Courage is a more nuanced thing than we are led to believe at first glance. We admire the Hermione Grangers and Katniss Everdeens for taking a stand against the tyranny of their respective days, but it’s easy to be brave when evil stares you so blatantly and concretely in the face. It’s arguably much harder to be courageous in the face of the kind of cruelty and oppression that’s insidious, the everyday horrors that have worked their way into the culture and institutions and points of view that characterize our times. Sometimes it takes more guts to tell your husband — the man who crushes your spirit every time he opens his mouth bu also controls all your property, your money, your life, essentially — that you’re leaving anyway than it does to shoot a couple of arrows during a war set in a dystopian future. So here’s to our favorite heroines in the unconventional sense of the term, and to remembering that courage comes in all shapes, sizes and situations.

P.S. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list. Let us know in the comments which characters deserves to be included with the ones below.

Lolita, who at twelve years old is effectively kidnapped and forced to be the love-slave of an adult man obsessed with "nymphets," is perhaps one of the most heart-breaking victims featured in a novel in recent times. Not only does she suffer physical abuse at the hands of Humbert Humbert, she suffers spiritual abuse of the deepest and most literal kind: her spirit, her identity, is erased as Humbert tries to possess her and reinvent her as the version he imagines and wants her to be. But Lolita survives, first through little tricks of managing Humbert to make her captivity more bearable, and then by actually escaping him. She tries to build her own life outside of her past with Humbert, creating a future from the past he stole from her. Here, she is portrayed by Dominique Swain in the 1997 adaptation also starring Jeffrey Irons.

  • Dolores Haze/Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
  • Catherine Sloper from Henry James' Washington Square
  • Emma Bovary from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary
  • Daisy Miller from Henry James' Daisy Miller
  • Anna Karenina from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina
  • Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin's The Awakening
  • Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
  • Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

More Photos

Recent Cleverness