Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Contributing Editor: Elizabeth Keyser
Classroom Issues and Strategies
"Actress," the third chapter of Louisa May Alcott's novel Work, provides an ideal introduction to the author, for throughout her career Alcott was concerned with woman as actress--both on and off stage. Students, however, may be perplexed as to why Christie equates acting first with rebellion, then with the loss of her womanliness. Thus they need to understand that professional acting in Alcott's day placed women beyond the pale of respectable society. Even as amateur theatricals were becoming a staple of Victorian parlor entertainment, the exposure of women to public view was still thought to compromise their innocence, purity, and, in a word, virtue. But Alcott's contemporaries may also have believed that the element of duplicity involved in acting was incompatible with their ideal of woman as simple, artless, without guile. This disjunction between woman and actress is suggested by the title of a reprinted Alcott sensation story, "LaJeune: or, Actress and Woman" (one of four stories with actress heroines in Freaks of Genius). The male narrator mistrusts the brilliant actress "LaJeune," but though he proves her vaunted youth a fraud, he finds it perpetrated for the sake of her invalid husband, not, as he suspected, for her opium-eating or gambling habit. Like "LaJeune," Alcott's actress stories imply that a woman can preserve her integrity while pursuing a public career but that a patriarchal society forces women to become actresses in their private lives. Thus, Judith Fetterley has observed of Jean Muir, the professional actress turned governess in Alcott's best-known sensation story, "Behind a Mask," that in order to analyze the needs of every person in the house, Muir must be supremely conscious. Ironically, therefore, the innocence, simplicity, even stupidity imputed to her is in fact incompatible with her role (6).
Some of Alcott's heroines, like Christie Devon, Jean Muir, and LaJeune, are professional actresses, but the heroines of other authors, such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Edith Wharton, appear only in amateur theatricals or tableaux vivants. Sylvia Yule, the heroine of Alcott's first novel, Moods, enacts scenes from Shakespeare for male friends (as Christie later does in Work) and, like Jo March in Little Women, revels in male roles, giving vent to feelings she cannot otherwise express. Similarly, Gladys, the angelic heroine of Alcott's full-length sensation novel, A Modern Mephistopheles, suggests the complexity of women's nature, its intellectual and emotional range, by playing the villainous Vivien from Tennyson's Idylls of the King. But even entirely off-stage Alcott's heroines strike poses and assume disguises, play roles and contrive scenes. They position themselves against becoming backdrops, then feign ignorance of a man's approach; they arrange their hair so as to conceal their facial expressions; they take opium so as to appear more radiant; they take still more so as to appear passionless. They affect to cry and then pretend to attempt in vain to conceal the tears. The pervasiveness of stagecraft in Alcott's fiction--the extent to which her heroines don masks and play roles--has led some critics to suspect the author of a similar duplicity. Fetterley and others see Alcott's persona as Aunt Jo, the author of Little Women and its sequels, as a kind of mask. Angela Estes and Kathleen Lant read Little Women as a melodrama in which the author whisks Jo from the stage and replaces her with Beth, confident that her readers will not detect the masquerade. Rena Sanderson and others argue that Alcott, in having the hero of A Modern Mephistopheles confess to having passed off another's works as his own, confesses to her own literary hoax.
The male narrator of Alcott's story "A Double Tragedy" asserts that "an actor learns to live a double life." So, too, according to Alcott's fiction, do women--and women authors. In the selection "Actress," Christie comes to grief when, as an actress, she steps from the frame in which she impersonates another actress, who in turn impersonates a portrait of herself. Thus Alcott, by having Christie play Peg Woffington in Charles Reade's Masks and Faces, signifies the entrapment of women in multiple roles and the difficulty of escaping them without injury.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In "Actress" we find that the professional actress acquires a measure of power and independence, but that the theater in many ways mirrors larger society. The chapter opens with Christie "resolving not to be a slave to anybody." And by becoming "Queen of the Amazons," she seems to have escaped that subservient condition. Further, in becoming an actress, Christie continues to declare her independence to Uncle Enos. At the thought of his disapproval "a delicious sense of freedom pervaded her soul, and the old defiant spirit seemed to rise up within her." Yet to obtain her role, Christie must first subject herself to dehumanizing scrutiny. In fact, her manager's examination reminds us of the slave market scenes in Uncle Tom's Cabin. And her Amazon troupe is described as "a most forlorn band of warriors . . . afraid to speak, lest they should infringe some rule." Far from being true Amazons, capable of terrorizing their male enemies, the show girls cower in terror of male authority. Christie recovers some of her enthusiasm on opening night, but the narrator tells us that her warlike trappings are "poor counterfeit." Even the "grand tableau," in which the martial queen stands triumphantly over the princess she has rescued, seems not so much a reversal of as a variation on the familiar male script. Yet at the end of the chapter, Christie effects a genuine rescue, thereby anticipating her role later in Work as what Estes and Lant have called the "Feminist Redeemer" or "Female Christ."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
While a number of critics have recognized the importance of the drama in Alcott's life and art, not all of them view her use of it as consistently subversive. As early as 1943 Madeleine Stern, in "Louisa Alcott, Trouper," provided an account of Alcott's youthful dramatic activities and perceived that both her sensation and her autobiographical fiction were indebted to them. Since then Sharon O'Brien and Karen Halttunen (among others) have discussed Alcott's adolescent melodramas: O'Brien sees them foreshadowing Alcott's inability to reconcile "the energetic, assertive self represented by her tomboy period with an adult female identity"(365); Halttunen views them as subverting her father's use of allegorical drama "to control every aspect of self-expression" (237-38).
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Alcott's use of theatricals can be fruitfully compared to that of Jane Austen in Mansfield Park, Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre and Villette, and Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth. Interesting comparisons might also be drawn between Christie's experience as a professional actress and that of Dreiser's Carrie.
Christie as an artist can also be compared to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's Avis. While Christie does not have Avis's strong sense of vocation, she eventually finds "a never-failing excitement in her attempts to reach the standard of perfection she had set up for herself." Just as Avis feels torn between the conflicting demands of her art and family, so Christie feels torn between the gratification she derives from individual achievement and the qualities that would enable her to subordinate her own needs to another's. Finally, Christie's sense of sisterly solidarity, to which she finally sacrifices her career, links her with the female characters and communities created by Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
Alcott, Louisa May. "Behind a Mask." In Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter, 383-441. American Women Writers Series. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
--. "A Double Tragedy. An Actor's Story." In The Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine B. Stern, Joel Myerson, and Daniel Shealy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.
--. Freaks of Genius: Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Daniel Shealy, Madeleine B. Stern, and Joel Myerson. New York: Greenwood, 1991.
--. Work: A Story of Experience. "Introduction" by Sarah Elbert. New York: Schocken, 1977.
Auerbach, Nina. "Afterword." In Little Women. New York: Bantam, 1983.
Bedell, Jeanne F. "A Necessary Mask: The Sensation Fiction of Louisa May Alcott." Missouri Philological Association Publications 5 (1980): 8-14.
Estes, Angela M. and Kathleen Margaret Lant. "The Feminist Redeemer: Louisa May Alcott's Creation of the Female Christ in Work." Christianity and Literature 40 (1991): 223-53.
--. "Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women." Children's Literature 17 (1989): 98-123.
Fetterley, Judith. "Impersonating 'Little Women': The Radicalism of Alcott's Behind a Mask." Women's Studies 10 (1983): 1-14.
Halttunen, Karen. "The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott." Feminist Studies 10 (1984): 232-54.
Harris, Susan K. "Narrative Control and Thematic Radicalism in Work and The Silent Partner." In 19th-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretive Strategies, 173-96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Keyser, Elozabeth Lennoz. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville: Universty of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. "'The Most Beautiful Things in All the World'? Families in Little Women." In Stories and Society: Children's Literature in its Social Context, edited by Dennis Butts, 50-64. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Langland, Elizabeth. "Female Stories of Experience: Alcott's Little Women in Light of Work." The Voyage In: Fiction of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, 112-27. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.
Little Women and the Feminist Imagination, edited by Beverly Lyon Clark and Janice M. Alberghene. New York: Garland, 1997.
Murphy, Ann B. "The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women." Signs 15 (1990): 562-85.
O'Brien, Sharon. "Tomboyism and Adolescent Conflict: Three Nineteenth-Century Case Studies." In Women's Being, Women's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979: 351-72.
Rigsby, Mary, "'So Like Women!': Louisa May Alcott's Work and the Ideology of Relations." In Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1791-1901, edited by Susan K. Harris. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Sanderson, Rena. " A Modern Mephistopheles: Louisa May Alcott's Exorcism of Patriarchy." American Transcendental Quarterly 5 (1991): 41-55.
Widdicombe, Toby. "A 'Declaration of Independence': Alcott's Work as Transcendental Manifesto." ESQ 38 (1992): 207-29.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. "From Success to Experience: Louisa May Alcott's Work." Massachusetts Review 21 (1980): 527-39.