Copyright Kim Wells, 1998

INTRODUCTION: A Feminist Critical Study of Alcott

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      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 than seriously.
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 knew.
      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 stop.
      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 gothic stories.
     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 Self-Definition


 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 daring heroines?
      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. (3)


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

 Notes

1.

1. Exceptions include the more specialized and deliberately canon-expanding Norton Anthology of Women's Literature, edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. It may be that the more traditional anthologies are also expanding to include Alcott, but this is a new trend.


2. Consider the "illness" of the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, (1892) her physician husband's admonitions that she not write, and the relevance of this situation to Gilman's own life.