Belle, Divergent, and The Other Woman passed it. The Avengers and A Million Ways to Die in the West, not so much. The Bechdel Test, proposed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 “Dykes To Watch Out For” strip, evaluates movies based on a three-pronged question: Are there two women in it? Who talk to each other? About something other than a man? This metric has long figured in feminist discussions of pop culture, but in recent years it has reached the mainstream. In the past year, articles in publications such as The New Yorker, FiveThirtyEight, and Jezebel have judged upcoming films’ performance on the Bechdel Test and pondered the test’s value for viewers and the industry itself.
Literature has been largely left alone in these critiques, though plenty of attention has been devoted, of late, to the lack of gender equality in the publishing industry. Books are not unlike movies, however, in that the characters found inside can contribute to popular perceptions of what people are like. Far too many great books focus exclusively on the doings of men, or of men and one woman, and this particular focus leaves out much of the truth of living. Of course, many wonderful books do not pass this simple test, and this does not mean we should write off Hemingway’s entire oeuvre or Jane Austen’s marriage-focused social satires if they fail; they contain a great deal of truth nonetheless. But we rarely consider, even in the year designated The Year of Reading Women, whether our reading lists are diverse in the truths they show.
In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s contemplative long essay about the structural obstacles faced by women writers, she gestures at a sort of proto-Bechdel Test, noting that women characters in fiction are “almost without exception [...] shown in their relation to men. [...] And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.” When we read a book that shows us women’s interactions with each other -- the friendships, their familial loves, even vicious rivalries not rooted in a dispute over a man -- we see a vital, often neglected facet of women’s true lives. Woolf’s own books don’t always pass the letter of the test, but there is a thwarted yearning for woman-to-woman intimacy that underpins many of her works -- a yearning that is rarely expressed in classic fiction.
Of course, despite the general predominance of male characters in literature, there are many books that do pass the Bechdel Test. So we decided to compile a list of just a few stunning pieces of fiction that show women in relation to each other -- not just men. Please suggest more of your favorite Bechdel Test-approved books in the comments!
Here are 12 outstanding books that pass the Bechdel Test:
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson opens a window into an intensely feminine, intensely unconventional world in this elegant, eerie novel. The narrator, Ruthie, and her sister, Lucille, were born into a curiously rootless family. Their mother dies by suicide when they are still young, and, their father not being in the picture, their mother’s sister Sylvie assumes their care. The women of the family have only ephemeral relationships with men, and with stability; like their mother, Sylvie has a yearning for freedom and movement that she only partly overcomes in order to stay with her nieces. As the girls grow older, Ruthie drifts more and more into her foremothers’ odd ways, while Lucille rebels toward conventionality. It’s a troubled, delicate family, but nonetheless it is a style of woman-centered family we don’t often see, and the power struggles within arise not from marriage or men, but from conflicting values and divergent personalities.
Once Sylvie came home with newspapers she had collected at the train station. At dinner she told us she had had a very nice conversation with a lady who had ridden the rods from South Dakota, en route to Portland to see her cousin hanged.
Lucille put down her fork. “Why do you get involved with such trashy people? It’s embarrassing!”
Sylvie shrugged. “I didn’t get involved. She couldn’t even come for supper.”
“You asked her?”
“She was worried that she’d miss her connection. They’re always prompt about hanging people.” Lucille lay her head on her arms and said nothing. “She’s his only relative,” Sylvia explained, “except for his father, and he’s the one that was strangled… I thought it was kind of her to come.” There was a silence. “I wouldn’t say ‘trashy,’ Lucille. She didn’t strangle anyone.”
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
In this autobiographical novel, Sheila Heti captures something rarely portrayed in fiction: a friendship between women rooted in shared artistic ambition and a mutual exchange of ideas. Any girl who’s had a close friendship based on something other than hair product tips or giggling over boys (so, most of us!) can appreciate the relationship between Sheila and Margaux -- passionate, intellectual, inspiring, and sometimes painful, claustrophobic and frustrating. Sheila and Margaux have far more on their minds than men, and they have each other to share it with.
As we walked down the side of the Miami highway, my arm linked through hers, the crescent moon faint in the sky overhead, I again brought up my fear. I explained that I felt my insides were a blank--a total neutrality--null.
“That’s amazing!” she said. “God, everyone else is like these automatic windup toys.”
“But I feel like other people are seeing and perceiving and synthesizing, and I’m--I’m not doing any of that!”
“You’re doing something, boy, let me tell you. I think mainly people have opinions on, Well, what do you think about abortion? Everybody we hang out with is pretty competent at vaguely intelligent party talk, but you say things that help me think better, you know?”
I shrugged, but inside was filled with something new, and prayed that what she said was true.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë Charlotte Brontë’s classic isn’t just a marriage plot -- it’s also a bildungsroman. This means we follow the heroine, Jane, from her early years, when passionate female friendships were a central part of her life and romance wasn’t yet a glimmer on the horizon. And while her love for Rochester is the crowning affair of the novel, her love for her teacher Miss Temple and for spiritual fellow student Helen Burns shows Jane’s affinity for meaningful relationships with women. Men scarcely seem to be a consideration in their schoolgirl world, except for their fear of visits from the cruel supervisor, Mr. Brocklehurst. When Helen falls fatally ill, she and Jane share a heart-wrenching final conversation. Quote:
“I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. [...] By dying young I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.”
“But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?”
“I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.”
“Where is God? What is God?”
“My Maker and yours; who will never destroy what he created. I rely implicitly on his power, and confide wholly in his goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to him, reveal him to me.”
“You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven; and that our souls can get to it when we die?”
“I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend: I love him; I believe he loves me.”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s classic novel depicts a chilling dystopian future in which a zealous theocracy has overthrown the United States government. Having first lost the rights to use birth control and own property, women have finally become nothing more than chattel for the patriarchal religious oligarchy. The protagonist, Offred, a concubine given to an official in order to provide him and his infertile wife with children, struggles with isolation, as speaking openly with even the other handmaids she meets is fraught with danger. And yet she courageously risks real connection with others, not only other women who chafe at their subjugation, and even with men who claim to be allies in their quest for freedom. In Atwood’s violently patriarchal world, however, real connections with other women are necessary.
At last Ofglen speaks. “Do you think God listens,” she says, “to these machines?” She is whispering: our habit at the Center.
In the past this would have been a trivial enough remark, a kind of scholarly speculation. Right now it’s treason.
I could scream. I could run away. I could turn from her silently, to show her I won’t tolerate this kind of talk in my presence. Subversion, sedition, blasphemy, heresy, all rolled into one.
I steel myself. “No,” I say.
She lets out her breath, in a long sigh of relief. We have crossed the invisible line together. “Neither do I,” she says.
“Though I suppose it’s faith, of a kind,” I say. “Like Tibetan prayer wheels.”
“What are those?” she asks.
“I only read about them,” I say. “They are moved around by the wind. They’re all gone now.”
“Like everything,” she says.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway appears to be a mere society matron preparing to throw a party, but beneath the surface lie some decidedly unconventional thoughts -- in particular, her painful memory of the girl she’d loved so fiercely before she married her husband. Likewise, her daughter Elizabeth’s tutor Miss Kilman, a deeply religious and buttoned-up woman, nurses a passionate attachment to her student that she can only express in idle chatter. Woolf’s masterful dips into her characters’ streams of consciousness uncover much more than the mere dialogue, including a depth of emotion attached to female relationships that is more usually depicted only in heterosexual romances.
“Are you going to the party to-night?” Miss Kilman said. Elizabeth supposed she was going; her mother wanted her to go. She must not let parties absorb her, Miss Kilman said, fingering the last two inches of a chocolate éclair.
She did not much like parties, Elizabeth said. Miss Kilman opened her mouth, slightly projected her chin, and swallowed down the last inches of the chocolate éclair, then wiped her fingers, and washed the tea round in her cup.
She was about to split asunder, she felt. The agony was so terrific. If she could grasp her, if she could clap her, if she could make her hers absolutely and forever and then die; that was all she wanted. But to sit here, unable to think of anything to say; to see Elizabeth turning against her; to be felt repulsive even by her--it was too much; she could not stand it. The thick fingers curled inwards.
“I never go to parties,” said Miss Kilman, just to keep Elizabeth from going.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Where early 20th-century Woolf tiptoed around the taboo of submerged lesbian longing, draping it in a thin veil of homosociality, Winterson’s 1985 novel confronted it head-on. Her heroine Jeanette, a girl raised in a harshly Christian household, struggles with her disinclination for traditional heterosexuality, and is eventually forced by her family and church to choose between her love for a woman and her love for her faith. Jeanette and her beloved, Melanie, find moments of quiet and intimacy despite many attempts to keep them apart, and the very mundanity of these moments together is a revelation.
Melanie was doing the gardening.
“What’s your mum planning tonight?” I asked her.
“She’s going to the club, then staying with Auntie Irene.”
“What do you want to do?” I went on, pulling up a few weeds.
She smiled at me with those lovely cat-grey eyes and tugged at her rubber gloves.
“I’ll put the kettle on for a hot water bottle.”
We talked a lot that night about our plans. Melanie really did want to be a missionary, even though it was my destiny.
“Why don’t you like the idea?” she wanted to know.
“I don’t like hot places, that’s all, I got sunstroke in Paignton last year.”
We were quiet, and I traced the outline of her marvellous bones and the triangle of muscle in her stomach. What is it about intimacy that makes it so very disturbing?
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Deemed by many the greatest 19th-century British novel, Middlemarch delves masterfully into the psychology of its characters -- especially the heroine, Dorothea Brooke. Idealistic, saintly young Dorothea makes a disappointing marriage early in the books, and from then on her character is most frequently seen in relation to men -- her husband, her husband’s artistic young cousin, an ambitious local doctor. But as the book begins, it is Dorothea’s sister, Celia, who has the closest and most revealing relationship with her. Practical, pretty Celia shares little in common with her high-minded sister, but their love for each other is undeniable. In early scenes, Eliot examines the sometimes-confusing love between sisters, especially girls who are struggling to establish their own identities amid a desire to remain close and in constant accord.
Dorothea immediately took up the necklace and fastened it round her sister's neck, where it fitted almost as closely as a bracelet; but the circle suited the Henrietta-Maria style of Celia's head and neck, and she could see that it did, in the pier-glass opposite.
"There, Celia! you can wear that with your Indian muslin. But this cross you must wear with your dark dresses."
Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. "O Dodo, you must keep the cross yourself."
"No, no, dear, no," said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless deprecation.
"Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you—in your black dress, now," said Celia, insistingly. "You might wear that."
"Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would wear as a trinket." Dorothea shuddered slightly.
"Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it," said Celia, uneasily.
"No, dear, no," said Dorothea, stroking her sister's cheek. "Souls have complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another."
"But you might like to keep it for mamma's sake."
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A conversation with women living and dead, Beloved centers on a mother and her attempts to reconcile with a daughter she killed as a toddler to prevent her child from being returned to slavery. Sethe and her young daughter Denver, now living in Cincinnati after escaping enslavement, find their house is plagued by an unfriendly spirit, which Sethe believes to be that of her older daughter, known only as Beloved. Sethe and Denver struggle to escape the lingering presence of the past, but it only seems to dominate their lives more and more, as Beloved’s bitterness remains unabated. Men don’t seem able to tolerate the ominous specter of vengefulness, and only Sethe and Denver remain to grapple with it. Beloved, at its heart, deals in female love and female betrayal -- especially the tragedy of maternal doting that has been damaged and twisted by a heartless world.
Baby Suggs died shortly after the brothers left, with no interest whatsoever in their leave-taking or hers, and right afterward Sethe and Denver decided to end the persecution by calling forth the ghost that tried them so. Perhaps a conversation, they thought, an exchange of views or something would help. So they held hands and said, “Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on.”
The sideboard took a step forward but nothing else did.
“Grandma Baby must be stopping it,” said Denver. She was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying.
Sethe opened her eyes. “I doubt that,” she said.
“Then why don’t it come?”
“You forgetting how little it is,” said her mother. “She wasn’t even two years old when she died. Too little to understand. Too little to talk much even.”
“Maybe she don’t want to understand,” said Denver.
“Maybe. But if she’d only come, I could make it clear to her.” Sethe released her daughter’s hand and together they pushed the sideboard back against the wall.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi Helen Oyeyemi’s “Snow White”-inflected fairy tale carries the same seeds of female rivalry and hatred found in the Brothers’ Grimm, but with the broader canvas of the novel, and a richer story-line, Oyeyemi has woven a tale of racial tensions, familial jealousies, and complex relationships between the women at its heart. Though for much of the novel half-sisters Snow and Bird are separated by Bird’s mother, Boy, they begin to write letters to each other sharing snippets of family history as well as their own secrets and girlish curiosities about each other. The blossoming friendship between this sisters has little to do with men and much to do with their own desire for family and a sense of mutual understanding, and it captures how rich the lives of girls can be. Quote:
Your letter was such a wonderful surprise; really it was. I’m still thinking about how to answer the question in your postscript. I wasn’t expecting you to insist on honesty. Don’t you find that most people try and make each other say things that aren’t true? Maybe because it’s easier, and because it saves time, and… now it sounds like I’m trying to sell you dinner that comes in a can. (“So they got us eatin’ dog food now,” Uncle J says.)
I haven’t met very many people who seem to want me to say what I really think. So I’m out of practice. Wait for the next letter. I’ve got a question for you though--what do you mean when you say that you “don’t always show up in mirrors”?
Best love from
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing’s hefty 1962 novel follows the lives of Anna, the narrator of the realistic novel-within-a-novel around which the book is centered and the writer of the four notebooks that make up the rest of the book, and Anna’s friend Molly. Though marriages, divorces, break-ups and children fill the pages of the book, their friendship remains central. And when they’re not grappling with troubled romances or the strains of motherhood, they might be debating Communism or art.
“Last week, Molly came up at midnight to say that the Party members had been circulated with a form, asking for their history as members, and there was a section asking them to detail their “doubts and confusions.” Molly said she had begun to write this, expecting to write a few sentences, had found herself writing “a whole thesis--dozens of bloody pages.” She seemed upset with herself. “What is it I want--a confessional? Anyway, since I’ve written it, I’m going to send it in.” I told her she was mad. I said: “Supposing the British Communist Party ever gets into power, that document will be in the files, and if they want evidence to hang you, they’ve got it--thousands of times over.” She gave me her small, almost sour smile--the smile she uses when I say things like this. Molly is not an innocent communist. She said: “You’re very cynical.” I said: “you know it’s the truth. Or could be.” She said: “If you think in that way, why are you talking of joining the Party?” I said: “Why do you stay in it, when you think in that way too?” She smiled again, the sourness gone, ironically, and nodded. Sat a while, thinking and smoking. “It’s all very odd, Anna, isn’t it?” And in the morning she said: “I took your advice, I tore it up.”
A Room With A View by E.M. Forster
Prim Lucy Honeychurch undergoes a romantic awakening in this comedy of manners by E.M. Forster. Lucy’s unexpected passion for the blunt, lower-class George Emerson, whom she meets in Italy during her grand tour, calls her conventional, genteel life into question. Much of the novel depicts her attempts to submerge her yearning for real love in the name of propriety. Nonetheless, Forster works in some delightfully humorous scenes between proper but silently rebellious Lucy and her personality-filled lady companions, such as the rather eccentric Miss Lavish.
Then Miss Lavish darted under the archway of the white bullocks, and she stopped, and she cried:
"A smell! a true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell."
"Is it a very nice smell?" said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt.
"One doesn't come to Italy for niceness," was the retort; "one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!" bowing right and left. "Look at that adorable wine-cart! How the driver stares at us, dear, simple soul!"
So Miss Lavish proceeded through the streets of the city of Florence, short, fidgety, and playful as a kitten, though without a kitten's grace. It was a treat for the girl to be with any one so clever and so cheerful; and a blue military cloak, such as an Italian officer wears, only increased the sense of festivity.
"Buon giorno! Take the word of an old woman, Miss Lucy: you will never repent of a little civility to your inferiors. That is the true democracy. Though I am a real Radical as well. There, now you're shocked."
"Indeed, I'm not!" exclaimed Lucy. "We are Radicals, too, out and out. My father always voted for Mr. Gladstone, until he was so dreadful about Ireland."
"I see, I see. And now you have gone over to the enemy."
"Oh, please—! If my father was alive, I am sure he would vote Radical again now that Ireland is all right. And as it is, the glass over our front door was broken last election, and Freddy is sure it was the Tories; but mother says nonsense, a tramp."
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Claire Messud’s novel both earned adoring reviews and sparked a debate concerning its bitter, “unlikable” protagonist, Nora Eldridge. Messud famously defended her protagonist, arguing that “The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” And Nora, a lonely, middle-aged woman looking back on a deeply absorbing friendship that ended in a traumatic betrayal, certainly jumps off the page. At first, her friendship with the glamorous, intellectual Shahids -- and their young son, her student -- appears to her to be a lifeline to the creative, bohemian existence she secretly longs for. She and Sirena Shahid decide to share a studio, where they work together and revel in artistic discussions. Nora, a limited artist herself, not only adores the charismatic Sirena, but envies her talent and the major exhibitions she’s offered. And while she’s also drawn to Sirena’s husband, Skandar, romantic rivalry barely factors into the complexity of her feelings toward Sirena.
“And what do you do, then? Are you a historian, or an ethics person, or whatever, also?”
“No! I could never do such things. Words are not for me.” She looked at me closely, her marbled dark eyes alight. “I’m an artist. I make things. Installations. Sometimes videos.” She said this as calmly as if she were confessing to making cakes or collecting stamps, and I knew she was for real.
“I’m an artist, too.”
I’d lurched inside at her admission--this! Of course! we shared--but worried, from her smile, that her first impulse was patronizing. She was thinking that art must be a hobby for me. She was thinking that I was an elementary school teacher. But she was too polite to let on. “Really,” she said. “You must tell me about your work.”