The first word in Western literature, according to the classicist Mary Beard, is “wrath,” which opens the “Iliad,” written in the eighth century B.C.
“Wrath” might also be the first word of the literature of the past decade. Novels and plays throughout history have starred women who insist on doing it their way — savage, intemperate women, beautifully indifferent to opinion: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hedda Gabler, Sula Peace.
But never in such numbers as now, and never have they prompted such protracted conversation about what we expect from female characters, and why. These are the seething women of Elena Ferrante’s Naples; the heartbroken and enraged in books by Claire Messud and Han Kang; the charming, sinister heroines in the work of Ottessa Moshfegh, Alissa Nutting, Jade Sharma and Danzy Senna — not to mention the warriors in a new wave of dark feminist dystopias. With their deep unconventionality, their ire, intensity and excess, they have spurred debates about the narrow roles allotted to women — fictional women at that — many of whom have faced criticism for being unlikable, even dangerous.
In her memoir, “Know My Name,” Chanel Miller recounts the story of her sexual assault, and how difficult it was for her to summon up her rage in the aftermath;
The word “anger” has a strange root: an old Germanic word for unbearable narrowness, the distress of painful constriction (it is etymologically related to “angina” and “hangnail”). Much of the work about women and rage in the last 10 years seems to bespeak a frustration with femaleness itself, as a condition of unbearable narrowness and painful constriction.
Remember the “Cool Girl”? In Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” (2012), Amy, our antiheroine (and one of the characters criticized for her unlikability) rages at the roles women are forced to play. “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? ‘She’s a cool girl,’” she says. “Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”
In nonfiction, a raft of books have examined women’s anger from personal and political angles, in memoirs, essay collections and hybrids of the two: Lindy West’s “Shrill,” Anne Helen Petersen’s “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud,” Lilly Dancyger’s anthology “Burn it Down.” Soraya Chemaly explored how women have been socialized to disavow their anger in “Rage Becomes Her”: “By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood,’ we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice.”
In her memoir, “Know My Name,” Chanel Miller recounts the story of her sexual assault, and how difficult it was for her to summon up her rage in the aftermath; the workshops she required, the study. Writers like Leslie Jamison have also described trying to reclaim their anger, suppressed or turned inward.