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Terrible women in literature



Over the ages, there has been some terrible women in literature written by male writers. In literary studies, these terrible women are sometimes called female villains. This villain may masquerade as the subservient wife, the selfless mother, or the well-behaved daughter, but she strikes back, too when she has to.

Often, the terrible woman embodies some sort of twisted femininity. Sometimes, she’s a man’s worst nightmare or a freak whose obsessions have simply run away from her. It is not specifically known why especially male writers usually employ these female villains. Asked if there is a difference in which male and female African writers handle female characters, Penina Muhando, a prominent

Tanzanian woman playwright says: “I have a general feeling that men writers are much more careless when it comes to portraying women. I feel that they do reflect their behaviour towards the women in their own lives. I am not saying, however, that all women writers are conscious or that they write about women more positively. But I think that the negative orientation of the male writer comes out much more clearly.”

William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth from the play Macbeth quickly comes to mind. As the wife of the play’s tragic hero, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, Lady Macbeth goads her husband into killing King Duncan after which she becomes queen of Scotland and her husband, King of Scotland.

Just as soon as Macbeth becomes a murderous tyrant, Lady Macbeth is driven to madness by guilt over their crime, and commits suicide offstage. Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to murder King Duncan for the throne. Lady Macbeth makes her first appearance late in scene five of the first act, when she learns in a letter from her husband that three witches have prophesied her husband’s future as King.

Lady Macbeth says that she is aware that Macbeth is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” Her words are often chilling. Later, goading the hesitant Macbeth, she insists that, if she had sworn to do it, she wouldn’t have hesitated to take her own baby “while it was smiling in my face” and to “Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,/ And dash’d the brains out.”

In her plans to help propel her husband to the throne, Lady Macbeth even prays to dark forces to help her to go against the natural womanly weaknesses within her: “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty!”

Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to “unsex” her because she does not want to act or think like a stereotypical woman of Shakespeare’s time.

This is her vivid way of asking to be stripped of feminine weakness and be invested with masculine resolve. She imagines herself as a vessel which may be emptied out and refilled “from the crown to the toe.” She wants to be tough and strong, aggressive and unyielding: qualities associated with men rather than women.

At some point in the play, all her scheming and constant encouragement of her husband to murder the King renders her mad and she ends up walking and talking in her sleep. Lady Macbeth is horrified and wracked with guilt, which drives her to kill herself.

In her last appearance in the play, she sleepwalks in profound torment, and hallucinates that her hands are stained with the blood of Duncan and Macduff’s families, scrubbing furiously in a vain attempt to “clean” them. This lady crosses the line, commits horrible deeds and she cannot contain her sanity. She is a typical terrible woman of literature.

In H. Rider Haggard’s novel, King Solomon’s Mines, there is a terrible old woman called Gagool. She is the wise woman of the Kukuanas, but her present function seems to be more an inciter of terror than a bringer of wisdom. She orchestrates Twala’s usurpation of the throne and maintains his power through the agency of her witch-finders, who locate men and women who show an opposition to Twala and have them executed.

Gagool is described thus: “…the ancient woman, Gagool, rose from her crouching position, and supporting herself with a stick, staggered off into the open space. It was an extraordinary sight to see this frightful vulture-headed old creature, bent nearly double with extreme age, gather strength by degrees, until at last she rushed about almost as actively as her ill-omened pupils.

To and fro she ran, chanting to herself, till suddenly she made a dash at a tall man standing in front of one of the regiments, and touched him. As she did this a sort of groan went up from the regiment which evidently he commanded… She unleashes her witch hunters, crying out “/Begin! begin!/” piped Gagool, in her thin piercing voice; “the hyænas are hungry, they howl for food. /Begin! begin!/”

From the point when the three white men in Umbopa’s company arrive in Kukuanaland, up until the end, Gagool, the African priestess, is aware that the men are up to no good. She is clearly hostile to their presence and more than once, recommends their immediate execution.

When they force her to go and show them the treasures in the cave, she tries to kill the intruders by causing the great rock in the cave to fall on them but the rock crushes her instead. When Gagool finally dies, the reader feels that the powers of evil have been conquered.

In King Solomon’s Mines, three white men; Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good have to find Henry’s renegade brother, Neville, in the interior of Africa, by all means. Neville is believed to have gone to Kukuanaland in the interior.

He disappeared whilst searching for the legendary King Solomon’s Mines. But, the journey to Kukuanaland is almost impossible because there is a desert to be crossed first and the Kukuanas do not allow strangers in their country.

In Richard Wright’s novel, Black Boy, Richard’s grandmother is a terrible woman all the way. It appears that Grandmother is permanently angry with the world. This is seen through her savage blows at young Richard at the slightest provocation.

One day, for example, Grandmother misses Richard with a blow and the inertia from it, fatally downs her. Richard had childishly requested that she wipes his anus as she is bathing him! He also tells her that when she is done she could kiss him “back there.”

That unfortunate request reminds grandmother of slavery and her own unfortunate conditions during the slavery days. Grandmother has a kind of permanent grudge against the post-slavery American system that ranks her amongst the blacks when she is near white. Granny is the child of slaves. Due to her partially white ancestry, she looks somewhat white.

In the American system, anyone with a drop of black blood is considered black. The dialogue between Richard and her mother about Granny’s colour is both amusing and telling. She is clearly in Frederick Douglas dilemma where one’s white father rapes a slave but does not claim the child into masterhood. In her helplessness, grandmother throws herself into Christianity. Ironically she thinks that Richard is inherently sinful.

Black Boy is a memoir by the great African-American author, Richard Wright, detailing his own upbringing. Wright describes his youth in the South: Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and his eventual move North to Chicago, where he establishes his writing career.

Richard wright’s Black Boy is important to students of African-American literature and history as it picks the former American slave narratives story from where slave time narratives like that of Frederick Douglas leaves it. That makes Black Boy one of the key novels about black people’s series of predicaments after slavery and emancipation in the US.

The nameless mother in Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger is another terrible woman of literature. When father is away driving long distance lorries, the children watch mother copulating with other various men because they sleep in the same room. These men jump into the house through the window in the dead of the night.

When the more elderly of her sons, Peter tries to intervene, a man hits him with a back hander, without getting off mother. The sounds of their sex fills up the room! When the father returns, mother behaves as if nothing has happened. But the boys just remain quiet.

At some point, the mother who is also very violent, gives the son some sex tutorials on how to take a woman to bed. She is angry that the boy is spoiling the sheets through his wet dreams. She goes on and on, describing to her horrified son how easy it is to take a woman to bed.

The novella, House of Hunger, is about an extremely sensitive young black man growing up in Rhodesia with its racist laws and its oppression that gave black folk very limited space. It is also a story about the fragmentation of the family unit and the individual.

It is about the struggle for physical and spiritual spaces. That is why, maybe, the word ‘house’ is used in various ways. House means the physical home and its troubles. It also stands for the mind of the individual as that space with turmoil. Finally ‘house’ could stand for troubled Rhodesia which is permanently in the background to this story.

Another unusual and terrible female character from literature is Miss Havisham in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations (1861). She is a wealthy spinster, once jilted at the altar, who insists on wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life. She lives in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter, Estella.

The mad, vengeful Miss Havisham, is defined by a single tragic event: her jilting by Compeyson on what was to have been their wedding day. From that moment forth, Miss Havisham is determined never to move beyond her heartbreak. Miss Havisham is an example of single-minded vengeance pursued destructively:

She stops all the clocks in Satis House at twenty minutes to nine, the moment when she first learned that Compeyson was gone, and she wears only one shoe, because when she learned of his betrayal, she had not yet put on the other shoe. With a kind of manic, obsessive cruelty, Miss Havisham adopts Estella and raises her as a weapon to achieve her own revenge on men.

Miss Havisham is an example of single-minded vengeance pursued destructively: both Miss Havisham and the people in her life suffer greatly because of her quest for revenge. Miss Havisham is completely unable to see that her actions are hurtful to Pip and Estella.

Miss Havisham enjoys training Estella to confuse, charm, and rebuff Pip, viewing him as a representative of men in general. Miss Havisham seeks to have her own heartbreak avenged by Estella’s breaking hearts.

She is redeemed at the end of the novel when she realises that she has caused Pip’s heart to be broken in the same manner as her own; rather than achieving any kind of personal revenge, she has only caused more pain. Miss Havisham immediately begs Pip for forgiveness, reinforcing the novel’s theme that bad behaviour can be redeemed by contrition and sympathy.

Great Expectations is the story of Pip, an orphan boy adopted by a blacksmith’s family, who has good luck and great expectations, and then loses both his luck and expectations. Through this rise and fall, however, Pip learns how to find happiness. He learns the meaning of friendship and the meaning of love and, of course, becomes a better person for it.

The well-known novel opens with the narrator, Pip, who introduces himself and describes a much younger Pip staring at the gravestones of his parents. This tiny, shivering bundle of a boy is suddenly terrified by a man dressed in a prison uniform. The man tells Pip that if he wants to live, he’ll go down to his house and bring him back some food and a file for the shackle on his leg.

The terrible women in male writers’ novels, perhaps, reflect the conscious and unconscious struggles that go on between men and women since creation. These women are charming and frightening. But what is clear is that they have provoked some women writers to set out to write novels with the alternative woman.

Memory Chirere

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