot. We’re supposed to feel sorry for her because she decides to marry useless old Casaubon. For some reason, everyone else in the book can see that he’s a total loser. But we’re supposed to think that Dorothea is victimized by a marriage that literally EVERYONE ON THE PLANET tried to talk her out of. What does her shriveled husband do that’s so horrible, you ask? He won’t let her help with his stupid book. Yes, seriously. Oh no, now poor rich Dorothea doesn’t get to write notes for the big research project and oh my god bitch please. Some people have real problems. Dorothea is as self-indulgent and hypocritical as Lydgate, only unlike him, she doesn’t get permanently stuck with her stupid choices.
7. Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
My Dear Cathy,
Any lit critic that calls you “free-spirited” would clearly mistake Satan for a hippie just as long as the Dark One was wearing Birkenstocks. Why? Because you are exactly what people mean when they say, “I hate drama.” Except multiplied by four hundred million. And also because you’re a sociopath. If Heathcliff is essentially Jay Gatsby From Hell with a big mansion on the hill but none of the fun times, then you’re pretty much the dad in The Shining, but without the parental instinct. I’m not even exaggerating. You know that iconic scene when he hacks through the door and yells “Heeeere’s Johnny?” and it’s absolutely terrifying? That’s you, Cathy, smashing your creepy hands into windows even though you’re dead. Just what are you so tormented by, anyway? You want Heathcliff? He’s probably lurking right behind you and drooling. You want Edgar? He’s gonna be here any minute, with a corsage and a big fat check. You want pretty dresses, a garden, pudding? Take them! Everything is just handed to you anyway. But no, what you really want is endless, open-mouthed admiration. Also, you want to do cartwheels on the moors. In the freezing rain. At night. Alone. But with somebody watching. And to slink through the neighborhood howling like a coyote, keeping honest folks up at night with their rifles cocked and the police on speed dial.
Please don’t haunt me.
8. Liza Khokhlakova from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Lise, I really can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might be even more disturbing than Catherine Earnshaw. Why? Because you want to crucify a baby just to watch it die. So, yeah, I don’t think we’re gonna be friends.
9. Helen of Troy from the Iliad of Homer
Okay, so you left your husband because you fell in love. I get it. Paris was hot. But, like, what about your daughter, Hermione? Remember her? There’s this thing called parental responsibility. I guess she was just supposed to hang out and raise herself while you took off for ten years? And, hey Hel, what was up with walking around the Trojan horse and trying to freak out all the guys inside by mimicking the voices of their wives? Those were your Greek friends in there, and you tried to betray them right after you helped Odysseus sneak out of Troy! Can you say mixed signals? Aside from being completely treacherous, it’s cruel. Unlike you, these poor dudes liked their spouses. Oh, and don’t get me started on the drugs you like to secretly mix into people’s drinks whenever the conversation lags, you creep.
10. Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Isabel, I have just two words for you: Lord Warburton. In case you were too busy admiring a painting to hear me, I’ll say it again: Lord Warburton! Smart, charming, handsome, loaded, kind, and totally admires and respects you. Hello?? If English gentlemen aren’t your thing, Caspar Goodwood was a sweet fellow in the all-American football hero style. He respected you, too. But noooo, you had to go and marry that conniving weasel of a man, Osmond, who took your cash, lied to you, and screwed you over. WHY DIDN’T YOU LEAVE HIM??? Remember how at the beginning of the book you were going to travel and “experience life” and go to lots of museums and be single forever? #singleladiesftw That was a good idea. Can we go back to that idea? Or if you needed a pal, you could have taken off with Henrietta. Or, hell, gone to live with your nice auntie in the big house with the garden in England. She would have taken you back. But you just had to be a martyr, didn’t you? I threw the book at the wall when you said on the last page, “The world is very small.” Yes, it is. But not as small as your courage.
P.S. Yes, I am aware that many of these novels were making an extra-literary point with the characterizations they deliberately employed. I’m not stupid.
P.P.S. If you haven’t read the books and want to have an opinion about, say, Natasha Rostova because you’ve watched the BBC version of War and Peace, I’m not here to reassure you that watching TV is just as good as reading and that only salty hipsters will insist that the book is better and you do you.
Look, the book is better. Okay? The book is better.