The best books by European authors with female anti-heroes characters through time

The Books I Picked & Why

A Doll's House

By Henrik Ibsen

Book cover of A Doll's House

Why this book?

A controversial play because of its end. Nora Helmer is the main character, a Norwegian married woman, wife of a bank manager, and a mother of three. Her life elapses day after day without opportunities for self-fulfillment in the last decades of the 19th century. I can’t say this female character is a feminist for its time, because she lives in a world full of laws made by men; so, in this sense she is like a doll, a superficial and wasteful person, and she changes slowly from act to act; she feels empty, she contemplates killing herself and at the end of the play Nora leaves her husband and family trying to escape from a stifling male-dominated society. Although this play was not intended written as a feminist, it has a great historical value in this field. If after reading you try to imagine what kind of life she could have out of the dollhouse, then you can read Elfriede Jelinek’s play Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaften (What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband or Pillars of Society) to check if in 1984 a woman with ambitions in a capitalist background has significant changes.

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By James Joyce

Book cover of Dubliners

Why this book?

Gretta Conroy is Gabriel’s wife in the final short story The Dead by Joyce published in 1914. Although Gabriel Conroy is the main character and the most talkative in this novella, Gretta is probably well-known as the female character that ends finally a long silence. After a Christmas dinner, when they both are leaving the party, Gretta is standing at the top of the stairs and she appears lost while hearing a song. The song reminds her of a young man she was in love with. Then, she reveals her husband for the first time about Michael, he was seventeen years old; he was her first love, both were profoundly in love a long time ago; it was a genuine love and a true loss. Is it possible to continue as usual after telling this pain that comes alive again? The complexity of these emotions casts them as both as anti-heroes, and the prose of Joyce are a must-read.

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The Lover

By Marguerite Duras, Barbara Bray

Book cover of The Lover

Why this book?

The Lover was published in 1984. It is set in the French Indochina in 1929 and tells the story of a clandestine romance between an older rich Chinese man and a fifteen-year-old girl from a French family that has family difficulties. This book is not only important for the period and the love story itself, there is something more, like the way it’s narrated in the first person by the young woman, with the pain and challenges between mothers and daughters. Also on the opposite side, there is the father of the Chinese man and a society that would not accept a relationship between Asians and Europeans. The text as it was written seems alive, and I think that is because The Lover is an autobiographical book.

 Duras said some decades after their love story, that when she was famous, the Chinese man contacted her and told her by phone he still loved her. Then, when she knew he died years ago, she stopped her project and needed to write the same story a second time, in a more novelistic style, built upon her memory of her first literary creation and the pillars it established. If you loved the first, you’ll also like The North China Lover.

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The Piano Teacher

By Elfriede Jelinek, Joachim Neugroschel

Book cover of The Piano Teacher

Why this book?

Elfriede Jelinek has many anti-heroines in novels and plays, but I pick Erika Kohut, a repressed Austrian piano teacher who in her late thirties is still living under the power of her stifling elderly mother. Vienna, the city of music and great composers like Franz Schubert, is seen not only through the Vienna Conservatory but inside peep-shops that Erika frequently visits to escape from her mother. Although she is a masochist and self-mutilates, she begins a relationship with Walter, a new student, and gives him the instructions through an atypical letter. Jelinek's work makes me feel many things, not only due to her stories and characters but also the depth of her writing! The importance of her voices in novels and plays is extraordinary, her prose is satirical and very critical. She looks at their characters psychologically, from the deep of human behavior.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk, Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Book cover of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Why this book?

Janina Duszejko is a Polish mature woman that loves astronomy and she is an activist and a vegan. She lives with her two dogs in a small village in a landscape that has many hunters near the Czech border. One day, her dogs go missing, a neighbor is dead, and more dark crimes are committed. She believes that maybe animals killed the hunters. The background of this novel examines people without empathy, of a society full of avaricious, and the neglect of nature by humans. This book, through its main character and some good friends, brings a heartbreaking look at our globalized society, but still with some gaps on the map.

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