Classic novels aren’t known to be the most woman-friendly spaces. Many were written by men before women could vote or own property, at a time when women were generally treated as second-class citizens. Wonderful as the classics can be, reading weak, uninspired female characters gets old pretty fast. The good news is that three-dimensional female characters do exist in classic literature. One way to find them? Try the Bechdel Test, which gauges how woman-friendly a work is by whether it 1) features at least two female characters, 2) whether those characters talk to each other, 3) and whether they talk about something other than a man. Herewith, three classic novels that pass the test:
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Yes, Anna Karenina is a book about an affair. But Tolstoy’s novels contain vast, detailed worlds, and Anna Karenina is concerned with much more than Anna and Vronsky’s love story. So while the women in the book—Anna, her sisters-in-law Dolly and Kitty, her friend Betsy—often talk about love, marriage, and infidelity, their conversations also expand outward. When Dolly comforts heartbroken Kitty, they begin by talking about the man who rejected her (“He’s not worth your suffering over him,” Dolly insists) but their conversation becomes one that hints at a larger issue—the pressure to marry above all else, and how it affects their lives. Elsewhere, such conversations about marriage might turn into discussions of social mores and the upper-class Russian society in which Tolstoy set the book. These moments deserve as much attention as the novel’s more well-known romantic turns.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is another book that is, on the surface, a love story—between Jane, a governess, and her employer, Mr. Rochester—but it gets much more interesting on a closer look. Jane is a gutsy and outspoken character from the beginning, and Brontë’s writing pays constant attention to how the balance of power swings back and forth between her and Rochester. Jane’s female friendships are another constant, from the moment she meets Helen Burns as a child. Later, when Jane runs away from Rochester and is homeless, she survives mainly because of her friendships with Diana and Mary Rivers. Diana and Mary nurse Jane back to health and lend her books, which the three spend long evenings discussing. Jane’s relationships with with Diana and Mary may be as important to her eventual happiness as her relationship with Rochester.
Charlotte wasn’t the only Brontë sister who wrote novels with interesting, unique female characters, by the way. Another good bet is Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the courageous main character, sick of mistreatment at the hands of her alcoholic husband, leaves him. It caused a scandal when it was published in 1848.
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway follows one woman, Clarissa Dalloway, from morning to evening as she plans a party. Much of the novel is a tour through Clarissa Dalloway’s mind, her musings on the past and on the wonder and disappointment of human existence. Even if Mrs. Dalloway didn’t contain any notable conversations between women, I would say it should, by default, pass the Bechdel Test, given how much attention Woolf pays to the experiences of her female protagonist. But there are conversations between female characters in the book too—especially involving Clarissa and her old school friend, Sally Seton, who Clarissa thinks she may once have been in love with. In her mind, Clarissa returns to the times at school when she and Sally would stay up all night, “talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world.”
What books have you read that feature strong female characters?