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The Heroine’s Journey

By Susannah Clark, Artistic Fellow

Shakespeare’s Viola appears early in a long line of beloved heroines dropped into a topsy-turvy world where they must use their wits and talents to survive. From Victorian children’s literature to modern blockbusters, this shifting archetype reflects a changing world—just as our view of Viola has changed throughout the ages.

ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

Lewis Carroll, 1865

In the strange world down the rabbit hole, Alice’s confusion mirrors our own as she struggles to find her way and retain her sense of self inside Wonderland, whose rules, logic and physics seem to change before our eyes. The only sane one in a world that seems quite mad, we rely on Alice to be our guide.

Read about the book’s history, including the real life Alice, here. Listen to the enchanted tail below.

THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ

Frank Baum, 1900

In the classic novel, later adapted into an iconic film, Dorothy is swept up by a tornado and dropped into the magical world of Oz, where she must embark on a quest to find her way home to Kansas. Using her cleverness and her big heart, Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch, helps

her friends, exposes the wizard and returns home. Dorothy takes us under her wing as she and we try to survive in a world whose rules we do not know and learn important lessons about the things that truly matter.

Read about the origins of Oz here. Travel down the yellow brick road below.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Madeleine L’Engle, 1962

In this science fantasy novel, our heroine, Meg, is tasked with traveling through time and space in order to rescue her scientist father, who is trapped on another planet that is quickly being overcome by darkness. As the heroine, Meg is given a more active role than her predecessors. Instead of being lost, she is tasked with a rescue mission—a plot previously reserved for heroic knights in shining armor. We are able to identify with Meg as the most “ordinary” character in a world filled with magical creatures and in a family filled with scientific geniuses and we celebrate alongside her when she is the one who saves the day.

Discover the humble begins of the book, that almost didn’t see the light of day, here. Travel into A WRINKLE IN TIME below.

THE HUNGER GAMES

Suzanne Collins, 2008

This dystopian novel features a model of the contemporary heroine in Katniss Everdeen, a scrappy, powerful young woman, forced to compete in an annual televised death match in order to keep her family safe. Katniss’s active role in her own salvation, physical prowess and life-or-death struggle seems far removed from Alice’s journey through Wonderland. But at its heart, Katniss’s story is also that of an ordinary young woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who must use her innate abilities in order to return safely home.

Learn about ancient women gladiators, and how they lived like Katniss, here. Dive into the book below.

The development of literary heroines across time is marked by increasing agency and the power to affect lasting change. Alice and Dorothy, the wanderers, wake up from dreams profoundly altered people, but their heroic exploits are relegated to the imagination. Meg and Katniss, on the other hand, are rescuers. They have the power not just to develop as individuals, but to create lasting change in the world around them.

Despite being written centuries ago, Viola’s story contains elements of all four women’s journeys. In some ways, she is the calm at the center of a storm—a steady presence surrounded by out-of-control forces that swirl around her, like Alice and the crazy cast of characters in Wonderland. But Shakespeare also gives Viola the agency to use her resourcefulness to reunite her family and bring lasting happiness and change to the other characters in Illyria, like the strong and powerful heroines we’ve come to love today.

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