A Year of Feminist Classics

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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Louisa May Alcott and the Wise Woman

This is my second contribution to this month’s discussion of Little Women.

One issue which is seldom discussed when appraising feminist themes in literature is the role of women in old age. Too often older women are invisible, just as Doris Lessing observed in her novel The Summer before the Dark.

Last year, when we discussed Herlandby Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

I was impressed by Gilman’s description of an all-female society where older women are both honored for the lives they have led and employed for their wisdom and self-control. Here the male visitors are greeted:

“If they were only younger,” he muttered between his teeth. “What on earth is a fellow to say to a regiment of old Colonels like this?”

In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother.

Although Louisa May Alcott is writing about a real 19th-century world – not a fantasy like Herland – she also recognizes the powerful role older women can take in understanding and counseling the young as they try to make their way in life. Marmee in Little Women is a clear example. Her opinions are usually conservative.

“Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.”

Also,

“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I would accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”

At the same time, Marmee unites with Mr. March in not accepting poverty passively. When the girls propose to find work,

“Believing they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence, their parents consented, and both fell to work with the hearty good-will which in spite of all obstacles is sure to succeed at last.”

What is most striking to a modern parent is not that the girls’ mother gives advice – all mothers do that – but that the girls take the advice so seriously.

Alcott’s next successful children’s book after Little Women was An Old Fashioned Girl. In it, Alcott continues to show the strong role an older woman can take in a sometimes dysfunctional household. Young Polly – pretty, gifted and poor – comes to stay in the Shaw household. The Shaw children are friendly but spoiled. Polly receives understanding and support not from their mother, but from their grandmother. When they meet, unsophisticated country Polly is praised by Grandmother Shaw because she is still a child:

“Well, dear, I’ll tell you. In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen did n’t dress in the height of the fashion; go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it’s possible to make them; lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blas, at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so; worked and studied, dressed and played, like children; honored our parents; and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to, me.”

But children were not idle at all:

“Yes, and we all learned to make bread, and cook, and wore little chintz gowns, and were as gay and hearty as kittens. All lived to be grandmothers and fathers; and I’m the last, seventy, next birthday, my dear, and not worn out yet; though daughter Shaw is an invalid at forty.”

“That’s the way I was brought up, and that’s why Fan calls me old-fashioned, I suppose,” said Polly.

This function of advice giver and reinforcer of conservative family values is given to Uncle Alec in another successful children’s book, Eight Cousins. But still, the many aunts in the story sometimes get a word in and the elderly great aunts, Peace and Plenty, stand firmly for the good old days and good old values.

Even in her adult novel, Moods, Alcott finds a place for a wise woman. When Sylvia is grieving over the unfortunate marital choice, she has a “sudden memory”:

“If ever you need help that Geoffrey cannot give, remember cousin Faith.”

This was the hour Faith foresaw; Moor had gone to her in his trouble, why not follow, and let this woman, wise, discreet, and gentle, show her what should come next.

Faith diagnoses that Sylvia has two spirits contending in one body, and “…each rules by turns, and each helps or hinders as moods and circumstances lead.” Advice and comfort are then given and gratefully received.

Louisa May Alcott wrote two sequels to Little Women. In Little Men and Jo’s Boys Marmee does not completely disappear, but Jo is now clearly in charge of the family destiny. Whereas she was once the harum scarum tomboy who wanted independence of action, now she follows the fortunes of others and guides them on their various ways. Jo is now the wise woman.

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Little Women – Feminist Novel?

I would like to open the discussion of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel for girls, with a proposition. Some readers find in the book a feminist message of independence and self-expression, while others find a message of social conformity. So which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? My proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

The March sisters receive a letter from their father in which he expresses his ideals for his “little women.”

Let’s start with the conformity message. In Little Women, Mr. March is the absent father, leaving the four sisters and their mother to fend for themselves while he serves as a military chaplain in the Civil War. His presence is strongly felt, however, as he presses for the girls to grow up in accordance with his ideals.

 “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

If they must fight their bosom enemies and conquer themselves, then they must suppress their true natures in favor of a standard set by him, the father. This is reinforced when, near the end of part one of the book, Mr. March comes back from the war and proclaims:

“I see a young lady [Jo] who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety; but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl; but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied.”

A “strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman” is no bad ideal, but it is Mr. March’s ideal, not Jo’s. Alcott realistically shows that when a girl is as energetic and ambitious as Jo, she can expect loving parents will try to get her to conform. Most books for girls at that time would leave it there, with Jo seeing the error of her ways and finding happiness in meeting family expectations. Alcott is a better writer than that. She depicts a Jo who is fully appreciative of love and support; she is not rebelling against her family but against the role of a girl:

“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!”

After she publishes her first story, Jo does not reject her family role, but desires to be independent within it, to support those she loves as – dare we say it! – a boy would have been expected to do.

 Jo’s breath gave out here; and, wrapping her head in the paper, she dedewed her little story with a few natural tears; for to be independent, and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.

By the time she wrote Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott was establishing herself as a professional writer. Like Jo, she wanted to support her chronically-needy family, by any honest means. She did, in fact, try various jobs including teaching, sewing and serving as a paid companion. Writing paid best, besides being satisfying in other ways. She wrote plays, poetry, short stories, thrillers, and an account of her nursing experiences in a Civil War hospital – whatever would sell. Her greatest affection was for her “adult” novels, such as Moods, with their emphasis of emotional states and high romance. She wrote Little Women on assignment so, rather than trying to move the reader as in Moods, she told the story, as in Hospital Sketches. When the story is told – drawing on her own experiences growing up with three sisters in the poor but worthy Alcott family – her true values are expressed in the story itself and the choices she made in telling it.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

People talk like that. These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

Jo does want to make money for her family, but she also knows that with money comes power, and she wants that too.

 …Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house….

Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

  1. Which is the stronger message within Little Women – conformity or independence?
  2. What other messages to you find there?
  3. What are the roles of Marmee and of Jo’s sisters?  Do they support or deny feminist values?

For more information about Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, and the interesting town of Concord, visit my blog page: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/courses-and-presentations/little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott/