Male-Identifying Literature & The Absence of the Female Explorer

As a young girl, I was encouraged to read books about women who were adventurous or expressed leadership traits in particular. But these stories were almost always contained within an anthology that was designed for that purpose – creating an adventurous identity for women. “Women Who Made A Difference” sounds like the title of one of these collections. As I began locating my own reading materials, I somewhat subconsciously sought out similar texts. When I was eight, I went to a camp for female “readers” that, in retrospect, clearly incorporated books that highlighted notable undertakings by women. I recognize how this trajectory may have set me up for or contributed to that ‘fire in the belly’ syndrome or hungry adventuring/philosophical spirit that comes in waves for people. More recently, though, I have been considering the books that became crucial to my young adult and adult years. I realized that the female adventurers I once knew from childhood were mostly non-existent in these later texts. Instead, I turned to the men in more prized literature.  It was inevitable that I would turn to this location; we all outgrow childish tales catered to our more basic storytelling desires- but as a young woman, the female heroines were harder and harder to find with each year, it seemed.

Instead, I identified with these men:

Joshua Slocum [Sailing Alone Around The World] – The man who sailed the world alone. It is not just the adventuring or the sea – those would be enough to draw me in – but it is the need to do this alone; that solitude that is paired so perfectly with the loneliness of the sea.

Christopher McCandless / “Alexander Supertramp” [Into the Wild] – His seemingly insatiable thirst for Truth above all else resonated with me most – but it was also his hasty, dramatic, and demanding approach to venturing deep into the wild that struck a nerve.

Captain Ahab & Ishmael [Moby Dick] – Ishmael is more obvious – “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever,” he says in chapter one.  Instant connection.  More so, Ishmael undergoes a cyclical turning to the sea whenever his heart becomes restless.  The restless heart is undoubtedly a common human trait. But Captain Ahab also underpins so perfectly that human bent towards obsession over a quest for something that we cannot quite describe in a tangible sense.  It is beyond a quest for the whale.  The great white whale merely encompasses an emotional, philosophical, spiritual intangible that Ahab can’t see. I am sure that I share with many people this hunger for the discovery of what lies beyond the curtain of the “real” and exists in the realm of the “Real.”

Thoreau [Walden] – To resist the societal constraints that prevent us from understanding even ourselves or the fabric of nature … this is a desirable, admirable thing … something that I yearned for upon reading Thoreau.  But I am not sure I have the strength to live this way.  Nonetheless, I have a deep respect for his worldview.

Other notable male protagonists include the unnamed ‘Narrator’ from Tobias Wolff’s Old School – a young man, surrounded by ‘Great Men’,  struggling to take his own work seriously as his love affair with writing and reading grows with intensity … the daring individuals captured in anthologies such as Adrenaline: Stories of Survival…countless novels from my Uncle about exploring the depths of the ocean and facing death at sea…and innumerable other accounts of testing the self against harsh, ancient conditions.

I then consider my most self-identified experiences with female protagonists of ‘classic’ literature:

Lara Guishar/Antipova [Doctor Zhivago] – If only for two lines; “‘Why is it,’ thought Lara, ‘That my fate is to see everything and take it all so much to heart?’” … and, “For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life.  She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name…” Lara is clearly grappling with a poetic mentality that is forced into submission by the overbearing political tone that spurs the October Revolution – but in addition, as a woman, she deals with the weight of this poetic lens in a way that affords her no expression points.  She is practically ‘tricked’ into an unfulfilling marriage, only to dream of another life with another person for the majority of her existence.  Any female reader is then only able to receive her fiery intelligence with neutralizing societal limitations. Personally, I felt a strong connection to her sensitivity for beauty and the arts – but I felt bitterness and shame for the way that her life played out.

Elizabeth Bennet [Pride & Prejudice] – With full understanding of how cliche it is to write about her – there is a reason this character is a ‘cliche’ of sorts, and that warrants the writing about her. ‘Lizzie’ Bennet possesses an innate curiosity and appears to be comfortable with the possibility of never marrying (rare for the time period obviously) – unless it is to the ‘right’ person – and her standards are quite high.  Despite revealing itself within a romantic trajectory, her personality is clearly more adventurous than her female peers.  She is a bit out of place socially because of this.  Regardless of the triumphs of her surprising character [given the time period], she ends up fulfilling the traditional expectations of women, and her adventure truly lies in the story of her romance.  Evidence of unrest is clear throughout, but fulfilled with shocking ease by one man.  Again, full expression of independent passion or adventure is left incomplete for the reader.

Then we have women whose characters deal with the lack of this independent, self-empowering sense of adventure as part of a clear schema set up by their authors – but these women ultimately serve to confirm the unavailability of adventure:

Lily Bart [The House of Mirth] – One of the most common stories of the female experience is told through Lily Bart.  She struggles to understand herself as she relies on the opinion and perception of everyone around her, who, unfortunately, calculate her societal wealth by assessing her physical traits in particular.  She receives cultural validation in this way primarily, and it leads her down a path of unfulfillment that ignores her deepest, truest yearnings and instead responds only to the shallow societal expectations of those around her. But again, female readers can connect to her sense of unease and that undying question; Is this who I am? Is this it?

Edna Pontellier [The Awakening] – One of the most tragic ‘heroines’ of classic literature that I have encountered deals strictly with the emotional and spiritual constraints of the ‘mundane’, so to speak.  I do not speak out against ‘domesticity’ as a vice; but rather, an item that has left no room for further expression or fulfillment of the self, perhaps for a variety of unique reasons based on the individual.  But Edna Pontellier is so dissatisfied without adventure or uncertainty in her life that she must extinguish the fire, knowing she won’t be able to fuel it, given her environmental circumstances.  In a bold statement that poises this novel at the forefront of feminist discussion at the high school level in particular, Edna takes her own life to escape conditions.  Although her final walk into the sea is heroically described, one cannot help but feel that this woman could have lived a very different life, heroic by neutral – and not unique or unprecedented – standards.

While I still admire the ‘Laras’ or ‘Elizabeth Bennetts’ of literature for a number of reasons, I have to consider how my perspective might have been more complete, earlier on, had I known of a true female ‘adventurer’ – someone who did not organize her life according to society or relationships – but rather, out of a passionate fire that was going to consume all in its path if she did not go out and seek challenges for herself.

Of course, so many of us are drawn to adventure stories.  I wonder, though, why adventure seems more afforded to the male protagonist – is it more applicable to their [socially-constructed] ‘innately’ rugged nature? Is this perhaps too obviously a result of the feminine domestic domain as a location that does not allow for such adventuring? Feminist criticisms aside, in the most basic sense: where are all the female explorers – where are the ones seeking the appropriate measure of humankind to test their limits – the ones with the fire that they want to fuel before it must be extinguished? I know that these people exist, if only for feeling this type of unrest in my own bones, in my own, small way.  I have seen the reflection of Slocum, Thoreau, in other young women – but there is often a stifled demeanor about it; something that pushes that adrenaline into dormant, safe territory.  Are we avoiding living, exploring, finding a way to express our own hunger?