The Effect of Beauty on 6 Fictional Women

Last week, novelist Adelle Waldman wrote an exceptional piece in The New Yorker's Page Turner about the problem with female beauty in literature. She covers a phenomenon penned by author Lionel Shriver as “casual beauty.” In so many novels featuring male protagonists' female love interests are nonchalantly attractive. It is a trait that is tacked on to the bottom of their other great qualities. Beauty is seen as an added bonus, like being extremely tidy or bilingual. This is, unfortunately, an idealistic cry from reality. Most often in the real world, a woman’s beauty plays a key role in her interactions with men. But in fiction it seems that the significance men give beauty is rarely acknowledged. And, in so many novels a woman’s beauty and the effect it has on her life is rarely explored. We’ve gathered up some of literature’s most well-known beauties to see how their appearances affected their lives and relations with others.

Beautiful, Shallow and Female in Literature

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Last week, novelist Adelle Waldman wrote an exceptional piece in The New Yorker's Page Turner about the problem with female beauty in literature. She covers a phenomenon penned by author Lionel Shriver as “casual beauty.” In so many novels featuring male protagonists' female love interests are nonchalantly attractive. It is a trait that is tacked on to the bottom of their other great qualities. Beauty is seen as an added bonus, like being extremely tidy or bilingual. This is, unfortunately, an idealistic cry from reality. Most often in the real world, a woman’s beauty plays a key role in her interactions with men. But in fiction it seems that the significance men give beauty is rarely acknowledged. And, in so many novels a woman’s beauty and the effect it has on her life is rarely explored. We’ve gathered up some of literature’s most well-known beauties to see how their appearances affected their lives and relations with others.

Anna in ‘Anna Karenina’

Anyone who has read Anna Karenina has the scene of Anna at the ball ingrained in her mind. Told from the perspective of the pretty and naïve Kitty, Anna in her black, velvet dress is sultry, passionate, and all woman. Her beauty, to put shortly, enchants everyone. But Tolstoy does not toss around Anna’s beauty as a side note to make her interesting — he uses it to show her narcissism. Throughout the novel we see her looking at herself in the mirror multiple times, changing outfits over and over again, and getting angry when her clothes do not get tailored right. Even the day she plans to commit suicide she spends two hours at the dressmaker's getting ready. Anna is not another pretty, dull girl by any means. She is complex, charismatic and selfish, and her beauty plays a key role in allowing her to be all of these things.

The Women in ‘On Beauty’

“Right. I look fine. Except I don't,' said Zora, tugging sadly at her man's nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn't be able to protect them from self-disgust…It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies — it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”

Kiki is a woman who in her youth was slim and beautiful and now, after 30 years of marriage, is very large. Though she acknowledges this, she is not subsumed by it. Zora is an opinionated overachiever who is self-conscious about her weight. Victoria is plain hot and thinks no one sees anything else. Author Zadie Smith assigns beauty carefully and for functional purposes. Beauty, whether it has faded, is nonexistent, or overabundant, gives us insight into each of the female characters. It shows us how these women meet the obstacles and vulnerabilities that come with their appearances.

Daisy in ‘The Great Gatsby’

Oh, Daisy — she’s the girl known for the “voice full of money” and the all-white ensembles. She's wrapped in an otherworldliness and innocence that leads to Gatsby to not just fall in love with her, but devote his whole life to her. But for Gatsby, Daisy’s beauty is not a “casual beauty” — it’s a beauty that represents all of his yearnings and insecurities. Her voice, her life, and her beauty is all full of money — full of things Gatsby was never born to have. And if he could possess her beauty and call it his, he could finally win the battle against himself. Daisy's beauty distorts the way people perceive her. Gatsby, Tom, and Nick don't really know Daisy, but they like the idea of her: they like the idea of a beautiful girl in a white dress who is happy all the time. To a certain extent, Daisy understands this, and thus her beauty acts reminder of what a woman should and shouldn't be. She wants her daughter to be a fool because the "best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." Because when you're beautiful and dumb the world is your oyster — but when you're beautiful and a little bit self-aware you realize your husband is the worst and cheats on you all the time.

Estella in ‘Great Expectations’

Pip is infatuated with the cold and beautiful Estella. Despite that she insults him the first time she meets him, pointing out his "coarse hands", and later on tells him there is no chance she will ever be his, he still never gives up. The thing is, we don’t really know what it is about Estella as a person that Pip loves so much. We don’t know much about Estella at all, except that she has a cold, cold heart and she’s beautiful. But we get the distinct impression that she’s able to be so cold because she is so beautiful. Much like a Daisy-Gatsby scenario, Estella’s beauty and refined grace represent the opposite of Pip’s modest lifestyle. And shortly after meeting her and becoming infatuated with her beauty, Pip becomes unhappy with his station in life. Her beauty and the triumph of winning her over would serve as the ultimate antidote for his insecurities.

Madeline Hanna in ‘The Marriage Plot’

Madeline is really attractive. But she’s also really boring — even more boring than she is attractive. As the main protagonist, it’s surprising that Madeline is so shallow and simplistic. She doesn’t exhibit the same level of complexity, intelligence, or charisma as her two male suitors. Mainly concerned with social graces, Madeline just seems to exist to, well, further the marriage plot. Her beauty is problematic to the reader because she comes dangerously close to falling into the one-dimensional pretty girl trope. Her attractiveness is the one of the only things that is intriguing about her. Reading the book is like going to a party and realizing the only people providing stimulating conversation are men.

Emma in ‘Madame Bovary’

Emma and her beauty are perpetually the object of the male gaze, and she enchants almost every man she encounters. She uses her beauty as a way to change her life and climb the ladder of social hierarchy. But we see that Emma’s only power is her beauty. Desperate for money, Emma starts persuading the men in her life for money through sex. And throughout the novel we see Emma grow even more beautiful even as she falls deeper into troubles. For Emma, her beauty is her downfall, giving her false expectations of what her life could be like and blinding her from reality.