Louisa May Alcott

1832-1888

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Domestic Goddess Louisa May Alcott is perhaps most famous for writing Little Women, (1868) a novel which is partially autobiographical and has shaped the way many women since the Victorian era have defined womanhood, family, and girlhood. Since the early 1970's, the public has known about the stories that Alcott published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. These gothic "potboilers" are filled with delightfully feminist femmes fatales, intrigue, and dare-we-say-it, smut (at least by Victorian standards). Read more about this author, who was more versatile than many of us knew.

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Little Women, Alcott's most famous novel, color image from one of the earliest editions of the novelBorn(1) in 1832 in to Bronson (a noted Transcendentalist who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, among others) and Abba Alcott (daughter of Colonel Joseph May and a vocal proponent for women's rights and abolition), Louisa May Alcott constantly struggled with the anger and individualistic spirit that came naturally to her. Bronson Alcott's belief that children were tabulae rasae blended and clashed with his other belief that lighter coloring (like his) betokened a deeper spirituality and closer connection to divinity (Saxton 205). "'Two devils,' [Bronson] confided in his journal, 'as yet, I am not quite divine enough to vanquish, the mother fiend and her daughter'" (qtd. in Sanderson 43). Since Louisa, like her mother, was born dark-haired and "willful," Bronson viewed her as a challenge, sometimes going so far as to call her the "Possessed One" "pathetic," and "bound in chains . . . which she could not break" (qtd. in Sanderson 43). He thought that teaching Louisa to suppress her natural inclinations for self-expression and difference in favor of what he perceived as better habits was part of his job in life, and Louisa seemed to see her life as one of struggle between her own will and submission to her father's (Sanderson 43). Bronson's belief in Louisa's demonic nature, and the doubts and pain that belief caused Louisa, can be found in her writings. She seems to view the act of writing as potentially evil; for example, it is when she is writing her stories that Jo March believes she exposes Beth to the scarlet fever that eventually kills her. Also, Louisa's gothic heroine Jean Muir reveals, through the writing of letters, her deceptive manipulations of her host family, deceptions many people would find immoral, if not evil. Gilbert and Gubar clearly show that there has traditionally been a connection between the act of writing and "evil" in patriarchal cultures: "what . . . history suggests is that in patriarchal culture, female speech and female 'presumption' -- that is, angry revolt against male domination-- are inextricably linked and inevitably daemonic" (35). Bronson perpetuated his repression of Louisa's temperament, arguably causing her to create a secret identity wherein she could express her angry revolt; that identity was A.M. Barnard (Alcott's pseudonym) and Barnard's femmes fatales.

Bronson's belief that Louisa was demonic resulted in part from his definition of himself as angelic, since anything opposite to him must be bad, given this perception. Thus, Louisa was unable to participate in a public declaration of her own identity, and so had to try in private, through her writing, to do so. As a result, in many of her stories, Louisa's representations of the manipulation of "appearance" versus "reality" suggest that she felt an internal struggle of her own, presumably caused, at least in part, by Bronson's label. The "little kingdom" that the young Louisa found "very hard" to "govern" was unmanageable because it was ruled by someone other than herself: Bronson. Louisa's "passion" and "wayward will" were in direct opposition to her father's temperament. Bronson saw his passivity and mild temper as signs of greater spirituality and as an indication that his was a closer connection to divinity. Naturally, these were the characteristics he encouraged in others.

As a Transcendental and a Victorian, Bronson tended to see his duty as a parent in the same light as reformers of the time, who stressed their belief that heredity and parenting were "the means to create new generations" and that one must encourage "having all that is great, and noble, and good in man, all that is pure, and virtuous, and beautiful, and angelic in woman" (William Alcott, qtd. in Russett 199). The Victorian understanding of child-rearing included the idea that "parents, ensuring their own physical and mental health by right living, could pass this health on to their offspring" (Russett 199). Bronson firmly embraced the ideas that as a parent, he could make the world a better place by molding his daughters to imitate his own perfection. His attempts to make Louisa more like himself caused a great deal of inner conflict for her.

An innovative and experimental educator, Bronson frequently used his daughters as models and subjects for his moral investigations and lessons. Louisa, in particular, struggled with Bronson's tests. One such struggle came from a lesson when Louisa was four, and it is particularly revealing of the relationship between Louisa and Bronson throughout their lives. Bronson, knowing that both girls loved apples, left an unguarded apple near Louisa and her older sister, Anna, with the restriction that it belonged to him and the girls were not to eat it. Bronson knew that the girls would be tempted by this literally forbidden fruit, and he felt that the struggle would reveal important information about his daughters. Since Louisa ate the apple, and then unrepentantly stated that she had done so "cause I wanted it," Bronson's intended lesson in self-sacrifice was obviously only half learned. Anna did not eat the apple, and apologized for even thinking about it. Louisa, on the other hand, may have struggled with her will, but in the end she gave in to it, despite her fear of Bronson's displeasure. This was to be the case throughout her life, which largely consisted of a series of struggles between what she wanted to do and what was either best for the family or what Bronson wanted her to do. Louisa learned early that her wishes and needs often clashed with society's (here represented by Bronson) expectations.

Louisa published a number of books for children, her most famous novel, Little Women, has never been out of print. As most people know, Little Women was partially autobiographical, and Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are representations of Louisa and her sisters Anna, Lizzie, and May. Alcott lived for most of her life in Massachusetts-- from Concord (where Orchard House, the most famous residence of the Alcott's is located) to Boston. Unlike Jo in Little Women, Louisa did travel to Europe, although because she was suffering from the effects of a "mercury cure" (where doctors dosed a patient with enough mercury to poison them, a treatment Alcott received twice while serving as a Civil War nurse) she did not enjoy it much. Alcott, in her later years, wrote to support her family. She fell into a coma from which she never recovered while caring for her ailing father, dying just a few days after he did, and is buried across the feet of her father, mother, and sister Lizzie. (You can see a picture of her gravestone by following a link on the Alcott links page).

To read more about Louisa May Alcott and several of her literary works, go to Kim Wells' Master's Thesis (all rights reserved).

1. All the information on this webpage is from an original Master's Thesis by Kim Wells, and as such, is for educational use only. This page is copyrighted (1998). To find a works cited page that lists the sources for the information included herein, go to the MA thesis link above.

 

 

Page created July 14, 1998

Last update:

November 2003

Little Women graphic from the 1868 version of the novel. Photo of Alcott, from the Internet.