On Sacrificing Girls in Fiction

We're a Western culture used to the sacrifice of girls in our literature, it seems, and just as bloodthirsty for it, too, as we ever were. Why is that? Is literature reflecting some primeval urge in us, and why do we want to kill girls anyway? The least powerful section of society, historically. Why do we need to heap rape, murder, mutilation on them as well?

The first sacrificed girls I can find in literature are Iphigenia and Polyxena - Iphigenia was the Greek daughter of the Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, sacrificed by her father to appease the gods in his battle against the Trojans. Or she was happy to be sacrificed, which practically makes it a suicide, so they tell us - she wanted to please her Dad. And her Trojan counterpart, Polyxena, was sacrificed by her father, Priam, to appease the ghost of Achilles, slain by her brother, Paris. She, too, went willingly to her slaughter. She, too, was happy to appease the gods/her father.

Sisters tend not to be too happy with this slaughter of young women - Electra was mighty pissed off with her parents for Iphigenia's death (and may have been part of the reason she was keen to see off Mum, whom she mainly blamed), and Cassandra was none too impressed with Polyxena's sacrifice either.

After a chat with a writer friend yesterday about fairy tales (I'm researching for a piece on fairy tales due for the Herald), and the rewriting of princesses in towers etc, by feminist fairy tale tellers, I began to think about the figure of the 'Sacrificed Girl' in literature. And it wasn't long before I came up with quite a few. Classic literature is full of them - their poster girl is probably Tess of the D'Urbervilles (you don't get more sacrificial than being caught sleeping, as if already dead, at Stonehenge: "When they saw where she lay, which they had not done till then, they showed no objection, and stood watching her, as still as the pillars around. He went to the stone and bent over her, holding one poor little hand her breathing now was quick and small, like that of a lesser creature than a woman....")

One of my favourite characters when I was growing up was 'the Girl' in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The theme of sacrifice never really struck me then - I was too busy identifying with a shy heroine. The fact that du Maurier's 'Girl' doesn't even have a name is a bit of a clue, though. She's almost sacrificed to her husband's bad first marriage when his housekeeper Mrs Danvers tries to make her kill herself. In Wuthering Heights, another teenage favourite, sacrificing girls seem to run in the family, when Cathy dies and then her daughter looks like becoming another victim of the pathological Heathcliff.

From Lolita to Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure) to Trilby to  Beth March (Little Women) to Isobel Archer (Portrait of a Lady), canonical literature is full of sacrificed girls and young women. Contemporary women writers are aware enough of this tradition to exploit it and make a political point. Joyce Carol Oates is probably the most prominent exponent of the 'Sacrificed Girl', with her young, female heroines who are abused, raped, murdered under the mythical veneer of the wholesome American family. Her girls (it's interesting how often the word 'girl' or sister, etc, crops up in the titles of her novels, too) often fight back, of course - today's Sacrificed Girl doesn't go willingly to the slaughter, if we consider the strength and resilience of Suzanne Collins's Katniss Everdene (always sounds like a Hardy heroine's name to me, and I assume that's deliberate) in the Hunger Games novels.

Crime fiction has come in for a bit of a battering when it comes to the treatment of women, and young women especially. Mo Hayder, Stuart MacBride are just a couple of the many writers in the genre who maim, kidnap, torture young girls - Ian Rankin got himself in a lot of bother when he wondered why women readers were so keen to read about young women being tortured in these novels (although, as my friend yesterday pointed out, he din't wonder why men were). One of the most interesting crime-lit crossover novels of this year was Megan Abbott's Dare Me, which, in its depiction of today's Amazonian cheerleader, echoed more of the Joyce Carol Oates counter-tradition of young women as full of fight and energy and danger, than the more traditional crime depiction of young girls as easy meat.

Remarkably, it's the danger that girls represent that society seems to fear the most. Because girls are on the cusp of womanhood - they're on the edge of adult female sexuality. And we all know how threatening to a culture that is. So if we're not over-emphasising that cusp and trying to rob it of any power it by over-sexualising girls into powerless dolls, we're murdering them. We like looking at youth and beauty, but we enjoy seeing it punished and despoiled, too. It's the rape and murder of young girls that routinely hit the newspaper headlines, even though statistics show that young men are more likely to be murder victims. It's pictures of beautiful young girls like Milly Dowler that occupy the front pages.

Last night I watched the HBO series, Girls, for the first time. Like Sex and the City, it looks at four female friends living and working in New York. Set a generation earlier, with girls in their twenties, it too focuses on their relationships with men. I remember the amount of flack SATC got for that focus - Girls repeats essentially the same dynamic (and its youthful focus, and the girls' beahviour, is dividing feminists, as this recent article shows: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/miranda-frum/post_4163_b_2193279.html)

But what else are they meant to do? It doesn't really matter where your sexual proclivities lie as a girl - when you're stepping out into the world, you will have to negotiate your way by negotiating with those who have the power, and as it's still a patriarchal society, that means negotiating your way through relationships (be they professional, sexual,whatever) with men. And negotiate your way through a culture that sees you as the perennial sacrifice, too.

Not all writers sacrifice their girls, of course. When I was a Joyce 'scholar' back in the 90s, I teamed up with fellow academic Catherine Driscoll to plan a book about girls in James Joyce's fiction. In his last book, Finnegans Wake, the young girl, Issy, is no sacrifice. Joyce couldn't save his daughter, Lucia, from madness and a lifetime in mental hospitals. But he could immortalise her in his prose, and make sure she lived on there.     


  1. Actually, didn't Ian Rankin get in trouble for suggesting that "the people WRITING [my emphasis] the most graphic novels are women" (and "mostly lesbians as well" a few years back at EIBF?

  2. Yes, you're right, Paul, he did talk about women writers although I seem to remember him talking about women readers too (or was it just the debate that ensued that included readers?)

  3. Hello Lesley

    That's a wonderful blog entry. I'm not a published writer nor as advanced in writing as your good self. So i'll start by saying that years ago i decided not to use girls/woman as victims in my own writing. Why, well first of all as a heterosexual man i didn't want to see beautiful women being trashed and thrashed to death, not when a sneering lad can get his head chopped instead. Also, I've grown up in a house of strong women, my best female friends are pretty strong so i'm not frightened by them.
    Though i have to admit, i think Ian Rankin has a point, i went to 'Silence of the Lambs' with a female friend, she was engrossed... i think women have a different relationship to violence than men and maybe are more intense in their fascinations. Its girls who read really violent horror books from age 13 upwards as well as books like the story of O... its got something to do with them being the receivers in life, be it sexually or through physical abuse. At that age they well be wondering and anticipating what's may well come their way in life.
    Anyway, time for bed, shame as i think i've barely touched the subject you've blogged about.

    rob munro

  4. Thanks for that, Rob - it is interesting where the motivations for these depictions come from, a variety of places inevitably, and it seems so prevalent when you start to think about it. And yes, there's the 'confronting of danger in a safe environment' aspect that's often cited for women readers' seeming fondness for violence against women in fiction.


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