Study Guide

Gemma Doyle in A Great and Terrible Beauty

By Libba Bray

Gemma Doyle

Pretty Witty

Miss Gemma Doyle isn't the average 19th-century sixteen-year-old wealthy English girl, though she appears to be at first. We quickly find out that, unlike her peers (and much to her family's concern), she has some opinions of her own, some ideas about social justice and equality, and doesn't care for the regular gossip about clothes, balls, or manners. In other words, Gemma's got a keen mind (most of the time) and isn't afraid to show it.

So when Felicity and her gang try to play a nasty trick on Gemma's lower-class roommate, Ann, Gemma is right there with the perfect lie to get Ann out of hot water. She says:

"Ann, darling, […] Don't be modest. Tell Miss Moore the truth. […] The truth—that Miss Worthington lost her ring tonight during vespers. You found it and put it in your knitting basket for safekeeping." (6.54-56)

Gemma can play the mean girls' game, or at least keep up with it, and here she happily steps into the role of opposing team. It isn't Gemma's style to sit back while some mean girls frame her innocent roommate, especially since it stands to ruin Ann's shot at getting a good job after Spence—which as a poor girl, Ann totally needs.

The Loner

If left to her druthers, though, Gemma would much rather be alone, brooding over her strange gifts and reading the diary she finds the night she takes her turn as Felicity's hazing target. But as much as Gemma asserts this, one of her weaknesses is a secret desire to belong and to be loved. We know this because she risks a lot to get Felicity and Pippa to like her—stealing booze from the church is pretty risky business—and she takes for granted that Ann will be friends with anyone who's nice to her and talks to her a little bit.

So though Gemma doesn't like to think of herself as someone who will compromise herself in order to belong to a friend group, she still totally is this person. And she doesn't stop at accepting Felicity's stupid challenge to steal holy wine from the chapel either. Even though Gemma doesn't trust Felicity or Pippa any farther than she can throw them, she still joins them in creating the new Order, and then goes one step further by taking them into the realms with her.

And though all kinds of trouble ensues, Gemma keeps bringing her friends back into the realms with her, even when she really feels like she shouldn't—which shows us that while she's capable of thinking for herself, she's also more susceptible to peer pressure than she likes to admit. Bummer.

The Activist

And this brings us to an interesting contrast within Gemma: she isn't so great at speaking up on her own behalf, but she is pretty steadfast when it comes to speaking up for others.

Our girl has a quick mouth and a strong moral compass, but since these are considered undesirable traits in girls, she often tries to suppress these parts of herself, especially when it comes to her own experience. So when her brother, Tom, makes a sexist comment about what a woman should be (a wife, mother, subservient to her husband), Gemma says, "Part of me wants to give Tom a swift kick for his arrogance" (3.28)—but she doesn't, and while she doesn't expressly say why, we can see that in this scenario the only person hurt by his words is herself.

But at another point in the book, when Felicity suggests they begin a new Order, Gemma says to the mean girl:

"I'm game, with one provision. […] You have to invite Ann. […] As I recall, you owe me a debt." (12.104-108)

Gemma takes charge of this situation without hesitation, and even though Ann isn't her favorite person, Gemma still uses her power to change the way her poor roommate's life is going by getting her into the inner circle of popularity. Whereas she bites her tongue when her brother offends her, here we see her transforming a seemingly mundane social interaction into a moment of social justice.

No Super Hero

Of course, Gemma's willingness to speak up for the underdog isn't the only thing special about her, and our girl also possesses clairvoyance and a supernatural touch. But none of this means she's any different from ordinary folks like us—at the end of the day, she's still just a teenage girl, who makes mistakes and poor choices on the regular.

For example, even though her mother warns her approximately ten trillion times about the dangers of taking magic out of the realms, Gemma does anyway just to try to spare her friends the pain of growing up (24.109). And when she does—though magic is part of the equation—we recognize this as classic teenage behavior, which makes Gemma pretty relatable for us as readers. What sixteen year old hasn't done the exact opposite of what their parent advises, after all? The only difference is that Gemma takes magic, whereas Shmoop just snuck cookies.