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Heroines in English Literature

Updated on November 28, 2016

Succeeding in a Hindering Male World

Every great novel, story, or play has a hero/heroine rising above all to achieve certain goals. As readers we always enjoy reading about our heroes/heroines defeating the cosmos and winning the battle, but sometimes that isn't always the case. In some literature the hero/heroine must die or make some kind of sacrifice in order to fight for what they want. The sacrifice is mainly of the self for the good o a nation, gender, or race. Three pieces of literature that I will be examining are The Widow of Crescentius a poem by Felicia Hermans, The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollenstonecraft, and Valperga or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley. Three women heroines I've read about in these works made sacrifices to achieve their goals. They challenged a man's world, died, and fought for their causes and in my opinion paved the way for many other women. These characters include Stephania, Maria, and Euthnasia.

The Widow of Crescentius by Felicia Hermans

Stephania's ultimate goal was to avenge her husbands' murder. Her goals were mainly fueled by anger and pain, but that makes for a better avenger and victim. We see how important her husband was to her in lines 33-42 of part 2. Hermans writes:

Time may steal on with silent tread,
And dry the tear that mourns the dead;
May change fond love, subdue regret,
And teach e'en vengeance to forget:
But thou, Remorse! there is no charm,
Thy sting, avenger, to disarm!
Vain are bright suns and laughing skies,
To sooth thy victim's agonies:
The heart once made thy burning throne,
Still, while it beats, is thine alone.

The passage proves how driven Stephania was in her vengeance and shows her angst. These lines also refer to her not only as a avenger, but as a victim which helps the readers sympathize with her situation and set aside right and wrong to justify her poisoning of Otho. The passage is also stating how no matter what she will never stray from her goal and that is to kill her husbands' killer at whatever costs. I believe she is successful I achieving her goal because she does kill Otho. But what makes her successful and honorable is when she confesses to everyone that yes she did it. In lines 273-278 Stephania confesses and says that Otho wasn't the hero her husband was. She also hits on how she played the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Stephania refused to let any kind of court system try Otho for his crime, and instead takes on a female Batman role and seeks her own justice, for "The Roman fell, unired, unheard!" (line 278). She didn't care about what happened to her; all she cared about was vengeance and telling her story. By admitting guilt se was showing just how far she would go for her love and for seeking the truth, even if that meant death.

Felicia Hermans


The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollenstonecraft

Maria had to alter her goals in order to achieve them, but on some level she was successful. Maria stood by what he believed until the very end, even after being put into an institution and having her child stripped from her arms. Her goal was to be free from her husband, but as her story went on her goals changed simply because she saw that marriages hindered women from being free. Maria's husband treated her like an object that he could use however he wanted. On page 162 Maria stands up to her husband for treating her like an object: "you dare now to insult me, by selling me to prostitution!". Here we see her anger towards her husband for showing no respect for her as either his wife nor the mother of his child; to him she is just a way to make money. In my opinion Maria didn't fail because in the end she was free from her husband, plus took a stand for women in general. I believe that after meeting women who gave her shelter when she fled caused her to change her goals and led her to defending the rights of all women during her court appearance. In chapter 17 she compares marriages to enslavement, "I yet submitted to the rigid laws which enslave women," this shows her anger towards the institution of marriage at this time period. Maria carries the qualities and goals of a woman hero even though she had to change her plans in order to accommodate a male dominating society.


Valperga by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley

Euthanasia in a way achieves her goals as well, but allows her feminine qualities to be her down fall. She does possess true goals of a woman hero because she was looking out for the best interest of her people throughout the book. She never gave in to her own desires, but instead choose to stand up for a nation. Euthanasia knows that one day Valperga will fall into the hands of a dominant leader, but she won't let her castle go without a fight. On page 134 in chapter 12 or so, she admits that an alliance would benefit her, but not the welfare of her people: "Valperga must one day fall into the bands of the Lucchese; but, if I had at any time made an alliance with them, I should have destroyed the present happiness of my people; there would have been war instead of peace, instead of concord and plenty, party agitations and heavy taxes. This, my friend, must be my excuse for my tyranny; but, when the alliances between you an the Florentines can be sure, when Lucca is as peaceful and happy as Valperga, believe me, I will no longer arrogate a power to which I ought not to have a pretension." Euthanasia is telling Castruccio that, when his kingdom and people are at peace, only then will she agree to an alliance She is very strong-mined on the fate of her people and refuses to allow any other ruler to advise her t stray from her goal of helping her people. Even though she is a warm good-hearted woman, she is naïve and has one flaw that allows her to fail. Her ultimate failure was allowing Castruccio to gain so much access to her and her castle. Castruccio is a man who looks for ways to benefit himself and uses Valperga's weakness, the fountain, to take down the castle and also Euthanasia. In the scenes about the fountain it is very intimate and vulnerable, much like a woman's emotions. In a way the fountain is a symbol of women's weaknesses which men prey on and use for their own personal gain. Euthanasia often ventured to her fountain in order to reflect and allow her self to be vulnerable. On page 242, she is at her fountain reflecting on her many thoughts of the world and others whom she holds dear. Her fountain helps her feel closer to the world and connect with all around her: "these were sights and feelings which softened and exalted her thoughts; she felt as if se were a part of the great whole; she felt bound in amity to all; doubly, immeasurably loving those dear to her, feeling a humanizing charity even to the evil." In this passage she is taking in nature and embracing it for what it is. Maybe she wishes Castruccio would embrace her the way she does her fountain because in the next few sentences of this passage she begins to cry and become vulnerable. She weeps because she is torn between her love and what's right: "Euthanasia wept; like a child she wept,-but there was none near to whom she could tell the complicated sensations that overpowered her:", she is battling within herself what to choose her love or her people. This passage shows that she doesn't have anyone to converse with o she looks to her garden, her fountain. The passage goes on to say, "she became sad, and looked up on the many-starred sky; her soul uttered silently the bitter complaint of its own misery." Euthanasia is relating her situation to the world around her fountain and by doing this, the reader notices the connection of her vulnerability and the placement of the fountain in relation to the rest of her castle. Even though she struggles with this battle of fighting for what's right and her love she ultimately makes the right decision and chooses Valperga over Castruccio: "I will never willingly surrender my power into his hand: I hold it for the good of my people, who are happy under my government, and towards whom I shall ever perform my duty. I look upon him as a lawless tyrant, whom every one ought to resist to the utmost of their power; nor will I through cowardice give way my injustice.........but, if he attack me, I shall defend myself,..." (page 272). Euthanasia stands up for what's right and finally sees Castruccio for what he really is, a power hungry tyrant. She refuses to give up her position and her castle. When she makes the decision to defend her people over her desire to be in love she becomes a woman hero.

Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley



In conclusion, when a woman hero sacrifices herself for the good of the people she becomes powerful and honorable. The characters Stephania, Maria, and Euthanasia are women who should be honored for achieving their goals and defending themselves as well as others. Each of these women writers uses their heroines to illustrate how women of their time had many obstacles to overcome in their society. In each of their stories these women rose above the hypocrisy of a man's world and paved the way for their women readers to follow in their footsteps.


The Widow of Crescentius (poem) by Felicia Hermans

Wollenstonecraft, Mary. Mary The Wrongs of Woman. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Shelley, Mary W. Curran, Stuart ED. Valperga or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. Oxford University Press, 1997.


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