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Anna Karenina to Claire Underwood: Why flawed heroines fascinate us

It is the women with failings and flaws, the women with all the frailty and strength that characterises the human condition, who never release their hold on our imagination.

brunch Updated: Oct 04, 2015 13:50 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
Stieg Larsson,The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,How to Get Away With Murder
Claire Danes is the only woman who can save the Homeland. (A still from Homeland season 5)

From the moment I encountered Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, I fell hopelessly in love. Her punk-rock chic; her take-no-prisoners attitude; her complete refusal to let life keep her down; and, of course, her dragon tattoo: all of it added up to a fictional heroine like no other.

Target of an abusive father, child victim of a cruel social services system, rape survivor, Salander refused to let these knock-out punches cripple her. Instead, she reinvented herself as Wasp, the mother of all hackers, took diabolical revenge on those who had hurt her, and by the end of the third book has established herself as a reclusive millionaire who lives in the shadows, emerging only when it suits her.

Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (YOUTUBE)

For me, the appeal of Salander lay in the fact that she was the Ultimate Survivor. So I guess it was, in some way, inevitable that she should survive the death of Larsson and reappear in our lives (and our bookshelves) in The Girl In The Spider’s Web, the new book in the series, written by David Lagercrantz.

I am always a bit leery when other writers take over the task of telling the stories of characters that were invented by someone else. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation when I first started reading Lagercrantz. Could he possibly do justice to Stieg Larsson? Would his Salander have the same resonance?

Well, I am halfway through Spider’s Web and I am happy to report that Lagercrantz succeeds on both counts. Salander remains the same feisty, if flawed, character who captured our imagination when she first burst on to the literary scene. She has the same fierce intelligence, the same thirst for revenge, the same scary talent, and yes, the same demons that possessed her since she was a child. For all the damage – both physical and psychological – inflicted on her, she remains undaunted, picking herself off the floor time and again, and pressing on.

But as I read about her latest adventure, I began to wonder: what is it about damaged women in fiction that fascinates us so? Not the soppy heroines, who are always mooning over the hero. Not the good girls who never put a foot wrong. Not the fairy princesses who get their happily ever after. They are not the ones who resonate with us; on the contrary, they tend to fade from memory the moment you turn the page. It is the women with failings and flaws, the women with all the frailty and strength that characterises the human condition, who never release their hold on our imagination.

A quick check with my friends threw up several names on this list. Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, who cut up dead bodies for a living; Catwoman, who is part jewel thief and part superheroine; Lady Macbeth, whose overweening ambition powers the play; Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, who metamorphoses from a beautiful young woman to a terrible creature bent on revenge; Annalise Keating, the scary super-lawyer who knows all about How To Get Away With Murder.

All good choices. But my top five list looks a little different, presented here in chronological order:

* Becky Sharp: The name says it all; this is a woman who has a sharp eye out for the main chance. In an age when a woman was judged by birth and money, Becky had neither. What she did have was beauty, wit, charm and drive. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s world, she was the anti-heroine, the fair symbol of vanity. In today’s world, she would have been running a multinational corporation.

* Anna Karenina: The dissatisfied, bored wife is a fairly routine trope of fiction. But Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina rises above the banal with her passionate, if doomed, love for Count Vronsky. There is something infuriating about her at times, and there are occasions when you want to reach into the pages and give her a good shaking. But that’s only because you have become so invested in her story.

* Carrie Mathison: She’s a CIA analyst, she’s bipolar, she’s in love with the man she hunting down, she’s a mother with zero maternal feelings, she’s the only woman who can save the Homeland. Impossibly improbable scenario? Yes. But Claire Danes makes it work.

* Amy Dunne: By the time you realize that she’s a full-on psycho, you have already succumbed to the charm of Gone Girl Amy. You stare in horrified fascination as she does the most unspeakable of things. And there’s just a tiny part of you that admires her for getting away with it.

* Claire Underwood: As the ice-queen wife to the cold conniving Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Claire’s control on her emotions is as tight as the fitted dresses she wears.

Played by Robin Wright in the American series, she is the Lady Macbeth of our times, all ruthless ambition and an eye to the main chance, but with just a soupçon of vulnerability that makes her a real character rather than a prototype.

From HT Brunch, October 4

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First Published: Oct 03, 2015 14:58 IST