Ten Characters Who Defy Social Expectations

Happy Tuesday, bookworms! Like a true blue book nerd, I love a good list.

This week for Top Ten Tuesday, the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish ask bloggers to list ten characters who X. This is SUPER flexible, and today I’m writing about ten characters who challenge social expectations. A lot of my favorite books are about women who defy the norms / expected gender roles of their times, and I’m excited to share them!

Top Ten Tuesday

1. Jenny from Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (2014). In 1876 San Francisco, Jenny is a pants-wearing, frog-catching badass who rides a penny farthing bicycle. She doesn’t let any man tell her what to do.

2. Agnes from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013). Also set in the 1800s, Burial Rites reimagines the last months in the life of the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Agnes is ostracized because of the ways she challenged social expectations; she is frighteningly intelligent, independent, and embraces her sexuality in a way that women of her time weren’t supposed to.

3. Peter from For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu (2014). Raised by a father who prized mach, “masculine” behavior in his son, Peter knows in his heart that he is a girl. In this novel, he explores his gender, trying on dresses in private and experimenting with partners of both sexes.

4. Harriet from The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (2014). An overlooked artist, Harriet (who also goes by Harry) releases three works under male pseudonyms, challenging the art world’s tendency to place higher value on art created by men than by women.

5. Celeste from Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013). I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, but I liked Nutting’s attempt to reverse gender stereotypes. Instead of being a sexual object, Celeste, a woman who becomes a teacher to seduce pubescent boys, is the predator.

6. Esther from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963). A brilliant young woman with a bright future ahead of her, Esther has a breakdown over the suffocation she feels due to society’s expectations of her. She’s angry about the sexual double standard by which society expects women to be chaste but accepts promiscuity in men, and she challenges this standard throughout the novel.

7. Carrie from Sister Carrie by Theodore Dresier (1900). At the turn of the century, Carrie moves from her small town to bustling Chicago, where she uses a combination of her wiles and naive dumb luck to ascend society and become a stage star. She totally works the men in her life to get what she wants, and she makes no apologies.

8. Edna from The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899). Living in late 1800s New Orleans, Edna is expected to be the perfect wife and mother, a charming dinner host, and not really anything else. However, she wants more for herself, and she takes it, moving out of her home and taking a lover.

9. Anna from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Similar to Edna, Anna is frustrated by her suffocating marriage and seeks fulfillment elsewhere. She followed her passion and left her husband for another man, even though the divorce ruined her socially.

Aaaand I don’t have a tenth book. Readers, will you fill it in for me? Who is your favorite character who defies social expectations?

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33 thoughts on “Ten Characters Who Defy Social Expectations

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Canadian Characters Who Are Characters | writereads

  2. Thanks for the inspiration to join another book blogging meme 🙂 For yours, I’d actually have to go with one of the characters on my list: Liesl from Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. She’s this unattractive, hyper intelligent, very violent woman who,w while kinda evil, very much defied gender roles for her time.
    I just started Frog Music, so excited as you and many others have been raving about it 🙂 -Tania

  3. This was such a good list idea! The Awakening is one of my favorites too. I think Minnie and Abileen from The Help also defy social expectations, speaking out when no one else would or felt that they could.

  4. You may also like checking out Sister Fidelma featured in Peter Tremayne’s dozen or more “Mysteries of Ancient Ireland”. Fidelma is a 7th C. member of the monastery at Kildare, educated to the level of Advocate of the Courts, just beneath judge, and sister to a trial chief. Brother Eadulf is her is husband, but he is Dr. Watson to her Sherlock Holmes. “Absolution by Murder”, “Shroud for the Archbishop” and “Master of Souls’ are few among the many.

  5. I’ve read only Anna Karenina, and we can consider Madame Bovary also as a character for this list (though for the same reasons as Anna).

    • She sounds awesome! She reminds me of Alexandra from O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. She belonged to an immigrant farming family in Nebraska at the turn of the century; when her male family members gave up on the farm, she worked and made it profitable!

  6. I just discover your blog today and I am HOOKED! Huge bookie.

    For this list I thought right away of Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. It’s about Frank Loyd Wright’s mistress, Mahmah, who leaves her family to be part of Wrights life. Although not considered non-fiction, is based on real letters by Mahmah. Loved it!

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