Louisa May Alcott and the Domestic Un-ideal
Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 sentimental novel Little Women presents an illustration of everyday life for the domestic family during the nineteenth century. Through the experiences of the girls from the March family, Alcott mirrors her own struggles, as well as those of other women of her time, to remain “proper” by suppressing emotions such as anger, resentment, and envy. Many critical approaches to this novel revolve around this idea of self-suppression and Alcott’s use of an autobiographical main character to portray her own lost identity. One prominent critical method places Little Women in discussion with other narratives written by women at this time, demonstrating writing and their stories as an escape from the binding nature of their culture. In relation is another critical approach that discusses the ways that sentimental novels from the mid-nineteenth century promote female characters’ positive emotional responses as antidotes to the cruelty of the outside world. Through her creation of protagonist and autobiographical character Jo March, an angry misfit who channels this through her writing, Alcott demonstrates the idea of writing as an outlet for the control that women so lack in society.
Much critical attention focuses on the depiction of the “domestic ideal” within the novel, focusing on the relationships within the March family. Each of the four girls- Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy- all are unique in their own way and each represent a different issues faced women in a class distinctive society. Meg and Amy both seem to struggle with presenting themselves as proper and attractive while having very little money. Jo seems to be more interested in being able to express herself and struggles with the idea that it is not suitable for her to do so. The backbone of all of the girls’ strength to face these issues lies with their mother, whom they refer to as Marmee. Marmee, much like Alcott herself, both encompasses and contradicts the domestic ideal by teaching the girls ways in which to suppress their anger, yet encouraging them to spread their wings in other ways that were generally frowned upon by society, such as work. My paper will contribute to this critical discussion about the novel’s concerns about self-suppression and the domestic ideal, as well as the irony between this and Louisa May Alcott’s personal triumphs. I will begin by discussing the concept of the domestic ideal and Louisa May Alcott’s important tie to it through her family history and personal successes. Then I will present three important readings from Janis Dawson, Stephanie Foote, and Patricia Meyer Spacks to further illustrate the critical conversation of repression in Little Women. While Foote discusses the home as a testing ground for the pressures of the outside world, Spacks furthers this discussion with the inclusion of writing as an outlet as well. Dawson’s work illustrates that the concept of the domestic ideal was the source of Alcott’s fame. By putting these critics in conversation with one another and also discussing aspects of Alcott’s own life in between, I will demonstrate how the concept that Alcott is known for actually goes against what she did in her own life and demonstrated through the words a well as the silences from the characters within her novel.