Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues17-3Introduction: Louisa May Alcott, ...

Abstract

Louisa May Alcott wrote about love in one form or another for most of her life. She considered its potential to ennoble as well as to deform. She explored its expression between heterosexuals and same sex couples, boys and girls, parents and children. She considered the disguises lovers might adopt as well as their blind spots. She struggled to define a love that diminished neither partner and that morally improved each, as well as the world they inhabited. Over time, she came to see sacrifice as essential to the kind of love she thought true.

Alcott, love, marriage, sacrifice, compensation

Top of page

Full text

1The stories and novels of Louisa May Alcott portray love in many combinations, guises, and degrees of ambiguity: love between friends, siblings, parents and children, guardians and orphans, men and women, as well as between cross-dressed people. Alcott’s preoccupation with love, its variations, disappointments, demands, and distortions offers a dynamic point of entry into her work. The essays in this collection point readers to paths for understanding some of the complexities of Alcott’s understanding of love in its numerous and often conflicted manifestations.

2Before considering Alcott’s literary explorations of love, it is useful to look at how she herself came to learn about love as a growing girl, as those experiences would inevitably shape her depictions of love in her fictional characters. Her lengthening years and broadening experiences would seem to have expanded her understanding of love’s possibilities, but some early lessons about love would accompany her throughout her life.

3Primary among these lessons were those learned from her parents, Bronson and Abigail May Alcott’s troubled marriage and the author’s extraordinarily close bond with her unhappy mother. This configuration made painful sacrifice central to the writer’s understanding of marriage for women. As a young woman and a writer, Alcott saw heterosexual love for women as a danger, exposing them to the possibility of helpless suffering from economic and emotional dependence on a thoughtless, improvident, or cruel man. Alcott prevented this eventuality by having her fictional characters lose or sacrifice even appealing men.

4While Alcott placed individual moral growth (or failure) at the center of her tales, she never lost sight of the significance of economic security in marriage. Her mother’s sorrows, while broadly a result of patriarchal laws and traditions, derived particularly from her husband’s refusal to provide for her and her children. Alcott never forgot that underfunded love caused misery. As Alcott matured, particularly after her experience as a nurse in the Civil War, her observations of men and women broadened, and she began to imagine married love as lives of mutual moral benefit. It is possible that in these fictional marriages like that in Rose in Bloom, Alcott was acceding to public pressure in marrying off some of her women characters. Whatever her reasons: a lessening of her opposition to marriage or a desire to please her readers, she put her imaginary young women and men through lengthy tutorials on patience and sacrifice that she believed marriage required before permitting them to unite.

5Returning to Alcott’s early experiences, Louisa’s mother embodied love for her daughter. In an age when society ascribed widely different abilities and areas of competence to men and women, close ties between mothers and daughters, or sisters, were not unusual; but those between Abigail Alcott and Louisa were uniquely close and freighted with meaning beyond affection. Almost from her birth, Louisa’s father identified her negatively with her mother, in looks and temperament. Bronson found mother and daughter’s dark complexions and what he saw as their willfulness, alien and displeasing. For Abigail, their similarities would be her solace, and she tightened her protective, emotional knot with Louisa over the years, even as Bronson disparaged their likenesses.

6Security and stability that help parents give calm and focused affection, were in short supply in Louisa’s earliest months, and indeed, throughout her youth. Louisa, the Alcott’s second child, came into the family as Abigail was suffering from depression and exhaustion—she was caring for her first child, Anna, as well as the children who boarded at her husband, Bronson’s school. The school was in the process of failing. This meant more debts piled on top of the many that Bronson had already incurred. The birth was difficult, and Abigail had a hard time nursing Louisa.

7These problems were distressing, but what made them probably harder were rapidly changing ideas about childrearing. Mothering in the 18th century, which historians call “extensive,” was designed to protect a child’s physical safety and health, and train him or her as early as possible to adult responsibilities and activities. The 19th century saw a new kind of childrearing—a change that happened unevenly and not completely—but a change with the Alcotts and their idealistic colleagues at the vanguard. “Intensive mothering” first developed in Quaker families and then took hold in nonagricultural families, where the father was likely to be away at work during the day. A mother’s focus in addition to physical safety was to establish a psychological and moral connection with the infant, which would ideally transmit contentedness and purity and benefit the child’s moral and emotional capacities throughout its life. This presumed the time, attention, patience, and purity of a devoted mother as well as a relatively isolated nuclear family with few of the dependents, apprentices, and hired hands typical of eighteenth-century families.

  • 1 Throughout I have relied on my Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography (1977; 1995).

8A year before Louisa was born, Abigail’s longtime friend and fellow abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child had published The Mother’s Book, a guide to raising children the new way, in which she warned about the emotional fragility of infants. “It is important that children, even when babes, should never be spectators of anger, or any evil passion.” She went on, “Children have died under convulsions in consequence of nursing a mother, while under the indulgence of violent passion or emotion; and who can tell how much of moral evil may be traced to the states of mind indulged by a mother, while tending the precious little being, who receives everything from her?” (Child 3-4). Later, when Abigail would have a stillborn son, Bronson wrote of her “So a mother, in a fit of rage, poisons the fountain at which the child draws sustenance and he dies, slain by her choler” (LaPlante 87).1 These ideas, professed by Abigail’s intimates, must have terrified the exhausted and distressed mother. Abigail was trapped in a difficult marriage and without adequate help. She was often uncontrollably upset and angry at her circumstances and on top of that, frightened by the idea that her feelings could damage her newborn.

9Thus, Louisa entered life as the child of a mother whose husband’s self-centeredness at times drove her to rage and despair and who feared the effects of her own strong feelings on her children. After Bronson’s school closed, he decided to take a room near the library in downtown Philadelphia to read philosophy and write in his journals, which would eventually number eighty-eight, some of them more than 1000 pages long. Abigail wished the family to be together, but Bronson argued it was better for the children to stay in the countryside where the school had been. For some eighteen months, he visited on weekends. Abigail found him “unkind, indifferent, and, improvident” (LaPlante 67). Bronson admitted to himself that he was a negligent husband and father and that his family suffered, but he couldn’t sympathize with their problems because he had to “find the truths of my own nature.” Using the imperative voice—he wrote, prophetically, in his journal, “Sacrifices must be made” (220). He continued—for the rest of his life-- to go and come, according to his search for himself, and to spend money while refusing to earn it.

10Abigail’s extraordinarily close relationship to Louisa throughout their lives contained the strong psychological current that Lydia Child had described. Abigail tried to use the bond she cultivated with Louisa to help, guide, and strengthen her. When Louisa was nine, Abigail suggested that her daughter read her journals. Louisa began doing this during perhaps the most frightening year of her life—the year when her father returned home from England with some reformers who worked to isolate him from his wife and family. He and Abigail fought so intensely that they frightened the children and separated for a while. Torn and paralyzed by conflicting desires, Bronson literally turned his face to the wall and refused to eat. Abigail found a place to stay for herself and the children while Bronson’s friends decamped, and he nursed his wounds.

11Louisa, child-witness to her parents’ bouts of bitter alienation, began to read her mother’s journals at the same time that she began writing her own—which her mother—and father—would read and comment on. She continued to read her mother’s journals as an adolescent and adult.

12At nine Louisa was not old enough to fully understand her parents’ antagonisms, but they had to frighten and tear at her. Her fear and distress occurred without the filters that age, intellect, and experience bring. Abigail inevitably mixed her own desires, sorrows, and grievances with her guidance of Louisa, leaving the immature girl the anxious repository of adult information and feelings that gave her direction but also could overwhelm her.

13As Louisa grew, Abigail continued to share her journals with her daughter, instilling her passionate frustrations and dramatic rhetoric deep in Louisa’s imagination. Abigail’s central understanding of marriage was that women live wholly for love, for which they sacrifice their personal desires, while men live for their ideas and only occasionally turn their attention to the women who give up so much for them. She transmitted this appraisal of heterosexual love to Louisa early on.

14Abigail’s transmission of her passionate point of view and emotive style informed Louisa’s understanding of their family as well as her creative imagination. But it also deformed or rather, in sense, colonized it. Abigail’s investment in Louisa’s writing was enormous. And Louisa’s ambition to write was strongly over determined.

15Abigail was often depressed in response to the chaos and destitution Bronson created. This was hard on her, of course, and on her children. And depression’s companion, anger, accompanied her. In Little Women, Marmee famously says that she is angry every day and tries not to show it. But Lydia Maria Child observed that, “It is not possible to indulge anger, or any other wrong feeling, and conceal it entirely” (Child 4). Her occasional eruptions of that anger provoked Bronson’s recriminations, which in turn, made her feel guilt.

16Even after years of marital distress, Bronson was usually able to persuade Abigail to revisit the hopes she had when she had married him—that his was the moral high ground and that his ideas and thinking were of universal significance. She had believed this when her beloved brother had introduced them years before. Her plan had been to learn to be a better person from Bronson. She clung to that ideal in the face of overwhelming evidence that Alcott would offer her no support and only intermittent respect.

17Given the polarized gender expectations of the time and Abigail’s own desire to prove to the world and her birth family and friends that she had been right in marrying this philosopher, she was often able to convince herself that drudgery and sustaining her husband and children was the pilgrim’s path to a high moral state. She worked to believe that it was good for her moral condition to try to accept—as uncomplainingly as she could—the difficulties that Bronson’s choices forced on her. She tried to achieve cheerful selflessness to merit her husband’s approval and to improve her own, allegedly defective character. As Abigail apparently believed in Bronson’s goodness so, too, did Louisa give it credence.

18Bronson’s expressly conditional affection for his daughter came and went. When she was an infant, he studied her, experimenting to see how much self-control she had. He singled her out as the noisy and disobedient sister. During one of Abigail’s many pregnancies, he sent seven-year-old Louisa away, allowing Anna and Elizabeth to remain. He kept her distant for two months despite her misery and pleas to come home. Although he could be affectionate, she often simply seems to have bothered him. He compared her unfavorably to Anna who he thought was much more like him—calm, quiet, and who put up no resistance to his demands. Bronson’s frequent punishments and rejections of Louisa proved to her that there were unlovable streaks in her.

19The guilt these bad feelings induced made her acquiesce in a sense of herself as morally stunted—like her mother. Because Abigail usually concurred with Bronson’s assessment of himself as pure and good, she implicitly sanctioned his judgments of Louisa, even as Abigail’s struggles with Bronson opened a secret window to Louisa’s resistance. Abigail’s official understanding of her marriage was that she needed to subdue her angry feelings and try to learn through sacrifice how to achieve a higher moral plane. This became Louisa’s dominant narrative of her own struggles, although there would be others, less morally edifying.

20Love to the young Louisa meant sustaining and holding tight to her mother. Louisa took Bronson’s refusal to support his wife and family as a personal challenge for her to supply their needs. This commitment demanded from her a lifetime of sacrifice and self-abnegation. Abigail, in return, offered affection, gratitude, and praise for her daughter’s talent.

21Which brings us to the kind of love that underlay her emotional development. Her mother’s love was at once intimate and nurturing but also—to use a harsh word-- parasitic. Louisa’s bond with her mother was lifelong and sacrosanct, but onerous. Louisa’s love for her mother was inseparable from her commitment to support her and the family. Abigail increasingly expected Louisa to fill the vacuum of responsibility that Bronson had left. Abigail had given Louisa the love and what little security she experienced as a child. This primary love felt intense, essential and at times, no doubt, suffocating.

22Bronson’s love for young Louisa gave her little security or sense of wellbeing and happiness. It was challenging, conditional, and laced with disapproval. As a child she had difficulty pleasing him. The feelings Bronson generated in Louisa produced conflict, confusion, and sometimes anger.

23Louisa Alcott’s interest in love charged her work, but its satisfactions eluded her. Enforced generosity and going without figured importantly in Louisa’s life and in her ideas about love. In her writing, she incorporated this inheritance by devising a romantic curriculum for her characters that emphasized patience, acceptance of loss, ferreting out and exterminating jealousies and selfishness and learning to find one’s satisfaction in giving to others. A small selection of her works, from early to late suggest an increasing willingness, if not exactly enthusiasm, in Alcott to direct her heroines to marriage. Over time, she seems to have come to recognize more clearly what many women seemed to hope for in marriage, even if she herself did not.

24“The Cross on the Church Tower” is dated 1857 and has the immaturity and programmatic quality of a very early effort. A young man and aspiring writer wonders at the sweet resignation of a dying boy who lies in bed in a garret all day, enjoying his views of the sky and the bell tower nearby, while his sister is away working. From this child, the author labors to learn acceptance of loss and the joy of giving to others. Demonstrating his mastery of the boy’s quiet teaching, the writer uses the first money he earns with his pen to finance the sister’s marriage to her long absent fiancée, although he had hoped to marry her himself. He sacrifices his own hopes for love, earning instead financial independence and a solitary, but useful life. Thematically consistent with Jo March’s famous sacrifice of Laurie, the author in this tale is a man whose sensitivity and choice of the lonely satisfactions of sacrifice over the warmer satisfactions of love betray what Alcott would describe elsewhere as his “womanly” heart. This stark representation of love’s commandments in Alcott’s story seems uncomplicated by her later experiences of life and broadening understanding of affection.

25Alcott’s experience of paternal love was remarkably patriarchal, despite her father’s refusal to be a conventional patriarch. Although he depended economically on his wife and others, Bronson’s moral authority, which his wife upheld, underlay his psychological power over Louisa. While Alcott paid rhetorical homage to him in her acknowledged writings. Her pseudonymous stories laid open her convictions about the widespread emotional damage of patriarchy. Unable to include Bronson in most of her acknowledged work, Louisa looked at the costs of her father’s rigidity and inability to accept the kind of child she had been in her pseudonymous stories.

26In these tales of the 1860s, Alcott doled out loss and pain liberally, and did not disguise the anger and misery that accompanied them. Moral lessons and patient resignation recede in importance behind exciting and improbable plot twists. In A Marble Woman (1865), a suddenly orphaned girl is given to a forbidding artist as her guardian. Little Cecilia quickly learns to deny all spontaneity and any desires for affection or play, to suit the man she comes to call “Master.” She also has to suppress her gender as her guardian changes her name to Cecil. As the title implies, she must turn herself into one of his silent, unfeeling sculptures. As her physical and emotional development brings her to young womanhood, the burden of self-suppression on her becomes heavier, and she turns to opium for help. Alcott allows Cecelia the revenge of punishing Master with his own growing love and jealousy of her. But bowing to the convention of women’s redemptive love, Cecelia, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, receives her ambiguous prize: the love of Master. She will spend her life with the man who had been so embittered by the losing Cecelia’s mother to another man that he tried, emotionally and sexually, to suffocate her daughter for more than a decade.

27As many have noted, the Civil War initiated a turning point in Louisa’s productivity and in her maturity as a writer. Alcott served very briefly, of course, but her nursing life literally altered her life. She had been out of Concord –metaphorically—before, but she had never declared her independence from her family. In going to nurse, she adopted an indisputably greater cause than tending to her families’ needs and desires. That act in itself had to have reordered her lifelong priorities and dislodged her long-held assumptions about what was and was not possible.

28The violence, misery, and suffering that she encountered were new, shocking, and without parallel for her. Surrounded by wounded and dying soldiers and caring most intimately for wracked male bodies, she immersed herself in new feelings, fears, and sympathies. Lives were at stake, but without the psychological burdens of family relationships.

29In Hospital Sketches, she tends to assimilate the men she admires under the heading of “womanly,” and surely, in this apparently most masculine of environments, familiar gender stereotypes had little relevance. First of all, she was acting as nurse—something only men [and nuns] had previously been allowed to do publicly. But beyond that, many of the men she tended were incapable of performing their gender; they were confused, terrified, legless, armless, and/or delirious. Some were sweet and uncomplaining; some were overcome with grief and wept. They did not conform to her ideas about how men normally behaved. They had made extraordinary sacrifices, rather than asking others to accommodate their desires. When she herself became ill, her fever, and experiences with mercury and laudanum put her into an unearthly, liminal state for a while, as she dreamed and tried to absorb what she had felt and seen.

30She never fully recovered physically. And she could never unsee what she had seen in the hospital. The Civil War stayed on with her, as did a modicum of the independence she had asserted at such great cost to herself. The family needs and dynamics remained the same, but the misery she had witnessed had to have dwarfed her own. It did not extinguish it, but reframed it in the perspective of massive, national upheaval, huge and widespread personal sacrifices, and inconceivable suffering. It seems to have allowed her to use her own family material, less shadowed by her own personal of pain. Not that she became happier, but that she had satisfaction from participating however briefly, in the War, and it gave her pride, confidence, and a shared identity beyond—and exclusive of—her family.

31Julian Hawthorne wrote about seeing her greet a group of returning veterans in July of 1865 with lemonade and cake. She was thin and unwell but spent her energy talking to the enlisted men-not the officers. Hawthorne wrote, “She was far away in the battlefields and in the hospitals amid the wounded and dying, a kind of grandeur invested her simple, familiar figure” (LaPlante 220).

32Alcott’s account of her experiences nursing in a Union hospital in Washington, brought her familiar, humorous, protestant sensibility to the wounded men she had nursed and the men and women with whom she had worked. While the tone was familiar and personal, the framework was national. The work records her engagement with the most important event of the 19th century in the U.S. In its aftermath, although never healthy again, she would be buoyed by her brief but heroic work, her independence from the family and its troubles, and her widened perspective in which to frame the themes that were familiar and significant to her.

33In Work, an episodic novel that Alcott began before the Civil War and finished in 1873, she elaborated her notions of patiently waiting for love or peace of mind, of taming the self and its unruly desires, and of loss as the indispensable teacher. Christie, an orphan like Cecilia, leaves her home preferring independence to her uncle’s grudging support or marrying a boring farmer. She works as a maid, actress, nanny, and seamstress. In time, poverty, overwork, isolation, and ill health overwhelm her, and bring her to suicide. Rescued, she falls in love with David who tends flowers and a secret unhappiness. Christie waits for this brooding and purposeless man who may never recognize or return her silent affection. After intensely examining her motives, she turns down the temptation of marriage to a rich but morally immature suitor. David finally finds his life’s meaning by enlisting in the Union Army. He marries Christie, who becomes a Union nurse, but he dies in battle not long afterwards. In her despair she finds that, “while serving others, she was earning this reward; for when her life seemed to lie in ashes, from their midst, this slender spire of flame, purifying while it burned, rose trembling toward heaven; showing her how great sacrifices turn to greater compensations; giving her light, warmth, and consolation, and teaching her the lesson all must learn” (Work 411). Christie tastes love only to lose it; but her reward for years of caring for others and the acceptance of David’s death is a sustaining belief in the rightness of her continued work to promote philanthropy.

34The release and freedom her grand sacrifice had given her diminished over time. Pain and ill health undermined her; she continued to feel responsible for her mother and the rest of the family’s needs. Her pursuit of money through moralistic stories for the young could feel like a dreadful trap. And while some of her later writing seems to be more dutiful than inspired, her perspective had broadened and included more of humanity after the War. She entertained the possibility of relatively egalitarian and mutually beneficial marriages. She acknowledged in her later writing some positive changes resulting from the first wave of feminism. And she could envision a future in which class and racial differences among women might be bridged—with women like her from genteel backgrounds and a knowledge of poverty might do the bridging.

35By 1878, Alcott permits her Rose, in Rose in Bloom, to love and be loved. Rose is yet another orphan, but one with a loving uncle, aunts, great aunts, and seven cousins, who all treasure her. She is also, importantly, blessed by a large fortune. Given her own relative, good luck in affection and money, she must learn to understand love as moral improvement. She learns generosity and equality from the scullery girl who works in her great aunt’s kitchen and becomes a talented singer. She learns she must not make the false, vain, and ultimately selfish sacrifice of marrying her handsome cousin (and ardent suitor) to save him from his alcoholism. Rose must subdue her vanities and exhaust her youthful interest in the social whirl of her companions. Finally, she must start to practice disposing of her fortune through intelligent philanthropy. After taking these steps, she has evolved sufficiently to appreciate her bookworm cousin Mac’s intelligence, literary genius, and high moral purposes. Alcott implies that their marriage will achieve her inherited ideals for mutual moral betterment without the inequality and want that accompanied her parents’ union. Rose’s fortune is not incidental to Alcott’s optimism for them. Alcott’s description of wholesome, high-minded, slow-building, affection between a man and a woman represents a shift from her earlier tendency to avoid committing her heroines to marriage.

36Over the years in her work, she imagined preparatory steps to mature love that included critical self-understanding, an ability uncomplainingly to accept loss, and a commitment to moral growth that included service to others. Once learnt, these lessons could shield against unnecessary hurt and sustain mutual affection and respect. Although she apparently had no experience of the kind of love she described in her later works and avoided it for the majority of her heroines, she sometimes wrote about the possibility of enduring marital love as a rigorous but conceivable endeavor. But her lifelong preference, forged in her earliest years of poverty and distress, was for female characters to remain single, to become independent, and to lead useful lives.

Top of page

Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. “The Cross on the Church Tower. Saturday Evening Gazette, January 24, 1857. Rpt. as “The Cross on the Old Church Tower. On Picket Duty and Other Tales. James Redpath, 1863, and in The Early Stories of Louisa May Alcott. 1852-1860, edited by Monika Elbert, Ironweed, 2000, pp. 208-24.

---. Hospital Sketches. Harvard UP, 1960.

---. Work. A Story of Experience, edited by Sarah Elbert, Schocken, 1977.

---. Rose in Bloom. Roberts, 1876.

---. “A Marble Woman.” Plots and Counterplots, edited by Madeleine B. Stern, Little Brown, 1977.

Child, Lydia Maria. The Mother’s Book. Carter, Hendee and Babcock, 1832.

Coontz, Stephanie. The Social Origins of Private Life. Verso, 1988.

LaPlante, Eva. Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

Levy, Barry. Quakers and the American Family: British Settlement in the Delaware Valley. Oxford UP, 1988.

Lewis, Jan. “Mother’s Love, The Construction of an Emotion in Nineteenth-Century America.” Mothers and Motherhood, Readings in American History, edited by Rima Apple and Janet Golden, Ohio State UP, 1997, pp. 52-71.

Saxton, Martha. Louisa May Alcott, a Modern Biography (1977). Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1995.

Top of page

Notes

1 Throughout I have relied on my Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography (1977; 1995).

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Martha Saxton, Introduction: Louisa May Alcott, Love LessonsEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 26 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18509; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18509

Top of page

About the author

Martha Saxton

Martha Saxton’s biography of Louisa May Alcott, first published in 1977, explored how historical circumstances and gender conventions shaped her life and work. These themes have been central to her work ever since: in graduate school in history (Ph.D. 1989) and later, in biographies (Mary Ball Washington, 2019 and currently the historian, Edward Gibbon), as well as in essays and in the broad study, Being Good, Women’s Moral Values in Early America (2003). 

By this author

Top of page

Copyright

CC-BY-NC-4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/

Top of page
  • Logo European Association for American Studies
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search