The Woman Wanderer

30 09 2008

Several years ago, I heard Sheri O’Sullivan give a talk at a conference about the “woman wanderer.” She argued that for female characters in Young Adult novels, the outcomes of the hero quest differ than for male characters. I found this intriguing, ineffable, and true. When I perused the numerous stories of the quest, the males got to either rule (Beowulf) or gain empowerment. Joseph Campbell’s research supports this.

            However, female characters do not get to rule. Instead, they face a choice: They may either leave the culture as they are too changed by the journey to fit in, or they may return to their passive roles; the quest becomes, for them, a way to achieve personal growth but not a way to triumph within their society.

Hero with a Thousand Faces

Hero with a Thousand Faces


            This is true in works by men (The Wizard of Oz, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, e.g.) as well as by women (Tuck Everlasting, The Moorchild, A Wrinkle in Time). Even strongly feminist writers such as Lois Lowry follow this motif (Gathering Blue, e.g.), leading me to wonder if there is some cultural/societal mechanism that reinforces some dichotomy, or an internal mechanism that causes writers to follow these motifs in quest stories.

            When these works are made into films, either on the big screen or small, the male directors, as far as I can see, recast those elements which might have made the heroine’s journey more heroic. For example, in Tuck Everlasting, Winnie is older than in the book (12 years), allowing her to pursue a romantic relationship with Jessie. However, the book’s younger Winnie has to overcome more obstacles since a 12-year-old is less likely to be heroic. Thus, the film, while adding romantic interest, weakens Winnie’s transformation. Similar changes are made in other works (The Tombs of Atuan, A Wrinkle in Time) made into films. The more I collect such works, the more I see that O’Sullivan is right, and the more I want to explore why this might be so.





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