Louisa May Alcott Alcott, Louisa May (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Louisa May Alcott 1832-1888

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Flora Fairfield, A. M. Barnard, Cousin Tribulation, A. M., and Abba May Alcott.) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and dramatist.

See also Louisa May Alcott Short Story Criticism.

Alcott's heart-warming depictions of nineteenth-century domestic life in such novels as Little Women (1868-69) and Little Men (1871) have remained extremely popular—particularly with female readers—for over a century. While the continued following for Alcott's fiction speaks to its relevance to several generations, Alcott's novels have also been the subject of extensive critical attention, particularly as they relate to the role of nineteenth-century American women in society. Her success as a prolific professional writer during a time when fiction-writing was newly emerging as a potential career for women and women's writing was opening a major new publishing market has been the source of historical as well as literary interest. Alcott's oeuvre also contains the lesser known adult novels Moods (1864), Work (1872), A Modern Mephistopheles (1888) and A Whisper in the Dark (1888), as well as a series of pseudonymous romantic thrillers which received substantial critical attention following the discovery of their authorship by Alcott.

Biographical Information

The second of four daughters, Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and lived most of her life in Concord, Massachusetts. Both of her parents strongly influenced her education and the development of her social views. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a Transcendentalist philosopher and an educational reformer whose idealistic projects tended to take precedence over his familial and financial responsibilities. Her mother, Abigail May Alcott, initially shared her husband's Transcendental ideals, but soon became disillusioned by the failure of this way of life to provide for her family's practical needs. Following the disappointment of the Alcotts' failed attempt at a communal farm society called "Fruitlands," Abigail Alcott assumed the role of family decision-maker, and she and her daughters pursued practical employment. Louisa, for example, taught school, took in sewing, and worked briefly as a domestic servant; her early experience of poverty and her observation of her father's financial instability may have contributed to her strong desire to achieve a steady income through her writing. She began writing at age sixteen, and in 1851, her first poem was published in Peterson's Magazine under the pseudonym of Flora Fairfield. She subsequently published a number of sensational serial stories under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, providing her family with a relatively lucrative source of income. In 1862, Alcott traveled to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse to soldiers wounded in the American Civil War. Although she was forced to return home after she contracted typhoid pneumonia—the treatment for which resulted in mercury poisoning and permanent damage to her health—the brief experience provided material for the book that would become her first major literary success, Hospital Sketches (1863). This Civil War memoir was followed by her first novel, Moods, which sold well despite accusations of immorality by reviewers. Encouraged by the prospect of financial stability, Alcott agreed to assume the editorship of a girls' magazine titled Merry's Museum, for which she composed short stories, poems, and advice columns. At the request of her publishers, she also agreed to write a novel for girls, and the publication of her semi-autobiographical novel Little Women proved to be the defining moment of her career. The success of the novel made Alcott famous, and she was now easily able to support her family with her earnings. Biographers have noted, however, that this success proved to be a mixed blessing for Alcott, who felt restricted by demands for more books written in a similarly domestic style. She nevertheless accommodated the interests of her readers with four sequels to Little WomenGood Wives (volume two of Little Women), Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys, and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (1886). Alcott continued to write juvenile fiction during her later years, although her productivity sharply declined as a result of her ailing health. In addition to writing, she devoted her last years to the care of her father and her young niece Lulu, whose mother (Alcott's sister May) had died as a result of complications in childbirth.

Major Works

A prominent theme in much of Alcott's fiction is the conflict experienced by women who must choose between individuality and the bonds of family responsibilities and social traditions. The heroine of Little Women, for example, is a rebellious young woman who strives for independence and personal achievement as a writer, but ultimately modifies her dreams when she gets married—a fact that has caused this novel to be regarded as antifeminist by some critics. Others, however, have interpreted the plot as Alcott's argument for a woman's right to both family and individual achievement, and argue that her depiction of a home dominated by strong female characters suggests her advocation of equality for women in American society at large. Widely considered the most overtly feminist of Alcott's novels, Work has been interpreted as a more subversive exploration of the same conflicts and ideas that Alcott had previously explored in Little Women. The novel chronicles the diverse experiences of Christie Devon, who pursues economic independence through a variety of jobs traditionally assigned to women (servant, actress, governess, seamstress), returns to the more traditional values of domesticity and marriage, and ultimately embraces the new feminist movement. Despite its portrayal of women struggling to achieve an independent life in a world beyond the domestic sphere, Work has been faulted for an uneven plot and an ambivalent portrayal of its progressive motifs. Elaine Showalter comments: "Alcott is defeated by the very form of the sentimental novel, which could not be the instrument of a radical social critique." The Gothic novel, in contrast, provided the model for Alcott's earlier pseudonymous thrillers, many of which suggest feminist anger through their depiction of heroines who are driven by a passionate desire for revenge. Describing the protagonist of Alcott's thriller "Behind a Mask," Madeleine Stern comments: "[She is] a woman who, to achieve her ends, resorts to all sorts of coquetries and subterfuges including the feigning of an attempted suicide; a woman filled with anger directed principally against the male lords of creation."

Critical Reception

During her lifetime Alcott's spirited, wholesome stories for children were widely regarded as American classics. The early twentieth century, however, witnessed a decline in the critical assessment of Alcott's works, with some critics denouncing the moralizing tone of her fiction. Katharine Fullerton Gerould (1920), for example, called the March girls "underbred" and "unworldly," while Thomas Beer denounced Alcott's domestic realism as repressive and sentimental. Prior to critical evaluations of Alcott's work during the 1970s, the sentimental appeal of her domestic fiction was interpreted as an indication of Alcott's support for the prevailing ideology of separate spheres of social activity for men and women. With the rise of feminist criticism and women's studies, however, Alcott's works for both children and adults have been the subject of critical reexamination, with much discussion surrounding the nature of her views on the role of women in the family and society. The posthumous publication of the first volume of Alcott's thrillers in 1975 also contributed to a surge of scholarship focusing on Alcott's oeuvre, much of which has assumed a psychoanalytic approach. While some critics argue that the thrillers provided an outlet for Alcott's suppressed rage at the many restrictions she encountered in her life and her writing, others emphasize the purely financial aspects of her sensational stories, noting that Alcott's artistic goals were often compromised in an effort to please publishers and a popular audience. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser comments: "Some believe that anonymity [in Alcott's thrillers] permitted what acknowledged authorship, especially of books for children, did not—the revolutionary rage and rebellion necessary to produce compelling work. These scholars value her career primarily for what it tells us about the constraints operating upon talented, ambitious women, especially women artists, in nineteenth-century America. Others feel that anonymity encouraged self-indulgence and escapism or, at best, provided catharsis, whereas the extraordinarily popular and lucrative children's fiction, if not great literature, enabled Alcott to promote reform and even envision a Utopian society."


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Flower Fables (fairy tales) 1855

Hospital Sketches (letters and sketches) 1863

Moods (novel) 1864; revised edition, 1882

On Picket Duty, and Other Tales (short stories) 1864

The Rose Family. A Fairy Tale (fiction) 1864

Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy 2 vols. (novel) 1868-69; also published as Little Women and Good Wives, 1871

An Old-fashioned Girl (novel) 1870

Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (novel) 1871

Transcendental Wild Oats (memoir) 1872

Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag. 6 vols. (short stories) 1872-82

Work: A Story of Experience (novel) 1873

Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (novel) 1875

Rose in Bloom. A Sequel to "Eight Cousins" (novel) 1876

A Modern Mephistopheles (novel) 1877

Under the Lilacs (novel) 1878

Diana and Persis (unfinished novel) 1879

Jack and Jill: A Village Story (novel) 1880

Proverb Stories (short stories) 1882

Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (novel) 1886

A Whisperer in the Dark (novel) 1888

Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (letters and journals) 1889

Comic Tragedies (drama) 1893

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1975

Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1976

A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1986

The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (letters) 1995

A Long Fatal Love Chase (novel) 1995

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Little Women: Alcott's Civil War," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 369-83.

[In the following essay, Fetterley argues that Little Women reveals stylistic and thematic compromises that were made by Alcott in deference to prevailing social opinions of the time and the preferences of her publisher.]

When, toward the end of Little Women, Jo finds her "true style at last," her father blesses her with the prospect of inner peace and an end to all ambivalence: "You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best and grow as happy as we are in your success." And Alcott adds her benediction: "So, taught by love...

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Jean Fagan Yellin (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Success to Experience: Louisa May Alcott's Work," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXI, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 527-39.

[In the following essay, Yellin argues that Alcott's feminist concerns are revealed in her novel Work, which is distinguished from other nineteenth-century novels "in proposing that women extend their actions into the public sphere."]

From Hawthorne's Zenobia to Chopin's Edna, in nineteenth-century American fiction female characters who stray beyond the domestic sphere end their lives as suicides. This literature was written while feminists were emerging into the public arena demanding economic, social,...

(The entire section is 5389 words.)

Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Female Stories of Experience: Alcott's Little Women in Light of Work," in The Voyage in Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsh, and Elizabeth Langland, University Press of New England, 1983, pp. 112-27.

[In the following essay, Langland offers a comparative discussion of Little Women and Work, arguing that "the developmental pattern expressed in Work is central to understanding key tensions in Little Women. "]

"I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful and pleasant lives. . . . To be loved and chosen by a...

(The entire section is 7099 words.)

Sarah Elbert (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Moods," in A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, Temple University Press, 1984, pp. 102-18.

[In the following chapter from a critical study of Alcott, Elbert examines how Alcott's novel Moods examines social and moral questions associated with relationships between the sexes.]

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be so many coloured lenses, which paint the world their own hue and each shows us only what lies in its own focus.

R. W. Emerson, "Experience, " 1844-45

In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed...

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Karen Halttunen (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott," in Feminist Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 233-54.

[In the following essay, a version of which was presented at the National Women's Studies Association Conference in May, 1980, Halttunen examines the role of the "parlor theatrical" in Alcott's fiction, noting that the popularity of this dramatic form reflected idealized conceptions of the role of the family during the Victorian era.]

From the opening scene of Little Women when the four March sisters rehearse Jo's play, "The Witch's Curse, An Operatic Tragedy," to the closing lines of Jo's Boys—"let the music stop, the lights...

(The entire section is 9268 words.)

Madeleine B. Stern (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louisa Alcott's Self-Criticism," in Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson, University Press of Virginia, 1985, pp. 333-43.

[In the following essay, Stern examines Alcott's artistic development throughout her career, focusing in particular on the author's approach to both the craft and the business of fiction writing.]

The self-portrait of a writer is a comparatively rare phenomenon; yet, to the literary critic, it provides insights available nowhere else. Unlike most major—or minor—writers, Louisa May Alcott had few illusions about herself, and when she wrote about the development of her own craft she wore no rose-colored glasses. Her...

(The entire section is 5285 words.)

Ann B. Murphy (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women," in Signs, Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 562-85.

[In the following essay, Murphy examines critical debate surrounding the question of Little Women's status as a feminist novel. She argues that the power of the work is largely derived "from the contradictions and tensions it exposes and from the pattern it establishes of subversive feminist exploration colliding repeatedly against patriarchal repression. "]

Twenty years of scholarship about Louisa May Alcott's most famous and enduring work, Little Women, testifies to the complicated process of...

(The entire section is 9873 words.)

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Little Women: The American Female Myth," in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, pp. 42-64.

[In the following chapter from a critical study of American women's writing, Showalter considers the reasons for the sustained popularity of Alcott's Little Women among American female readers of diverse backgrounds.]

In the eyes of many readers and critics, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) is 'the American female myth,' and Alcott's heroine Jo March has become the most influential figure of the independent and creative American woman.1 Ardent testimonials to...

(The entire section is 9645 words.)

Elizabeth Lennox Keyser (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Second Sex: Behind a Mask or a Woman's Power," in Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott, University of Tennessee Press, 1993, pp. 46-57.

[In the following chapter from a critical study of Alcott's fiction, Keyser offers an analysis of Behind a Mask, considering the work in the context of the "Victorian Cult of True Womanhood. "]

Woman plays the part of those secret agents who are left to the firing squad if they get caught, and are loaded with rewards if they succeed; it is for her to shoulder all man's immorality: not the prostitute only, but all women who serve as sewer to the shining, wholesome edifice...

(The entire section is 5741 words.)

Mary Rigsby (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'So Like Women!': Louisa May Alcott's Work and the Ideology of Relations," in Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901, edited by Sharon M. Harris, University of Tennessee Press, 1995, pp. 109-27.

[In the following essay, Rigsby emphasizes the political significance of Alcott's Work, arguing that the novel reveals Alcott's affiliation with "feminist transcendentalism " through a subversion of "powerful patriarchal images and narrative patterns. "]

Critical reassessments of Louisa May Alcott's writings have proliferated in recent years, but the political nature of her fiction has yet to be explored in its complexity. In her novel...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Payne, Alma J. Louisa May Alcott: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 87 p.

Comprehensive bibliography of secondary sources on Alcott.


Anthony, Katharine. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938, 315 p.

Questions the morality and upbringing of the Alcott family. Anthony's position has been disputed, most notably by Odell Shepard, who believes that Anthony's conjectures are not based on solid evidence.

Bedell, Madelon. The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. New York:...

(The entire section is 993 words.)