Louisa May Alcott is one
of American literature's most interesting figures. Although there
are a great many women since the nineteenth century who have
read her most famous novel, Little Women, (1868) many
critics still do not consider her one of the major writers of
the American canon. Even feminist critics have had difficulty
with her, feeling that her characters support dominant and patriarchally
defined roles for women, thus reinforcing in those who read the
story those very roles we seek to reject. One would be hard pressed
to find one of her short stories or excerpts from her longer
works in most anthologies of American writers, despite the fact
that almost everyone knows something about her.(1)
One reason behind this seemingly odd exclusion: people consider
her a children's author, and there has been for years an attitude
that books written for children cannot be taken seriously from
a critical perspective. This attitude is changing, and Alcott
has become probably the most written about American children's
author, (save for Mark Twain) but there is still some impulse
to take both the genre of children's literature and Alcott less
Feminist Criticism and Alcott's Place in the Canon
Critical work on Alcott has
generally taken two directions. The earliest type of attention
her work received was mostly discussion of the autobiographical
elements in her novels for girls, and was aimed an audience of
young girls, to further their understanding of the author, and
as such, was sometimes sentimental. Another slant has emerged
recently, especially since the 1974 publication of Behind
a Mask, the collection of relatively newly discovered pseudonymous
gothic fiction. This discovery, along with Martha Saxton's publication
of her "modern biography," has caused many critics
to argue for recognition of a duality in Alcott's persona-- an
argument very similar to the approach taken by Sandra Gilbert
and Susan Gubar in their pivotal feminist analysis of nineteenth-century
women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic.
Gilbert and Gubar argue that
women writers of this era, having no successful paradigm within
which to create their art, had to repress their expressions of
both art and anger, and that these repressed urges found other
ways of manifesting themselves. These scholars point to the disparity
between what polite society demanded of women and what the women
who wanted to write suffered; they argue that these repressions
often appear as depictions of madness, illness, and hysteria.
As Toril Moi explains, "Gilbert and Gubar expand . . . binary
oppositions by stressing the recurrent use of imagery of confinement
and escape, disease and health and of fragmentation and wholeness"
(61). Some of the feminine halves to the binary oppositions that
exist in the literary concept of gender roles are "formlessness,
passivity, instability, confinement, piety, materiality, spirituality,
irrationality, compliancy, and finally, 'the two incorrigible
figures' of the Witch and the Shrew" (Moi 34). Women characters
in literature have usually been of these types; they also appear
frequently in Alcott's work, but often are not presented with
the negative slant that male authors have typically given them.
For Alcott, these roles are frequently commandeered and controlled
by the women who perform them. Rather than being trapped in those
roles, Alcott's women exploit society's expectations for their
own benefit, as we will see in our study of Alcott's many "actresses,"
both literal and figurative.
Gilbert and Gubar emphasize
the idea that women writers' personae and their novels' characters
are "doubled"; for instance, the "madwoman in
the attic"reflects the repressed urges and desires of the
innocent heroine of many typical nineteenth-century works. At
the same time, this "madwoman" is the woman author
who must repress her own urge to write, and who does so frequently
at the expense of her own mental and physical health.(2)
This idea of doubling and madness often appears in the works
of women writers such as Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë,
and George Eliot. Alcott has not historically been grouped with
these more "serious" writers, although much of her
work resembles theirs in tone and content. Her role as a woman
author, as well, is more similar to Dickinson et al than we previously
Illustrating the problematic
status that Alcott has for many feminist critics, Gilbert and
Gubar's discussion of Alcott contends that "when in Little
Women [she] 'teaches' Jo March to renounce gothic thrillers,
we cannot help feeling that it is hypocritical of her to continue
writing such tales herself" (70). What Gilbert and Gubar
fail to consider in their condemnation of Alcott's seeming "hypocrisy"
is that she did not continue writing those tales after Little
Women's publication (except for re-working one story, A
Modern Mephistopheles). Just like Jo, Alcott repressed that
which was most scandalous about her persona. Like the authors
in Gilbert and Gubar's study, Alcott rejected a side of her writing
about which she felt an "anxiety of authorship." These
feminist critics discuss Little Women, briefly analyzing
Amy and Beth March as typical examples of the "painted doll"
and the "angel in the house" respectively (25). They
do point out that in Beth's characterization, Alcott shows us
a glimpse of both the danger of the angel in the house who "has
no story of her own but gives 'advice and consolation' to others"
and the power that such a role might contain when "the Victorian
domestication of death represents not just an acquiescence in
death by the selfless, but also a secret striving for power by
the powerless" (22, 25). However, in pointing out this possibility
for power in Beth's death, they do not consider the possibilities
for power in Jo's, Meg's or Amy's roles.
An important point that Gilbert
and Gubar make, which resonates strongly within Alcott's work,
and which they themselves do not explore, is their assertion
that "from a female perspective . . . 'inconstancy' can
only be encouraging, for-- implying duplicity-- it suggests that
women themselves have the power to create themselves as characters,
even perhaps the power to reach toward the woman trapped on the
other side of the mirror/text and help her to climb out"
(16). Can Alcott's very abandonment of her gothic heroines and
subsequent creation of Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, who seem to embrace
patriarchal and traditional roles, reveal Alcott's own attempt
to control her destiny? It seems that an analysis of the power
of duplicity, of which Alcott was quite conscious and which a
study of her own "duplicitous" works can reveal, is
in order, stepping out from the place where Gilbert and Gubar
Gilbert and Gubar briefly
touch upon the idea of examining Alcott's gothic stories, pointing
out in their quick discussion of Jean Muir in "Behind a
Mask" that "for women writers like . . . Alcott . .
. the exceptional insight, with resultant duplicity, of a veiled
lady becomes a strategy for survival in a hostile, male-dominated
world" (473). But Alcott herself was a "veiled lady"
creating a number of women characters who, as skillful actresses,
were able to control their own lives because of, rather than
in spite of, their veils. Certainly living next door to Nathaniel
Hawthorne, (whom she admired, despite his complaints about "hordes
of scribbling women," a group of which Alcott would have
been part) placed her in a potentially hostile authorial environment,
but she kept writing nevertheless. An analysis of the "doubled"
characters in Alcott's gothic fiction can reveal previously unnoticed
"doubles" in Little Women, who should be examined
in the light of those doubled gothic heroines. My thesis seeks
to perform just this study, building on the work of other critics
who have also noticed these trends toward underground and secretive
roles in Alcott's work, and discussed the layers that have only
recently become obvious.
In her essay, "Alcott's
'Enigmas': Impersonation and Interpretation" (1993), Carolyn
Kyler, for instance, argues that Alcott's sensational story about
a woman masquerading as a man "plays with the boundaries
between masculine and feminine, secrecy and openness, visibility
and invisibility, and raises questions about gender, impersonation,
and power" (229). Kyler questions why few have noticed this
gothic story, published under Alcott's own name, and why it has
never really been studied in the context of other works. She
hypothesizes that Alcott "declares herself with 'Enigmas,'
leaving off the moustache of anonymity and pseudonymity"
(244). Studying the secrets that the heroines this and other
gothic stories hold has been, and should be, associated with
discovering a "secret" that Alcott hid, possibly even
from herself. This secret might be that the "roles"
we play can change and be used to our advantage, just as she
herself used her pen name to her own advantage.
Like Kyler, a number of other
critics study the anger and power that can be found in "Behind
a Mask." In her essay "Outperforming Femininity"
(1994), Mary Elliott argues that the "unmasking" and
deception in Jean Muir's story "reflect on a physical level
the ideological possibilities for and limitations on women's
authenticity within the domestic culture of this period,"
and question the "good" and "bad" "public
working women . . . within the conventions and expectations of
prevailing mid-nineteenth-century norms" (299). In this
way, Elliott expands upon Judith Fetterley's arguments, which
can be found in her influential 1983 essay "Impersonating
Little Women." Fetterley contends that the gothic
stories are "significant in the context they create for
thinking about the career of one of our major nineteenth-century
writers" and that Alcott's story of a manipulative governess/actress
"articulates a radical critique of the cultural constructs
of 'femininity' and 'little womanhood,' exposing them as roles
women must play, masks they must put on, in order to survive"
(2). Yet another study of this story, Karen Halttunen's, seeks
biographical connections between Louisa Alcott and Jean Muir,
attempting to fill in the spaces between the two and thereby
find new meaning. Halttunen also analyzes some of Alcott's less
frequently studied domestic works such as Jo's Boys (1886),
and Eight Cousins (1873), thereby challenging other critics
to explore Alcott's lesser-known works in the context of the
Lynne Carpenter's study of "the
sexual politics of self-control in Alcott's 'A Whisper in the
Dark'" seeks to do just what Halttunen suggests. Carpenter
looks at this other gothic story as a revelation of "female
rage" and equates the struggle for sanity in the light of
male definition with Alcott's own struggles against anger and
sexual stereotypes (31). Similarly, in another look at the gothic
stories, Rena Sanderson's 1991 essay considers Alcott's "A
Modern Mephistopheles" as an "exorcism of patriarchy"
(43). Sanderson compares and connects the Faustian bargain its
main character makes with an older man for the right to "authorship,"
and therefore authority, to Louisa's "fluctuation between
adoration of and anger against the distant, reproachful authority
figure" that her father, Bronson Alcott represented (43).
Finally, Greta Gaard analyzes not only the gothic stories for
their indications of anger, but also extends her analysis to
Little Women as well. Gaard looks at the March girls as
existing within an oppressive society and analyzes the self-denial
that was urged upon them, and she makes a crucial connection
between the stage dramas that the girls perform and the "roles"
that Victorian society insisted all women play.
Most of these critics, though,
tend to isolate one gothic story or one element in several gothic
stories, looking at individual works. I add my voice to the ongoing
re-evaluation of Alcott as a writer by studying four of her lesser-known
gothic stories, her frequently overlookedroman à clef,
"Transcendental Wild Oats," (1873) and Little Women.
If, as Elaine Showalter asserts, "The appropriate task for
feminist criticism . . . is to concentrate on women's access
to language"(qtd. in Lodge 341), then what can a study of
Alcott's hidden "language," in stories society was
unaware of for decades, in addition to those hidden discourses
that are under the surface of more well-known works, do for feminist
criticism? It is my hope that this study can help to illuminate
yet another woman writer who persevered despite overwhelming
odds, the feeling that her own writing lacked legitimacy, and
the suspicion that the things she did gain her name for creating
lacked truth and passion.
A Daughter Constructed and Constricted: Louisa, Bronson, and
A little kingdom I possess,
Where thoughts and feelings dwell
And very hard I find the task
Of governing it well;
For passion tempts and troubles me,
A wayward will misleads,
And selfishness its shadow casts
On all my words and deeds.
-- Alcott, qtd. in Halttunen 237
Alcott resisted enormous
pressure from her publishers, who repeatedly offered her more
money for her stories if she would agree to have them published
under her name, rather than the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. Some
assume that this resistance to publicly acknowledge her writing
indicates that she was somewhat embarrassed by the content of
her "illegitimate children." This may, in part, be
true, but there may also be other reasons for her unwillingness
to share the authorship of these stories with others. Biographical
critic Charles Strickland asserts that Alcott "kept them
concealed from her father and his circle of friends" (64),
an assertion that seems quite in keeping with Alcott's desire
to be considered a serious writer. Serious writers, then and
now, did not acknowledge a love for the scandalous and salacious.
Still, perhaps in keeping these stories a secret from the public
and her family, Louisa also kept them out of Bronson's control,
thereby assuring that they would be hers alone. By remaining
secret, they may have provided a way for Alcott to express those
impulses that Bronson most abhorred. Alcott asserted once that
she believed her "natural ambition is for the lurid style.
[She said] I indulge my gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared
inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public .
. . [adding] and what would my own good father think of me .
. . if I set folks to doing the things I have a longing to see
my people do?" (quoted in Carpenter 37). By rejecting even
the possibility of her father's judgment on her "fancies,"
Alcott could define a part of herself outside of his domain,
and not have to give up those longings he deemed inappropriate.
It has been said that "as
a writer, and an extremely influential one at that, [Alcott]
served to perpetuate the values of Victorian domesticity to subsequent
generations. . . . thus [she] has served to shape the attitudes
of women toward the sensitive issues of women's roles and family
life" (Strickland 3). What light does an analysis of Alcott's
experience of writing her less influential works shed on the
author of America's classically domestic "girl-novels"?
Are A. M. Barnard and the women characters who populate her writing
truly Alcott's "doubles," or is the insistence on finding
anger and repression in Alcott's publicly unacknowledged work,
as one critic asserts, "possibly reductive" (Sanderson
52)? Where do the differences between public Louisa and private
Louisa come from, and more importantly, what are they? Can we
trace any of the conflicts that appear in her work between what
a woman "should be" and what she actually "is"
to her upbringing, possibly to her relationship with her father?
Did his urgings cause her to reject the work she may have found
most gratifying? How might her experiences as a Civil War nurse
and brush with death have affected her relationship with her
A study of Alcott's biography
reveals that, to a large extent, Louisa suffered from the doubts
about self and her right to definition self that many of the
nineteenth-century authors Gilbert and Gubar discuss also felt.
Born in 1832 to Bronson and Abba Alcott, 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
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.
This example of Bronson's
lessons illustrates the manner in which Louisa's "persona"
was created. In life, Louisa did not have control over her own
self-definition. In her family, she was the "bad" child,
and she was defined as such by the male head of the family, who,
if he lacked the economic authority that might be desirable,
nevertheless retained the authority of his own self-proclaimed
"genius" and "divinity." Simone de Beauvoir
describes the process through which the female role is defined
not as "natural" development but as one of molding,
just as Louisa was to a great degree her father's construction.
De Beauvoir argues: "One is not born, but rather becomes,
a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines
the figure that the human female represents in society; it is
the civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate
between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine"
(267). De Beauvoir argues that infidelity is "woman's sole
defense against the domestic slavery in which she is bound; and
[that] it is this economic oppression that gives rise to the
social oppression to which she is subjected" (55), and Louisa's
form of "infidelity" was the writing by which she defended
herself against Bronson's restrictions. By expressing passion,
anger, and vengeance in her stories, Louisa was unfaithful to
her father's more passive ideals. In her writing, Louisa was
able to define femininity on her own terms, and at the same time
gain an economic freedom and independence that Bronson never
had. Louisa struggled against the limiting definitions of herself,
imposed by her father, and these struggles can be seen in her
fiction when her heroines fight domestic and economic slavery
with the tools that they have.
Throughout her life Louisa
viewed herself through her father's definition, and Halttunen
argues that "despite her best efforts, Louisa continued
to display the faults that Bronson "catalogued on her tenth
birthday as 'anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy
wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idlenesses, heedlessness,
rude behaviors.' Her internalization of her father's demands
upon her is evident" (237). Bronson defined Louisa as willful
and moody; therefore, if she accepted her father's definition,
nothing she did would seem good enough to her. If she rejected
Bronson's opinions, she had to find her own self-definition--
a difficult task for anyone. Louisa both accepted and defended
herself against her status as inferior to Bronson. She was never
sure how to define her own role in the family or in the world.
Was she the troublemaker, the "possessed one," or the
family's savior? Her life was a struggle for self-definition,
and one example of the internal struggle between her own rational
nature and Bronson's philosophical assertions appears in "Transcendental
Wild Oats," with her depiction of Hope Lamb's "rational
practicality" as opposed to the philosophers' impracticality.
In a modern guidebook on
women's writing, Shirley Morahan defines writing and a woman's
place in it this way:
When we use words, we engage in a process which helps to shape
our very selves. If we too define words as the means whereby
we express the self into being, and if we additionally define
writing as this existential and moral activity, we do not restrict
our definitions to those writings which are most "personal"
like journal entries, letters . . . and autobiographic statements.
Rather, we describe all writing activity as a process of self-definition.
We can see, in keeping with Morahan's definition, which reflects
an idea that has come to be widely accepted today, that the process
of self-analysis was part of Louisa's everyday writings and everyday
life. Some of the most obvious and painful examples of the struggle
between Louisa and Bronson over who controlled Louisa-- and thus
who had the right to define and create her-- can be found in
her journals and letters, partially transcribed today in the
Harvard edition of "Transcendental Wild Oats." Both
diaries and correspondence were constantly read by Bronson and
Abba, and constantly reread and severely edited by Louisa. There
are frequent notes from Abba or Bronson to Louisa on how she
can be better by controlling her temper, being "cheerful,"
and being less "selfish." A note from her mother appearing
in Louisa's journals advises: "Remember, dear girl, that
a diary should be an epitome of your life. May it be a record
of pure thought and good actions, then you will indeed be the
precious child of your loving mother" ("Oats"
75). Clearly even Louisa's private thoughts were not private,
and the self-consciousness and sense of self-editing in some
entries definitely illustrates how narrow she felt her role to
be throughout her life. As she grew older and found her parents
reading her journal less frequently, she began to edit and comment
upon herself in the same self-conscious way. One childish entry
reads: "I was cross to-day and I cried when I went to bed.
I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only
kept all I made, I should be the best girl in the world. But
I don't, and so am very bad" ("Oats" 71). Following
this entry is one of Louisa's many subsequent annotations: "Poor
little sinner! -- She says the same at fifty" ("Oats"
71). The struggles that are apparent in this and other diary
entries are also clear in her depiction of various female characters,
from Hope Lamb's domestic endeavors, to Jean Muir's aggressive
manipulation of society's expectations, to Jo March's battles
with temper and ambition. This thesis will argue that Louisa
Alcott used her writing, especially her fiction, as a constant
process of interrogating and creating herself. She explored possible
flawed and ideal feminine identities, both rejecting and admiring
them, in her domestic fiction and her gothic works.
Go on to Chapter One