A Look at Female Heroism (and Lack Thereof) in the Music of the Lumineers

by Maya Khesin
I fell in love with the Lumineers’ music last summer, and this love and admiration only intensified when I was lucky enough to be able to go to their concert just a few weeks before the new strain of the coronavirus closed schools and businesses and certainly excluded the possibility of live performances. The more I explored the Lumineers’ music, the more I’ve noticed the prevalence of female names in the titles of their songs. The Lumineers currently have seven songs named after women: Elouise, Darlene, Ophelia, Cleopatra, Angela, Donna, and Gloria. The particular depth and intricacy with which the Lumineers portray three of these women – Gloria, Cleopatra, and Angela – has led me to wonder whether there is a connection between these women and female heroines in nineteenth-century literature.
The concept of female heroism in literature was brought into mainstream attention by authors of the nineteenth century such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Louisa May Alcott. Each of these authors showcase women displaying agency within their own sphere. For example, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice shows Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent and wise young woman, breaking free of the expectation that she should marry for money and instead looking for deeper elements of attraction, such as personality and intellect. In Jane Eyre, Brontë’s self-reliant protagonist Jane finds happiness in a loving marriage and a well-respected job as a governess despite years of abuse growing up in her aunt’s home. In Alcott’s Little Women, the main character, Jo March, defies stereotypical femininity by being the breadwinner for her family: she sells her writing as well as her hair, which is a traditional definer of femininity.
The Lumineers also craft narratives that showcase an interesting interplay between heroism and womanhood.
Their latest album, III, discusses Gloria’s failure as a mother and a wife (both roles that are prevalent in the traditional sphere of women) as well as her generational impact on her family.
Gloria’s failure as a mother is evidenced in the line “you couldn’t sober up to hold a baby” (from the song “Donna”). In the music video for “Gloria,” Gloria is seen holding a baby, so this line is meant to be taken figuratively: her alcoholism prevents her from fully nurturing her children.
The song “Leader of the Landslide” is written from the perspective of Gloria’s grandson, Junior. Junior’s father and Gloria’s son, Jimmy, is portrayed in the music video for “Leader of the Landslide” as an abusive alcoholic; we also learn later in the album, in the song “Jimmy Sparks,” that he has a gambling addiction. In “Leader of the Landslide,” Junior realizes that his damaged relationship with his father actually stems from his grandmother’s alcoholism (“finally I can see you as the leader of the landslide”), which has manifested in the way she raised Jimmy.
The song “Gloria” is written from Gloria’s husband’s perspective, and it describes the effect his wife’s alcoholism has on him and the children. A particularly poignant line in the song is “my hand was tied to yours.” This line shows that Gloria drags her husband down with her as she descends into addiction. Thus, she fails as a wife, as her relationship with her husband takes a major toll on him.
Despite her loving marriage to her angelically patient husband who forgives her even when she cheats on him, Gloria cannot find happiness. A recurring line in the song “Donna” is “you hate the name Donna.” Donna is her mother – the fact that Gloria hates her mother’s name reveals the extent to which her relationship with her mother has stained her life. She also feels confined in her rural environment. The end of the music video for “Donna” shows a frantic Gloria running out of the house and stripping down to her bare skin, perhaps as a grasp for freedom. In the music video for “Life in the City,” Gloria travels to the city for a night as a means to momentarily escape rural life but ends up having sex with a stranger in a phonebooth while drunk and high. At the end of the video, she comes home to her sleeping husband filled with guilt and regret. In a way, she has failed in life altogether, as some believe that it is the goal of our existence to find happiness and self-actualization. Gloria’s character demonstrates a lack of nineteenth-century female heroism, as she fails both in her sphere as a woman and in her personal life.
Gloria is the antithesis of a heroine in practically every way, but the question of whether Cleopatra and Angela exhibit heroism is more complex. In the song “Cleopatra,” the narrator misses her only chance, as she perceives, at true happiness by rejecting her boyfriend’s marriage proposal right after her father’s death, but it seems that she has made the best of her life afterwards. She becomes a taxi driver; like Jo March in Little Women, she earns money by working in a male-dominated field. She finds some amount of happiness, as evidenced in the line “the only gifts from my Lord were birth and then divorce.” This line is pity-inspiring, but it also reveals that Cleopatra exhibits agency by marrying a man who gives her a child and then leaving him. Perhaps she married him purely with the intention to have a child; in this case, she uses her appeal as a woman to achieve a means of happiness, admittedly a morally questionable move. In the music video for “Cleopatra,” Cleopatra is genuinely joyful when her young adult son, who lives with his father, pays her a visit in her taxi, showing that she does have a means of being truly happy once in a while. Her career is also a source of fulfillment for her: she seems to derive joy from observing and interacting with her passengers.
Despite Cleopatra’s relative fulfillment, the music video for the song “My Eyes” shows her at the end of her life in a nursing home. The line “promised it all but you lied” (from “My Eyes”) stands out in this context: even though the song seems to have been written about a failed relationship, this line combined with the music video suggests that Cleopatra believes that her life has not been all that it has promised to be.
From Cleopatra’s point of view, she has failed to achieve happiness because of one decision, but there is no way of knowing whether she would be happier had she chosen to accept her boyfriend’s marriage proposal. Conversely, Cleopatra probably would have been happier in her marriage had she not allowed her life to be poisoned by mourning for what could have been. Dwelling on regret ultimately ruins her life and leads her to her grave with the belief that her life has not been all that it should have been.
“Angela” is written from the perspective of Angela’s partner, who watches her grapple with feeling confined in her town, a struggle that somewhat resonates with that of Gloria. The song’s narrative follows Angela leaving her town and driving far away until she feels “home at last,” and then her partner following her because she is “the only love [the narrator] ever found.” “The wilderness inside” of Angela shows that she has to suppress a part of herself in order to belong in her town. Wilderness is the opposite of civilization, so this line may go as far as to suggest that Angela can never fully be herself in civilization. The fact that Angela reaches a place that is “home at last” by making the difficult decision to leave her home is a display of heroism. Unlike Gloria’s hysterical disrobing in her yard, Angela’s attempt to find freedom and joy is successful.
Perhaps the greatest goal in our lives is to achieve happiness, so we can define heroism, at least partially, as achieving success in this goal without harming others. It is clear that Gloria fails to be a heroine, both failing to find happiness in her own life and harming her family in a way that lasts for generations. Both Cleopatra and Angela display agency, a key characteristic of nineteenth-century literary heroines, but they both leave questionable impacts on people in their lives: Cleopatra uses her husband as a means to have a child and then leaves him, and Angela’s partner is forced to choose between her and the comfort of home. Cleopatra finds some level of fulfillment but allows her regret to overshadow it, so I would argue that she is not a heroine. Angela succeeds in her quest for happiness, and her method of doing so is quite heroic. How her impact on her partner factors into her heroism is open for debate.