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Affective Deception: Experiencing Genderplay in Louisa May Alcott

Ralph J. Poole


The essay attempts to theorize affective responses to a selection of Louisa May Alcott’s texts. Little Men, Moods, “Enigmas ,” and “My Mysterious Mademoiselle” all feature scenes of cross-gender play and revolve around deception due to the play on stereotypical gender expectations. I am interested in how this deception affects the recipients, which includes besides the characters of the stories also the reader.

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1. Being Annoyed…

1I confess to always have been bored by Alcott’s supposed masterpiece Little Women. Having recently given her follow-up Little Men a go, thinking that her take on boys might be more stimulating for me so I perhaps could read it alongside James Baldwin’s marvelous and recently republished picture book Little Man Little Man (1976), which I am very fond of, I yet again resented what I felt to be an overly pedagogical narrative voice, lecturing me on how to properly behave—properly “manly” in this case—and become a “good” grown-up person. By all means, I am not a good person, when it comes to Alcott’s gender standards. These, alas, were my feelings of annoyance and defiance before I risked to doubt myself. Following Robyn Warhol’s admonition: “We talk so little about the affects reading generates in our bodies” (ix), I accepted the challenge and looked at another set of texts by Alcott, which indeed gave me a fresh start and an unexpected delight.

2Thus, in what follows, I want to theorize on (my) affective responses to Alcott’s texts and what kind of pleasures—or pain—they may cause. The set of texts I have chosen all revolve around deception due to the play on stereotypical gender expectations. Hence, I am not so much interested in the persons doing the deception, but in those recipients instead, who fall prey to such deception—and this includes besides the characters of the stories the reader, in this case myself. The texts I will be looking at are: Little Men (1871), Moods (1864), “Enigmas” (1864), and “My Mysterious Mademoiselle” (1869), all of which feature scenes of cross-gender play one way or another.

2. Reading with Feeling

3Speaking about the emotionality of texts, how they move us, generating effects, bodily sensations, Sara Ahmed points out that it is crucial to look at the ways texts name or perform emotions, how “[n]aming emotions often involves differentiating between the subject and object of feeling” (13), which in my case is myself feeling about a text but also a character’s feelings about another character. This naming emotions also entails the different ways that figures—figures of speech but also figures of characters—“get stuck together, and how sticking is dependent on past histories of association that often ‘work’ through concealment” (13). Along with Ahmed, I want to refocus not necessarily on any emotion as being “in” a particular text, but on the “effects of the very naming of emotions” (13). This naming obviously revolves around words, but not only. These words are not cut off from bodies, instead “the work of emotion involves the ‘sticking’ of signs to bodies” (13), shame, disgust, joy, desire, etc., these are words for feelings, stuck to objects of feelings, generating effects and yet more affects. According to Ahmed, feelings “move, stick, and slide. We move, stick, and slide with them” (14).

4I will focus on moments in texts of heightened affective charge, extra-ordinary moments that have “a sense of potential… in the play beyond the narrow confines of the self, something that baffles bare cognition, let alone full comprehension” (Ahern 8). As such, I look at the texts by Alcott I have chosen as coded texts in the sense that there are crucial but fleeting moments that cause—at least for me and in me—a heightened sense of affective charge, moments where I feel that there is a rupture, where time stands still offering a glimpse into a potential world-making. These are moments I perceive as significant because they activate “temporal maneuvers that would suspend the present and make possible a queer futurity” (Wan-Chuan Kao, qtd. in Ahern 11). According to Stephen Ahern, the vampire would be such a figure of affective becoming, where we sense a “deviation from an expected course of events that catch characters off guard” (Sodano, qtd. in Ahern 12). This suggests modes of experimental becoming that remain largely unsaid in words but are actualized in texts through different means: “If what matters is acknowledging not only bare matter but also the powerful potential of the immaterial… for the cultural or literary critic [what’s engaged is promise of] attunement to a feel, a tone, a mood” (Ahern 13). It takes a curious literary critic with a feel for special moods that she or he may perceive and decode. The figure I am after in Alcott’s texts, the figure that has triggered my curiosity and has given me surprising pleasure in reading these texts, is the boy in various forms of cross-gender play, particularly the cross-dresser. I am especially interested in the ways, adolescent masculinities—or to use Alcott’s term “little men”—serve as an experimental ground of genderplay. According to Barrie Thorne’s observations of girls’ and boys’ behavior in schools, adolescents “use the frame of play (‘we’re only playing’; ‘it’s all in fun’) as a guise for often serious, gender-related messages about sexuality” (5). Following this idea of performing genderplay with regard to Alcott’s cross-gender characters, I want to ask what strategies of disguise, deception, and revelation do these texts offer, how do these ‘little men’ affect the people they encounter, and how did I react to them as a reader?

3. Little Men: Dismissing the Sissy

5My first example is the aforementioned novel Little Men. At the very beginning, a character appears whose fate seems to be of particular interest—and I argue because of the genderplay he unknowingly performs—only to be more or less discarded and substituted by a different character, who from the start fulfills multiple gender-conforming manly stereotypes. Nat is an orphan, a talented street-musician, taken in by Jo and her husband Mr. Bhaer, and he is first described by highlighting his sensitivity as “a thin, pale boy of twelve, with blue eyes, and a good forehead under the rough, neglected hair; an anxious scared face… and a sensitive mouth” (13). While Nat initially raises Jo’s interest, it is, however, increasingly Mr. Bhaer who takes a particular liking to “the shy, feeble boy” (64) and treats him affectionately as if he was a girl: “Father Bhaer took real pleasure in fostering poor Nat’s virtues, and in curing his faults, finding his new pupil as docile and affectionate as a girl. He often called Nat his ‘daughter’ when speaking of him to Mrs Jo, and she used to laugh at his fancy, for Madame liked manly boys, and thought Nat amiable but weak” (65).

6In turn, Jo now also sees the girl in Nat, but considers this a weakness of character along with his proneness to telling grey lies, all of which she considers not right for “this queer world of ours” (65). Indeed, Jo more and more favors the manly boy Dan, whose face when compared to Nat’s is “square, and brown, and strong, while Nat’s was long, and fair, and rather weak, but very amiable with its mild eyes and good forehead” (196). Nat’s position in this small “queer” microcosm seems to steadily diminish while Dan’s strengthens, for example, when some problem about disappeared money arises and everybody suspects Nat as the culprit: “No one was glad to find that it was [Dan], not even Nat; for, spite of all his faults, and they were many, everyone liked Dan now, because under his rough exterior lay some of the manly virtues which we most admire and love” (275).

7Manly Dan pretends to be the troublemaker to put the spotlight off Nat, and when Nat finds out he feels “a strong desire to hug his friend and cry. Two girlish performances, which would have scandalized Dan to the last degree” (280). As it turns out, neither Nat nor Dan are guilty, and Dan’s willingness to stand by Nat leads Mr. Bhaer to praise their friendship in mythic terms: “Nat was devoted to Dan; and all the boys tried to atone to both for former suspicion and neglect. Mrs Jo rejoiced over her flock, and Mr Bhaer was never tired of telling the story of his young Damon and Pythias” (281).

8For me, however, this was the most striking and frustrating outcome of the development of a character I rooted for. I felt let down by what I perceived as an overly judgmental narrator who seems to leave no doubt and no space for wishing Nat to continue in his girlish ways, dismissing his gender performance—without saying as much—as sissy-like. My displeasure is in accordance with Michael Moon’s who speaks of the markedly homophobic consequences of the alleged liberal child education that the novel propagates. The way Nat is at first introduced into the narrative as a major concern but gradually fades into the background affirms the feeling I get that “Jo and, one suspects, the author soon discover that they don’t much like this difficult little boy,” since he all too obviously conforms to “a readily recognizable homophobic stereotype of a gay little boy…. Under [Jo’s] vigilant supervision the book is dedicated to working out what it represents as the necessary and fundamental difference between manly boys, like Dan, and girlish ones, like Nat” (Moon 211-212). Such homophobic persecution alongside the enforced construction of heterosexuality as “one of its chief disciplinary discourses for both children and adults” (215) in this novel is largely grounded on the regulative distribution of good proper ‘manly’ boys and bad scandalizing girlish boys without much—or indeed any—playful space of queer world-making other than an unmistakably heteronormative one.

9While I found a kindred—critical—spirit in Moon, his charging Alcott with homophobic sentiments can be contested, I have to admit. In a more sympathetic reading, for instance, Tracey Cummings likens Dan’s adolescent struggles to Jo’s and in extension to Alcott’s herself. Although not interested in the character of Nat, Cummings confirms that Dan was modeled on Thoreau and argues that “through the ‘wild’ Thoreauvian aspect of Dan, [Jo and Alcott] see hope for a release from the prison-like expectations placed upon their own behavior and their own writing. A contradiction exists between their own rebellious desire to allow Dan his wildness, even to celebrate it, and their need to, as school keeper and as children’s author, squelch it” (146). Cummings is not the only reader to liken the “queerness” of characters such as Dan to Alcott’s own ‘queerness’ (see, for example, Young 103-104). All in all, however, I share “the widespread critical disapproval of Jo’s metamorphosis into ‘Mother Bhaer’” (Soltysik Monnet 87), feeling that Jo’s feminization rubs off on her pedagogical agenda in Little Men, a novel arguably being “virtually obsessed with the inculcation of male self-discipline as supervised by women” (Young 102-103).

10Before turning to the two cross-dressing examples, which I find a lot more intriguingly transgressive than the all too guarded genderplay of Little Men, I want to take a glance at a significant scene from Alcott’s first novel Moods. I take this scene to serve as a transitional moment between what I continue to perceive as a blatant propagandizing of certain favored masculine stereotypes in Little Men and the more fluent and potentially subversive genderplay in my two last examples.

4. Moods: The American Girl as Moody Lad

11Alcott’s first novel, Moods (1864) introduces two of the three moody characters, Sylvia and Moor, through secret observations offering glimpses of trans-gendered behavior: first, Sylvia discovers Moor as “a man lying on the grass, with the gardener’s children rioting over him” (19). She was “thinking what friendly eyes he had, listening to his pleasant talk with the little folks, and watching how they nestled to him as if he were a girl” (19). Sylvia’s unabashed observations, the feminizing description of her gazed-upon object as well as her “stealing” a book from Moor leads her sister to admonish her about the “impropriety of such wild actions” (19-20). These events already suggest an inherent strand of non-conforming genderplay on Sylvia’s part, which then very shortly after will be confirmed by the second clandestine encounter of the two. Now, Moor sees a “lad,” a “slender boy” (20), doing garden work nearby: “Whistling softly he dug with active gestures… Moor smiled at his impetuosity… suspecting from appearances that this was some protégé of Mark’s employed as a model as well as gardener’s boy” (20-21). Eventually, however, Moor recognizes who this is, marvels at the “changeful” creature and wonders what is going to happen. The switch happens while he observes how the boy completes planting a shrub and performing

a little dance of triumph about it, at the close of which he pulled off his hat and began to fan his heated face. The action caused the observer to start and look again, thinking, as he recognized the energetic worker with a smile, ‘What a changeful thing it is! haunting one’s premises unseen, and stealing one’s books unsuspected; dreaming one half the day and masquerading the other half. What will happen next? Let us see but not be seen, lest the boy turn shy and run away before the pretty play is done!’ (21)

12Still continuing to secretly watch “him” (“Moor peeped through the semi-transparent screen, enjoying the little episode immensely” 21), Sylvia before his eyes transforms from boy to girl: “If she had seemed strong-armed and sturdy as a boy before, now she was tender fingered as a woman” (21). Moor is fascinated by Sylvia who seems to him “[n]ot like any other girl, I fancy” (21). If we disregard the comma, we come close to the truth that will unfold in the narrative: Sylvia indeed is like no other girl he has fancied, and I argue it is precisely by the nature of their respective genderplay that they are attracted to one another. Fatefully so, I need to add, because they will not stay united until the end since Sylvia has fallen in love with Warwick, Moor’s best friend. And while Warwick was modeled after Thoreau, thus implying that the truly gender-playful man of the novel is Warwick, Moor’s Emersonian-like character at least in the early stages of the novel sports a distinct homosocial if not homoerotic interest in the way he gazes on the young lad and interacts with Warwick. Importantly, I as a reader follow his invested gaze on an unknown lad whose female identity only becomes disclosed to me after it becomes obvious to Moor, who indeed continues to speculate about the observed object’s intention using the male pronoun. I am intrigued alongside Moor and even slightly beyond, the gap in disclosure pivotal as a moment of suspended potentiality. While Sylvia as the boy acts without shame, because she is unaware of being watched and thus has no inhibitions in her actions, Moor is shameless because he remains hidden from sight but also from his unacknowledged desire, a desire that can only be enjoyed by abnegation. Sylvia, we could speculate, is like no other girl he fancied, because she is no girl in the proper sense. This glimpse of a full-grown man who at times seems like a girl and of a young woman who at times seems like a lad makes for a tragic romance, they so clearly are mismatched in their respective genderplay, and yet the narrative forces them together until they ultimately go separate ways again.

13Alcott substantially revised the novel for the later 1882 edition. One of the revisions, as Sarah Elbert in her introduction to the novel points out, related to an understanding of Sylvia’s gender: “Sylvia is now firmly a young girl and not a disguised gardener’s lad when she is first observed by Geoffrey Moor, and Alcott, having made her fame and fortune with Little Women, can rely upon her own observation and experience with enormous self-confidence” (xxxvii). I pity this alteration and doubt the explanation. While I applaud Sylvia’s decision to leave her husband and an ill-chosen marriage, I am unhappy with the first version’s sentimental solution culminating in Sylvia’s death. Convention would have it that Sylvia is now considered a “fallen woman” and leading a single life seems out of the question. But I even more strongly dislike that the later more “modern” version has Sylvia remain alive and reunites with her husband, here agreeing with Elbert’s assessment that this ending “is still unsatisfactory to modern readers. Alcott’s brilliant depiction of romantic love and unequal marital roles was a genuine critique of patriarchal family life, but it nevertheless suggested that equality within marriage could be accomplished by self-discipline and good faith” (xxxvi).

14Both, Little Men and Moods offer significant episodes featuring experimental moments of genderplay only to ultimately discard their transgressive potential and to affirm traditional gender norms. Nat’s emerging sissyhood is truncated to accommodate Jo’s gendered pedagogical creed, and if I want to read Sylvia, as Elbert suggests, as “Alcott’s archetypal American Girl” (xl), I would have preferred her to remain more adventurous in her fluid genderplay.

5. “Enigmas”: Feeling Like One in Fairyland

15The story “Enigmas” was published in the same year as Moods, and continues the quest into genderplay, if in a much more pronounced and progressive manner. This is a first-person narrative with a scrivener, Clyde, being doubly hired, first by an elderly gentleman as a secret investigator spying on his second employer, the young Noel, who hires him to copy texts. It turns out that Noel is a woman, who cross-dresses for political reasons: he is an Italian fugitive hiding in England. Daniela Daniele in the afterword to the bilingual edition of the story has pointed to the importance of “the Risorgimental political focus of the narrative” (130) with two Italian young female protagonists in disguise—one as a young gentleman, the other as an elderly lady—being exiled to England to await their father’s release from prison as a political instigator. Taking a different—differently affective—approach to the text, I will leave the political angle aside. What interests me is the way in which I as reader am forced to follow the narrator’s increasing obsession with Noel. The constellation—a male narrator secretly spies on a male object and involuntarily feels attracted to him—could make for erotic potentials beyond the hetero norm. And indeed, there are moments where Clyde’s feelings of doing something “dishonorable” (14) “mysterious” (14) and “alluring” (66), namely his detective work, mirrors his irritation when trying to account for his feelings about Noel.

16His first description is that of a “lad” who looked eighteen at first and then “some years older” (22). At once, he perceives Noel to be “[e]very inch a gentleman,” “slender and boyish in figure,” but “no boyish awkwardness” (22) in attitude. “Even his dress interested me, as if I were a woman” (22), Clyde writes in his diary adding that he “felt instinctively attracted and interested in the unconscious person whom I had been set to watch” (24). In no way distrusting Noel’s manliness, and thus disregarding clear signs to the contrary such as a “small foot” (22), Noel blushing “like a shy girl” (24), or the “feminine elegance” of Noel’s room with a basket containing needlework (38), Clyde rather feminizes his own feelings “as if I were a woman” (22) to rationalize his attraction. He even starts to blush himself, “a most unwonted manifestation” (28) pointing overtly to his “secret mission” (28) but also, I argue, to his secret feelings of attraction which he ambiguously describes, for example, as an “indefinable something which attracts one’s eyes” (34).

17The narrative continues to fool us alongside Clyde’s own deception, I—like Clyde—am led to believe that Noel “looked a lover” (44), i.e. that he is in love with an unknown woman hidden in the attic, and also, he “seems incapable of deceit” (52), although many strange things are going on in the house, raising Clyde’s interest, but not his suspicion. Again and again, Clyde deflects his rising desire, instead ruminating about “my own loveless life [that] has been so bare of romance I am ready to find interest and pleasure in another man’s experience, while the mystery which surrounds this strange youth and my relations with him make it doubly alluring” (44). A particularly revealing occasion is the scene at night where Clyde secretly looks into the attic window while hiding in a tree outside, seeing Noel and an unknown woman that Clyde takes to be Noel’s hidden beloved. He perceives them “both so young, so blithe and beautiful, so loving and beloved, so free and rich in all that makes life pleasant. I felt like one shut out from some sweet Paradise” (70). Still, he does not realize that these are two women, sisters in fact. Clyde also leads the reader to believe that while Noel clearly is in love with Clarice (the woman Clyde thinks is hidden in the house), he will marry a woman he does not love thus “doing violence to his own heart” (78). And yet, Clyde accedes “I wish that I, too, were a lover!” (78)—without claiming an object for his love, however. For me, Clyde’s silenced wish nevertheless is that he himself would like to be the object of Noel’s love, there is no hint that he would like to be Clarice’s lover instead of Noel.

18He continues to consistently belie his own perceptions, such as the certainty that Noel enters a loveless marriage only to then claim that it “is evident that he loves his wife passionately… I felt like one in fairyland” (84), marveling about “this enchanting and enchanted place” (88), admitting his “long[ing]” (84) and “desire” (86) without signifying for what exactly. His self-deception as well as deception of the reader, however, soon ends, when he finally realizes “with a shock or recognition… that Noel was a woman” (106). Clyde feels both “bewilderment and a strange satisfaction” (106), but this is not the end of deceptions and disclosures. While she—Noel now called Monica—admits her love for Clyde to her father, Clyde ambiguously states that now he “knew that the strange sentiment of affection, reverence and admiration I had felt for her when I believed her to be a singularly gifted and noble boy was suspected love” (118).

19Is he in love now and was not before? He writes to his first employer ending his detective mission, but Monica sees the letter while Clyde falls asleep, and leaves without a trace. Thus, the story ends with the deceptive genderplay at an end, mutual and legitimate love recognized, and our narrator luckless and alone after all. Not even his former employer can provide him with peace of mind since he suddenly dies taking the secret of the mission with him. It turns out the story is narrated from the distance of “all these weary years” (124) in which Clyde never could solve the enigmas, endlessly “pondering miserably” (124) over them instead. For me, questions arise, again, through the hints of possibilities and the moments of stillness. Clyde harbored a secret from the start, did he expect to keep that, thus prolonging the deception? It seems that the romance between Clyde and Noel could only last in its potentiality while both of them kept their respective deceptions, once revealed their love stood no chance.

20If, as Carolyn Kyler notes, Clyde is confused by Noel’s attraction and still remains confused in the end (“While Clyde is initially blind to Monica’s secret, he is not much more enlightened when he discovers it,” 241-2), I perceive his state of infatuation as a period of flourishing and being animated in contrast to his dismal state of being, which he is in both at the beginning and the end. And since this is a story relying on suspense, I am enticed to share Clyde’s thrilling nervousness. Suspense theorists such as Aaron Smuts argue that even though we might be certain that our desire for a specific ending might be frustrated and accordingly feel powerless to affect the narrative, we still feel the thrill: “Merely knowing more than a character does not create suspense, but when we know something that could help a character that we care about stay alive, and we are unable to relay the information, we feel suspense. Our desire to make use of the information is frustrated—that is, we want to help, but here is nothing we can do” (295).

21The moment, Clyde falls asleep on his incriminating letter, we can sense the danger but can do nothing. Daniele situates the story as a mixture of romance and detection within “the romantic turbulence which animated the Concord circle” around Alcott and suggests that “Enigmas testifies of this reforming modern spirit, and hints at pre-Freudian psychological insights which lead the narrating detective to the threshold of the unconscious. When he finally suspends his rational inquiry to find himself vulnerable to shadowy, ‘sudden impulses’ (8), the tale anticipates the noir style” (140). I fully agree; where I don’t agree is in the supposed “rational synthesis” (154) which supposedly culminates in the rejoicing of Clyde in the re-union of the family. This “domestic ‘tableau’” (154) is, after all, not the story’s end, but one of the moments—and not even the last—of suspension only to lead to an anticlimactic outcome.

6. “My Mysterious Mademoiselle”: Lascivious Gent and Naughty Boy

22Daniele has pointed to the queer implications that Alcott’s literary travesty games are filled with (Alcott “Enigmas / Enigmi” 136). I see those implications fully realized in the wonderful short story “My Mysterious Mademoiselle.” Another male first-person narrator, George Vane, who identifies himself as a 35-year old bachelor, a “big, black-bearded gentleman” (725) and “a true Englishman” (724), is summoned to visit his sister, with whom he has been estranged for years. He takes a night train when a girl joins him. He immediately is enamored by her beauty, but frustrated because the girl seems “timid,” “demure,” “anxious,” “wistful,” and “modest,” those are some of the adjectives used within the first two paragraphs of their meeting (725). Feigning sleep, he observes her, and immediately the descriptors to assess her shift to “coquettish” and “roguish” (725), suggesting either a change of his perception—a second glance, so to say—or a transformation in behavior on behalf of the girl who believes herself unobserved. In any case, there is something immoral and chauvinistic in the way he shamelessly observes her, first “assuming a paternal air” (726) but then admitting that “I forgot my years, and almost fancied myself an ardent lad again” (726). When an inspection of the train looms, he concedes to protect her, but not calling himself her father as she suggests. Instead, he poses as her husband to cover her identity, “taking a malicious satisfaction in disobeying the girl, for the idea of passing as her father disgusted me, and I preferred a more youthful title” (727). In return for her gratitude for his kindness, he claims “an English good-by,” meaning a “kiss on the lips” (729). With this deal and quite a bit of close-body contact, a border of propriety already has been crossed. He then falls asleep, wakes up in the darkness of a tunnel, and into the dark with bold mischief asks the girl: “Is she not afraid that I may demand payment now?,” and the foreboding answer accompanied by a laugh and the smell of cigarettes is: “Wait till the light comes, and if you deserve it then, you shall have it” (729).

23“[S]hoot[ing] out of the tunnel” is the phallic switch point of the story, leaving George “petrified with amazement” (729) and “tingl[ing] all over with a shock of surprise which almost took my breath away” (730), because “my pretty blond school-girl” has turned into “a handsome black-haired, mischievous lad” (729), de facto his supposedly dead nephew, George Vane Vandeleur. The story ends with a manly handshake in view of a family reunion, but only after several remarks on how “I lost my dignity for ever” (731) and having “recorded weaknesses enough already” (731).

24The story has largely gone unnoticed, but one critic, Mary Ruth Marotte, reacts to the male first-person narration as a reader “who witnesses the spiraling out of control of a man’s claim to power…. The narration, it seems, is the only thing that George has control over as he tells his story, since it becomes strikingly evident that he has no control over his desire” (37). Like Clyde of “Enigmas,” George seems to affect readers as a man sliding into a crisis of his sexual proclivities. The tunnel-scene above all can be perceived as (an attempt of) rape, with George taking advantage of the girl’s vulnerable position as a solitary traveler. His rude awakening to realize the girl’s true sex would then be a justified stab at his masculinity in crisis. This reader—I—has a very different reading experience. I love the way I am being fooled along with lascivious George, who shamelessly wants to take advantage of a flirtatious situation only to be exposed in his indecent desire by his naughty French nephew whose ruse is even more shameless through his performed cross-dressing genderplay. The source of the story’s humor—and it is the only story I perceive to be humorous in my small selection—lies in the clever use of multiple layers of deception that offer plenty of space for erotic potentials and queer speculations. The promised but aborted exchange of kisses—switching from the envisioned English mode of good-by with a “kiss on the lips” (729) to the realized French-style kissing on both cheeks and the final “hearty English welcome” of “manfully” (732) shaking hands—is both hilarious, playful, and momentous, fraught with sensual consequences crossing borders of nationality, age, and gender.

25The challenge for academic readers disposed to be affected by texts is to embark on a “’willful analysis’ of that which resists domestication in discourse… to keep the energy, the sense of promise, alive” (Ahern 9). This is about unearthing coded elements of the texts, to detect affect-triggers such as distress or joy “at the threshold between intuition and cognition” (Ahern 9) of a character as well as of a reader. In this sense, I have been looking for moments of affective excess, of heightened emotional intensity, extra-ordinary moments that punctuate the text, standstill moments that make me halt and feel... and consider—hence, intuition and cognition. In this way, I am thrilled by the way George is presented as an actor who is forced to feign emotions he does not feel and conceal those he does (Keyser 210). As Elizabeth Lennox Keyser asserts, “the story points to the fluidity of gender and the arbitrariness of gender roles” (210), but it does so using a plot structure that is based on suspense and humor, two highly effective artifices affecting readers and leaving them to wonder what really has and what might have happened, if only George was more reliable in his narration, more willing to disclose his secret fears and longings.

26My own desire to read Alcott affectively has evolved from “paranoid readings” of uncovering what’s lurking beneath—here Clyde’s and George’s unacknowledged homoerotic feelings turning to phobic reactions—towards what Eve Sedgwick has called a “reparative” mode of critique. Paranoia represents “a strong negative affect theory” (Sedgwick 145, original emphasis) and accordingly paranoid queer reading practices remain closely tied to homophobic notions of suspicion, exposure, and inevitability. My approach to Alcott’s Little Men remains stuck in such a paranoid paradigm, I am afraid. But in my affective readings of the onset of her first novel as well as of the chosen thriller stories, I am trying to take Alcott’s genderplay of deception and disclosure as instances of intensified energy providing a hopeful space “to realize that the future may be different from the present ,” but also – and crucially – that the past “could have happened differently from the way it actually did” (Sedgwick 146). I revel in imagining Sedgwick’s proposal to read with a feeling of “what might have happened but didn’t” (151, original emphasis). And thus, as I’ve tried to insinuate, such imaginative readings envision the “confusion” of Alcott’s male narrators as an entryway to different experiences not—yet—realized.

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Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Alcott, Louisa May. “Enigmas / Enigmi.” 1864. Trans. and edited by Daniela Daniele, Lit Edizioni, 2019.

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Electronic reference

Ralph J. Poole, “Affective Deception: Experiencing Genderplay in Louisa May Alcott”European journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 26 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ralph J. Poole

Ralph J. Poole is Professor of American Studies at the University of Salzburg and one of the founders of the European Study Group of 19th Century American Literature. He taught at the University of Munich, of Fatih in Istanbul and was a fellow at CUNY’s Center for Advanced Studies in Theater Arts. His publications include the The Politics of Gender in Early American Theater, edited with Leopold Lippert (Transcript 2021) and volumes on the Avant-Garde American Theater, on satirical autoethnographical “cannibal” texts, on “dangerous masculinities” and “queer Turkey.”

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