illustrated portrait of main character Jean Muir sitting with one half of her face covered by a light mask

Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power

by Louisa May Alcott

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

Jean Muir is on a quest for prosperity and security in a male-dominated society rife with class antagonisms. Jean is alone and past the prime of youth. She is an actress, the daughter of a nonentity, the ex-wife of a reckless actor. She is a social outcast in Victorian elite society by gender, by birth, and by profession. Jean, outraged at the injustice, is willing to take risks and rise by means of subterfuge. As she writes to her co-conspirator Hortense, she intends to humble this "intensely proud family" of Coventrys by "captivating the sons, and when they have committed themselves, cast them off, and marry the old uncle, whose title takes my fancy."

One by one, the Coventry brothers Edward and Gerald, and finally their uncle, the estimable Sir John, do fall under Jean's sway. Initially though, despite her charms, the two older men merely acknowledge Jean's presence "by the sort of bow which gentlemen bestow on governesses." Jean knows that only the rank and "gentle blood" they value can win them. She therefore plants the misinformation that she is the daughter of a deceased noblewoman, Lady Howard. At once Gerald begins to view Jean anew as his social equal, one whose unfortunate poverty offers no serious obstacle to his courting her. Old Sir John sees things the same way, and the upshot, by the novella's end, is that Jean is a bride after a brush with near disaster.

Edward has purchased incriminating letters from the financially strapped Hortense, and the family is aghast at the ruse in spite of the good Jean has done. She has drawn Gerald from his indolence, Sir John from his isolation, and the whole household from dullness. Jean has helped Edward embark on his chosen career, and by rejecting a romance with Gerald, restored him to his suit with his cousin Lucia Beaufort. In any case, regardless of adverse reactions, Jean triumphs over limitations of gender and class, as the outwitted Sir John stands gladly by his "little Lady Coventry." The reader sees that a woman can get what she wants if she is ruthless and determined enough to manipulate patriarchal injustices to her ends. A corollary to this obviously feminist theme is that sham and harm are inherent in snobbish conventions.

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