Term Paper: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

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[. . .] Alcott was a struggling spirit in struggling times. She waged a war with poverty as her nation burned in a Civil War. She had unqualified dedication to her family and desire to rid it of poverty. She did everything from teaching to sewing and working as hired domestic servant. It was at 16 that she tried writing, all with the end-view of earning enough for her family to alleviate its poverty. In 1851, her first poem was published under the pen name, Flora Fairfield, and this brought her much honor and confidence along with the money. She became known for her pieces, showing the 19th century domestic life, which enticed and entertained young and old readers then and now. Her literary works were accepted by both publishers and the reading public because of her credible characterization and a simple but entertaining style of writing.

She worked briefly as a nurse to soldiers of the American Civil War in 1862, during which she contracted typhoid fever within just a month of service. She never completely recovered from the illness. She recorded her experience as a nurse in popular "Hospitl Sketches," published in 1863. Her first novel was entitled "Moods," published in 1864, and considered "immortal" by her critics. It sold very well and encouragingly. She then traveled in Europe with a rich invalid. Later, she was offered the editorship of Merry's Museum, an American journal for juvenile literature, which she accepted and became its chief contributor.

Through her works, Alcott advocated feminism, political equality and the dignity of work. Critics and other readers readily recognized her feminist and psychosexual themes, which jibed with the call of American social reformers of her time, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Alcott's was one of the voices that responded to that call for political equality and suffrage for women, which she endorsed, although she did not join the women's rights movement itself. Although her successful works centered on individual women's right to recognition as a power and the woman's liberation from domestic servility, readers regarded them with mixed feelings. A few thought they were moralistic and even weak plots and characterization, but most considered them provoking and definitely American classics.

In her private world where she struggled against poverty and the sterility of domestic chores, Alcott advocated a duality: she wrestled against women's domestic role as subordinates and idealized that role at the same time. Because Alcott never married, her works are seen by many as an expression of her fight against the tyranny of the marital state towards women. Yet she says something else in her extremely popular novel, when she writes: "a woman's happiest kingdom is her home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother." Another novel, entitled "Work," she exemplifies a woman's quest for fulfillment in various jobs, as she herself did.

Little Women" is a graphic externalization of a woman's dilemma between duty to family and her personal growth. This kind of dilemma is unusual and condemned in the 19th century, certainly a novelty when Alcott's readers first encountered it in her works, because the status of women at that time was just beginning to gain acceptance.

The novel questions the validity of gender stereotypes in either sex. Jo (as much as Alcott herself) refuses to marry, but wants to work, earn and sustain the family. It is like taking the place of the family's breadwinner, the father, or taking over what he is unable to supply, which during her time, was confined to men. Jo is also unable to fit the world of tradition by going to a party with a burn mark and not possessing social grace, courtesy and attractiveness. Social grace, after all, was the key attraction of desirable people then. And when Jo refuses marriage to Laurie, she refuses to be crowned with the highest regard for marriage and motherhood, states which Alcott herself praises in writing in her novels.

Alcott and her father did not really see eye-to-eye, although they shared a common devotion towards the family. Alcott was outspoken, strong-willed and independents, and her father regarded these traits as un-desirable, mean and even evil. He wanted her to be like her mother who was docile and subordinated to him, but Alcott took after him, instead. In her most famous novel, Alcott, in fact, heavily emphasized the dignity and necessity for productive work and despised the worthlessness and wastefulness of dressing up, refinement, artifice and manipulation. In Jo's eyes, work was, in fact, sacred, in that it expresses inner goodness and creativity through productivity. Although she repulsed her father's hardness and Puritan attitude, Alcott actually endorsed both indirectly or subconsciously.

One other way in which Alcott fought her own battle for women was by being genuinely herself. She contrasts Jo with decorated girls like Annie Morfat and Sally Gardiner. Transcendentalism teaches that people should attend more to their inner spiritual selves than to outward and worldly existence. In "Little Women," Alcott expresses this belief in Meg and Amy's struggles against vanity, which they gradually overcome. Amy, who is won't to luxury, turns rich Fred Vaughn's offer down, because she does not love him. The same is true of Meg who marries a poor man out of love. Although different in personalities, the March daughters manage to be true to themselves despite painful sacrifices. In the end, they return to their modest New England home, even if they all have the opportunities to have exchanged it for a mansion. This seems to set Americans apart from Europeans, from whom they descended, in that while Europeans preferred comfortable, rich living, Americans did not mind living modestly, as long as they achieved and deserved what they labored for.

It is also to be noted that Alcott uses certain symbols to heighten her message in the novel. Umbrellas are one such symbol used by men to protect women from in-clemencies of the outside world. Jo gets mad at Mr. Brooke's umbrella, which signifies taking Meg into himself and out of the family. Burning is another symbol used by Alcott, which appears to refer to the passion of writing, anger and genius. Jo wears a party dress with a burn mark on the back, representing her resistance to conventional women's role in society. Then Amy burns Jo's manuscripts in wrath over Jo's refusal to take her to a play. And Jo also burns her sensationalist writings after Professor Bhaer criticizes her style. The fire seems to finally gut her former personality that gives way to another at the end.

Alcott's portrayal of 19th-century domestic life is outdated, but she will always be remembered for her courageous and realistic expression of the maturing adolescent. Her "Little Women" significantly infused sensitive portrayals of this kind into the ordinary and formal types of juvenile literature offered in her time.

Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. SparkNotes.com. (accessed 12:03:03)

http://www.sparknotes.com

Microsoft Encarta ® Online Encyclopedia 2003. (accessed 12:03:03). http://encarta.msn.Microsoft Corporation 2003

Schafer, Nancy Imelda. Life and Works of Louisa May Alcott. Camden County Free Library. (accessed 12:03:03). http://www.rsf.k12.ca.us/~dwebber/LouisaMayAlcott.htm [END OF PREVIEW]

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