In the introduction to Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction, Alison Graham-Bertolini defines vigilante literature as “stories of individuals who rectify injustice by taking matters into their own hands” (p. 1). Women writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often condemned their heroines to mental illness or suicide. These female characters functioned with a distorted view of their role in society as self-sacrificial beings by necessity—the norm for the time period. Fortunately, contemporary authors are increasingly presenting viable alternatives to madness and suicide for their protagonists by creating strong female survivors and victors. In the introduction, Graham-Bertolini defines the key terms that she uses throughout her book: femininity and masculinity, patriarchy, justice, and violence. Explaining that the texts used in this study come from various cultural contexts in American fiction, she goes on to interrogate female vigilantism as a literary motif. Graham-Bertolini argues that women writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries allow their heroines to take an active role in ending the oppression in their [End Page 270] lives. Calling this development “shockingly revelatory,” Graham-Bertolini asserts that the scope of women’s plots in Western literature has been permanently extended (p. 3). Chapters are organized according to character types and specific actions the female characters take. From milder rebellion in the first chapter, to more aggressive and/or violent action in the subsequent chapters, Graham-Bertolini’s discussion moves from moderate to extreme vigilantism.
Chapter one, “Great Vengeance and Furious Anger: The Female Avenger,” examines a handful of “she-warriors” in contemporary American fiction. Zora Neale Hurston’s Delia Jones of the short story “Sweat” (1926), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Mattie Syles of “Gal Young ‘Un” (1932), and Shirley Ann Gau’s Abigail Tolliver of the novel The Keepers of the House (1964) are women driven to perpetrate a single act of illegal violence to retaliate for crimes committed against them or their loved ones. These protagonists must combine their feminine power with characteristics traditionally associated with the masculine in order to attain a sense of empowerment. In this chapter, Graham-Bertolini argues that female avengers are not as common as one might think. Since the concept of vindication has been vilified in an effort to maintain the myth of the domestic angel, vengefulness has been considered unnatural and undesirable in women.
The next chapter, “Women Warriors and Women with Weapons,” goes a step further in identifying female vigilantism. The protagonists of these texts could be read as goddesses, queens, Amazons, or other powerful female figures that took up arms to defend their countries and/or ideals. Women who do battle include Maxine Hong Kingston’s heroine in her memoir The Woman Warrior: Memories of A Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975) and Rita Mae Brown’s Geneva Chatfield of the novel High Hearts (1986). Contained also in this chapter is a short section on William Faulkner’s Drusilla Hawk and Granny Millard, two vigilante women in The Unvanquished (1934). The she-warriors discussed in this chapter often disguise themselves as males in order to do battle. Graham-Bertolini argues that these battles, be they literal or metaphoric, represent the new ground that women have acquired in their struggle for gender equality. Common in these texts, especially the female-authored ones, is a focus on the importance of language as a tool for empowerment. A difference in Faulkner’s work, however, exists in his disallowance of his woman warriors’ achievement of full agency, “because his female character finally devalues the feminine, a move that reinforces patriarchal systems (and perhaps the antebellum philosophies of the Old South), by suggesting that tradition will prevail” (p. 81).
Graham-Bertolini furthers her argument in the third chapter, “The Woman Who Snaps, The Woman Who Kills,” by examining stories that disrupt readers’ normal expectations for female behavior. These texts [End Page 271] include as an option for their heroines illegal murderous action. Toni Morrison’s protagonist Sethe of Beloved (1987), Bharati Mukherjee’s Dimple Dasgupta...