Copyright Sarah Klein, M.A. 2000

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Bringing Up Jo:

Little Women, Female Rhetorical Activity,

and the Nineteenth Century American Conduct Book Tradition

Around the turn of the century, the publisher of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel Little Women lost its publication records, preventing us from knowing precisely how many copies of the book circulated in the late nineteenth century. What we can quantify is the enduring appeal of the novel - for example, in the year 1929 alone, three million copies were sold in America (Saxton 4). It has been continuously reprinted, staged, filmed, condensed, referenced, and translated in its more than 130-year history. Little Women has come to represent, in the minds of literary critics and the reading public alike, the quintessential American narrative of girlhood and female coming-of-age, resonating somehow for generation after generation. As Elaine Showalter notes,

Ardent testimonials to Alcott have come from women writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich.. . . While it has influenced the work of scores of American women writers, in male literature, such as in the stories of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Little Women stands as a code term for female piety and sentimentality, although it is highly unlikely that either Hemingway or Fitzgerald had read it. Indeed, there can be few other books in American literary history which have had so enormous a critical impact on half the reading population, and so miniscule a place in the libraries or criticism of the other. (42)

Its consumption, reception, and place in discourse have been highly gendered, but regardless of its various appropriations, the book's influence on female readers and writers in particular has been enormous and its classification as a prototypical female "guidebook" endures.

Little Women & the American Conduct Book

Alcott's Little Women is a fictional text with significant autobiographical overtones, and is deeply rooted in the tradition of nineteenth century American conduct literature for girls. Lynne Vallone's scholarship on girl's culture cites it as one of the nineteenth century books for young women "written within the ideological paradigm set forth in the advice books of mid-nineteenth century America," of the class of novels that "organize and categorize female experience by combining the tenets of 'real womanhood' with narrative" (122).

The American conduct book, "a text intended for an inexperienced young adult or other youthful reader that defines an ethical, Christian-based code of behavior and that normally includes gender role definitions," has been studied as a genre by a small but increasing number of scholars - among them Sarah Newton, who argues that these books "have promoted political ends, have aesthetically influenced female characterization in early American as well as English novels, and have certainly helped perpetuate traditional American views about female place and roles that emerged . . . as the 'cult of true womanhood'" (5-6). In fact, children's conduct books became increasingly gender-stratified from the 1830's on, generally prescribing behavior marked by agency and activity for boys, passivity and humility for girls (Newton 29). Many conduct book writers of the period worried about the supposed female tendency to light-mindedness, gossip, temper, selfishness, and laziness, calling for training in reserve, restraint, modesty, selflessness, piety, and discipline (Newton 31). Ostensibly these conduct texts seek not to denigrate the female sex but to legitimize a separate-but-equal sphere and to "protect" women from both the inner and outer flaws that might thwart the development of a fully realized self (Newton 80). Their writers frequently envision women's education and moral improvement as a way to better prepare females for traditional gender roles as worthy wives and mothers, compliments to and caretakers of men and children - thus the copious preparation for interaction with the opposite sex provided in these books (Newton 85, bibliography).

In the period just preceding the publication of Little Women, the conduct book market skyrocketed, with 28 new titles appearing in the 1830's, 36 in the 1840's, and 38 more in the 1850's, not counting the numerous new editions and revised reprints (Schlesinger 18). Although most conduct books were written by men, some of the most popular authors of these texts were women such as Lydia Sigourney and Eliza Farrar, as well as Hannah More, whose conduct writings appear with great frequency in the anthologies and conduct guide collections of the period (Schlesinger 18, Hemphill 177, Newton's bibliog.). These three highly-popular female conduct authors theorized about rhetorical activity (among other subjects) in their conduct texts, often covering topics traditionally ignored or marginalized by masculinist models defining "rhetoric" but of great importance to the historical/social female experience - such as conversation and letter-writing. (1)

Louisa May Alcott was more than familiar with the conduct book form, and was raised in an atmosphere saturated with intellectual discourse about the education of women. Several scholars have written of her progressivist-educator father's perception of Louisa as "the difficult daughter" and his strident and persistent efforts to instruct her in appropriate feminine behavior in line with his educational philosophies. (2) Her father's library, in which she spent a great deal of her life, contained Maria Edgeworth's Moral Tales, and his favorite text, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress - the moralistic allegorical treatise that served as a structural and thematic model for Little Women, and from which its epigraph was taken (Saxton 25, Showalter 52). Chapter One of the novel outlines what Showalter has called "the theme of female progress towards the paradise of goodness" when Marmee advises her daughters using the metaphors and allegories of this prototypical text: "Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that is a true Celestial City" (Alcott 22).

Alcott was also quite likely familiar with a particular sub-genre of the conduct book, a hybrid form fusing the conduct book with popular fiction. Lynne Vallone, in her work on this form, points to "the virtually unanimous injunction against novel reading found in conduct literature" that "attests to the significance and perceived danger of that readership's literary hunger," a voracious public appetite for the fictional form, and for the novel in particular, especially among girls and women (4). As Vallone notes, female conduct novelists appeared in the eighteenth century (Maria Edgeworth among them), who "attempted to address the sociopsychological needs of a female audience by penning books that combined romance, courtship, and desirable behavioral precepts in their plots and characterizations" (4). Vallone, expanding on the genre work of J. Paul Hunter, includes Hannah More's bestseller, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, as well as Alcott's Little Women, as texts forming "the underground system developed by young novel lovers in order to share forbidden reading . . . an eclectic mix of popular fiction, literary work, and the 'nonliterary' form of the conduct manual/advice book." (3)

Little Women as Conduct Fiction

Louisa May Alcott was recruited to write a book for just this market. In the fall of 1867, hearing of Louisa's financial worries, publisher Thomas Niles urged her to write a "girls' book" and to become contributing editor to Merry's Museum, an "instructional" children's magazine that included poems and stories (Saxton 294). Niles' urging was the genesis of Little Women. In its first incarnation, the novel was subtitled A Girls' Book (Saxton 295). As Martha Saxton puts it, "Just as Louisa's father regarded The Pilgrim's Progress as a guide to personal contentment, so Little Women became a handbook for girls desiring wisdom about becoming good women . . . a vision of the struggle to achieve ideal womanliness" (5). Alcott herself saw the book as a biographical and moral story about female coming-of-age, and feared its didactic, moral overtones rendered it boring (295). In response to one of the energetic young admirers who wrote to her praising the novel, Alcott replied, "Though I do not enjoy writing 'moral tales' for the young, I do it because it pays well" (Showalter 56-7). While she enjoyed the financial power (and to some degree the public recognition) that Little Women brought, the biographical evidence extant suggests that Alcott found little pleasure in the actual writing of the novel and tended to dismiss it, as well as the similarly-configured stories she produced after it for the same audience, as "moral pap" (Saxton 16).

However, as with many women writers historically, Alcott was able to appropriate particular forms and genres to rather interesting ends - sometimes ambivalently, and with both subversive and conventional results. Shortly after finishing the second volume of Little Women, Alcott began writing an advice column for girls titled "Happy Women," which biographer Martha Saxton describes as including "sketches of single women, doctors, teachers, and writers who made their lives models of purpose, self-denial, usefulness, and cheer," proposing singlehood for women as a viable and positive choice (296). Here Alcott takes a conventional form and its thematics and plays with them a bit. What emerges is a rather interesting text which is in many ways subversive and resistant, while at the same time managing to "talk the talk" of conventionality, upholding traditional mores. This parallels similar negotiations undertaken by female rhetorical theorists working in the "pure" conduct book genre, as Jane Donawerth's scholarship has explored. Alcott embarked on a similar, complex, and sometimes ambivalent, revisionism in the hybrid of fiction and conduct guide that became Little Women. While the novel is deeply rooted in the conduct book tradition, its relationship to that tradition is not necessarily straightforward or simplistic - nor is Alcott wholly participatory in its most standard ideologies.

Conduct Ideology & The Rhetorical Life of Miss Josephine March

In some sense then, Little Women is of the species of conduct literature, and it is also profoundly concerned with the rhetorical activity of women. Its most fully developed and sympathetic character, Jo March, is an imaginative embodiment of the author's experience of her own world. In her journey toward womanhood, Jo struggles with the tension between her inner self, her true desires, and a code of behavior into which she must integrate as a woman in mid- to late- nineteenth century America. Like Alcott's in many ways, Jo's coming-of-age is a painful and conflicted process that pervades the narrative.

Like Alcott, Jo also happens to be a woman of considerable rhetorical prowess and conflicted ambitions. The representation of Jo as "rhetorical woman" is, in line with the most profound meta-tensions of the novel, ambivalent. Alcott shapes Jo's identity and character primarily through her rhetorical activities - her writing, her performance, her speech, her social communication - and rhetorical activity here becomes the central stage on which her gendered dilemmas play themselves out. Parallel to some of the most prominent female writers of "pure" conduct literature for girls at this time, Alcott publishes a wildly popular conduct novel that explores the meaning and deployment of rhetorical activity in women's lives - an exploration which is, of course, historically and culturally situated. Deeply imbued with implicit "theory" about women, the rhetorical act and rhetorical agency for females, the novel dialogues ideologically with other conduct texts of the period. This is a novel of multiple faces -- one that in many respects undercuts and revises conventionality, yet remains also deeply and fundamentally reflective of dominant discourses and traditional ideals. This tension is, in large part, the art of Little Women, and perhaps one of the reasons for its nineteenth century popularity as well as its contemporary endurance.

Because conduct books of the period tended to encourage relatively passive and accommodationist behavior for girls -- advocating female education to the extent that it produced polished, pious, dutiful, socially adept wives and mothers -- they generally addressed rhetorical activity within this same ideological framework. Most interesting are the negotiations through such territory made by some of the most popular female conduct writers of the period, such as More, Sigourney, and Farrar. Unlike their predecessors in the genre of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who preferred uneducated and silent women, these women's theories are resistant and revisionary in that they call for education for girls, as well as training in activities such as letter-writing and conversation (Donawerth xli). However, as Jane Donawerth has argued, "they are also influenced by the genre in the many negative prescriptions they advance for women's speech: women must not talk too much; they must never gossip; they must not exaggerate or flatter; they must not parade their knowledge" (xli). Like Alcott's fictional Marmee, these female conduct writers typically valued industry and usefulness for women, advocating rhetorical empowerment, but within these bounds - As Marmee instructs the newly married Meg,

You are the sunshine-maker of the family, and if you get dismal there is no fair weather . . . Take an interest in whatever John likes, -- and talk with him, let him read to you, exchange ideas, and help each other in that way. Don't shut yourself up in a handbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world's work, for it all affects you and yours. (Alcott 437)

Self-effacement remains the mandated norm for women, passed down by other women even as rhetorical mother's milk. Yet, on the up-side, these theorists carve a liberatory space out of limitation, as Donawerth suggests:

Felicitously, this framework also allows these conduct book theorists to develop a crucial aspect of conversation theory: the role of the listener. If women must generally be silent, they yet can be influential as good listeners, who support intellectual and moral discussion by their attentiveness and silent encouragement . . . Women take advantage of ideas of the psychology of sympathy, developed by male philosophers in the eighteenth century and adapted to rhetoric by George Campbell. Sympathy, for Sigourney and Farrar, gives special importance to women's role in conversation. (xli-xlii)

Such conduct book theorizing is a hide-and-seek exercise of both accommodation and resistance.

Alcott constructs Little Women around the unruly, creative, and unconventional young Jo March, whose journey through rhetorical territories maps the tensions present in conduct books written by women of the period, and thus the gender politics at play in broader discourses of the era. Jo is a conflicted but largely resistant female rhetor. Her struggle to reconcile the tension between "appropriate" rhetorical modes and behaviors has to do not only with the economics of the marketplace in which she eventually strives to become a writer, but is also inherently tied to her identity as a woman. Jo has a lively imagination and loves sensation, mysticism, and melodrama. She also finds that in the literary market of her day, such writing sells. However, prescriptions against this writing, particularly for women, are strong. Like Louisa, Jo struggles to reconcile her own desires, her own voice as a rhetor, the literary marketplace, and the gendered conventions and expectations for her sex instilled in her by her parents throughout her journey toward womanhood. The tension is poignantly represented late in the novel when Jo anguishes over mediating and resolving the binds of womanhood - represented through the trope of her rhetorical activity:

Jo wrote no more sensational stories, deciding that the money did not pay for her share of the sensation; but, going to the other extreme, as is the way with people of her stamp, she took a course of Mrs. Sherwood, Miss Edgeworth, and Hannah More; and then produced a tale which might have been more properly called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it. She had her doubts about it from the beginning; for her lively fancy and girlish romance felt as ill at ease in the new style as she would have done masquerading in the stiff and cumbrous costume of the last century. (399)

The same dilemma which the fictional Jo struggles with as a writer is resolved by Alcott the author when she molds the "sensational" and the "instructional/moral" into the hybrid form of Little Women, thus cleverly garnering both economic profit and professional acclaim -- while managing to question gender norms within a highly conventional framework that made them more palatable to conservative tendencies. Much like Alcott, as a rhetor Jo finds little satisfaction in the more straightforward moralistic instructions of conduct writers such as Hannah More, and even less in reproducing such models of conduct literature in her own writing - yet she is inevitably and indelibly shaped by these ideologies and teachings. She begs Marmee for a "moral" story, clarifying that she "likes to think about them afterwards, if they are real, and not too preachy" (60). She speaks of "needing lessons," but cannot "for the life of her, help getting a morsel of fun out of . . . [a] sermon, though she took it to heart as much as any of them" (61). When she begins publishing sensational stories on the sly, Jo assures her editor that even her most "thrilling tales" "should have some sort of a moral," and that she "takes care to have a few of [the] sinners repent" (390-91). Jo's complicated task is to discover and make peace with her own writerly voice and style -- a metaphor for the struggle to do the same with her womanly identity.

Little Women is largely concerned with the rhetorical activity of women and girls -- the prominence of letter-writing, speech and performance, reading, and social communication throughout the text makes clear that such activities are crucial to our understanding of Alcott's unique bildungsroman, and our understanding of ideologies shaping the lives and destinies of young women of the period. It also speaks, perhaps, to a notable presence of such topics in conduct literature for girls at the time. Because Jo is fashioned as the primary character of the novel, and she primarily as a rhetor, Alcott brings to the foreground this trope in connection to femaleness and coming-of-age. From the first moments we the readers meet Jo March, her distinguishing characteristic, that which marks her as "different," is her rhetorical practice and her identification as a writer, speaker, and performer.

At the most basic level, Jo's speech serves as a significant marker of her unconventionality. As the narrator tells us early in the novel, "A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic" (54, emphasis mine). She delights in slang, finds herself frequently corrected for her passionate and "unfeminine" outbursts of expression, and tends to "whistle in the street" (125). "Jo does use such slang words! . . . I detest rude, unlady-like girls" protests Amy, whose own remarkably poor grammar is rendered comic, endearing, and harmless by her extreme youth and her otherwise ultra-"feminine" behavior (15). Jo's unconventional speech is, somehow, more insidious and a bit dangerous, because she has "the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman, and didn't like it" (17). For her part, Jo detests "affected, niminy-piminy chits," and prefers a free, explicitly honest, and open style in even her most basic expressions and communications, a "tomboyish" approach to everyday speech (15). Jo's deployment of speech flies in the face of conduct book instruction for girls. For example, Hannah More's Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education advises:

In the faculty of speaking well . . . there are many who, though they have never been taught a rule of syntax, yet, by a quick facility in profiting from the best books and the best company, hardly ever violate one . . . yet, on the other hand, it sometimes happens, that ladies of no contemptible natural parts are too ready to produce, not only pedantic expressions, but crude notions; and still oftener to bring forward obvious and hackneyed remarks, which float on the very surface of a subject, with the imposing air of recent invention, and all the vanity of conscious discovery. This is because their acquirements have not been woven into their minds by early instruction . . . (Donawerth 213)

Even as she advocates for the female role in rhetorical activity, and for female education, in teaching girls the art of "speaking well" More urges significant restraint and polish in line with conservative gender norms of the period. Sanctioned femininity for the speaker requires these things. Jo is being indoctrinated through just this sort of rhetorical ideology by a community of women including Marmee, the March sisters, and old Aunt March, and headed by an absent but omnipresent patriarchal father - yet the process is a meandering and difficult one, and Alcott does not allow Jo's speech to be easily tamed.

Jo March does possess the gifts of a listener - a role for women lauded and developed theoretically in the treatises of More, Sigourney, and Farrar. We know, for example, that of Beth, "To Jo alone did the shy child tell her thoughts" (56). This pracitce of listening is solidly aligned with the ideologies of maternity -- Jo's apparent perfection of the art of listening, which seems to come naturally, represents the one attribute that marks her as a potentially successful woman-in-training, the ability to "play mother" as the March sisters call it. Jo also becomes Laurie's confidant and closest friend at least in part because of this skill as a listener.

More, Sigourney, and Farrar emphasize rules for girls' conversation that point to conscious restraint and polish, particularly in interacting socially with the opposite sex, yet Jo's positive alignment with these rhetorical behaviors comes to her not through gendered instruction, but, Alcott suggests, through her natural honesty, intelligence, and ability to interact in a genuine way. Alcott undercuts the suggestion that the impetuous, untrained Jo is in need of guidance here, or that her intellect need be restrained in order to conduct worthy conversation with men. Hannah More suggests that "ladies" should indulge in a "modesty" that prevents them from rising in intellectual pursuits or too much knowledge,

But we do wish to see the conversation of well-bred women rescued from vapid commonplaces, from uninteresting tattle, from trite and hackneyed communications, from frivolous earnestness, from false sensibility, from a warm interest about things of no moment . . . and from all the factitious manners of artificial intercourse. (Donawerth 209-10).

Jo shuns just such affected female behavior throughout the novel, but also prefers and employs casual and straightforward conversation, even with men. She first befriends Laurie at the Gardiners' New Year's Eve ball, a highly formalized social ritual in which Jo is, not unexpectedly, uncomfortable and ill-fitted to perform womanly roles:

No one came to talk to her, and one by one the group near her dwindled away, till she was left alone. She could not roam about and amuse herself for the brunt breadth would show, so she stared at people rather forlornly . . . Jo saw a big red-headed youth approaching her corner, and fearing he meant to engage her, she slipped into a curtained recess, intending to peep and enjoy herself in peace. (Alcott 41)

What follows is Jo's encounter with Laurie behind the curtain, and a rather impromptu and spontaneous conversational exchange between the two. They put each other "at their ease," immediately dismissing with formalities of social conversation between the sexes such as the use of proper titles and polished discretionary exchange with self-awareness of gender divisions -- as in the first of many such conversations to come in the course of their friendship (Alcott 42). Instead they speak casually and openly as intellectual equals, about travels, books, and foreign languages, where Jo's knowledge and inquisitiveness has a place other than as a compliment to and amusement for her male counterpart. Jo makes fragrant use of her favorite "slang" in the exchange, and the two want for no better discourse. Despite Eliza Farrar's admonition in her 1836 The Young Lady's Friend, Jo cultivates a true friendship with Laurie based on a model other than courtship, and in contrast to a strained or artificial one with defensive female overtones. Farrar warns, "If you wish to be on civil terms with a gentleman, and to avoid all intimacy, talk to him only of things that are indifferent to you, and never speak of your private affairs or feelings," yet such a model is not particularly relevant for the discourses Alcott fashions for Jo (Donawerth 20).

Jo's behavior, then, undercuts on multiple levels the gendered instruction of the conduct literature. We're told that "both peeped and criticized and chatted, till they felt like old acquaintances," and that "Jo's gentlemanly demeanor amused and set him at his ease, and Jo was her merry self again, because her dress was forgotten, and nobody lifted their eyebrows at her" (43). By masculinizing her protagonist here, Alcott removes Jo from the contemporary gendered conduct prescriptions for conversation. She offers a model of conversation that empowers the female while equalizing the sexes and de-formalizing its rules and regulations. Jo's conversational style is indeed pleasurable, instructive, and comforting, sincere, and free of vanity and flattery - the traditional attributes desired for women in the theorizing of conduct book writers such as Lydia Sigourney (Donawerth 255, 264-65). Yet, clearly, Jo's informal conversation with Laurie, from this very first encounter, defies Sigourney's call for careful pronunciation in conversation and careful training in enunciation for social exchange, undermining rules which elucidate gendered differences and social formalities. While conduct writers such as Sigourney focus on the female power to influence and "do good" to and for males through the conversational act, Alcott frames a mutually beneficial exchange of kindred minds unfettered by regulations. Alcott remains relatively unconcerned with what I might call Sigourney's trickle-down-theory of morality in rhetorical exchange and of the maternal/instructional burden placed upon women, constructing instead a quite different model for Jo's interaction with Laurie. Whereas Sigourney warns, regarding the conversational responsibilities of women, in her 1833 Letters to Young Ladies,

You have it in your power to give vigor to their pursuits of respectability, to fix their attention on useful knowledge, to fortify their wavering opinions, and to quicken or retard their progress in the path of benevolence and piety . . . How important, my dear young friends, that the influence thus entrusted to you, be rationally, and kindly, and religiously used, (Donawerth 269)

Jo and Laurie embark, beginning with this first conversational interlude, on a more egalitarian and less gendered communicative adventure from the very start. While the relationship is not entirely free of the taint of the prototypical maternal ideal (its de-sexed nature does posit, to some degree, Jo as mother to Laurie), and while Jo's conversational modes do in many ways mirror traditional guidelines for female conversationalists, an implicit theorizing is also built on this first exchange between the two which provides the model for an alternative social rhetoric for women in relation to men. The importance of Jo's conversational style with Laurie is re-emphasized in chapter 29, which illustrates her extreme discomfiture in conventional conversational settings, such as the formal "calling" outing, a female ritual in which Jo fails miserably to perform "by the (conduct) book." In dismay, Amy instructs her older sister that "women should learn to be agreeable . . . I don't like reformers and I hope you will never try to be one," to which Jo responds, "I do like them, and I shall be one if I can . . . for you belong to the old set, and I to the new . . . I'm always possessed to burst out with some particularly blunt speech or revolutionary sentiment" (334).

Related to Jo's configuration as conversationalist is her oration, as well as her passion for performance. As the novel opens, we learn that Jo's days are primarily occupied as the caretaker of the rather testy Aunt March - a job that largely calls for entertaining her charge by reading aloud. Jo dislikes the dull, traditional material she's expected to recite, and thus in this context oration is a chore, from which she occasionally finds respite by reading her "thrilling tales" when Aunt March falls asleep (57). Unlike college-educated Laurie, whose educational experiences Jo so envies, she will never have his opportunity to "give the Latin oration with the grace of a Phillips and the eloquence of a Demosthenes" (403). Aunt March little approves of Jo's manner of reading aloud, her tastes in literature, or her conversational style, finding them short on refinement and not-quite-proper for a young lady. Yet the reader is certainly meant to sympathize with Jo's lack of interest in conventional modes.

Lydia Sigourney's conduct book instruction of the period argues that "reading aloud with propriety and grace is an accomplishment worthy the acquisition of females . . . It is particularly valuable in our sex, because it so often gives them an opportunity of imparting pleasure and improvement to an assembled family" (Donawerth 257). Thus, while revolutionary in calling for women to speak to a mixed-gender audience by reading aloud and legitimizing such activity, Sigourney's conservatism leads her to encapsulate such activity within the confines of the "safe" domestic realm of the home, and limits the audience to the family - thus upholding the conventional expectation that women's speech must be controlled to the degree that it prove useful, instructional, and morally uplifting in her role as leader/protector of the domestic realm. Jo's oration is, then, confined, true to her historical reality, to the family audience in the quiet "protectiveness" of the home - yet her desires and passions as a rhetor clearly linger elsewhere, just on the edge of threatening female "respectability."

It's the stage that the young Jo craves. Much like her oration, Jo's performance through playwriting and acting is also contained within the domestic realm of the family home. Yet, in contrast to her reading aloud with Aunt March, Jo wields a much larger degree of control and autonomy on her little stage - she writes her own plays in the romantic, mystical, and sensationalistic styles and genres she enjoys, directing and producing performances herself. Although her audience is constrained and her venue is a makeshift stage in the attic of the March home, Jo's dramatism represents one of her most self-possessed rhetorical activities. While performance was addressed by elocutionists of the era, and with some degree of levity for women, the conduct texts for girls by authors such as More, Sigourney, and Farrar tend to relegate acting to the realm outside acceptable rhetorical activities for "ladies" by their very silence on the matter, much in line with the ambivalent attitude of the period about women's public performance and public role in general. There is little place for acting and public performance for girls being reared in the "Republican ideal" of industry, piety, and domesticity. Yet, since "no gentlemen were admitted" to her stagings, "Jo played male parts to her heart's content, and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet-leather boots given her by a friend, who knew a lady who knew an actor" (30). In this cross-dressed stance, performing with and for an exclusively female community, Jo carves out a space of rhetorical agency for herself in the midst of constraint - and revels in it.

Finally, Jo's writing life marks her most distinctly as a rhetor, and is the primary metaphor for the gendered conflicts she faces in coming to womanhood, and the compromises or reconciliations she must make. In line with the aims of conduct book instruction, Jo comes to learn the difference between using her rhetorical power for admirable and acceptable ends (often historically-situated and gender-linked) versus using them haphazardly or outside the constraints of the ideologies in which she has been immersed from birth. Initially Jo discovers the power of her own writing, particularly its power within the domestic sphere of the family, through economic rewards of publication gained under cover of anonymity or male identity, using pseudonyms and sending off her "thriller" stories secretly, thereby garnering her only true autonomy through her writing. She finds a private and empowering pleasure in the act of writing:

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and 'fall into a vortex,' as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. The cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally . . . She did not think herself a genius by any means; but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world . . . (Alcott 301-2)

The prominence and nature of female letter-writing throughout Little Women offers a conventional example of women's rhetorical activity in line with the conduct book instruction of Sigourney and Farrar, in stark contrast to Jo's more subversive, solitary fictional writings for publication - her "sensational" and "sentimental" stories penned for a public audience. The byproduct of her writing, which counters the empowerment gained, is the disapproval elicited from Jo's parents and later from the much-admired Professor Bhaer, who by the end of the novel becomes Jo's husband. The ambivalence about Jo's writing is highly autobiographical for Alcott - Jo's enjoys the economic successes garnered by the publications, but feels disappointed in her unconventional and "unladylike" modes and styles. Upon winning her first literary prize, Jo finds an ambigous response at home:

After her father had told her that the language was good, the romance fresh and hearty, and the tragedy quite thrilling, he shook his head, and said in his unwordly way, -- 'You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest…' (305)

Yet the money is earned, the family benefits, and "Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit . . . and began to feel herself a power in the house; for by the magic of her pen, her 'rubbish' turned into comforts for them all" (305). Such public dissemination of, and personal fulfillment through, a woman's writing contradicts conservative strictures such as Eliza Farrar's in her The Young Lady's Friend, where she argues for practice in composition for girls, yet within fairly repressive bounds:

However irksome may have been the writing of themes at school, you cannot relinquish the frequent exercise of the mind in composition without neglecting one of the most important means of mental culture. Nothing is a greater help to accuracy of statement and accuracy of thought . . . and if the labor of composition be irksome to you, there can be no stronger proof that your mind requires the discipline. It should be remembered that, however valuable these compositions are as exercises of the young mind, they seldom have any intrinsic merit, and should, therefore, be kept to yourself, and destroyed when they have answered their purpose. (Donawerth 25, emphasis mine)

The emphasis here rests upon the utilitarian and selfless writing act.

Jo's friend and eventual husband, Professor Bhaer, finally discourages her from all sentimental and sensationalistic writing for publication, dismissing such work as morally suspect. She then experiments with the highly stern and more moralistic modes of "Mrs. Sherwood, Miss Edgeworth, and Hannah More," finding them not only relatively unprofitable economically, but also unsatisfying to her personally (399). An attempt at writing "a child's story" follows, but "nothing came of these trials" (400). Her writerly life turns to despair when she cannot find a niche that is both fulfilling and socially sanctioned:

An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps; when, like pour Johnson, I'm old, and can't enjoy it, solitary, and can't share it, independent, and don't need it. (489)

In the end (a most controversial ending amongst readers and critics if there ever were one), Jo's fate, as a woman and as a rhetor, is a negotiation and a compromise - much like Alcott's life and writing career, and much like the rhetorical theorizing of the female conduct writers of the period, who subverted some traditional strictures for women while embracing and reifying others. Jo gives up acting, and she refines her social behavior and speech to adopt a more "matronly" manner, though small traces of the girlish and untamed figure remain visible in the novel's final chapter. Jo surrenders her writing life to motherhood - both literal and figurative, as she cares for her own children and acting as surrogate mother to the boys whom her husband teaches, living vicariously perhaps by being surrounded with young men in their "boys' paradise" (538). Her rhetorical activity is modified into the conventional mode -- We are told, "Jo was a very happy woman there . . . She enjoyed it heartily, and found the applause of her boys more satisfying than any praise of the world; for now she told no stories except to her flock of enthusiastic believers and admirers" (539). She actually exclaims, in the final pages of the narrative, "The life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now. I haven't given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I'm sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these" (543).

Alcott surrenders much of the autonomous or subversive rhetorical activity of the lost girlhood to a maternal, wifely, and domestic existence, subsuming much of the boldness and unconventionality that made Jo March herself. Yet there are hints that Alcott cannot close the book on Jo without giving her something outside the realm of the conventional code of conduct for women - Jo marries an intellectual partner who apparently nourishes her mind as well as her heart, and she enters a marriage that may be both visibly conventional and subtextually egalitarian, insisting

I may be strong-minded, but no one can say I'm out of my sphere now, for woman's special mission is supposed to be drying tears and bearing burdens. I'm to carry my share, Friedrich, and help to earn the home. Make up your mind to that, or I'll never go. (Alcott 532)

In the end, Jo conquers her world, or is conquered, depending on how you interpret Alcott's resolution of the narrative. Whether or not Jo's premarital insistences about her future, as a wife and as a rhetor, come to fruition is unclear and indefinite by the end of the novel. But much like the conduct writers More, Sigourney, and Farrar in their rhetorical conduct texts for women, Alcott leaves the door open, just a little, for Jo March Bhaer to "write a good book yet" (543).


1.See Jane Donawerth's Introduction to her forthcoming Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900: An Anthology, where she discusses a re-evaluation of the definition of rhetoric in contemporary scholarship, arguing for a more inclusive model - as well as the related work on this subject done by Cheryl Glenn, Patricia Bizzell, and others.

2. For example, see Showalter, Saxton.

3.Another example at the dawn of the nineteenth century is Hannah Webster Foster's "The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to her Pupils," which Vallone describes as "a novel-length work combining moral instruction with short fictions illustrating conduct precepts" (178). Newton defines this as a good example of "usable fiction."

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Collins. Orig. pub. 1868.

Donawerth, Jane. Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900: An Anthology. Forthcoming.

Hemphill, C. Dallett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Newton, Sarah E. Learning to Behave: A Guide to American Conduct Books Before 1900. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Saxton, Martha. Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. New York: Noonday Press, 1995.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Learning How to Behave: A Historical Study of American Etiquette Books. New York: Cooper Square, 1968.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Vallone, Lynne. Disciplines of Virtue: Girls' Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

published: May 31, 2000