Desperate Housewives spawned many popular (if questionable) offspring. From The Real Housewives series to Basketball Wives to Mob Wives, the cultural term has certainly captured the American imagination. But the societal trope, which is comprised of idle, seemingly perfect settings, restless and beautiful women, and often aloof men, is nothing new in the realm of literature. These ladies were not just throwing dinner parties and getting into petty squabbles like their reality show counterparts; rather, they lived in desperate times and were driven to desperate measures. We take a look at the ladies of literature who rebelled against their domestic constructs, often with fatal results.
Emma Bovary – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
“Everything immediately surrounding her — boring countryside, inane petty bourgeois, the mediocrity of daily life — seemed to her the exception rather than the rule. She had been caught in it all by some accident: out beyond, there stretched as far as eye could see the immense territory of rapture and passions. In her longing she made no difference between the pleasures of luxury and the joys of the heart, between elegant living and sensitive feeling.”
Oh poor Emma Bovary, if anyone embodied the desperate housewife trope it would be her. Emma is tormented by her own unrealistic and idealistic expectations of life, a prisoner of her own childish and selfish desires. She wants life to be thrilling, romance to be Harlequin, and domesticity to be luxurious. Instead she lives in boring, provincial France, has a husband who is in love with her to the point of delusion, and a string of lovers who eventually get annoyed with her outlandish demands. Despite the fact that Emma is vacuous, can’t seem to care for anyone but herself, and is out of touch with reality, we still manically follow every detail of her life. Eventually, she’s driven to arsenic due to her inability to handle how unexceptional her life is.
Nora Helmer – A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
“I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life. Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.”
Though A Doll’s House is often characterized as a feminist manifesto, author Henrik Ibsen thought otherwise. “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are,” he once explained. “To me it has been a question of human rights.” And out of the many lonely and desperate characters featured in this survey, Nora Helmer seems one of the more relatable. Her struggles transcend those of idle feminine woes and appeal to anyone who has been misguided under the guise of love. She doesn’t have any outlandish expectations of her domestic life. But once she learns that her husband, who she thought was selfless and loving, merely sees her as a child, she abandons him to find herself, dramatically slamming the door on her way out.
Miss Emily Grierson – “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
“Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-grey hair.”
Even though Emily isn’t technically a housewife, since she never married, she has all the characteristics of one: a stifling domestic domain, loneliness, and a society that passes judgment on her. After years of rejecting potential suitors, her father dies and leaves her alone in a house she cannot afford. She starts seeing someone who is unfit for her noble upbringing and refuses to marry her. She later poisons him and keeps his body, knowing that it’s the only way she can keep him forever and stave off complete isolation.
Anna Karenina – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“She felt that, insignificant as it had appeared that morning, the position she held in Society was dear to her, and that she would not have the strength to change it for the degraded position of a woman who had forsaken husband and child and formed a union with her lover; that, however much she tried, she could not become stronger than herself.”
What would any Desperate Housewife scenario be without gossip, an exclusive social circle, and keeping up appearances? Anna Karenina is known for its impassioned, all-consuming love story, but what drives this reckless love is Anna Karenina’s dissatisfaction with her current life. Part of the reason why she is driven to a fatal solution at the end of the novel is because her position in society was a crucial outlet for her, keeping her from becoming completely alone. Once her husband, child, and society forsake her she becomes utterly dependent on Vronsky, a dependency which leads her to her dramatic suicide.
Edna Pontellier – The Awakening by Kate Chopin
“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
If Edna Pontellier were alive now she would live in a Southern mansion, the wife of an alpha-male husband and the product of marrying too young for convenience. But Edna would be wearing bohemian fringe sweaters and dreaming of life as an artist. Throughout the novel Edna struggles with reconciling her obligations as a wife and a mother and her desire to be with her lover and think for herself. To her, being a mother and a wife seems at odds with being a free-thinking individual. In the end, she cannot handle the suffocating strings of domesticity, and drowns herself.
Daisy Buchanan – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about – things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'”
Daisy Buchanan is one of the most unlikeable characters in a novel that’s chock full of them. She’s beautiful, selfish, and shallow, but you can’t argue that she isn’t just a little bit desperate. She yearns for the times of her girlhood before she gave into societal pressures and married Tom Buchanan. Her desperation to escape her current life leads her to have a sort of breakdown, the type of breakdown where you run people over and abandon the man who has been in love with you for half a decade. Though she is described as some sort of irresistible siren — a 1920s manic-pixie dream girl if you will — she’s not strong enough to turn her back on her unfulfilling life and join Gatsby.
Mrs. Bennet – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”
Mrs. Bennet is like a stage mom who wants to live vicariously through her kids. A social climber with myopic and frivolous views, her main goal in life is to marry her daughters off well, as quickly as possible. In order to attain this goal, Mrs. Bennet acts both pathetic and desperate by scheming to have her eldest daughter stay at Bingley’s house, trying to pawn Elizabeth off on Mr Bennet’s awful clergyman cousin and heir, and allowing her two youngest daughters to run around with a bunch of officers.
The Narrator – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“I’ve got out at last.”
Turning mentally unstable after the birth of her child, the narrator is locked up in a bedroom covered with yellow wallpaper by her physician husband. Completely isolated, she spends her days writing in her journal. Through her writing, she explains the intricacies of the wallpaper, reveling in the complex pattern as her form escape. Her suggestions on how to recuperate, such as interacting with society, working and carrying for her own child are completely ignored as she is viewed as merely an irrational, emotionally weak female who is circumscribed purely to thoughts of domesticity. At the end of novel she proclaims “I’ve got out at last,” and steps over her husband who has fainted in the room.
Constance (Lady Chatterley) – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
“A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.”
If there is anyone who can describe the love, desperation and passion of a woman, it’s D.H Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s upper-class husband has been paralyzed due to a war injury, leading him to become emotionally distant as well as sexually unavailable. The combination of these deprivations leads Lady Chatterley to have an affair with the gamekeeper. Before her marriage, we see Lady Chatterley as an intellectual and socially progressive woman, but she soon becomes the housewife of a nobleman and is trapped in the cold world of aristocracy. It is only after she abandons her husband and the social obligations that have been placed upon her that she becomes sensual and fully realized as a woman.
Becky Sharp – Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
“A woman may possess the wisdom and chastity of Minerva, and we give no heed to her, if she has a plain face. What folly will not a pair of bright eyes make pardonable? What dullness may not red lips are sweet accents render pleasant? And so, with their usual sense of justice, ladies argue that because a woman is handsome, therefore she is a fool. O ladies, ladies! there are some of you who are neither handsome nor wise.”
If there was ever a female version of a hustler, it would be Becky Sharp. As an ambitious but poor woman, Becky adopts the occupation of professional social climber. She marries high, seduces wealthy men, cheats, lies, and does whatever it takes to get to the top. She is a desperate housewife in the sense that she is a woman, a poor one at that, and has very little options. But unlike the rest of the women in this bunch, Becky never seems helpless to us. She is powerful and goes after what she wants. But eventually all of her scheming leads to her downfall.