Three 20th Century works of literature that feature women striving for and attaining power are Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa (1937), Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees (1988), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Each of these classics of modern literature have women in central roles, particularly Dinesen’s and Walker’s works, and each provides a historical and cultural context in which each woman protagonist challenges customs.
Alone among the three books, Dinesen’s is nonfiction, a memoir of her years operating a coffee plantation in East Africa. Dinesen (a pseudonym, her real name being Karen Blixen), a Danish woman of particular intestinal fortitude, married her cousin, Baron Bror Blixen, and the two moved to Kenya, where they invested in a large coffee plantation. Blixen’s story is one of survival against both the socially rigid structures that typified English social mores (Kenya was an British colony, and the British colonial administrators were a regular presence in Isak’s life) and against the natural elements of Africa, including native tribes not all of whom were friendly and welcoming. Blixen’s determination to prevail over these challenges, which included the intervention of World War I and a chronically unfaithful husband from whom she would be divorced, required enormous emotional strength and no small amount of physical courage to boot. In short, Isak Dinesen triumphed over male chauvinism, disease (specifically, a case of syphilis, possibly spread by Bror), plagues of grasshoppers that devastated farmland, occasionally threatening animals, only to see her financial situation deteriorate due to chronically unstable coffee prices. In the end, she was forced to sell the farm. By any measure, Dinesen was a formidable woman who used the power she attained following her separation from Bror to forge her own identity. While her business ultimately failed, her marriage ended in divorce, and her long-time lover, Denys Finch-Hatton died in a plane crash, her memoirs ensured her place in literary history.
Another classic work of literature that features a female character attaining power is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). The story of a poor African American woman, Celie, and her lifelong struggle to overcome male domination -- frequently manifested in beatings and rape – The Color Purple is a powerful indictment of the social and cultural norms during the period depicted (the 1930s) and of the racism that condemned many blacks to a state of permanent economic and social sublimation. While Isak Dinesen would ultimately confront failure following a life of relative comfort, Celie would be forced to endure unspeakable indignities only to triumph in the end by breaking free of her abusive husband, Mr. ____. After a childhood of rape at the hands of her father, Celie is forced into marriage with Mr. ___, who wants a wife and mother to his unruly and physically abusive (towards Celie) children. The Color Purple tells of Mr. ____’s cruelty in ejecting Celie’s younger, prettier sister, Nettie, from the home and subsequently concealing from Celie Nettie’s letters to her that arrive periodically over the ensuing years. Ultimately, Celie triumphs over, and develops the courage, to leave Mr. ____ and begin a new life as a confident single woman. She has triumphed over adversity and attained power over her life – a power that heretofore had been denied her by the series of men in her life.
A third work of 20th Century literature that features a female character of particular note is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, which tells the story of Taylor, a strong-willed woman determined to avoid the fate of other females from her depressed socioeconomic background in the American South, specifically, rural Kentucky. Taylor finders herself caretaker of a Native American baby literally dropped in her lap one day while driving through the Cherokee reserve in Oklahoma. Taylor and the infant, whom she names Turtle, travel across the country, heading west, and ending up in Tucson, Arizona. While living in Tucson, and caring for Turtle, Taylor is introduced to a cast of additional women similarly living by their wits under less-than-desirable circumstances, including Mattie, the owner of a tire repair shop, and Lou Ann Ruiz, Taylor’s introduction to the world of illegal immigrants struggling to survive while hiding from the authorities. Kingsolver’s novel presents many discouraging images and scenes in which the female characters, mainly the baby (who turns out to be three years old, but stunted due to the sexual molestation she endured) are forced to overcome the obstacles society has placed in their way by virtue of their gender and their socioeconomic status. That Taylor and Turtle end up together in Tucson may not seem like much of a resolution, but it actually represents an enormous triumph over adversity, including over a legal system that threatens to undermine their domestic tranquility.
These are only three 20th Century works of literature that feature female characters attaining a sense of power over their environment. None achieve greatness; but all attain dignity in worlds where that is not a foregone conclusion.