Ideas too big for a little woman: why Alcott’s representation of acceptable femininity is a betrayal of independent women.
Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, to bear and forebear, that home may be comfortable and lovely?…Work is wholesome…good for the health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence’,1
says Marmee, which characterises the moralistic tone of Alcott’s novel. She preaches the need for the girls to be able to provide a haven for their future families, to become ‘angels of the hearth’ and necessarily enclose themselves in the domestic sphere. This is a very narrow view of what constitutes ‘power and independence’, particularly when one considers Alcott’s own life and the independence that she had as a single, self-sufficient woman. I read this view of a contented repression as a betrayal of Alcott’s own ideals, and I shall explore how and why this is the case in this essay.
The repressed and repressive view of what constitutes acceptable femininity that Marmee espouses and epitomises is generally presented in the novel as the ‘right’ way to be, despite the fact that married contentment couldn’t be further from Alcott’s own experiences: ‘Alcott herself remained vigilantly single her entire life.’2 While ‘vigilantly’ might be stretching the point, it is true that Alcott herself never subscribed to the expected conventions of marriage and family, which is why one might expect her to allow her characters the same freedom. Meg’s desire to move into her own domestic sphere, exemplified by her ‘castle in the air’3 is largely influenced by the girls’ idealisation of their mother and the domesticated femininity that she represents. ‘Marmee’ is what ‘keep[s] the home pleasant and the domestic machinery running smoothly’4, and she leads by example, teaching and preaching a restricted view of femininity that generally points towards marriage, because ‘to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing that can happen to a woman’5. She goes on to say ‘better old maids than…unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands’6, which, far from suggesting that marriage is not essential, reinforces my point – Marmee would rather her daughters missed out on the ‘best and sweetest thing that can happen to a woman’ than degrade themselves or act in an ‘unfeminine’ way.
It has been suggested that Beth is the personification of Marmee’s old-fashioned way of femininity, that Alcott is suggesting that it cannot survive the social upheaval and family fragmentation of this time, and therefore has to sicken and eventually die (as Beth does in Good Wives) in order to make way for a metaphorical ‘new way’, represented by the vibrant, unconventional Jo. This view rests on the claim that Jo’s unconventionality is presented as a good thing in the text and is being used by Alcott to teach her young readership a new way to ‘be’ in an age of alienation and hard work. While it is possible to construct such an argument, I find it essentially flawed because Alcott presents Jo as at her most contented within her self and most praised by those around her when she is at her most submissive, peaceable and selfless – i.e. when she is most like Beth. Meg praises Jo for keeping her temper, (‘I am so glad, Jo,’7) and Jo herself says that ‘to be independent and to earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart’8. Alcott says that
There are many Beth’s in this world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no-one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.9
This suggests that the Beths of the world make it a better place and provide solace and sweetness for those around them, which is why I disagree with the view that the old feminine ways are dead or dying and the idea that Jo’s wild ways are better. This is also why the fact that although Jo wishes to be independent this does not undermine her desire to earn praise by being acceptably feminine, because ‘by some strange attraction of opposites’10 she is closet to Beth of all her sisters and therefore is most influenced and guided by her.
There are moments where the problems with the ‘angel of the hearth’ philosophy that Marmee and Beth epitomise are shown, and many critics have commented on these as examples of Alcott’s undermining of this kind of submissive femininity. The most seized upon moment is Marmee’s confession to Jo that ‘I am angry nearly every day of my life’11. This is used as proof that Marmee is unhappy within this ‘repressive domesticity’12, that Alcott is therefore against this repression, and that through Jo she is arguing that a new kind of femininity is emerging and should be encouraged. However, this one moment is not enough to overturn the narrative view of the rest of the novel where Marmee is happy apart from not having her husband by her side, and domestic contentment is a shared goal.
Furthermore, I would argue that the scene between Jo and her mother actually disrupts the idea that Jo represents a new way of being a woman in the world. Some critics have suggested that Alcott criticises Marmee for being submissive while praising Jo for being tomboyish (and by extension, masculine and independent). I disagree with this reading of Jo because she is condemned by other characters in the book innumerable times for being ‘boyish’ or ‘manly’ -‘I detest rude, unladylike girls…don’t Jo, it’s so boyish!’13 Her ‘gentlemanly manner’14 is accepted (although not acceptable) while her father is away, so long as the ‘manly’ things she does are for the good of the family – for example taking on the more physically demanding household tasks or earning a living. While she is presented as the ‘black sheep’15 of the family for being such a tomboy, it is worth noting that ‘Jo’s pilgrimage of moral development takes place almost wholly in interior spaces – both literal and symbolic’16 which, I think, illustrates that even if one was inclined to read the text as encouraging young women to develop outside of their pre-assigned gender and societal roles, this view cannot be sustained because even in Alcott’s most wayward character this development remains within the confines of her family. The thrust of the book follows Jo’s emotional journey as she learns how to control her ‘quick temper, sharp tongue and restless spirit’17 and learn ‘not only the bitterness of remorse and despair, but also the sweetness of self-denial and self-control’18. This last sentence undermines the idea that Marmee is an example of frustrated womanhood, because it is she who preaches the ‘sweetness’ of such subjugation. It also worth briefly noting that in order to please her mother and to believe that she is serving God, Jo must overcome her ‘restless spirit’, which implies that she must settle down -within the constraints of ‘Bunyanesque self-denial’19 and acceptable femininity.
The way in which Alcott shows Jo growing up and into her predefined gender role is what makes me believe that Alcott betrayed her own opinions in writing Little Women. It is easy to assume that Alcott wrote Little Women to please an assumed audience of young girls, and therefore wrote the book more from economic necessity than a desire write a moralised bildungsroman. But, an ‘experience as a female domestic [servant] taught Alcott a lesson in the inequity among male and female roles and unfair treatment of the nineteenth century women under the patriarchal society,’ and instilled an ‘unending rage against the cultural limitations imposed on female development’20, which means that her seeming encouragement to women to accept domestic roles and the intrinsic inequality therein is particularly odd. One can imagine a single woman perhaps idealising marriage and the domestic sphere as a romantic contrast to the necessity for her to support herself, but Alcott’s choice of spinsterhood and ‘ambivalence about the cult of feminine altruism and its domestic context’21 argues against such idealisation on her part. She also wrote sensationalist fiction under several pseudonyms,22 which earned her far more money and sold better than the ‘moral pap’23 that she called Little Women. Moreover, Alcott’s sensationalist fiction ‘examine[s] the darker side of human nature and criticize[s] [sic] the Victorian ideal of femininity as unrealistic and false. Her subversive sensational stories…defied nineteenth-century values of womanhood’24, which further shows that she did not believe what she preaches in Little Women. Strickland argues that ‘by writing and reading thrillers, women could pretend to be the femme fatale; a woman that owns herself and her sexuality. She [Alcott] uses her power for her own gain and to undermine the patriarchy’25 of society, which does not sound like the author of Little Women, a novel that perpetuates patriarchy and female submissiveness.
There is little suggestion in the novel that Jo should persevere in her ‘manly ways’, either from society, from herself, or from the authorial voice: even when we might expect Alcott to intervene in the story and take Jo’s part she does not. The narrative voice frequently interjects with opinions and comments,26 and Alcott cannot break the narrative up in this way without realising that her readers are going to assume that she is present in her novel, and therefore to feel that her moralising and encouragement towards marriage is a form of betrayal. This idea of betrayal is particularly noteworthy in Jo’s ambitions to write because this is where Jo’s story most closely parallels Alcott’s own experiences27, and yet the authorial voice is quite patronising and dismissive of Jo’s writing, calling her book ‘only half a dozen little fairy tales’28, which immediately diminishes them and their importance. Moreover, Jo’s eventual ‘financial independence [in Good Wives] is domesticated, her stories transformed into payments for the butcher, a new carpet, groceries, and gowns’29, which reiterates that a woman earning her own money is only acceptable if it is used to further the creation of an idealised and romanticised domestic space, a haven for the hard-working men. Alcott herself
carefully constructed her role as a writer born out of economic necessity, portraying herself as the perfect Victorian woman, who sacrifices her own needs for those of her family. Thus, she negotiates the autonomous and self-fulfilling act of writing as merely work to support herself and her family, simultaneously denying her ego and selfhood30.
She then constructs exactly the same role for Jo; Jo writes partly for her own pleasure, but this is mostly ignored and her writing is presented as an economic necessity; ‘in time I may be able to support myself and help the girls’31. This highlights the clear parallel between Alcott and Jo, and makes it all the more surprising that Alcott does not allow Jo the freedoms that she enjoyed.
Alcott does not present the girls as perfect; but in their receptivity to Marmee’s domesticity and their willingness to ‘conquer themselves’32 they represent a form of the ideal woman – one who is aware of her own failings and attempts to rectify them with the help of parent, God and, eventually, husband, as Marmee does. Marmee’s own failings are an interesting example of patriarchy at work in the novel, she is aware of her temper and it is through Marmee’s awareness of ‘how much I owe him’33 (Mr. March) that she attempts to conquer her anger and ‘is ashamed to do otherwise before him’34. It has been argued that Mr. March’s absence is what leaves Jo free to become ‘the man of the family’35, but as Murphy argues, his physical absence from the text does not stop him being the ‘primary agent of trivialization [sic]’36 – it is he who uses the phrase ‘little women’37 which both exemplifies Victorian ideals of childhood (where children are just miniature adults) and belittles their efforts to be ‘grown-up’ women. Jo, originally at least, does not want to be a woman, little or otherwise, and her repeated expression that she ‘can’t get over [her] disappointment in not being a boy’38, is another point of contention with the presentation of domestic bliss as ‘the best and sweetest thing’39 that a woman could and should wish for. In fact, Jo regularly takes part in ‘boyish’ activities through her friendship with Laurie, she baldly states ‘I am not a young lady’40 and engages in acts of transvestism which are a far cry from the femininity urged by her mother and sisters.
This has lead some critics to argue that Jo is gay, a reading I find slightly ridiculous in the context of the time the novel was written and published. Quimby argues that the
cross-gender identification with a brother or male peer…explores a range of male-identified behaviors [sic] that generally direct [Jo’s] plot away from the expected trajectory of the girlhood narrative… Jo’s refusal of normative girlhood identifications and desires…she wants to be the man of the family, not the little woman; she wants to be a soldier, not a seamstress; and she wants to be like Laurie, not have him41.
However, the assumption that Jo’s wanting to be like Laurie rather than wanting him in a heterosexual sense is as neat an opposite as soldier/seamstress or man/woman is absurd. Firstly, Laurie’s relationship with all the girls is platonic, not just his relationship with Jo and all the girls specifically think they are too young for romantic involvement regardless of their personal desires, and secondly the above idea only holds water if one agrees that Jo does move away from the ‘expected trajectory of…girlhood’, and I would argue strongly that she does not. Jo may be a ‘wild girl’42, but she is a girl nonetheless, and one who ultimately does conform to gender expectations; ‘I’ll be as prim as I can and not get into any scrapes’43. Her tomboyish-ness and her wish to ‘marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family’44 stem more from a desire to keep her already fragmented family together than any potential lesbian leanings. Jo’s transvestism would be remarkable, especially given that she sells her hair45, if it were not for ‘The Pickwick Portfolio’46 where all of the girls adopt masculine personae. Their willing transvestism for the purposes of fiction places it firmly in the realm of play and make-believe; there is little seriousness behind it, which negates the idea that Jo actually wants to be a man, despite her fierce protectiveness of her sisters.
In fact, the women in the play are defined through their relationships with men rather than each other, which underlines the inescapable patriarchy of the novel, despite it having a female author. Jo is defined through her relationship with Laurie, Marmee through her relationship with her absent husband, and Meg through her blossoming relationship with Mr. Brooke. Marmee’s complaints stem from having given up her husband to her country47 and therefore having to ‘to keep his little daughters safe and good for him’48, the implication being that everything she does with and for the girls is actually for her husband. Jo’s relationship with Laurie not only encourages her tomboyish ways, but brings out her most feminine side: Jo’s statement that ‘he’ll…keep us from being sentimental…we can do so little for him, and he does so much for us’49, almost exactly echoes Marmee’s wish to please Mr. March, and hints at a heterosexual desire in Jo to please Laurie because he is a man. Furthermore, even in her writing, where she is sometimes at her most independent, Jo models herself on Laurie, ‘his contributions [to The Pickwick Portfolio] were excellent, being patriotic, classical, comical or dramatic, but never sentimental. Jo regarded them as worthy of Bacon, Milton or Shakespeare, and remodelled her own works with good effect, she thought’.50 Alcott’s snide addition of ‘she thought’ implies that not only does Jo have a skewed view of what is great writing (it seems unlikely that Laurie’s talents really match Shakespeare’s!) but that her efforts to rewrite her own work in a more masculine way are bound to fail.
This implicit failure, and the fact that even Jo’s published writing is unpaid undermines the one thing that might have made Jo independent or a role-model for young women who want to escape their pre-defined gender roles. Alcott does this throughout the novel and not only does she not undermine a limited view of domestic femininity, but at some points she actively encourages it. For this reason, I find Little Women as a novel to be a betrayal of Alcott’s own views and, without being melodramatic, almost a negation of her own freedoms.
Alcott, Louisa May: Little Women, Penguin Popular Classics, London, 1994.
Arac, Jonathan: The Emergence of American Literary Narrative, 1820-1860,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2005.
Foote, Stephanie: Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in
Louisa May Alcott, College Literature, 32.1, 2005, pp.63-85. Viewed online at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/college _literature/v032/32.1foote.html, 17/11/07.
Murphy, Ann B: The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in
“Little Women”, in Signs, Vol.15, no.3, The Ideology of Mothering: Disruption and Reproduction of Patriarchy, University of Chicago Press, Spring 1990, pp.562-585. Viewed online at: http://links.jstor.org/sici? sici= 0097-9740%28199021%2915%3 A3%3C562%3ATBOE EA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23 18/11/07.
Quimby, Karin: The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women and the
Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 10.1 (2003) pp.1-22. Viewed online at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_lesbian_and _gay_ studies/v010/10.1quimby.html, 17/11/07
Strickland, Margaret: Like a Wild Creature in its Cage, Paced That Handsome
Woman’: the Struggle Between Sentiment and Sensation in the Writings of Louisa May Alcott, Domestic Goddesses. Ed. Kim Wells, 1999. Viewed online at: http://www.womenwriters.net/domestic goddess/strickland .htm, 20/11/07.