Marguerite Yourcenar’s gender-balanced approach to evil

“Human wickedness is almost equally distributed between the two sexes.”

—Marguerite Yourcenar

Interesting words from Belgian-born, naturalized American author and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987). Yourcenar is the first woman to have been elected to Académie française, and is perhaps best known for her novel Memoirs of Hadrian.

I’ve never been a fan of the “Believe all women” mantra or the silly claims in vogue today that “The world be a kinder, war-free place if only women were in charge.”

So yes, I am drawn to Yourcenar’s equality of evil premise in literature. Because it goes against common perceptions of goodness and gentleness, a female antagonist is even more enjoyable.

We knowingly observe as Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to seize the power he didn’t even desire. We cheer on Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair as she deploys her beauty and intelligence to manipulate every hapless man who can help her achieve her goals. Centuries later, The Custom of the Country‘s Undine Spragg will similarly ride roughshod over men in her path in order to climb the social ladder.

The men who fall victim to these women never even knew what hit them. So yes, I think many authors (and readers) feel attracted to Yourcenar’s premise that human wickedness is divided evenly across the sexes.

Readers, who are your favorite female literary antagonists?

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