The tragic figure of Ophelia in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet has inspired several nonfiction books about girls. The first author to make this connection was Nebraska psychologist Mary Pipher, in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls published in 1994.
In Shakespeare's play, Ophelia is in love with the melancholy title character, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hamlet courts her and sends her love letters. Unfortunately, Ophelia's father, Polonius, distrusts Hamlet. Polonius is an adviser to Hamlet's stepfather, King Claudius (who is also Hamlet's uncle). Hamlet concocts a scheme to expose Claudius as the murderer of the previous king (Hamlet's real father), and as part of his scheme, Hamlet pretends to be insane. Polonius orders Ophelia to return Hamlet's love letters and forbids her to see the prince. Believing Hamlet's feigned madness, Ophelia obeys her father, while Polonius uses his daughter to try and learn more about Hamlet's insanity.
In the course of events, Hamlet kills Polonius for spying, and this seems to drive poor Ophelia over the edge. She becomes increasingly distraught, sings bawdy songs in public, and strews flowers about. Her actions make people fear she is going mad. One day, she walks along a river and drowns, and it's unclear whether her death is an accident or suicide.
In essence, Ophelia is emotionally damaged by the men in her life. She is not strong enough to stand up to either her father or her lover. Her subservience and weakness lead to madness and then death.
Mary Pipher compared the meek, suicidal Ophelia to the many adolescent girls that Pipher worked with in her therapy practice. As they entered puberty, these girls lost their childhood self-confidence and increasingly suffered from depression, eating disorders, early sexual encounters, drug and alcohol abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors. Much like Ophelia, these girls were drowning themselves because they had low self-esteem, which was reinforced by the society around them.
In her book, Pipher presented statistics showing how girls' lives have changed for the worse in the past few generations. For example, over 70% of young women now have sexual intercourse by age 20 -- that's a 20% increase since 1970. She blamed the "girl-poisoning" society in America where the media promote unrealistic images of female beauty and success. Young girls feel they'll never measure up, Pipher asserted, so they punish themselves or make desperate, often physically dangerous attempts to fit in.
Reviving Ophelia was a media sensation and spent 149 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The book brought Ophelia into the limelight and spawned works with similar themes by other authors. In addition, the Ophelia Project was created to fight the problems facing young women today. Ever since Pipher's book, "Ophelia" has become symbolic of a troubled teen girl.