What is it about bad girls that is so alluring? Maybe it’s the seized power they signify, or the agency their badness implies, or just the comebacks and leather jackets, but I always love the “bad” women in literature best. Here are some books that are blessed with such mavens, whose antics range from mere misbehavior to pure evil, who are antagonists and antiheroines and just plain heroines who just also happen to be jerks a lot of the time. Some of these characters are deeply lovable despite their flaws, and some readers just love to hate. But no matter what, they will delight you in all of their badness. Read on for some deliciously bad ladies of literature, and if I’ve missed your favorite, sing her praises (er, or shriek her name in terror) in the comments.
Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
Reading this book, you’re struck by the feeling that Lispector’s Joana is both filled to the brim with the world and completely disinterested in it. The back matter calls her “amoral,” which is probably on point. But in addition to that, she is a wild creature, and the power of her wildness makes this book a breathtaking one. “The certainty that evil is my calling, thought Joana. What else was that feeling of contained force, ready to burst forth in violence, that longing to apply it with her eyes closed, all of it, with the rash confidence of a wild beast? Wasn’t it in evil alone that you could breathe fearlessly, accepting the air and your lungs? Not even pleasure would give me as much pleasure as evil, she thought surprised. She felt a perfect animal inside her, full of contradictions, of selfishness and vitality.” Don’t we all, girl.
After Claude, Iris Owens
You can’t not love Harriet. After all, she’s viciously hilarious and utterly herself at all times. That self might be sometimes arrogant, outlandish, offensive, and downright mean (“It was rewarding to see the demented vivacity go out of Maxine’s fat face,” she muses), but somehow all that badness only increases the pleasure of being trapped in her brain for 200 pages.
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
The narrator of this extraordinary novel’s husband has just left her, and as the book unfolds, so does Olga. She ignores her sick children. She throws screaming fits in public. She makes dismal attempts at sexual encounters with her neighbors. She thinks the worst things and develops a keen taste for what she calls “obscene language.” She is bad — but her badness is a reaction to grief, to abandonment, to despair, and her abject rage will make you love her.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
And while we’re on Ferrante, let’s not forget about Lila, who in the first installment of the Neapolitan series is a total bad girl — often mean for the sake of being mean, irreverent and sexual in a way that makes the neighborhood women tsk and groan. But the narrator’s fascination and love for her are so intense that you can’t help but feel the same — even when she’s dropping your doll into the dusty basement just because she knows you’re scared to go down there.
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
Let’s face it: Becky Sharp is basically a psychopath. A witty, beautiful, talented psychopath desperate for status and willing to do just about anything to achieve it. But somehow, as we see her manipulating the people around her, we find ourselves just as beguiled — if not more so. After all, there’s something deeply appealing about a character who knows what she wants and goes for it relentlessly — it speaks to all our inner psychopaths.
The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood
In this novel, a revision of the Grimm tale “The Robber Bridegroom,” three women are brought together by their mutual hatred for another: the lying, man-stealing, endlessly fascinating Zenia. I really can’t sum her up any better than Lorrie Moore, who wrote:
[O]ddly, for all her inscrutable evil, Zenia is what drives this book: she is impossibly, fantastically bad. She is pure theater, pure plot. She is Richard III with breast implants. She is Iago in a miniskirt. She manipulates and exploits all the vanities and childhood scars of her friends (wounds left by neglectful mothers, an abusive uncle, absent dads); she grabs at intimacies and worms her way into their comfortable lives, then starts swinging a pickax. She mobilizes all the wily and beguiling art of seduction and ingratiation, which she has been able to use on men, and she directs it at women as well. She is an autoimmune disorder. She is viral, self-mutating, opportunistic (the narrative discusses her in conjunction with AIDS, salmonella and warts). She is a “man-eater” run amok.
She is, in other words, deliciously evil.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Someone in the Blackwood house has killed almost everybody else who used to live there. The town thinks it’s Constance, the mysterious, agoraphobic beauty. But there’s also Merricat, the back-talking, semi-insane, macabre little sister who narrates the book. (And Uncle Julian, but we can probably count him out.) The town shuns the Blackwoods, and there is something sinister about them — but something deeply appealing too.
Ride a Cockhorse, Raymond Kennedy
Until recently, Mrs. Fitzgibbons (45 years old, a widow, a loan officer at the bank) was a mild-mannered, polite woman. But somehow, for no reason that anyone can see, she has transformed into an unhinged, arbitrary, but charismatic megalomaniac who takes hold of the Parish Bank and shakes it furiously until it squawks. She fires people for no reason, ruining lives left and right with abandon. She develops an intense lust for and subsequently seduces the high school drum major. She is glorious and terrible as a conqueror — but like all ill-gotten conquests, her rule over the Parish Bank will eventually come to an unseemly end.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
Lisbeth Salander is many things: a brilliant hacker, a sexual-violence avenger, a stubborn moralist (those morals being of her own creation, obviously, and not necessarily the morals of the common human), a punk. One thing she’s not? Nice. She’s a difficult hero — hard to get along with and even harder to be close to — but incredible at what she does, so really, who needs nice?
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Bored, bored, bored. It is the banality of life that drives Emma Bovary to her adulterous, indulgent ways. She hates her husband. She hates being a mother. She wants romance and passion and a life of leisure (oh, don’t we all) but winds up driving herself into destitution and finally, in despair, swallowing arsenic. One of the classic heroines with whom you can’t help but sympathize, even as she throws her life to the wolves.
Dare Me, Megan Abbott
Cheerleaders are terrifying, y’all.
Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
OK, without giving too much away for those still in the first half of the book: Mathilde is bad. She’s incredible, and pragmatic, and gloriously, hopelessly herself, and one of the most magical characters I have ever encountered, and I love her — but, I mean, she’s bad. Just wait till you get to part two, is all I’m saying.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Another bad woman only revealed in her badness in the second half of the book. And what badness! Amy’s plan is undeniably evil, but you still have to kind of love her: for her agency, for her brilliance, for what she demands of life and what she’s willing to do to make sure things turn out her way.
Jillian, Halle Butler
Megan hates her co-worker Jillian. And in keeping with the spirit of true hatred, she’s also obsessed with her. And in keeping with the spirit of obsession, her life sort of mirrors Jillian’s, without her ever noticing. The truth is, both of these women are awful and hopeless (Jillian woefully misguided, Megan mired in her own terrible attitude), but so, so human that you’ll want to push them away from you and cuddle them close at the same time. Luckily, they’re fictional, so you can just keep reading.
Foxfire, Joyce Carol Oates
There’s nothing more delicious than a 1950s girl gang of feminist crusaders. Even when things go wrong.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
Oh, Lux Lisbon. Bad girl and “carnal angel” of all our dreams — but in particular the dreams of the chorus of boys that narrates this book. Smoking cigarettes, sneaking out, having sex with strange men on the roof of her parents’ house. All this before the suicide pact — which turns Lux from bad to tragic, but leaves her just as mysterious to the book’s narrators as ever.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
The narrator of this book is as horrible as it gets: a gorgeous 26-year-old teacher who systematically stalks and seduces one of her prepubescent students. Her obsession is disgusting, disturbing, and completely riveting from start to finish.
The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Dodie Smith
Cruella de Vil — the cruelty and evil are both right there in the name. And yet, she’s a compelling creature: a bizarre glamorpuss with “highly unusual” hair who was once kicked out of school for drinking ink and now really, really loves fur. And hey, do you remember any other characters from this book? I should think not.
Mouchette, Georges Bernanos
Fourteen-year-old Mouchette is a downtrodden peasant girl — unloved, unhappy, and “against everyone,” but on the hunt for some kind of purchase in the world, some semblance of love. Her story is relentlessly tragic, but it’s written so beautifully that it’s worth the mental anguish. Just don’t read it on a day when you expect to get anything else done.
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
But of course: the book with a protagonist so unpleasant she (in addition to some eloquent comments from her creator) spurred an entire media explosion on the relative merits of likeable and unlikeable women in literature. Perhaps we didn’t even need to have that conversation: this captivating novel, with its acidic, furious Nora, answers the question all on its own.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee
Yes, yes, this is a play, not a novel. But plays still come in book form, and so I’m counting it. Albee’s classic centers on the relationship of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Insults and viciousness abound, and George is as bad as Martha, but it’s lines like this, of Martha’s, that make this an essential on this list:
George who is out somewhere there in the dark… George who is good to me, and whom I revile; who understands me, and whom I push off; who can make me laugh, and I choke it back in my throat; who can hold me, at night, so that it’s warm, and whom I will bite so there’s blood; who keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules; who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy, George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.
Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The deceitful, jealous, cunning, beautiful Marquise de Merteuil — using sex as a weapon and being fiendishly delightful since 1782.
Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker
In this novel, chaotic, brilliant, unhappy, and often unpleasant Cassandra heads off to her family home to be the only attendant at her identical twin sister’s wedding. Oh, and more importantly, to ruin it. Starting by showing up in a white dress. The same one her sister is wearing. After all, she loves her sister. Even more than her fiancée does. Mesmerizing and psychologically complex, absurdist and disturbing, this is a beautiful book.
Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles
Neither of the eponymous ladies in Bowles’ book is very good — at least according to societal standards. One sloughs off her husband in favor of a teenage prostitute, and the other moves to a tiny house with two acquaintances before abandoning them for a rough drifter. Neither woman really has a reason for what she does, and instead seems moved by a vague drive, curious and masochistic and completely fascinating to watch.
Misery, Stephen King
Annie Wilkes is too terrifying (and too good at what she does) not to love. That said (spoiler alert), you’re still going to be desperately relieved when she meets her grisly end.
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Scarlett O’Hara is basically the queen mean girl of literature. Spoiled, vain, and calculating, always with her eye on the prize. Must be all that Irish blood.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
I admit it, Macbeth is largely about, well, Macbeth, but that Lady Macbeth has her share of the spotlight too. And a whole lot of the guilt for King Duncan’s murder. Yet, she’s such a powerful, convincing figure (at least in the first half of the play) that you can’t help but be fascinated by her. Plus, like so many of Shakespeare’s characters, the lady’s got some killer lines:
The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements. Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry “Hold, hold!”
Treasure Island!!!, Sara Levine
The narrator of this hilarious novel is a caustically witty, callous, and selfish creature who decides to model herself after the values she identifies in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island: boldness, resolution, independence, and, er, horn-blowing. Needless to say, said values don’t necessarily make for the most functional member of modern society. And yet, her wayward, unsentimental ambition is somehow as charming as it is annoying — as long as you can close the book every once in a while.
Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen
One of the classic tragic dramatic heroines, Hedda Gabler is the daughter of an aristocrat newly married to an academic whom she does not particularly love, living a life that fills her with ambivalence. When she has the opportunity to hurt her husband’s rival (and her own former lover) she does so to grand effect: giving him her pistol and encouraging him to kill himself. Don’t worry, she pays for it in kind — but not before becoming one of the most fascinating characters ever written for the stage.
Sula, Toni Morrison
According to her neighbors, Sula is one bad apple. From childhood to adulthood, her blatant disregard for gender and social norms draws suspicion, her interracial affairs draw scorn, and when she finally betrays her only friend, she becomes a pariah. But aside from the betrayal, from where I’m standing Sula seems a brilliant character: independent, tough-minded, unconcerned with any standards except her own.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Countess Olenska isn’t the kind of bad we’d remark on today, but for high society in the 1870s, she was deeply scandalous. Worldly! Divorced! Unconcerned with prim social convention! It’s enough to make one dream of something other than one’s perfectly bred, perfectly boring wife.
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
OK, one more Wharton. In this book, the bad woman is Lily Bart, penniless socialite who, via much flirting and social-ladder climbing and many innocent mistakes that probably resulted from much flirting and social ladder-climbing, winds up a total social pariah. The end is tragic, and ultimately Lily is the victim, society the villain.
What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, Zoë Heller
This book is double the fun: two badly behaved women whose exploits (and obsessions) will horrify and delight you. There’s Barbara, an older teacher so intense and grasping she can’t keep a friend, and Sheba, the pretty new art teacher who decides to confide in her: she is having an affair with a 15-year-old student. Sheba becomes more and more obsessed with the student (as he loses interest), and Barbara becomes more and more obsessed with Sheba and her scandalous behavior — and, in fact, is writing a certain book about it.
Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
Gaitskill’s writing is filled with unpleasant but fascinating characters, both male and female. Her most famous work is called Bad Behavior — and no one does bad behavior like Gaitskill. In Veronica, Alison, an ex-model who has fallen steeply from grace (she’s now a cleaning lady in her late 40s, decrepit, and addicted to codeine), considers her own cruelty in her previous, beautiful life, and her relationship with the titular Veronica. Like so many of the characters in Gaitskill’s work, Alison disgusts but compels, frightens but excites. Worse, you can see yourself in her.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Okay, so Katniss isn’t bad bad — she’s moral, and she loves her family, and she doesn’t want to kill other people. But a lot of the time, she’s also an unapologetic asshole. Which makes me adore her forever, because, in her situation, wouldn’t you be pretty freaking disgruntled too?
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is not a particularly good person. She cheats, she neglects her children, she’s jealous, she basically burns her own world down around herself. In fact, Tolstoy originally meant to make her ugly and unappealing, so that his readers would be disgusted by her and side with her morally upright husband, but eventually became charmed by her, and lessened his own condemnation of her — a little bit. She still meets a tragic end, and she’s still fairly deviant, especially for her time, but like Tolstoy, we still can’t help but love her.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Two bad women dominate this novel, though one has been dead for a year. There’s Rebecca, the dead wife of the narrator’s new husband, who tortured him with her affairs, and Mrs. Danvers, one of the most memorable villains in literature, who does all she can to torture the narrator and break up her marriage. No one, after all, can replace Rebecca. No one!
The eponymous Medea is a barbarian. Literally and figuratively — the Ancient Greeks called all foreigners “barbarians,” and also she murders her unfaithful husband’s new wife and father-in-law as well as her own children, the better to hurt him. Then she escapes. The play is one of the most produced and performed Greek tragedies in modern times. Hey, everyone loves a revenge fantasy.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
In this postmodern novel by a self-declared feminist, Sarah Woodruff is a disgraced governess (affairs with French lieutenants will do that to you) who becomes an object of desire for the well-off Charles Smithson. Though Sarah is often read as a mere symbolic figure, the feminine other, she is also perceived by characters and author to be remarkably strong-willed and independent. You’ll like her.
A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
I just had to put George R.R. Martin’s whole series on here, because pretty much every woman in it is bad in one way or another (mostly they’re all, at some point or another, murderers), and yet it’s the women in these books who keep me coming back. Arya Forever.
Thérèse Raquin, Emile Zola
Well. Another tragedy. In this one, the lonely and unhappily married Thérèse has an affair, and then she and her lover conspire to kill her husband. Things go downhill from there. Sure, Thérèse is kind of a monster. But she’s also a strong personality forced to bend to society’s will, so it’s no wonder it drives her a little crazy. (What actually drives her crazy: murder)
Emma, Jane Austen
Of this novel’s eponymous character, Jane Austen famously said that “nobody will much like her but myself.” True — at least at the start. She’s spoiled, self-important, and relentlessly meddling, but then, in true romantic form, she gets redeemed, and we wind up loving her.
Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys
Sasha Jensen is deeply unhappy, utterly adrift, and contemptuous of all those around her. But even her rants draw you completely in:
“I’m very much afraid of the whole bloody human race. … Afraid of them?’ I say. ‘Of course I’m afraid of them. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a pack of damned hyenas. Thinking: ‘Oh, shut up. Stop it. What’s the use?’ But I can’t stop. I go on raving. ‘And when I say afraid — that’s just a word I use. What I really mean is that I hate them. I hate their voices, I hate their eyes, I hate the way they laugh. … I hate the whole bloody business. It’s cruel, it’s idiotic, it’s unspeakably horrible. I never had the guts to kill myself or I’d have got out of it long ago. So much the worse for me. Let’s leave it at that.”
How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
The characters in this “novel from life” (but particularly the one called Sheila) are self-obsessed, petty, lurid, and sometimes ugly — but they sound like the truth about people you know, and so you can’t help but love them a little (or a lot).
Carmilla, J. Sheridan le Fanu
Super-sexy lesbian vampire from the 1800s. What more can I say?
Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey
The protagonist of this novel, Elyria, doesn’t seem to care about anybody — including herself. Without warning, she does something we’ve all thought about from time to time: she abandons her life and husband in New York and runs off to New Zealand, where she wanders around, her thoughts worsening, her sense of self dissolving. I actually kind of can’t stand her, but Lacey’s prose is so transfixing that you can’t help but follow Elyria to the end.
“A Scandal in Bohemia,” Arthur Conan Doyle
Irene Adler is made much of in the many adaptations of the world of Sherlock Holmes, but she only appears in one story: “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Still, she is a master liar and trickster who manages to outwit the famous detective soundly enough to win his undying affection.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Sure, this book is primarily about Pip, but it’s also about two of the best bad women in literature: Miss Havisham, the morbidly bitter spinster who, incredibly, lives her whole life in her wedding dress, cursing the man who left her at the altar, and Estella, the beautiful adopted daughter that Miss Havisham raises to be cold and cruel. Was there ever a scarier spinster than Miss Havisham? I think not. What I do think: it’s Pip’s own fault for not getting the message the first time.
Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder, an orphan raised in a thieves’ den, has a mission: to gain the trust of the wealthy Maud Lilly, and then convince her to marry Richard “Gentleman” Rivers — so he can have her committed and get all her money. But Sue and Maude fall in love. And then there’s another twist…
What? She was hungry.