7 Novels About Women Getting Revenge
Kassandra Montag, author of "After The Flood," recommends books about violation, betrayal, and justice
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
At the ages four and three, my sons are learning about retaliation. One steals the coveted fire engine from the other and soon someone has been smacked. Quickly it becomes about more than the fire engine: it becomes about power. Who can keep the fire engine the longest? Who can come out on top after a brief skirmish between two bodies, each not yet tall enough to reach the kitchen sink?
Play nicely, I tell them, and it feels like asking a lion not to eat the antelope it just killed. Their passions and fears roil just beneath the surface, always ready to erupt. I try to teach them about managing their emotions, but sometimes it feels like I’m just imposing civility on them.
While in parenting I tell my children to be peaceful and avoid power plays, I seek out stories of revenge in literature. In my debut novel, After The Flood, the protagonist has experienced violation and betrayal, and vengeance brews under the surface of her other motivations, a steady fire she can neither resist nor extinguish.
Revenge literature revolves around obsession and how we cling to those who have wronged us, even when it may be better to push them away. It doesn’t shy away from how much hurt can become a hallowed memory, something we return to for reasons we can’t fully name. These stories are also inherently moral—they mine the limits of vigilante justice and question if it’s strength or weakness that makes us want to strike back. But beyond all that, these stories are primal and entertaining in the way tales around the campfire can be.
I’ve loved revenge novels like Moby Dick and the Revenant, but revenge stories with a woman playing a pivotal role capture my imagination more. Perhaps it’s because a woman taking power through violence is a story I haven’t heard as often. This rebuttal to the nurturing, self-sacrificial depiction of women feels like the other side of the story, a side of the story that acknowledges not just a woman’s complexity, but her humanity.
Here are seven novels that feature women and revenge—stretching from ancient Greek mythology to the American frontier.
Gunnar’s Daughter by Sigrid Undset
Written around the turn of the 20th century, Gunnar’s Daughter takes place several centuries before, at the beginning of the 11th century. Undset is a master of historical Scandinavian literature (for which she won a Nobel prize) and this novel is one of her slimmest: a taut book paced like a thriller, but written with the cadences of Icelandic sagas. It features Vigdis, a young woman who is raped by the man she wanted to love, leading her to embark on several vengeful missions that ultimately threaten to steal her own happiness.
Carrie by Stephen King
Where would horror literature be without this classic? Carrie is a target of bullying and ridicule at her local school. She is humiliated and taunted when she menstruates for the first time and afterward, she discovers she has telekinetic powers. Throughout the novel, Carrie experiences hurt upon hurt, both from classmates and her own mother, culminating in a bloody act of revenge in the climatic scene.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Atwood adapts Shakespeare’s The Tempest in this novel that follows Felix, a director seeking revenge after being fired and exiled from the theatrical elite. Felix speaks with his daughter’s ghost and obsesses over the ex-friend who betrayed him and brought about his downfall. When he begins to teach in a prison, he embarks on a plot to avenge himself against those who wronged him. While this novel doesn’t feature a female protagonist, the Miranda/Ariel character (Felix’s daughter) plays an active role in showing how Felix’s desire for revenge may be a literal prison.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
This classic novel examines the doomed love story of Catherine and Heathcliff, beginning when they were children and ending decades later with the story of their children. After Heathcliff is treated unfairly by Catherine’s brother, he harbors lifelong resentment, anger, and jealousy that brings havoc and ruin to both families. Catherine is both the recipient of Heathcliff’s hate and love and her responses to him further complicate this story that touches on vengeance, wealth, love, and power.
Circe by Madeleine Miller
Another retelling on this list, Miller’s Circe reimagines the Greek goddess and witch in this epic story that covers centuries. Daughter of Helios, Circe has the ability to turn humans who offend her or threaten her into animals. While Miller’s novel does not focus exclusively on Circe’s vengeful magic, it does plumb the motivations and emotional wounds behind Circe’s darker magical acts. The novel humanizes this ancient character, all the while keeping her powerful, nonhuman abilities intact.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
This novel helped start the Scandinavian crime fiction trend for good reason. Lisbeth Salander is a captivating heroine who helps solve a family’s murder mystery. In a revenge subplot, Lisbeth is assaulted. With some forethought, she fights for her independence, security, and a sense of justice. It’s a disturbing vengeance, featuring a tattoo gun and blackmail, but it doesn’t feel unfairly won.
True Grit by Charles Portis
This western novel is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross who embarks on a journey to avenge her father’s murder by the hands of a “coward going by the name of Tom Chaney.” Along the way, Mattie is joined by two sidekicks—a Marshal nicknamed “Rooster” and a Texas Ranger. Narrated by Mattie when she is an elderly spinster, she looks back on her adventurous quest, and reveals herself to be a woman of independence and fierce intelligence.