Behind a Mask is a fast-paced thriller, remarkable for forward-looking feminist themes. These are developed through the interplay between vivid, varied characters. Bella's simplicity and Edward's good-heartedness serve to balance Gerald's distrust and Lucia's dislike. Haughty Lucia embodies the dullness of docility in contrast to Jean, and Sir John a moral uprightness. Jean is a skillfully crafted character, interesting for what she does and what she stands for. A one-dimensional, scheming, bitter, and entirely malicious Jean would have worked against Alcott's feminist purpose.
To engage the reader quickly, Alcott opens with a touch of intrigue. Jean Muir may not be merely a pale, thin, governess in a plain dress. "Something in the lines of the mouth betrayed strength," and her voice "had a curious mixture of command and entreaty in its varying tones." The reader is fascinated with Jean by the time she unmasks in the privacy of her room. "She had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender," the reader learns, "but nothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leaned there brooding over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened all her life."
Jean exemplifies the realism that is typical of Alcott's fiction. In fact, many critics see Jean's character as modeled from tensions within Alcott herself. Like Jean, Alcott felt rage at the limited opportunities, underpaid work, and domestic role-playing demanded of women...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Alcott's fiction should stimulate vigorous discussions because of her themes and her techniques, including her reliance upon her autobiography. Her stories and novels generally reflect a feminist understanding that critics recognize as remarkably wide-ranging in scope. Behind a Mask clearly links the role of actress with a woman's means to establish herself in society. A good line to take in discussion is whether the feminine pretenses Jean Muir adopted to gain her ends are essential for women today.
Besides the feminist aspects of the novella, critics see it as a crucial expression of Alcott herself. Another good avenue to pursue is the degree to which readers agree with critics on this point, particularly in the light of Alcott's reputation as "the children's friend" — the author of Little Women (1869), Little Men (1871), and Eight Cousins (1875). Readers might also consider whether Alcott merely used the conventions of "sensation" fiction to create an entertaining story. In any case, a comparison with one of Alcott's favorite novels, Jane Eyre, might be useful to establish the degree to which Behind a Mask represents innovation in theme and technique.
1. Alcott gives two contrasting views of women in the characters of Jean and Lucia. How do they differ? What do their differences tell us about Alcott's views on women?
2. Alcott utilizes an epistolary technique as the plot proceeds to...
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In Behind a Mask, Alcott explores women's issues through the character Jean Muir and her relationships with the Coventry family, members of the English gentry. Jean enters the sumptuous Coventry household in the role of a meek, black-clad governess, to take up duties with the sixteen-year-old Bella. Upon her arrival, Jean tells her employers that she is nineteen, of Scotch descent, has "not a relation in the world," and was dismissed from the hospital "only a week ago." Actually, the reader soon learns, Jean is a thirtyish, vengeful, divorced ex-actress from Paris, determined to secure her future among the titled class. Privately, she vows: "I'll not fail again if there is power in a woman's wit and will!"
Jean, although intelligent and talented, is not of aristocratic birth, which adds to her limited opportunities as a woman. Hard experience has taught her that if she wants to get ahead in this patriarchal, stratified society, her best chance lies in using her well honed histrionic talents. Thus, among the Coventrys Jean dons a mask of pretense. She tutors, flatters, plays the piano, sings, arranges flowers, all with the downcast eyes and maidenly blushes that display conventional feminine docility. Jean wins her way into the Coventry household and engages its men, by the calculated playing of a role.
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Behind a Mask has specific ties to Gothic literary tradition. Alcott read and admired the Gothic novels of the eighteenth-century authors Ann Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and Charles Brockden Brown, all of whom wrote under the influence of Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764) launched the Gothic tradition. Radcliffe's popular The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, featured elements of intrigue and horror. Her The Italian of two years later depicted a romantic villain who repelled, yet attracted the reader at the same time.
Lewis incorporated horrific and supernatural elements into The Monk (1796). Brown's Wieland (1798) and Arthur Mervyn and Ormond (1799) reflected the Radcliffe school of horrors. By the nineteenth-century, works influenced by the tradition were being produced by Alcott's Concord neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter (1850) treated themes of guilt and secrecy, and their psychological effects, through a strong female character. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe depicted his own favored variety of horrors, those of the human mind, in settings of a twilight world.
Critical commentary especially relates Alcott to the tradition of English authors whose sensational fiction was enormously popular in the early 1860s. These include Charles Dickens, whose popular Little Dorrit (1857) was followed by the best-selling Great Expectations (1861)....
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Alcott's Gothic thrillers typically display strong-willed heroines who suffer difficult lives and renounce the prescribed, subjugating gender role of docile sentiment. Two examples of manipulating, vengeful women like Jean Muir include Pauline Valery of the short work "Pauline's Passion and Punishment." In the novella V. V.: or, Plots and Counterplots, the orphan and victimized widow Virginie Varens is a Parisian dancer who assumes a disguise to try to land an estate and title by remarriage.
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