Three classic tales of tragic heroines writers should read (or reread)—and why

By: Lydia Wassan on Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

In their desperate attempts to make life meaningful, these women bring about their own demise.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Why reread it: Flaubert’s gorgeous prose will teach you something

Madame Bovary is code for a woman behaving badly. She spends all her husband’s money—and then some—while engaging in wanton affairs. Like so many of her Victorian contemporaries, her pursuit of sexual and material satisfaction foreshadows her terrible fall.

Flaubert’s writing, however, is anything but a Victorian cliché. Under his hand, the French countryside of the mid 19th century is rustic, vivid and peaceful. Flaubert’s prose is matter of fact, working like a sharp scalpel to carve out fine and necessary details of each scene. Characters are given life through descriptions of their daily meal, micro expressions, or in one case, by the fact that they perpetually have cold feet. There are so many images, observations and actions packed into every sentence that the prose feels simultaneously rich and gripping.

The recent translation of the work by Lydia Davis in 2010 has received much acclaim for her ability to translate Flaubert’s clear prose.

House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

Why read it: Lily Bart is your new muse

Lily Bart is looking for a rich husband in New York society; but she can’t stand the wealthy heir she is poised to marry. Instead, she amuses herself in a heated friendship with a handsome playboy, Sheldon. While Lily’s feelings turn quickly to love, Sheldon is slower to come to that realization; by the time he does, Lily’s money has run out, and her reputation has been ruined.

Wharton’ s prose is fast-paced, taking the reader on a whirling ride of New York society in the early 20th century. She avoids drippy descriptions but manages to convey the glamour of high society, and by extension the extreme pressure Lily faces to secure a healthy income.

Lily knows the rules of society; but when it comes down to it, she would rather risk utter disaster than assured drudgery.  What aspiring writer cannot sympathize with that? Lily’s ambition does not harm anyone but herself—there is no doddering husband or innocent child—and as a result, the audience can root for her unabashedly. She is undoubtedly one of the most sympathetic tragic heroines on the list, but nevertheless, does not manage to escape her fate.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Why reread it: Tolstoy’s character descriptions and plot devices are unparalleled, anywhere

Anna has everything a respectable woman should want: a dutiful husband and a beautiful young son. Yet she cannot keep from pursuing a white hot romance with Calvary officer, Count Vronsky.

And Anna does not pursue her romance quietly, she demands that it be open, accepted and legitimized by pursuing divorce and maintaining a relationship with her son. Anna tries to forge a new life for herself—one that includes everyone that she loves in her life—but societal pressures are too strong.

Tolstoy is a master of character.  Anna is both headstrong and sensitive; Karenin ethical and cold as ice; Vronksy selfish but appealing. Tolstoy refrains from depicting any character with a broad brush, constantly placing them in situations of increased anxiety that reveal more nuances of their personality.

Under Tolstoy’s guidance, the reader is forced to accept the complexity of the characters—suspending judgment.  We must witness the train wreck in slow motion, and we know it will not end well.

Lydia is a first year MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at UNM. She worked in international development, until realizing she wanted to write personal essays. She lives in Albuquerque.