The Heroine's Journey
October 14, 2015 4:19 AM   Subscribe

I want some books about women going on the traditional hero's journey! Ideally, non-fantasy and non-young adult.

I watched Suffragette recently, which made me realise I don't know many stories with women at the core, going on the traditional linear hero's journey as defined by Christopher Vogler and Joseph Campbell. The hero's journey is a traditional narrative where the hero enters the abyss, faces some sort of ordeal, symbolically dies and is resurrected, and returns saving the day. Off the top of my head, I can think of His Dark Materials, Sabriel, Coraline, a number of Terry Pratchett books and some traditional fairy tales that have this same story with a female character instead of a male at the centre.

I want to read some non-fantasy, non-young adult stories where a woman goes on the traditional hero's journey, overcoming both external and internal obstacles. I want her to kick ass. I want her to defeat the bad guy. I don't want recommendations where the journey is primarily emotional or relationship-focused - of course, in any story like this the character will probably go through some emotional growth, but I don't want stories where that is the focus.

Thanks, guys!
posted by Ziggy500 to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Jane Eyre, maybe? It's about the relationship but Jane has inner growth as well, and St John is pretty much the bad guy.

Villette has a journey too although it's not as clear cut.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 4:25 AM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lyra's journey in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, perhaps? Philip Pullman drew on classical sources such as Paradise Lost.
posted by rongorongo at 5:14 AM on October 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

So you want Mad Max: Fury Road, in book form then. Me too. I think a lot of biographies are written using the hero's journey as a rough template, so that may be an avenue to explore.
posted by peppermind at 5:37 AM on October 14, 2015

I haven't read it, but heard Cheryl Strayed on NPR the other day talking about how Wild is a version of the classic hero(ine)'s journey.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:48 AM on October 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

Buffy the vampire slayer (non-book though)

You could make an argument for Scheherezade.

You might enjoy Aliena's story from Pillars of the Earth.

Sansa Stark from GOT (in progress, still)
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:50 AM on October 14, 2015

and the biblical Esther, big time.
posted by nakedmolerats at 5:51 AM on October 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry, the first two I've thought of are definitely fantasy/science fiction - but they are also definitely not young adult. Maybe I'm too literal, but I think that the most obvious hero's journey type stories (whether male or female) are within that genre. Most non-SF&F will be about emotional journeys and relationships (you know, like real life).

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold: a middle aged woman on a hero's journey - much death, rebirth and world saving.

The Snow Queen, by Joan Vinge: amazing world creation, heroine is definitely on that kind of journey. (Also just realised, three years after reading it: it's totally a sci-fi retelling of the Anderson story).

And there are many more in the SF&F genre, particularly written after the advent of New Wave and the increase in women working in the genre.
posted by jb at 5:55 AM on October 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's been years since I last read it so if others disagree, please say so, but I recommend Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. Anyway, if it's not the archetypal hero's journey, it's still worth the read. Huh, I think I'll see whether it's available on audible.
posted by janey47 at 5:57 AM on October 14, 2015

OK, OK, it's fantasy and YA, but I still feel like The Ozark Trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin is worth a mention, if only for its humor and feminism. I enjoyed rereading it as an adult.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:35 AM on October 14, 2015

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is wonderful and comes pretty close to just what you're describing.
posted by Mchelly at 6:40 AM on October 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

With the caveat that I still have a few chapters left to go in the book and, who knows, perhaps the movie made a wild departure from the original plot in the final hour, I would venture to suggest Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.
posted by phunniemee at 6:50 AM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

You want Whale Rider. The movie's insanely good but if you want to read, it's based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. Yes the heroine is an adolescent but this is a far cry from "young adult" Hunger Games type adventure, and is aimed at an audience of any age.
posted by flourpot at 6:54 AM on October 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

+1 on State of Wonder and Wild by Cheryl Strayed (the boots falling would be the metaphorical death, right??)

Very similar to State of Wonder is The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay. What I like about both of them is the rich description of the location (South America in the former, South Asia in the latter) as well as the mystery unraveling. Both are led by strong, educated women-- in Lost Memories, she's a woman who's passed over for promotion and decides to go out and find a possibly mythical lost city in Asia.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:03 AM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

"The Exaltation of Inanna" (one translation, another) is a prayer to the goddess Inanna/Ishtar written by Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon the Mighty of Akkad and the High Priestess of the moon god Nanna/Sin in the conquered Sumerian city of Ur. Part of it chronicles Enheduanna being deposed as High Priestess and expelled from Ur and then being reinstated later.

Enheduanna is mentioned in the 11th episode of the recent Cosmos series entitled "The Immortals".
posted by XMLicious at 7:15 AM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Re Jane by Patricia Park is a modern-day reinvention of Jane Eyre; Jane is a half-Korean orphan working in her uncle's store in Queens who gets a job as an au pair in Brooklyn. Many nods to Jane Eyre, but it stands on its own and is a good read.
posted by mogget at 7:37 AM on October 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I totally endorse jb's recommendation of Paladin of Souls if you can get over the fantasy aspect. There's even a handy interview!
posted by curious_yellow at 7:53 AM on October 14, 2015

Code Name Verity - set in WWII, and it is AMAZING. YA in that the leads are teen/early 20s girls, but really not YA at all. By Elizabeth Wein.

Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers, also about WWII. There are a whole bunch of characters, but several of them are women going on the hero journey.

Tracy Chevalier's Falling Angels is about the suffrage movement, it might fit the bill? It's been years since I read it.

I think others are right in that you're really going to see the kick-ass hero rather than emotional journey stuff in fantasy. If you're willing:
Naomi Novik's Uprooted (SO SO SO GOOD)
Rachel Hartman's Seraphina and Shadow Scale
Anything by Tamora Pierce (technically YA, but her more recent books are much less YA, especially the Tortall ones. The Beka Cooper and Daughter of the Lioness series are both pretty dark in places and very much hero journey. Protector of the Small series also, but that one is less dark.)
Maybe Ursula LeGuin? The later Earthsea books have a pretty amazing woman in them.
posted by john_snow at 10:12 AM on October 14, 2015

How about Life after Life by Kate Atkinson? The tale of a life lived over and over, it has elements of fantasy but is firmly rooted in the reality of living in the 20th century and fits your brief pretty closely re: the journey of a heroine.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:32 PM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have loved Woodswoman since I first read it as a teen, and bonus, it's nonfiction so it's a real heroine! Also, another vote for Wild - great book.
posted by Miko at 5:35 PM on October 14, 2015

Cordelia's Honour (that is, Shards of Honour and Barrayar), by Lois McMaster Bujold. A scifi setting, but not space opera. The rest of the series is about her son, for the most part, but it's also excellent.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:34 PM on October 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Seconding Wild, State of Wonder and Life After Life (which also has a sequel called A God In Ruins which I haven't read yet).

There's a surprising amount of this in trashy 80s literature too - Judith Krantz in particular writes a lot of feisty heroines who are all very rich and beautiful (of course) but overcome lots of obstacles and triumph at the end. Depends what your tolerance level is for that sort of thing though. I'll Take Manhattan or Scruples might be worth a look. More recently, Marian Keyes is in a similar sort of 'chick lit' vein in that it's easy to read and not literary, but again might fit the requirements - maybe more her early stuff like Watermelon and Rachel's Holiday.
posted by theseldomseenkid at 12:27 AM on October 15, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks a lot, guys! I've read and enjoyed Life After Life, Rachel's Holiday, and Re Jane - you are right, they are great examples of this kind of story. I'm looking forward to checking out your recommendations. Next up: Wild.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:21 AM on October 15, 2015

A previous question.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 1:32 PM on October 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's been a while since I've read it but does Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the Durbervilles" work?
posted by robotot at 3:24 PM on October 16, 2015

There's an old medieval story that I haven't actually read, called The Romance of Silence. ("Romance" basically just means a book or a story in this context.) It's about a female knight in Arthurian times, which might classify it as fantasy though at the time it was written (I think 13th century) it was perceived more as historical fiction.
posted by Peregrine Pickle at 5:02 PM on October 20, 2015

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