Where Is the Heroine? Thoughts on Seven Basic Plots

Guest post by David Oakes

I have just finished Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, a critical analysis of all literature from the dawn of civilization to the current day, and I am prepared to present a list of all adventure stories featuring an active Heroine, one that takes charge of her own destiny and moves the plot:

Gerda, of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, who saves her love from an eternity of doing math, and

Solveig, of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who stays in a cabin behind
an impenetrable wall until her lover finally travels all the way around the
world and is saved by her love.

The Seven Basic Plots cover
The Seven Basic Plots
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Yeah, I don’t know about that one either. But he insisted she was an active Heroine more than once. The next best choice was Ariadne, who gave Theseus some string to find his way out of the Labyrinth. Considering that in most stories, they don’t marry, and in fact she curses him for using her love and kills his dad, I am thinking not much of a role model.

Of course, Booker’s age shows as he deconstructs what has gone “wrong” with Literature over the past 200 years. His hypothesis is that as society focused on the secular, the transcendent qualities of “emotional feeling” and “seeing the whole” were marginalized. Since these are (his) traditionally “Feminine” characteristics, women were similarly marginalized.

Now to be heroes, female characters had to emulate men, which was “wrong” because this made them too Masculine and imbalanced. Of course, when male characters came into their inheritance and “saw the whole” Kingdom, ruling wisely with regards to the “feelings of others”, they were made complete. But women were just imbalanced. (Though to be fair, if men showed concern for another’s feelings outside of trying to be a wise ruler, they were “too feminine”.)

In fact, he is not only able to link this “failure” to the Romantic Movement, he pinpoints the exact beginnings of the “Persecuted Maiden” archetype: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). It then takes off in Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1787) and lasts pretty much through today. Again, he simply dismisses current trends as “wrong” and longs for a day when Men can be Men again, like during WWII. Me, I’m Hegelian, so I see it as Women on a Pedestal (Thesis), Women in the Mud (Antithesis), hopefully leading to Women as Equals (Synthesis). Only another two hundred years, right?

But barring his attempts at cultural relevance, it is still a massive undertaking of critical theory, tremendous in scope and simplicity. So I still recommend the book. Maybe just stop reading half way through.

4 Responses to “Where Is the Heroine? Thoughts on Seven Basic Plots”

  1. Lyle Says:

    I was actually in a reverse-gendered production of Peer Gynt… if the translation we followed was at all loyal I wouldn’t consider Solveig an active heroine at the least — something that becomes clearer when Solveig is played by a man.

  2. Johanna Says:

    That’s one of the reasons I wanted to post this — in the hope that those more familiar than I with the works cited would share their experiences and knowledge.

  3. Tommy Raiko Says:

    Huh. What about Greek mythology’s Atalanta, who is, in many versions of the stories, definitely an active superhero? I mean, if you’re going to look at Greek literature and fable and the vast array of heroines it affords, it seems weird to settle on Ariadne as the best example of active heroine-ism.

    Slightly more recent, what of a character like Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”? I vaguely remember hearing an interview with Jodie Foster where she mentioned that one of the reasons she was attracted to the role was because it represented a female hero’s journey, a sort of distaff version of the Hero’s Journey popularized by Joseph Campbell (and, closer to our own comic hobby, the guys behind the ACTION PHILOSOPHERS comic: http://www.eviltwincomics.com/action/images/poster-big.jpg )

  4. David Oakes Says:

    Atalanta is a strong female character to be sure, but she is never the Hero. On the Argos she is just one of many Sidekicks. (Assuming she was not banned for being a woman, as some of the stories go.) Yes, she kills the Calydonian Boar, but she does so at the behest of Meleager, who has to protect her. He is then killed for defending her, yet she does not avenge him. And in her classic story, the race with the Golden Apples, she is actually the villain!

    My guess is that, like Ripley, Booker would dismiss her as “unbalanced”, too Masculine. And unlike Ripley, I would have to agree with him. She is not just a strong woman who does need a man, she refuses to have a man and is willing to kill anyone that tries. She has to be “saved” from this condition – and brought out from the shadow of her Dark Tyrant father – by a male hero who outruns her, outwits her, and does it all for love.

    As for Clarice, Booker devotes time specifically to her place in “Silence”. Again, her seems to ague from the assumption that any strong female character is “too masculine”, and “proves” this by claiming that her prima facia Adventure story (or Male Plot) morphs itself into a Female plot about feelings to “balance” out what went wrong. I think that, like Ripley, she shows a better balance of Male and Female traits, and should be lauded as a more “integrated” character than most of her male contemporaries. But like Atalanta, she’s not the Hero. She may win the battle in capturing Buffalo Bill, but she loses the war. Ultimately she is seduced by the stronger, Male, character of Lecter. He defeats her, and goes on to take over the entire plot. I think that, in a vaccum, Clarice Starling is a great role-model for women. But in the context of “Silence”, and the meta-context of the cottage industry that sprang up around Lecter, she is just another example of females who are allowed to be strong only if they don’t completely win, as long as there is one male they can’t defeat.




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