Do you need a plucky young girl protagonist to make a classic?

Apr 26, 2013
What causes a book to resonate with an audience? What make a book a classic? I was listening to the Slate Audio Book Podcast on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when this every question came up. The question was posed: Do you need a plucky young girl who doesn’t follow the rules of her society to make a beloved classic? Admittedly there is a lot of antidotal evidence on bookshelves and reading lists across the world that point to the answer being yes. Take Pride and Prejudice to start. Had Lizzie Bennett been a good and dutiful daughter of her age, she would have become Mrs. William Collins. Both she and — let’s be honest, all of us – would have missed out on her great love story. What others saw as pragmatism, Lizzie saw as compromise. Lizzie Bennett followed her own rules, staked a claim in her own life and ultimately lived a life that made her happy. In literature she is by far not the only one. If Alice from Alice in Wonderland had been a good girl, she never would have followed a white rabbit in a waist coat down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. If Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God didn’t hold on to the dreams that she wanted for herself and instead embraced what other people wanted for her, would we remember her? If Jo March from Little Women had been less of a tomboy and more refined young woman, would we have adored her as fiercely as we do today? There is something refreshing about a girl who looks at her world and says I have my own path and I want to walk it. Those are the characters that are timeless. It isn’t just the classics that have this appeal. Look at the wonderful characters that we have today. Lyra Silvertongue from the His Dark Materials trilogy, Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games trilogy and June Costa from this month’s book club selection The Summer Prince are the girls that we will remember for their grit and for stealing both the hearts and the imagination of readers for years to come. If it wasn’t for the heroines these books, while all beautifully crafted, may not hold the same impact today as they do then. They hold a place on our shelves because we can’t imagine our literary lives without them and maybe just because we can’t imagine a childhood where we didn’t hope that we were like them. What do you think? Do you need a strong female protagonist with a knack for ignoring the rules to make a classic? Do you find that the books you love have a strong female character? Which is your favorite female protagonist? Tell us in the comments.