Alcott's frustration with and
anger at the economic dependence of women on men, who can sometimes
be impractical, easily swayed, and financially unstable (as Bronson
is in "Transcendental Wild Oats"), are illustrated
in a number of her gothic stories. Far from being what modern
readers assume are "typical" romances, filled with
weak-hearted, swooning damsels in distress and swarthy, dark
men who torture or save them, the majority of these gothic tales
are populated with opinionated, strong, and sometimes cleverly
manipulative, at times almost modern, women. In Alcott's scandals,
women often do not play the expected role of victim but are instead
assertive heroines who use whatever powers they possess to succeed
against all odds. They are often conscious of the mask that they
are wearing, and of the power that not "being themselves"
gives them. When their "self" is everything that society
considers pitiful-- poverty, femininity, youth-- these women
realize that they must use those weaknesses to their advantage,
and hide whatever cannot be used behind the personality that
society expects them to show. Whether the mask Alcott's heroines
wear is that of beauty, innocence, and youth, or that of the
respectable married woman, they are all consummate actresses.
In other words, Alcott's gothic
characters are frequently not what they appear to be. As such,
these women are quite capable of manipulating emotions and controlling
situations in a manner that was considered unbecoming to middle-class
Victorian women. Still, despite their seemingly unbecoming traits,
Alcott portrays her scandalous women sympathetically. She does
not seem to judge them for their acts of violence, revenge, and
what society would call immorality. When reading Alcott's stories
about these dramatic and imperviously powerful women, one comes
away with an impression of Alcott's admiration for their ability
to guide their own fates rather than to let others rule them.
Those few punishments that Alcott does give her heroines are
far less exacting than those that society would impose upon them,
and even the characters (often male) these scheming women wrong
are very forgiving. In fact, historian Beth Kalikoff's description
of the "typical" gothic villainess's fate is quite
the opposite of what Alcott's wicked women suffer. Kalikoff demonstrates
in her study Murder and Moral Decay in Victorian Popular Literature
that "the most common formula for the genre requires a male
villain, but [when] female villains appear . . . they are often
punished for their crimes with greater severity than their male
counterparts" (22). Alcott's female villains do not suffer
as much as Kalikoff's study shows they might be expected to.
Why does Alcott seem to have less moral indignation at the actions
of immoral women? Perhaps she is more understanding because she,
too, has been pushed to her limits by economic necessity.
By sympathetically defining the
situations of these women, Alcott offers a step-by-step exploration
of how an innocent girl can be forced, often through economic
circumstances, into what society would call immorality, but what
the heroines call necessity. By compassionately depicting her
gothic heroines in previously unacceptable situations, Alcott
sets up her own definition of "true womanhood." Alcott's
definition includes aggression and seductiveness in addition
to nurturing and compassion. She has claimed her "right
to labor" (Letters 178) by claiming for herself the profession
"writer," and in so doing, she has succeeded in "claiming
the right to make meanings" (Davis 53). Alcott's characters
reveal, through their actions, that they are aware that there
is a difference between what society expects of women and what
society actually rewards; Alcott seems to sense that those differences
actively "made all women actresses," because they cannot
claim power outright and must do so in subversive ways (Davis
53). Women, according to what we see illustrated by Alcott's
heroines, can be successful only if they can power, specifically
in taking financial control of their own lives. It is in careful
analysis of the lessons these gothic heroines teach us that we
can see an important side of Alcott's body of work-- the practical
moneymaker, the author who was not afraid to shock her readers
and who actually enjoyed doing so, and the woman and daughter
who was conscious of the penalties for a woman who lets her "mask"
Actually, Alcott considered being
even more shocking than she was as a writer of tabloid stories;
she briefly toyed with becoming a professional actress herself,
although professional actresses, and theatrical people in general,
were considered depraved:
Professional entertainers throughout the nineteenth century
were social pariahs. Their exotic dress and lifestyle and their
reputation, usually undeserved, for licentious and scandalous
behavior, put them beyond the pale of normal society. This .
. . should come as no surprise in a nineteenth century imbued
with religious evangelical fervor and rigid moral and racial
codes. The road to social respectability was not an easy one
[and] . . . the stage was looked upon as a place of evil, a breeding
ground for sin that all decent people avoided. (Hanners 2-3)
Instead of sharing this attitude
about actors, Alcott reveals, directly in some of her gothic
stories and more subtly in others, her affinity for actresses
and all women who must perform in public because of economic
necessity. Even women who are performing the roles (public in
the sense that these roles require leaving one's home) of governess
or nurse are clearly linked to those who work on stage. The women
of Alcott's stories do not content themselves with remaining
in the private sphere; instead, they reveal themselves in a number
of public displays that are meant to seem private, causing us
to question the distinctions between public and private acts.
Alcott's theatrical language and awareness of the nature of "scene"
the characters enact supports the supposition that she was aware
of being "on stage." But she is also aware of the dismay
with which Victorian society viewed women who allowed themselves
to be seen in public acts, knowing that "the distinction
between women of a 'private' and of a 'public' character hinged
on more than the propriety of their sexual conduct outside of
marriage. Exhibiting private emotions before 'the many-eyed gazing
mass' of public spectators compromised-- even obliterated, a
woman's modesty and her integrity as a private person" (Davis
53). Alcott uses her awareness of these tensions to her benefit
as a writer, manipulating them to provide conflict in her stories.
Only an Actress: Challenging the Role of Angel/Sinner on the
Even knowing the restrictions against
public display of emotions, Alcott wrote in her journal in 1858
that "perhaps it is acting, not writing, I'm meant for.
Nature must have a vent somehow" (qtd. in Whispers 132).
It seems that her "vent" became, in part, writing about
actresses. "Marion Earle; or, Only an Actress!" appeared
later that year, and is considered by some to be her first "thriller"
because of its theme of sexual abandonment and betrayal, complete
with an unwed mother and an interrupted wedding. However, the
story is primarily a moral exemplar, since Marion Earle, as the
perfect, virtuous, and forgiving woman, is the character with
whom women readers are meant to sympathize. If it weren't for
her profession, Marion would be the ultimate self-effacing angel
whom Victorian women were called upon to emulate. By depicting
this societally questionable "actress" sympathetically,
Alcott demands that the reader re-evaluate those definitions
of what really is "moral" and "immoral."
"Marion Earle; or, Only an
Actress!" begins in mid-conversation as a defense of actresses
in general: "But Mrs. Leicester, all are not weak, frivolous
and vain. I have known actresses as virtuous and cultivated as
any lady . . . faithful wives, good mothers, and true-hearted
women" (Whispers 133). The defender then turns to specifics,
citing Marion Earle as a truly virtuous woman. Marion's defender
tells us her background; we learn that she and her little sister
are both "friendless and poor" orphans and that Marion,
in order to support herself, "had the courage to enter the
profession for which her talents fitted her" (134). The
truly virtuous woman is the one who remains "good"
in the face of temptation. Although she is engaged in a profession
that needs to be defended as possibly virtuous, Marion is described
as "respected . . . for not a breath of slander ever touched
her name" (134). Alcott here reminds her reader to judge
a woman not by her circumstances but by her actions. The mood
of this story is gossipy as a result of its beginning with this
whispered conversation, and the story becomes even more so as
we discover, like the gossipers, more details. We are meant to
question not Marion's virtue, but the gossipers, as gossip, in
the eyes of Victorian society, should be even more improper than
the behavior being gossiped about. In questioning the gossipers
as reliable judges of personality, we are driven to question
our own role as spectator to the performance of the unfolding
In the midst of a stage performance, Marion learns that her sister,
to whom she has been a mother, has died, and she is publicly
sorrowful. Most of the theatergoers, and probably most of Alcott's
readers, feel sympathy for Marion's obvious distress. However,
Mrs. Leicester is unmoved by Marion's tragedy and consequent
sorrow, and she gives the story its title, exclaiming to her
young niece, "Don't be foolish . . . her tragedy air was
vastly effective; so never waste your pity, child-- she is only
an actress" (135). To Mrs. Leicester, Marion, as an actress
is less than human, and less than worthy of human compassion
because the emotions actresses express must all be false, since
they are allowed to be seen in public. Only private emotions
are valid, it seems.
On the other hand, Mrs. Leicester,
who expresses the typical Victorian attitude against actresses,
blindly and publically dotes upon her son, and whole heartedly
denies the "slanders" that dotouch his name. She does
not consider her own public emotions as false. In some ways,
Mrs. Leicester is more trapped in her own role than any of the
other characters of the story; as a result, she must rigidly
attempt to keep everyone else in their narrowly defined places,
so that her place will remain superior. Unlike Marion, (in Mrs.
Leicester's eyes), Robert is innocent and superior because of
his circumstances, not his actions. Even Robert's gender assures
his role as a "good" character in his mother's eyes;
Victorian men are more legitimately a part of public acts than
women, so any scandal that touches him must have a more private
nature. This is what Mrs. Leicester is afraid of when she dismisses
any rumors -- that private scandals might ruin her family name.
Mrs. Leicester, in fact, is quite representative of Alcott's
portrayals of the average upper-class woman of her time; we can
see women like her in virtually all her novels, women whom society
views as good but whom Alcott shows us are two-faced, giving
to charity one weekend and turning away orphans the next because
that orphan is disturbing teatime. Therefore, any assertion,
despite its social popularity, that comes from Mrs. Leicester,
is questionable for Alcott. She negates its "truth"
by putting it in the mouth of a woman whom society calls proper
but whose actions reveal her as immoral and self contradictory.
The next two scenes are contrasts:
Marion is drawn as the empathetic, perfect "angel"
of a woman, while Mrs. Leicester, in direct opposition, is revealed
as unkind and uncompassionate. Mrs. Leicester's lack of kindness
is meant as a foil to Marion's virtue. Mrs. Leicester responds
with cold-hearted skepticism when a very young mother appears
at the Leicester home seeking refuge. The young mother claims
that Mrs. Leicester's son is the child's father, and that he
has made promises and then abandoned her. The story that follows
is that of the innocent young woman who is seduced into a romantic
entanglement and then dropped by a frivolous young man, who cares
nothing about taking care of his responsibilities. By showing
us these two scenes, Alcott reverses our expectations of the
"society woman" and the "public woman" and,
in so doing, asks us to question appearances and definitions.
Mrs. Leicester responds first to
the private revelations by denying her own role in "this
old story, which I neither believe nor desire to hear" and
then offering hush money (Whispers 136). One suspects that Alcott
means to imply that Mrs. Leicester may on some level believe
the story-- she is worried that where there is smoke, there is
fire, and is afraid of the consequences of a public revelation.
Thus she tries to silence the gossip she knows she would perpetuate
by using her favorite tool-- money. To this ill-intentioned offer,
the girl replies, "I did not sell my love" and rushes
away "with a warning gesture" (136). The girl is angry
because accepting the much-needed money where there is no public
confirmation of a legitimate relationship would make her a prostitute.
The next scene contrastingly features
Marion Earle, the supposedly morally inferior actress, in an
encounter with the same girl, Agnes. Alcott uses this scene to
show us the need for fair and open discussion of the things society
does not speak of, and to discourage preconceptions. Whereas
Mrs. Leicester disbelieved and turned away, Marion offers sympathy,
forgiveness, and friendly compassion. Mostly, Marion offers the
young mother nonjudgmental financial support and urges her to
seek public union with the child's father. Marion, then, is shown
to be superior in moral character to Mrs. Leicester, the so-called
"respectable" woman. In this manner Alcott shows us
that, contrary to popular belief, actresses are sometimes more
virtuous than their society counterparts. In so doing, she challenges
our ideas of both the role and the role-player.
There is a duality between social
classes that is described throughout the short story; the poor
are shown as more moral and the rich are shown as forever inflexible.
Mrs. Leicester continues to be stubborn and cold while Marion
offers help and even sacrifices her own marriage, and eventually
her own life, for the young mother. Marion is supposed to marry
Agnes's errant lover and instead, upon learning that he is the
wayward father, insists that Robert Leicester marry the woman
who bore his child. Marion uses the wedding altar as a stage
that she controls; she publicly asserts Agnes and Robert's relationship
and in so doing, grants Agnes her part as "bride."
The act becomes the reality. Finally, Marion, "having bestowed
all she possessed to give, her life, her love, and earthly valuables,"
dies of a contagious fever that Robert (whom she selflessly nurses
back to health) exposes her to (Whispers 149). This woman, whom
society has labeled as of questionable virtue, is willing to
die to help Agnes, to whom she is not related, and even Robert,
who has publicly humiliated her. With her last act, Marion reforms
by public example, rather than the corruption that public acts
are supposed to lead to. She shows anyone who is "watching"
that the best behavior is that which helps others, even if it
hurts the actor.
While this plot twist is reminiscent
of Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth (1850), in which a reformed illegitimate
mother nurses her ex-lover through a fever and dies after saving
his life, refusing marriage, there is an interesting difference
that reveals something of Alcott's attitude toward Marion. In
Alcott's story, the self-sacrifice is made by a woman who is
not sexually fallen, a woman whose only "crime" is
her profession.(7) Marion's role implies
that to work outside the home, especially if that "work"
required any kind of "act," meant that a woman would
somehow be deemed the equivalent of a prostitute. In Alcott's
story, it is obvious that any woman whom society views as "fallen"
because of a simple need to work is wronged. The typical attitude
that these melodramas take toward their heroines is that they
are fallen angels, harshly punished and judged as sinners because
of their public acts and resulting auras of rampant sexuality.
Perhaps, by eliminating the sexual question, Alcott wanted to
make her audience focus instead on their prejudices concerning
women who, in her eyes, were not necessarily committing any wrongdoing.
Alcott's feeling that she must bear the responsibility for her
family's well-being in the absence of Bronson as provider clearly
shows through in this sympathetic portrayal of Marion. Women
must take care of women in this story, just as in Alcott's life,
and as a result, the story seems to judge the women more severely
for their lack of care than the men-- Robert is forgiven for
his economic and sexual frivolity far sooner than Mrs. Leicester
is for her adherence to her narrow and limiting role of scornful
Marion leaves her fortune to Agnes's
child and a summer home to Mrs. Leicester, who, apparently as
a natural result of her cruelty and refusal to support another
woman in need, has fallen upon hard times. There seems to be
nothing that Marion would not give up to help others who are
in need. In short, Marion is so far from being the typically
sinful woman that actresses are assumed to be in the nineteenth
century that she is almost too kind to be believed. Through her
unselfish example, Marion even convinces Mrs. Leicester to forgive
and forget. In fact, this story depicts the exact opposite of
accepted opinions to such a degree that it seems as though Alcott
wants to challenge public opinion. Perhaps Alcott wants to vindicate
her own need to work for a living by illustrating how much more
virtuous working women can be than their moneyed, selfish counterparts,
who can afford to stay at home, in private. Even after Marion
retires from the stage and does not need to support herself publicly
any longer, she maintains her willingness to help others, rather
than retreating into the privacy of home like a hermit.
The next of the "handful of
stories in which Alcott uses actresses or actors to express a
theme that recurs in all her thrillers: people are not what they
seem" (Whispers 150) is in "La Jeune; or, Actress and
Woman". Like Marion Earle's drama, this one begins as a
conversation in which one character defends actresses to another,
disparaging character, both of whom eventually become pivotal
to the story's progression. Again we are meant to question the
motives of the speakers because they are engaged in hurtful and
impolite behavior-- gossip. This story's narration is in first
person, and, just like Mrs. Leicester in "Marion Earle,"
the skeptical narrator displays the typical Victorian attitude
about actors. Although he still finds them interesting and has
been in the past a frequent if blasé theatergoer, he now
claims indifference to the stage. However, it does not take much
to get him interested once again. He is easily swept up by the
appearance of intrigue; we learn the extent of his curiosity
about the apparent mystery by virtue of the story being told
from his point of view. While the first-person narration seems
somewhat awkward at first, it allows the reader to see into the
narrator's private thoughts, revealing the extent to which even
a skeptical and world-weary man can be caught up in what he "sees"
as opposed to what he "knows." The rich, according
to Alcott's depictions of them, can afford to be deceived by
appearances in a way that working women cannot, and Ulster, the
story's narrator, is no exception to this rule.
The story's plot is quite simple.
Ulster, as the older and wiser of the two men, at first seeks
to discredit the faith his protégé has in La Jeune,
and to show her as unfit for marriage. Eventually, though, Ulster
is as swept away in La Jeune's illusions as the man he seeks
to save. Ulster thinks he discovers, through a series of intrigues
and half-truths, that La Jeune is hiding secrets. He eventually
believes that one of these secrets is that La Jeune actually
loves him, rather than his young friend, Brooke. La Jeune dismisses
Ulster's declaration of love and tells him all her hidden secrets,
which are the opposite of what he thinks they are, including
that she is dying of a wasting disease. By allowing La Jeune
the power of revelation, as opposed to the male narrator discovering
hidden truths, Alcott allows her actress to control this scene
completely, rather than being controlled by it.
Early in the story, Ulster argues,
"I know her class; they are all alike, mercenary, treacherous
and shallow," and he curses his young friend's "folly
in wasting time, money, and the love of his honest heart on a
painted butterfly" (153). Ulster, then, at first shares
the typical nineteenth-century belief that women who perform
publicly (thereby making a spectacle of themselves) must be hiding
private, unscrupulous acts; the actress's hidden "heart"
must be dishonest. He condemns La Jeune as a gold-digger even
after she returns an expensive bracelet, because he believes
her reluctance to accept the gift is an act of reverse psychology,
aimed at guaranteeing her the highest victory one of her class
might achieve. He feels that she is betting that, by appearing
virtuous, she might gain a socially acceptable marriage and home,
and that this is why she refuses the "money" that is
implied in expensive jewelry. She does not, he believes, want
to play the role of mistress, but prefers the more acceptable
role of wife. Of course, actresses are not suitable to mix with
the upper class, of which Ulster and his friend are representatives.
While Ulster, as the wealthy aristocrat,
can label and define others without self-doubt, the reader is
assured that Ulster's truths are possibly suspect when he is
shown as someone whose own moral character and certainty wavers
to suit himself. In fact, since Ulster's own "act"
is one that he is free to change (he can play the part of the
mentor, or the concerned aristocrat, or the friend of the actress,
or even of the detective ferreting out secret information, at
his leisure), Alcott seems to compare the parts the male and
the female characters play. Ulster, as a wealthy male, is not
trapped in his role, because society will not condemn him for
changing outwardly. He can go from being the disinterested theatergoer,
bored with life, to being the concerned friend who is hanging
around a beautiful woman (and attempting to deceive her) with
his friend's welfare in mind, and no one questions his moral
character because of his ability to play numerous parts. Ulster
is free to be the spectator or the actor, and he feels no doubt
of his own right to play either role.
As a spectator, when Ulster catches
his first glimpse of La Jeune, he admires how well she acts the
part of a French marquise. She enters the scene "not as
most actresses take the stage but as a pretty woman really would
enter her room, going straight to the glass to see if the effect
of her costume was quite destroyed by the vicissitudes of a bal-masque,"
but he then dismisses the effect as "paint, dress, wine
or opium" (154). Ulster flip-flops between what he believes
is true and what his eyes tell him. He knows, or thinks he knows,
that she is a poor, unscrupulous actress. But he allows himself
to believe temporarily that she is naturally the royal woman
she performs, because that belief entertains him. In this way,
Alcott reveals the inconsistency of educated gentlemen, especially
those who believe themselves morally superior to working women
without knowing the details that have caused them to need to
support themselves. Men, especially wealthy ones, can be more
changeable than any actress/woman. The supposed gentleman and
pillar of society is indecisive and untrustworthy, depending
on his whim and mood-- a clear reversal of social moral codes
wherein it is the poor who cannot control their emotions.
What is most interesting about
this, and other gothic stories, is Alcott's awareness of the
difference, or lack thereof, between a "natural" woman
and an actress, or even between a gentleman and an actor. It
is in the moments of unexpected observation that Alcott reveals
the most about her own attitudes toward women's roles. If, through
necessity, a woman must sometimes be deceptive, what is the so-called
There are a number of places in
the brief story where, through the narrator's deviations between
awareness and cluelessness, Alcott discloses her own awareness
of the illusion, and artifice, of all womanly affectations. The
actress is simply a more skillfully practiced woman; she represents
the ultimate caricature of male expectations, and if she does
it properly, even men like Ulster forget her profession and believe
in their own cherished illusions. La Jeune is described as "petite
and piquant, fair hair, dark eyes, a ravishing foot and hand,
a dazzling neck and arm. . . . rosy, dimpled . . . gay, arch,
and full of that indescribable coquetry which is as natural to
a pretty woman as her beauty" (154, my italics). Even in
the midst of his description of those traits that make her most
artificial-- she is on stage, playing a French marquise from
the reign of Louis XIV -- he still forgets and calls her act
"natural." If a man who is aware of the artificial
nature of her act can be so caught up, what happens when he is
not aware that she is "on stage"? It is in the cleverest
managements of the male narrator's beliefs that he can catch
her "off-stage" that La Jeune is most efficient, and
there are several scenes that Ulster takes as indications of
well-hidden secrets that are reminders of the difference between
"on" and "off" stage. He declares, "I
never am deceived; I read men and women like books, and no character
is too mysterious for me to decipher" (159). He is, however,
quite easily deceived, because he does not realize that women
can play roles even when they are not in a theater.
Four private "scenes"
convince Ulster, who believes he is observing an actress "off
stage," that he knows La Jeune's "true," or private,
character. The first of these includes a bit of acting on Ulster's
part-- he finds out, through gossip with one of La Jeune's neighbors,
that there is "one room in mademoiselle's suite that none
of the servants . . . was allowed to enter" and that "several
times a week . . . the maid admitted a man, who came and went
as if anxious to escape observation" (161). Ulster decides
that this mysterious man is a lover, and that there is some sort
of illicit deal between this mystery man and the actress. Ulster
creates a "role" for the mystery man that fits into
his preconceived notion of what La Jeune's "part" is.
The second scene is one that La Jeune stages for Ulster's benefit;
she declares, "I have been playing for a high stake, but
I have won." Ulster believes he is overhearing this without
her knowledge, and when he hears "the clink of money,"
he decides, "She gambles-- so much the better" (161).
In reality, the "stake" is economic control over her
own life-- the game she is playing is acting, not roulette. A
third scene is when Ulster encounters La Jeune's maid purchasing
a flask of what he believes is laudanum, and he leaves the shop
"convinced that La Jeune was an opium eater, like many of
her class," even though the flask could be for anyone (162).
The last of Ulster's investigations during his role of detective
is when he notices a change in her appearance. He sees that "her
spirits were variable, her cheek lost its bloom, her form its
roundness, and her eyes burned with feverish brilliancy"
but he believes that her change is the result of "secret
anxiety or grief" rather than the illness that is actually
plaguing her (162). His role shifts yet again as he believes
himself the capable doctor here, diagnosing symptoms of illness
as those he thinks he understands-- that of lovesickness for
him. Because he casts himself in the role of "lover"
to La Jeune, he begins to believe his own act, and falls in love
with the actress he previously called fake.
The significance of these tableaux,
in the context of Alcott's other writing, is realized when Ulster
confronts La Jeune with his suspicions. Ulster believes that
his scrutiny of La Jeune has been done without her knowledge,
but she lets him know immediately after he confronts her that
she has been quite aware of what he has been doing. La Jeune
is an actress who is always on stage, and as such, she controls
every scene. She tells Ulster that she overheard his boasts about
how he would not be deceived about her character, and declares
that she has deliberately shown him details that he would misconstrue
in order to show him "the bitterest contempt" (164).
She adds that "you know nothing of my past; that my heart
is a sealed book to you, and that you have only seen the . .
. side I show the world" (164). In this way, La Jeune shows
herself to be the type of woman that appears in many of the gothic
stories-- one who is willing to expose herself to the public
eye, which is never really gone, in order to be independent.
She might even be willing to let someone believe complete untruths
in order to convince that person of her own reality and thus
to control and define that reality.
Here Alcott demands that we question
what we know as true-- what truths might instead be a role that
is being played, what events that we believe we understand might
really be cleverly staged performances? La Jeune then reveals
to Ulster that she does not want anything from either him or
his young friend. She is actually married and relatively wealthy;
even though she is dying, she does not need anyone else to aid
her survival. In one brief scene, the more skillful actress destroys
all of Ulster's role playing. However, unlike the men, in this
story La Jeune has labored for her wealth. Her life is not a
game wherein roles switch based on whims; she has become an actress,
"hid [her] name . . . grief . . . and feigned both youth
and gayety [sic], that [she] might keep [her husband] from want"
(166). La Jeune's heart is indeed hidden, and what is hidden
there is not what Ulster expects. Nevertheless, La Jeune lets
his expectations lead him into her power. She has sacrificed
her privacy because her husband is losing his mind and she does
so to support him, to make sure he is "secure against want"
(167), whereas the wealthy men in the story have not had to struggle
for anything. By controlling the scene, La Jeune defines for
herself even her act of dying, sending a black rosary to Ulster
as both a memento of her and a reminder of his own sins.
Throughout these four scenes and
their subsequent revelation of La Jeune's true character, Alcott
demonstrates the extent that women will go to in order to sacrifice
their own lives for the support of others and for the right to
define the self in their own terms. Rather than describing the
type of actress that her society has such contempt for, Alcott
describes several actresses who are willing to sacrifice everything
for the benefit of others, from their youth to their health to
their honor, whereas so-called respectable men and women turn
a blind eye to everything but their own pleasure. With her sketches
of the "off-stage" and the "on-stage" events
in these actresses' lives, such as Ulster's misread scenes and
Marion's wedding scene, Alcott calls into question the definition
of the word "actress." Alcott's actresses remind us
that all acts might be public performances: "the 'personations'
that an actress performs on the stage reiterate the ways in which
women, even in private, enact roles; hence the distinctions between
. . . spheres dissolves, and the ideological prohibition against
women's public activity is inevitably thrown into question"
(Keetley 188). Marion's portrayal of "bride" casts
shadows on all brides, and La Jeune's portrayal of young actress
calls into question the ability of the observer, here represented
by Ulster, to comprehend the true nature of the observed.
In other words, when actresses
are revealed as women who play a deliberately sketched, carefully
crafted role, on stage or off, in order to secure a stable financial
place in a world that declares anyone who must work must be unworthy
of any outside aid, they throw even non-actresses' roles into
question. Alcott's actresses play the role of "angel"
so well, despite their public persona of "sinner,"
that they make it obvious that the "natural" affinities
of all women, not just actresses, are easily mimicked and therefore,
probably fake. Not only are these roles only roles, they are
imposed from the outside, often without reason. Alcott's actresses'
profession, which disguises their innate goodness as a result
of the social prejudices against them, demands that we re-evaluate
our own preconceptions about real women both off stage and on.
Real Women vs. Acting Like One
In two of Alcott's other gothic
stories, she further links the idea of the professional actress
to the roles that women in general have to play, especially when
they are poor. Women from "good families" in reduced
circumstances, Alcott argues, must sometimes play certain carefully
controlled parts in order to secure either financial or emotional
independence. If "good" women are often called upon
by circumstances to perform unacceptable roles, couldn't all
women be performers at one time or another, for one reason or
another? Alcott sketches women who are not publicly acknowledged
to be actresses but who nonetheless undertake carefully thought
out "roles," and what were once easily perceived "differences"
become ever more blurred. Dawn Keetley points out that "the
mid-nineteenth-century ambivalence about women who perform .
. . affected not just that anomalous woman, the actress, but
every middle-class woman" (187). Is the woman in question
living out a role, or is she pretending to do so in order to
obtain another role? In the first of these stories, Pauline is
not by any means a professional actress, but she carefully performs
a number of roles in order to get what she wants, which is revenge.
That she also gets other things from her "acting" is
also apparent. What roles will "natural" women play
in order to succeed in achieving their goals?
"Pauline's Passion and Punishment"
was published in 1863, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
during what Madeline Stern calls "A.M. Barnard's heyday"
(Mask xxi). Alcott noted in her journals that she received one
hundred dollars for the story and that she "was glad that
. . . winter bore visible fruit" (qtd. in Mask xxi). At
the time she received the money for the story, she was in Washington,
D.C. working as a Civil War nurse. Her experiences as a nurse
were published in serial form, and later, all the sketches were
published in one volume as Hospital Sketches (also in
1863). The novel sold for 50 cents a copy, "which Louisa
and her friends thought steep. Later, she blamed the relatively
small sales of the volume on its cost" (Saxton 263). Alcott
declared that the book "showed me my style" (qtd. in
Saxton 264). It did not put her very far into what Abba called
"an honorable independence for herself-- and much comfort
for us" (qtd. in Saxton 265), but it was another reinforcement
for Louisa of the connection between the writer's role and financial
independence. The book received some critical praise and, as
Saxton points out, it is in this volume that "the no-nonsense,
slightly self-mocking, undeniably preachy tone in [Alcott's]
later works" first emerged (264).
Despite her discovery of an authorial
voice in the slightly autobiographical pages of Hospital Sketches,
the most significant result of Alcott's traumatic stay in Washington
was a wasting illness, which was treated by the mercury cure
that eventually cost Alcott her freedom as the effects of the
lingering poison slowly destroyed her body. Thus the lessons
Alcott described in her gothic stories about the consequences
of actions were reinforced in her later life.(8)
Because Alcott tried to be independent and make her own destiny,
volunteering as a nurse, she eventually lost her own ability
to control her life, as the act of writing eventually became
immensely painful to her. While Alcott was ill she seemed to
encounter a number of her own personal demons, courtesy of the
delusions and hallucinations caused by the mercury raging through
her body. One of the "demons," in fact, seems very
much like Manuel, the romantic lead in Pauline's drama: "Louisa
was tortured with strange visions. She imagined a wicked Spanish
husband, a grandee in black velvet who said, 'Lie still my dear.'
He startled her by leaping out of closets, in at her from windows,
and threatening her night after night" (Saxton 257).
Saxton hypothesizes that Alcott's
poisoning, combined with encounters during the war with hundreds
of strange men, generated her fears of being "wicked"
and out of control, and that the hallucinated appearance of a
controlling and sinister husband was only one, of many, problems:
At the hospital her duties collided with her fear of men.
She had to repress her terrors and be physically intimate with
many males. In her ravings she uncovered hideous fears of rejection
and violence . . . the Spanish grandee, a character Louisa had
used since childhood dramas, was a romantic but fearsome scoundrel,
full of vitality and sexuality, who worked his way with women
. . . tamed, these fantasies were material for stories. Untamed,
they were expressions of Louisa's deepest sexual and emotional
Pauline's taming of Manuel is obvious in the story, written before
Alcott's war experiences, but one senses that her illness and
subsequent hallucinations brought out her fear that she might
not be able to control her own emotions, represented by this
dark and forbidden lover. This feeling of losing control over
her fantasies could explain why "Pauline's Passion and Punishment,"
with its Latin lover, so much like her hallucinated husband,
was one of Alcott's last gothic stories. In fact, her later romantic
leads are much less dangerous than even Manuel, characters like
Laurie who is capable of being married off interchangeably between
sisters because the passion he feels is easily mistaken and easily
Pauline is very successful in accomplishing
her less than admirable goals, and she is unfortunately complicit
in a double murder, making her one of Alcott's most villainous
villains. Pauline's story could just as well have come directly
from the plays that Jo, March, Amy and Beth perform during Little
Women, and it is probably quite similar to the plays Alcott's
own siblings performed at home. It is not Alcott's best work,
or even the best example of her gothic stories. It is a departure
from the "norm" of the melodramatic tradition Alcott
was working with, and as such, it reveals Alcott's need to challenge
the expected roles her women characters played. There are some
rather thin characterizations, and the plot is generally formulaic,
but the one major difference between what Alcott wrote and what
she saw in print next to her stories is the story's outcome.
The story is a turgid romance,
complete with tropical settings, a dark, impetuous Cuban lover,
a vengeful and powerful woman, and a shockingly abrupt ending,
sans moral. The readers of the pulp magazine where it appeared
were probably quite familiar with the type of story that Alcott
gave them-- there are certainly a number of character stereotypes
present in the pages of the story. For example, Manuel is Pauline's
husband and her fellow actor in the vengeance she seeks upon
Gilbert, a man who had promised to marry her before he left her
for a richer woman. Manuel is constantly referred to as "swarthy,"
"passionate," a "southerner" who is half
boy/half man, yet also a "tame antelope" at Pauline's
feet. In short, Alcott typecasts Manuel as the passionate Latin
lover who lets his heart rule and who might do anything for the
love of a pretty face. This "type" would be inherently
satisfying to the reading public, playing not only on their prejudices
but on their romanticized ideals as well.
Alcott was quite aware of the prejudices
people would have regarding coloring; we should recall Bronson's
preference for blondes (like himself) and his theory that brunettes
like Abba and Louisa were lower, even "demonic" types.
That Alcott clearly associates darker coloring with passion and
uncontrollable emotions is apparent in Manuel's character in
this story. But it is also clear that Alcott revels in the power
these characters gain in thwarting the expected connections between
coloring and passion, as Saxton argues:
In her lurid stories she didn't need to be responsible for a
morality, an expected metaphysic, or a righteous ending . . .
she identified with Pauline and believed that passionate, sexual
women like herself were wicked and grotesque members of her sex.
She saw the energetic Pauline as herself let loose. Her understanding
of the character is profound and her disapproval is mixed with
Even though Pauline is a blonde,
which in Bronson's eyes would have made her more angelic, her
behavior is more in tune with the passion and depravity that
Bronson associated with darker coloring, as though Louisa is
deliberately mixing these types to deny the validity of his claims.
Like Manuel, Pauline is sketched
with a number of favorite "types" in mind. Pauline
is beautiful and young, with golden curls and an "infinitely
sweet" voice. "Passion" burns in her "deep
eyes, changing their violet to black" and "all a woman's
sweetest spells touched the lips . . . and in the spirited carriage
of the head appeared the freedom of an intellect ripened under
colder skies" (Mask 109). In short, Pauline is the ice queen,
quite familiar to readers of romance novels, both today and in
Alcott's time.(9) Despite her icy appearance,
the story's opening scene describes Pauline pacing "to and
fro, like a wild creature in its cage" (107). We know immediately
that she has strong passions, but we also believe that, true
to the stereotype, she will suffer for them. As a caged animal,
she could not be free to act. But does Pauline live up to our
expectations, or her own?
In addition to the anticipated
stock romance characters, Alcott at first does not disappoint
our expectations about what this type of story is supposed to
do. The plot appears to be lifted straight out of the history
of romantic tradition-- the jilted lover seeks revenge and comes
to a bad end. In reality, Alcott's femme fatale does not receive
the usual punishing "end." Whether Pauline really suffers
dire consequences for her passions is debatable. What Alcott
adds to this oft-told tale of the revenger's bad end is a woman
character who is very much in control of herself and her situation,
and who ultimately achieves her intended goals. Pauline is a
woman on stage, just as much as Marion Earle or La Jeune. As
such, she is quite powerful; she uses her powers to gain not
only revenge, but economic stability as well. Again like La Jeune
and Marion, Pauline employs both carefully planned, seemingly
off-stage, innocent, and private "tableaux" along with
carefully crafted public scenes to pursue her intent and gain
power over her own life. She is quite conscious that her success
as a woman depends on her ability to actlike a successful woman.
Though she is not in a publicly acknowledged drama, Pauline knows
that her life is just as dependent as that of any professional
actress on her ability to convince others of her truth. She must
convince her audience, the men who are in control of her economic
success, that she is what she appears to be. Pauline is a clever
actress, and her drama, sketched in theatrical terms throughout,
is a moral tale full of contradictions. It is Pauline's most
rehearsed act that gains her both her ultimate success and her
Pauline realizes that she is a
"solitary woman who earned her bread and found it bitter"
(112) and that she must take up "a new task in a new scene"
in order to find revenge for the betrayal she has suffered. She
declares that she "will not rest till Gilbert [the man who
has broken her heart] shall pass though an hour as bitter as
the last" one that Pauline has spent (113). She wishes that
the "lover" will play the part of "the betrayed"
just as she has. She enlists Manuel's help in her role, on "a
stage whereon . . . [she] could play a stirring part," because
she "cannot make it . . . alone" (113). Pauline knows
that the only way she can achieve revenge and successful role
reversal with Gilbert is if her status is seemingly more powerful
than his, saying to Manuel in her attempt to convince him to
play the role she needs him to enact: "Beauty, grace and
talent you tell me I possess; wealth gives them luster, rank
exalts them, power makes them irresistible. Place all these worldly
gifts in my hand and that hand [in marriage] is yours" (114).
This stunning and quite liberated act, where the poor woman asks
a younger, richer man to marry her, is just the first of Pauline's
aggressive acts, and it is the first of this story's reversals
of melodramatic convention.
Just like any femme fatale, Pauline
is willing to do whatever it takes to secure the status that
can cripple Gilbert. However, unlike other femmes fatales, who
typically suffer the consequences of their actions, Pauline alone
defines the acts she will perform. She says that she cares for
Manuel as a friend and promises him a wife in the future, but
she is honest with him, confessing that she does not love him
and that what she wants is "wicked, and unwomanly"
(114). She knows that pretending love for Manuel could grant
him some control over her, in that he could demand that she prove
her love to him by denying her revenge to Gilbert, so she instead
defines him as husband on her own terms. She even turns Manuel
into an actor in order to accomplish her own goals, saying, "You
possess dramatic skill. Use it for my sake, and come to your
reward when this night's work is done" (119). Pauline is
willing to trade her "reward" of sexual fulfillment
to Manuel in exchange for his help in enacting the successful
dramatic performance of a young honeymoon couple. She knows that
Gilbert, for whom she displays her act, will be crushed by the
knowledge that not only has Pauline apparently forgotten him,
but she has married better than he could ever have hoped to do
and gained respect, power, and money. Here, then, it is what
the woman shows the outside world, not what she feels inside,
that makes her truly powerful. Pauline's "act" is her
best offense, a sign not of weakness but of strength.
After a scene of publicly flaunted
sexuality in which Pauline and Manuel skillfully dance an erotic
valse (or tango), Pauline taunts Gilbert. "Have you no power,
Gilbert?" she asks as she "silently accepted his challenge
to the tournament so often held between man and woman" (131).
This first scene has been cleverly planned; Pauline has dressed
carefully and worn all of her jewels in order to flaunt her superior
role (that of the wealthy heiress), and she "parades her
handsome Manuel and their sexuality before the unhappily married
couple" (Saxton 260). This opulent display, combined with
her and Manuel's public sexuality, taunts Gilbert's marriage
to a childish and petulant woman called "Babie," who
is far from sexual and is, in fact, the opposite of Pauline in
many ways. Babie is born rich, seems to possess all of life's
advantages, and is passionless, yet she is the one who ultimately
suffers for Pauline's passions. This is not as gothic conventions
would have it.
Following this deliberately public
scene, Pauline crafts several days of supposedly innocent privacy,
dramatized because she knows that Gilbert is watching her every
move. She tells Manuel that she has "been all devotion and
made this balcony a little stage for the performance of our version
of the honeymoon for one spectator" (Mask 135).(10)
In the illustration from the original tabloid, Pauline lounges
languidly in a hammock while Manuel reads to her, and we imagine
that Gilbert is peeking through a partially obscured window.
Pauline, despite her apparent nonchalance, is carefully making
these few days of quiet scenes into a public display. She has
played the role of happy honeymooner in order to convince Gilbert
that her marriage to Manuel is a legitimate love-match, and so
to convince him that he has lost everything. Pauline's power,
then, is sex, money, youth, and the appearance of living her
role. She uses all of her powers effectively. (Click
this link to see figures one & two)
All of these carefully acted and
deliberately thought-out scenes, which are designed to drive
Gilbert into a rage, are topped off by Pauline's most carefully
rehearsed drama, one in which she both gains and loses everything.
Pauline and Gilbert have gone ahead of Manuel and Babie on a
hike to see a waterfall. Pauline becomes aware that the final
scene when she will punish Gilbert's betrayal is about to be
played out, and she feels "every power under full control,
every feature obedient to the art which had become second nature"
(148). No stage-fright catches her; by now she is a skillful
and practiced actress. She declares that he is wrong in believing
she loves him, that he is contemptible in her eyes, and that
she truly loves her husband. The tabloid illustration shows Pauline
standing victoriously over the begging and submissive figure
of Gilbert, who almost looks as though he is proposing marriage.(11) Her hand
is raised, her face is angry, and she has turned her body away
from him as he begins to weep, hands clasped. She is, in Alcott's
prose, "as stern as an avenging angel" (150). The illustration
clearly shows Pauline as the powerful figure, and it fits exceptionally
well into Alcott's characterization.
This act of vengeance, so carefully
in Pauline's control until this moment, becomes even more dramatic
and shocking when Gilbert, wrathful and insane, suddenly, "with
a single gesture of his sinewy right arm . . . swept Manuel to
the verge of the narrow ledge, saw him hang there one awful instant,
struggling to save the living weight that had weighed him down
[this weight is Babie, who is clinging to Manuel in fear at Gilbert's
apparent rage, and] heard a heavy plunge into the black pool
below" as Manuel and Babie fall to their deaths (152). Gilbert's
loss of control further seals Pauline's victory over him. Alcott
declares that this is when Pauline's "long punishment began"
(152), but it can be debated what the punishment is, and who
is being punished. Is the punishment the expected one for a sexually
voracious woman? Alcott seems to say "no."
Typically, the Victorian melodrama
linked sexuality in women to moral decay, and in many of the
plays and tabloids, "sexuality-- especially a woman's sexuality--
often results in or is connected to homicide" (Kalikoff
29). Usually, the sexual woman is the victim of that homicide.
Pauline is not inherently sexual for herself, but her willingness
to use her sexual charms to gain her revenge (which is her true
passion) is what Alcott's society would want us to believe is
her downfall. Pauline's punishment for allowing herself to feel
passion is supposedly her connection to the double murder that
she inspires Gilbert to commit. Perhaps the reader assumes that,
in the last moments, Pauline realized that she truly did love
Manuel and that her punishment is the knowledge of her part in
his and Babie's death, but there is no textual evidence of this.
The story ends in an abrupt yet ambiguous declaration that really
does not say much. This non-ending would surely have titillated
her readers' curiosity. By not telling us outright what happens
after Gilbert's desperate act, Alcott leaves it up to the reader
to decide the characters' fate. Therefore, the reader must choose
the right and wrong "roles" of the story-- Alcott,
as writer, relinquishes her own power and so makes her story
more powerful. Definition is in the hands of her mostly female
audience, and one wonders what that audience would decide.
If we read the story carefully,
we see that Pauline's fondest wish has been to punish Gilbert,
and this wish has been realized. She now has complete control
over him, for she has seen him commit two murders, and she holds
his life in her hands, as surely as he briefly held his wife's
and rival's. Pauline, who has declared earlier in the story that
she feels no remorse over any pain, and that "such as I
live years in an hour and show no sign. . . . shed no tears,
uttered no cry, asked no comfort" (113), has the freedom
to show or not show emotion. She also has the power to define
Gilbert's situation-- she could call him murderer or lover. She
has claimed to feel no womanly emotion, has in fact been so in
control of those emotions that she has managed to achieve her
goal of humiliating Gilbert. She is now a wealthy widow who has
incredible power over one who has humiliated her in the past.
That Gilbert's humiliation and sin are private makes it even
more rich, because Pauline has the choice of whether to reveal
his murderous act or to pretend that Manuel and Babie's deaths
were accidental. Alcott grants Pauline the control of definition
here, both for herself and for Gilbert. Pauline has all the power
in this last scene, and Gilbert has relinquished it all with
one act of "passion." Unlike the typical female of
Victorian melodrama, who is pushed from tragedy to tragedy until
her final suffering end, Pauline has been cold and calculating,
while the males and one childlike woman have been the victims
of their emotions. Pauline, then, is not the typical woman of
melodrama because Alcott portrays her not as a monster, not as
a victim, but as one in control of her own circumstances. In
other words, Pauline's punishment may not be the one that is
inflicted upon her; rather, it may be the one that Pauline inflicts.
On the other hand, if we assume
that Pauline suddenly realizes that she does love Manuel, and
that her punishment is his death and her complicity in it, we
find that acting has become truth-- what Pauline has pretended
to be she has become. Again, even this possibility leads us to
question truths and to doubt appearances. Because the story's
ending is ambiguous, readers must make the decisions based on
their own experience and desires.
It can be argued that Alcott knew
what sold best, and therefore left off any moralizing that might
have turned readers, and therefore editors, off her story. But
if we assume that Alcott could have shown us the real punishment
Pauline was to face-- years of sorrow or even a court battle--
and that the trial of a murderer's "accomplice" might
have been fodder for the readers of the tabloids, and then realize
that she did not give us any of these details, we have an ambiguous
ending that blurs the form of melodrama and our expectations
of those "types" of roles. If the female of melodrama
is the victim "whose murders are centrally connected to
[her] sexuality and demands for power" (Kalikoff 33), and
in Alcott's drama Pauline is victor, not victim, then is Pauline
truly punished for her manipulation of people and her part in
causing two people's deaths? It is up to the reader to decide,
because Alcott does not tell us. A typical melodrama probably
would have shown Gilbert sweeping Pauline, victim of her passions,
off the cliff as well. Alcott leaves this detail unwritten, preferring
instead to sketch Pauline in a final moment of victory. In fact,
the ambiguity of the title "Pauline's passion and [whose?]
punishment" is clear upon closer examination-- does Pauline
suffer the punishment or does she inflict it?
The Masks We Wear: Jean Muir and "A Woman's Power"
Similarly, in Alcott's most famous
and skillfully crafted gothic story, another femme fatale, Jean
Muir, manipulates situations in an attempt to achieve power,
and receives, really, no obvious punishment. From the first line
of Alcott's "Behind a Mask" (1866), the reader is aware,
as the story's characters are not, that the ability to hide what
is "behind a mask" is, as the subtitle predicts, "a
woman's power." Jean Muir, unlike Marion and Pauline, has
lost her most powerful asset-- her youth. Like the aging actress
La Jeune, she must make up for her disadvantage by a willingness
to change the rules. Jean must push her act to its limits, and
must appear to be unaware of those limits, or she will suffer
the consequences. Also like La Jeune, she must ensure that the
existence of her "role" is never suspected by her audience.
Even more carefully, Jean must
guard the fact that her lost youth and her poverty have led her
to marriage and lost "virtue." The attitude of accepting
the inevitability of lost virtue because of her poverty and its
direst consequences is one that Alcott does not allow Jean to
play. The role of victim of circumstances beyond her control
is one role Jean refuses; instead, Jean plans to control all
of her circumstances by hiding exactly how much of her virtue
has been lost to poverty and time. The reader is admitted behind
the scenes and seems to learn that Jean is actually a much older
woman, pretending to be younger. Being granted a backstage view
into Jean's private room allows the reader to know that the woman
is not who she appears to her new employers to be. If those employers
were aware of the true face Jean Muir is hiding, they would fire
her instantly. But Jean, and Alcott, are both keenly aware of
the theatrical nature of society's expectations for women, and
neither lets too much of what is behind Jean's mask slip too
soon. Like La Jeune, Jean must mix public and private drama to
achieve her goal of financial success.
In Jean Muir's first public appearance
at the Coventrys', she seems an interesting and enigmatic figure,
in her dark, "nunlike" dress, and is somewhat older
looking than the nineteen years to which she admits. In fact,
Jean is already on stage and in control, as each action in these
early scenes is carefully aimed at the Coventrys' prejudices.
Jean is as convincing to the Coventrys as La Jeune is to Ulster
-- they believe she is natural because she pretends a little
bit. Even the apparent disadvantage of appearing "twenty-five"
is actually an advantage for Jean. When she claims, "I should
like to appear older," she shows that she is not a gold
digger, as they suspect she might be, even though she is aware
that "for a woman without means, the only way out was marriage"
(Peterson 16). With her disclaimer about her age, Jean proves
to the Coventrys that she is not concerned with her beauty, the
one asset of a poor and powerless girl. Thus Jean confesses one
role while really performing another. Jean lets the Coventrys
believe she plays one part in order to distract them from her
true mystery. Her professed wish to be older indicates that she
has accepted her role and is as ready as any nun to live a chaste,
virtuous, and virginal life, as befits a woman of little financial
means and low social status. Jean's sleight of hand here becomes
as effective as La Jeune's performance on stage as a Marquise
and her performance off-stage as a gambler.
Jean, aware of the social stereotype
of the governess who is supposed to "be a homely, severe,
unfeminine type of woman" (Peterson 15), claims to wish
herself closer to this stereotype than she appears, because she
knows her pretense will cause the Coventrys to let down their
guard. If they can believe that Jean has accepted her role so
completely that she regrets not matching the part physically,
they can feel safe in their own role as judge of her character.
They clearly think Jean is acting, pretending that she does not
know her own attractiveness, and so are firmly placed as judges
who can afford to admire her, because doing so will give them
even more power over her. Like Ulster, the Coventrys are the
perfect spectators to Jean's act; they do not question their
own role so they cannot question someone else's. They want Jean
to be miscast as a friendless and poor orphan, because that makes
them all the more discriminating and liberal in their acceptance
of her. They can be a generous family welcoming a good person
for her own benefit rather than a wealthy family taking advantage
of someone else's misfortunes. They already think they know her
secret, and are not upset about it until they find out that her
real secret is much more complicated than they thought, and that
she has controlled them the entire time.
Victorian niceties and pretensions
keep the Coventrys from checking her references and examining
her qualifications, beyond a brief and interrupted musical audition
and three or four reluctantly asked questions. Indeed, as Jeanne
Peterson notes, there is an awkwardness in allowing a governess
into the house because the ideal governess should be a woman
of equal class to her employer, who "was born and bred in
comfort and gentility and who, through the death of her father
or his subjection to financial ruin, was robbed of the support
of her family and was driven to earn her own living" (6).
The awkwardness of this situation comes from the awareness that
if financial ruin and the inevitable need for its daughters to
work for a living happened to one "respectable family,"
it could happen to another. The Coventrys are embarrassed by
Jean's servitude because of their own awareness of the uncomfortable
truth that Jean is engaged to teach their own daughter in the
same way that someone else was engaged to teach a younger Jean.
Because of this reluctance to admit the truth of the situation,
they allow Jean to manipulate the circumstances, and they let
their guard down very easily. Where they could have averted near-tragedy
and considerable embarrassment by simply checking up on Jean's
credentials, they instead assure themselves that they know all
of her secrets already, and that they are being open-minded in
accepting them. To assume that she is not what she appears to
be might open doors for questioning the way everything appears
to be, and these people are not ready for that. They are firmly
entrenched in the role of genteel society, which Alcott seems
to portray as frivolous and, at times, less admirable than the
working class. We have seen this attitude in "La Jeune"
and "Marion Earle" with their negatively portrayed
aristocrats, and the Coventrys fit the same pattern.
Jean's dramatic fainting fit after
playing a successful turn on the piano intrigues the romantic
nature of the new governess's young charge, Bella, much as Ulster's
curiosity piques following La Jeune's stage performances. In
fact, following this first clever performance, Jean fascinates
her employers and gets what she wants out of them with a series
of other carefully planned domestic dramas. Although some members
of the house become suspicious, it is only during the last scene,
which Jean herself has predicted "shall be better than the
first" (11), that Alcott reveals the true extent of Jean's
playacting. Of course, the letters that can prove Jean's true
nature are destroyed by the woman now in economic control of
her own life as a wife and socially superior "Lady,"
but along the way, the reader finds subtle hints about the woman
"behind the mask" and the consequences of believing
her. Even after the Coventrys discover Jean's "acting,"
they are unwilling to step out of their own assigned roles of
polite aristocrats to accuse her in front of their uncle, and
Jean escapes most, if not all, of the anticipated consequences
of being "false." Alcott shows us that both social
roles are potentially harmful to those who are unwilling to question
them. Karen Halttunen argues that Jean's "power lies in
her ability to hide her illicit passions and ambitions 'behind
a mask'" (241); consequently, the Coventrys' power must
lie in supporting appearances.
The story's introductory scene
reveals the two-faced prejudice that nineteenth-century middle-
and upper-class society showed to women who were forced through
poverty and circumstance to become governesses. Alcott indicts
the falseness of the roles that she observed in her own life,
where she and her mother were often forced, because of her father's
distaste for making money, to make a living with a number of
schemes, including taking in boarders. The introduction of a
governess into the home, shown in this first scene, plays on
what Kalikoff identifies as the Victorian fear "of crime
hidden within respectable citizens . . . [and the] fear of passionate,
independent women. Women earn suspicion because of their capacity
to hide" (120). Jean Muir pretends to be respectable while
hiding behind her female role of the lower-status woman in need.
Still, unlike other authors who portray immoral women who lie,
cheat, and dissemble, Alcott does not make her readers dislike
or fear Jean, suggesting that the author identifies to some extent
with her creation.
It is important to remember that Jean's circumstances are very
much like Alcott's, and that at several points in her life Alcott,
too, was a governess, including her six-month stint working for
Alice Lovering, and a number of other periods when she had up
to ten students at a time (Saxton 228). Governesses were supposed
to be of a higher class than other servants, since usually they
were from "good families" and were educated enough
to teach debutantes the proper graces of French, music, art and
etiquette. As such, governesses were supposed to be well-treated
members of the family, rather like dependent spinster aunts.
However, the reality that Alcott encountered was that, despite
the money that she could make (up to $250 a year), the job was
not worth sticking with for long periods of time. The attitudes
that people had concerning governesses were intolerable to the
proud Alcott, and she illustrates her lack of respect for the
employers of the governess when she shows us their own inappropriate
"behind the scene" behaviors.
Just as in "Marion Earle"
and "La Jeune," the story begins with gossiping aristocrats
who are judging an unknown person based on superficial appearances.
One character in "Behind a Mask" says what is proper
for him to say concerning the "stranger" about to enter
their home: "As for the governess, she is a woman, and should
be treated with common civility. I should say a little extra
kindness wouldn't be amiss, either, because she is poor, and
a stranger" (4). However, the family's actions reveal how
they really feel about the woman coming in "to service"
for them. In fact, they really are being very unkind to her before
she even appears because they have already decided what she will
be like. As Peterson notes, there were a number of contradictions
inherent in Victorian society's treatment of governesses; the
Coventrys expose them all. While there is supposed to be more
honor in a poor gentlewoman's being a teacher than if she sold
her skills in other ways, the attitude was really more like that
which Gerald's words reveal: "I have an inveterate aversion
to the whole tribe . . . I'll give her three days' trial; if
she proves endurable I shall not disturb myself; if, as I am
sure, she is a bore, I'm off" (3). As we have seen, governesses
received low pay for an incredibly complex job, were often the
objects of abuse, and were generally distrusted as being "gold
diggers" only concerned with finagling a marriage in a home
they were not worthy of (Peterson 12). Another common fear was
that the governess "to whom the care of the young has been
entrusted . . . has been the first to lead and to initiate into
sin, to suggest and carry on intrigues, and finally, to be the
instrument of destroying the peace of families" (qtd. in
Peterson 14). Thus the attitudes families had toward governesses
were inherently contradictory. Governesses fit as neither servant
nor family member, and so were difficult to place in a role.
There is a constant barrier between the natural family and the
stranger introduced into it and it is the nature of her job that
makes them dislike and distrust her: "The fact that Jean
must labor outside of her own kitchen and nursery is in itself
'unnatural'" (Smith-Rosenberg, qtd. in Elliot 303). This
is the ultimate crime in a society inherently conscious of the
natural roles for everyone. Alcott is quite aware of these attitudes
toward governesses, and she carefully works all of these considerations
into Jean's story, causing us to question all that is "natural."
The group we meet at the novel's
beginning is hardly admirable; their gossip about someone they
claim to mean kindness toward belies their professions of good
will, and the lazy younger son who is charged with sending off
a carriage to pick the new governess up from the train station
cannot be bothered to stir himself. This circumstance carries
through a pattern that appears in many of Alcott's gothic and
even domestic stories-- gossipers show their moral weakness while
the person who is being discussed is aware of the things being
said about her, and eventually uses the gossipers' weakness against
them. Edward is not reprimanded for neglecting to arrange for
the woman to have a ride from the train station, although Mrs.
Coventry must know that she too has fallen short of an easy kindness
as an employer. Despite knowing that the carriage was not sent,
Mrs. Coventry even complains of Miss Muir's lack of punctuality
"in an injured tone" (5) when "the woman"
would be on time had the carriage been sent for. In fact, Jean
Muir still manages to arrive "at the stroke of seven"
as if she knows that she is already guilty of the crime of having
to earn her own money and therefore must make up for any wrong
suppositions the group may have about her. However, they are
not completely won over by her punctuality; Jean must still prove
her competence at being a middle-class, well-educated woman capable
of teaching another future parlor angel her duties, while herself
staying put in her role of poor, working woman. Since Jean knows
exactly what is expected of a governess, she is up to the challenge,
even though she is not a young, middle-class angel of the parlor
but a middle-aged, divorced actress. So Jean, by playing her
role perfectly, casts doubt on what appears to be truth.
We are told several times that
Jean has a "soft, sad voice" and that she is "meek"
and "resigned" (5). All of these traits are those a
governess is supposed to exhibit, and Jean knows her public part
perfectly. But in order to captivate her audience, Jean knows
she must be morethan a governess-- and so she falls into a faint
after playing a "sweet . . . sad" Scotch melody (7).
She thus surrounds herself with an attractively foreign and mysterious
aura, and is not at all boring, despite Edward's prediction.
She must make it seem that her real truth, although private,
is one the Coventrys can find out through clever scrutiny. Gerald,
instinctively realizing the drama inherent in this act and distrusting
it, whispers, "Scene first, very well done" (7). The
reader senses Jean's anger at Gerald's glimpse into the true
character of the scene, anger that is confirmed in the series
of letters that reveals the truth of Jean's character at the
end of the story. By snapping at him and making him appear to
be in the wrong, Jean quickly defuses the danger that he will
discover the real truth instead of the one she wants him to believe.
She knows that her acknowledgment that she has "a quick
ear" and can hear things said in the same room (9), which
of course servants are not supposed to do, embarrasses Gerald
"for the first time in his life" (7). By stepping out
of her submissive role of "seen but not heard" servant
into an accusatory one, Jean manipulates the roles to her advantage.
His anger at his own embarrassment works against him by distracting
him from his intuition about her. In one night, she establishes
herself as an intriguing private mystery, as a public object
to be pitied, and as more polite than the supposed gentry who
employ her. That the "role" of mystery is even truer
than the Coventrys suspect only makes her act more convincing.
Since she appears to have minor secrets, it becomes easier for
Jean to hide her slip-ups, because the Coventrys assume that
any odd moments or actions are just part of the mystery they
believe they already know.
Throughout her tenure in the Coventry
household, Jean manipulates the emotions of its men and women
through their expectations of what women and poor governesses
should be. She is especially careful with the men of the household,
and portrays herself as a demure female, beautiful yet uninterested
in marriage and the financial security it would provide. As Judith
Fetterley observes, "The role of little woman demands that
the person playing it appear to be totally un-self-conscious
and even unconscious, completely 'natural,' weak, timorous, out
of control, and passive . . . yet she must never seem to have
the slightest intention in respect to marriage" (7). Jean
knows this unwritten rule by heart, even though she plans to
break it. She may need to be married, and this may be her last
chance at financial success, but one whiff of desperation and
the game is lost. Jean must never appear to be seeking any role
but that of governess.
Alcott illustrates her knowledge
of these social rules through her depiction of Jean's careful
scrutiny of her employers and the narrator's assertion that "having
caught a hint of the character of each [she tries her] . . .
power over them" (99). Jean eventually uses that power to
gain a secure place for herself as Sir John's bride, which is
quite a step up. Alcott does not seem to judge Jean as evil because
of this clever manipulation. In fact, Alcott's narrator reminds
the reader that Jean "had been lovely once, happy, innocent,
and tender" and that some bitter "disappointment had
darkened all her life" (12) in a clear attempt to drum up
sympathy for Jean rather than scorn and contempt. During the
times when the family believes Jean unaware of their scrutiny,
she plays various "roles," all carefully designed to
captivate each individual by giving them what each thinks they
Jean has a busy morning on the
second day she is there as part of her drive to find the role
that will make her most happy. First she wanders into the garden
of "the ancient hall where Sir John Coventry lived in solitary
splendor" (13). We find later, in the revelatory letters
at the end of the story, that the picturesque "stately old
place, rich in oaks . . . befitting the ancestral home of a rich
and honorable race" (13) that is the scene of her first
encounter with Sir John is the one that clever Jean most covets.
Jean writes to her friend: "Early in the morning I ran over
to see the Hall. Approved of it highly, and took the first step
toward becoming its mistress" (99), a comment that reveals
a large supply of eventually successful ambition on her part.(12) She flatters the old man and pretends
to be girlishly shy and confused. She is, in fact, perfectly
playing the part of a governess who has talked "out of turn"
to her employer. Jean knows what Sir John expects and gives him
exactly that. She follows this "very well done beginning"
(15) by taming the "spirited" horse that Edward Coventry
most values. In taming the horse, which Edward calls her "subject
now" (16), she begins the process of taming Edward. Jean
has already figured out that he loves his horse more than anything,
and knows that by seeming to value the animal, she flatters its
owner. This maneuvering with the horse assures Edward's susceptibility
to her manipulations in the future. Next, she charms Bella with
her ability to arrange flowers-- the proper task for a young
woman, and one that Bella admits she cannot do-- and follows
this up with carefully considered praise of Lucia's mother, the
one and only way to thaw her distrustful rival. She finishes
the beginnings of her enchantments by completely ignoring the
petted firstborn son, who is instantly attracted to this unaccustomed
coldness from a woman. He is used to being spoiled and is intrigued
by any different treatment from one he expects to be servile
to the house's young "master."
In short, Jean keenly observes
each person's weakness and prejudices and plays the role that
most efficiently capitalizes on that weakness. Unlike her employers,
Jean can read behind the mask of public persona, and she does
so to her own advantage throughout the story. These carefully
coordinated manipulations of the truth behind the personality
show us what is possible for a woman willing to change the rules
that society has written for her. Alcott's depiction of Jean's
plans for every move (with an eye for future benefits to her
situation) is a way of illustrating that, in the absence of any
real power, a woman must be deceptive. Halttunen contends that
Alcott "too was assuming a mask of propriety, which concealed
her own illicit ambitions and desires" and that Alcott recognized
her gothic heroines' "sense of theater as a disguise for
the demonic self [as] her own . . . her inner demons were not
defeated but only masked" (242). Jean's power is the "mask"
that Alcott too feels she must wear, the mask that hides anything
that might seem like personal drive.
Jean caps her manipulations of
each person through a number of carefully acted scenes. Her observers
believe that they are seeing a pure and innocent young woman
in these moments of revelation, but the moments are calculated
to draw attention. For example, following "a pleasant little
scene" (24) in the chapter titled "Passion and Pique,"
which Sir John thinks he observes without her knowledge, Jean
"threw her arms across the table, laid her head down upon
them, and broke into a passion of tears" (24). This scene
causes him to "puzzle his brains with conjectures about
his nieces' interesting young governess, quite unconscious that
she intended he should do so" (24). Jean pretends to be
having a "private" moment, but what she is really doing
is acting out a public role. As Fetterley argues, "Jean
knows that in a world inherently suspicious of women the most
successful impressions are those made when the observer thinks
the observed is not aware of being seen, for this fosters the
illusion that one is seeing the woman as she really is"
(6). It is much worse to admit to sneaking up on someone's private
times than it is to have private scenes, and in this way, Jean
makes sure that the men do not discuss her and potentially find
out her game too soon. Thus her apparent secrets hide her real
ones. In staging this scene for Sir John, as the title suggests,
her secretive passion piques his curiosity and casts him in a
specific role. Jean's role is the damsel in distress, and Sir
John eventually responds appropriately by rescuing her. By allowing
herself to be seen in a vulnerable part, Jean assures that the
strict moral code of the Victorian gentleman will be in effect.
She also appeals to his vanity when he believes that he, as an
older man "past his prime," can still play the role
of "Prince Charming" usually reserved for much younger
The true "little woman"
that Jean plays skillfully is not what she appears. Rather, she
is a thirty-year-old divorced actress with a drinking problem,
who, when alone in her room, removes all the trappings of young
beauty as she takes off the "long abundant braids . . .
wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth,
and . . . appeared herself indeed, a haggard, worn, and moody
woman" (12). This is no innocent young governess, but a
smart and manipulative woman who eventually gets what she most
wants-- the title Lady Coventry and the hand in marriage of a
man who believes her to be something else. Just like Pauline,
Jean is successful and victorious in her control over the melodramatic
situation. Neither woman is a victim of her sexual power manipulations,
in direct opposition to most gothic heroines, who suffer judgment,
ostracism, and even death.
What Alcott reveals in her depiction
of Jean Muir's deliberate manipulations of expectations and constant
awareness that she is on stage, which also shows up in many of
her femmes fatales, is that nineteenth-century "women are
powerful in proportion to their success as artists . . . [and
that] women's survival [depends on] their artistic ability"
(Fetterley 12). Alcott illustrates that in a world where a woman
who has no status in relation to a man is powerless, all women
must capitalize on the status of physical beauty. They must be
adept at hiding any hint of mental wiles as they constantly play
one role or another, from "virgin" to "bride"
to "mother." Alcott herself is just as aware as Jean
is of the double nature of actresses, who are one person on stage
and another when "the curtain is down . . . if actresses
are ever themselves" (11), when Jean warns Gerald, "I
am a witch, and one day my disguise will drop away and you will
see me as I am, old, ugly, bad and lost" (95). In a culture
in which women are supposed to be ambitionless yet beautiful,
and in which beauty can gain them power, any woman who wishes
to seize power (like Jean, Pauline, Amy, or even Alcott) is as
much a social pariah as any witch. Alcott's femmes fatales are
aware of the "enchantment" that a woman must enact
to fool men into believing their fondest wishes, and therefore,
to gain power over those men. In analyzing "Behind a Mask,"
Fetterley comes to the conclusion that "Alcott provides
us with a frighteningly prophetic vision of the act she will
eventually perform: in order to survive economically, Jean Muir
. . . adopts the mask of femininity and impersonates the character
of a 'little woman'" (1).
The perfect little woman would
be one who is completely self-effacing for the good of her family.
What Alcott's nineteenth-century society endorses is woman as
an moral and angelic force, the woman as guide to the rampant
desires and poor impulses of men. Society claimed to value the
self-sacrifice of a woman in a situation like that of Nurse Periwinkle
in Hospital Sketches, but when she wrote her gothic stories,
Alcott learned that what society values, it pays for. Fetterley
assures us that "out of the anger generated by such disparity
between the wages of encouraged virtue and those of proscribed
vice come the exposures of 'Behind a Mask'" (2). Alcott
received ten dollars and a dose of mercury poisoning that haunted
her the rest of her life for partially completing the womanly
task that she was supposed to do, and then received one hundred
dollars for the work that she assumed Bronson and Concord would
have been shocked at, writing, "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?" (qtd. in Carpenter 37). Presumably,
she then realized that if she must bear the burden of the family's
success in her father's place, financial success was much more
important than being the perfect weak and passive little woman.
This realization may account, in
part, for her dislike of the novel that later granted her that
first financial success; through necessity, she felt she was
perpetuating the same myth of perfect little women that she herself
found stifling. Society did not really want its little women
to be perfect. In fact, as Fetterley shows us in her analysis
of Jean Muir's successful portrayal of the perfect little woman,
what society really wanted was for women to fail at this immense
task. Yet Alcott's gothic villainesses succeed brilliantly at
getting what they want. As a woman trapped between what she was
supposed to be and what she was forced to be through economic
necessity, Alcott understood their desperation. We do not only
find this ability to use roles to gain power in Alcott's gothic
stories. Also in sketching her domestic characters, Alcott blurs
those distinctions between little woman and successful actress
so much that the distinctions almost seem to disappear.
On To Chapter Three