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“Love and Self-Love”: The Balance between Sympathy and Self-Respect in Louisa May Alcott’s Early Fiction

Asun López-Varela Azcárate


This paper explores one of the early short stories by Louisa May Alcott in order to offer an example of a problem that plagued women in 19th century America, wanting to thrive both in the domestic and in the public spheres. By focusing on “Love and Self-Love,” an early short story, the paper highlights one of the major concerns at the time of the emergence of the first proto-feminist movements: the balance between women’s inclination to sympathy for others and their own self-esteem. The plot revolves around self-respect and stages forms of female empowerment by using fiction as a form of education oriented towards creating awareness in the public sphere.

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1. Introduction

1“Love and Self-Love” is one of Louisa May Alcott’s first publications exploring women’s struggle for equal rights from an emotional point of view. The story appeared in March 1860 in The Atlantic Monthly, an achievement that “gave her the great satisfaction of having earned… support for her family” (76, 77, 105), writes Ednah Cheney, her first biographer. Although the financial difficulties of the family were evident, Alcott, like other authors of sentimental fiction, did not only use writing as a source of income. Her characters reflect the frustrations she encountered in her own journey towards personal and financial independence. Thus, her fiction can be read as staging the interplay between inner-life and family duties with the desire to become a community model and a bestselling author (Tonkovich; Baym 335). In turn, such public visibility may have helped shape, through the political endorsements appended to their works, what Jürgen Habermas has termed the “public sphere.” In Alcott’s early fiction, economic independence became the first step towards self-respect. When her career took off in the postbellum period, she became more preoccupied with a socially acceptable portrait as author, masking and positioning herself between the autobiographical and the fictional (Rostenberg 131-40; Laffrado 80).

2This personal shift is evident in her fiction, moving from the satisfaction of having secured her father’s recognition (Matteson 187, 355) to the display of female empowerment ambitions (Douglas 96). The fictional scenario in which female characters compete with their male counterparts for attention, love, status, and financial security is present in some of her early works, such as “Love and Self-Love.” As her arguments for female independence grew, Alcott chose to publish some of her more openly feminist works and sensational thrillers under pseudonyms. This minimized the risk of receiving negative criticism and of being labelled unwomanly and even immoral, since the portrayal of women as power seekers was socially unacceptable. (Warren 150, 152, 157). Indeed, “Alcott’s heroines often aspire to a home of some sort, but a home not dominated by male authority” (Butler 11), and a marriage that is based on egalitarian virtues and finances, as depicted in “Love and Self-Love.”

3Thus, this paper discusses the dilemmas Alcott may have faced when seeing herself as an independent as well as a self-sacrificing woman, determined to do anything to contribute to the persistently troubled situation of her family while fighting to preserve her personal ambitions. For years, she struggled to maintain both roles, as many women still try to do today. The paper also argues that the focus on the balance between sympathy (love for others) and self-respect in “Love and Self-Love” is a form of educational activism camouflaged as fiction, seeking to help male readers realize the unjust situations women faced. In line with some of her father’s aspirations, Alcott mobilized attributes of the sentimental novel toward pedagogical ends. Under the cover of sentimental domesticity, she opens avenues for the subtle subversion of gender restrictions.

2. Louisa’s Dilemma in “Love and Self-Love”: Self-worth or Self-sacrifice

4“Love and Self-Love” is set in Scotland and tells the story of the orphaned sixteen-year-old Effie who, rejected by her rich grandfather Adam Lyndsay, marries Basil Ventnor, a man twice her age. As Sarah Elbert tells us, “Louisa developed attractions for her own ‘older men’... above all for Thoreau and Emerson. They were safe objects for her adolescent fantasies, and later the father-lovers of her fiction” (76). Elbert also notes that the prescribed marital roles set out during the 18th century, clashed with the 19th century Romantic ideal of love. Sentimental novels began to introduce the topic of marriage for love through the figure of the mentor-lover, as in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre, one of Louisa May Alcott’s favorite novels (Journals 67-68). The mentor-lover model not only hides the sexual connotations of the marriage relationship, but it also focuses on patriarchal protection and on the superiority of the male over the young, orphaned female (Menon 2-3). Alcott’s preference for adult figures is also evident in her other works, as in chapter 4 of Hospital Sketches (1863). According to Martha Saxton, John Suhre’s imminent death in this episode justified Louisa’s sympathy “without censure, sexual consequences, or entanglement” (Saxton 246; see also Reisen 175).

5It might come as a surprise to the reader that Louisa situates the action of “Love and Self-Love” in Scotland. Several of her stories are set in Robert Burns’ land. The family name Alcott may have originated there (Bedell 6; see also Elbert 4). Louisa was fond of quoting Burns (Crawford 152-156), and the name Effie (from the Greek Euphemia meaning “auspicious speech”) was very popular in Scotland. In Alcott’s story, Basil takes over the narration, and the tale only allows Effie voice and visibility at the end.

6As in other sentimental fictions, the female characters in “Love and Self-Love” provide moral and educational guidance, first, by Effie’s dying guardian, Jean Burns, later by Effie herself. It would seem that Basil Ventnor is only allowed to narrate the story in the first person in order to show the lessons he learns. Basil has promised Effie’s guardian he will look after the young girl by marrying her. Although this may seem a nice action on Basil’s part, the reader is warned about his “usual forgetfulness of others” (299) and the fact the he sees himself as “a cold, selfish man, often gloomy, often stern,—a most unfit guardian for a tender creature like this little girl” (299). His thoughts about his prospective marriage to Effie turn upon his own desire for happiness. In contrast, Effie reacts by questioning her own worth: “I am not wise or good enough for that!” She only accepts the proposal because it is Jean’s dying wish, and tells Basil: “Sir, I will be your wife, and love you very truly all my life” (299).

7The story goes on to describe Effie’s positive influence upon Basil’s life. Although Effie develops great affection for Basil, he does not return her feelings and remains attracted to a previous love, Agnes Vaughan, now a widow who frequently visits them with her brother. Basil tells Effie “I wish my Scotch harebell to look lovely to this English rose” 302), and Effie’s selfless reaction is to “try to make myself fair with the gifts you are always heaping on me” (302). Obsessed with his idealized relationship with Agnes, the story persistently emphasizes Basil’s lack of attention for Effie and the fact that he “did not see the wrong then” (303).

8Basil’s self-love is so strong that the notion that Effie holds him in high esteem only serves to reinforce his ego: “Poor child! She will miss her friend and teacher, when I’m gone” (299). Basil’s egotistic attitudes seem to be somewhat justified through the mention of his fatherless and motherless upbringing. Thus, Alcott emphasizes that the family is fundamental in establishing an educational environment that stimulates all members to sympathize in feelings. Alcott had inherited these ideas from her father’s controversial Socratic pedagogy (Cheney 29; Peabody 29; Shepard xxv, 12; Strickland 6, 70; Halttunen 235). His belief in the pedagogical power of compelling narratives in the construction of the self and the recreation of affective relations deeply influenced her (Strickland 55-57). Teaching their daughters how to achieve moral perfection was a priority for Bronson Alcott and his wife (Cheney 29). Although the older sister “Anna lovingly obliged, little Louisa rebelled” (Seelye 163), even if “both displayed a keen sense of putting duty above pleasure, which was consistent with their father’s early stress on the importance of self-sacrifice” (Strickland 71).

9Louisa’s relationship with her father was not easy. He had wanted a boy when she was born (Barton 64; Reisen 7), and she resented the hard life he gave their mother (Cheney 62; Alcott, Journals 1989: 63), blaming him for the family’s economic burdens (Cheney 17; Dahlstrand 110; Elbert 79; Reisen 57; Journals 57; Letters 106). But Alcott also appreciated many things in her father, among them his strong beliefs on women’s rights and equality, his encouragement and support for her writing, helping her to find a publisher for her works (Cheney 89: Bedell 50-51). More importantly, his pedagogical method, similar to the forms of “conversational” journalism used by Margaret Fuller (López-Varela), stressed that Socratic dialogue and the sharing of educational experiences helped solidify students’ own understanding by creating affective bonds, thus reinforcing their inclination to community work, and the creation of a certain “public sphere” in Habermas’ terms. Unlike her father’s structured dialogues, Louisa uses her fiction to show how the moral reckoning of her characters arises from the affective experiences they share with others, a position that allows her texts to be read as pedagogic tools.

10Indeed, the affective problems arising in a relationship between an adult and a young partner receive much attention in the story: “I should have been her teacher… I should have been a friend… I was a master, content to give little, while receiving all she could bestow” (301; emphasis added). The word “master” highlights not just age, but also gender differences. Women were seen in a relation of submission to their master-husbands, master-fathers or master-brothers. John Matteson’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography has argued that presenting Basil both as father and as husband the story “implies a perilous choice regarding the categories of affection” (245).

11In his book American Child Bride (2016), Nicholas Syrett has shown how marriage between minors and much older adults was commonplace in the 19th-century. One of the reasons was the high mortality rate in childbirth for older women (Kaplan 2012). Age difference emphasized not only the superiority of the male in the relationship, but also assimilated the role of the husband to that of the father, a situation that might have been internalized by women, perhaps justifying Louisa’s admiration for and crushes on her father’s Transcendental friends, Emerson and Thoreau (Cheney 57-58; Elbert 41).

12In his situation of uncontested power, Basil is unaware of Effie’s increasing depression and lack of self-esteem: “I loved her as I loved a picture or a flower,— a little better than my horse and hound,— but far less than I loved my most unworthy self” (301). He acknowledges the traces of Effie’s growing despair in her face. But his remarks imply that he had no idea of the causes behind: “I saw those happy eyes grow wistful… her chiefest charm departed, I fancied, in my blindness, that she pined for the free air of the Highlands, and tried to win it back by transient tenderness and costly gifts” (301).

13Effie’s speech is heard only twice in the story; first to express her frustration; later to show her new position of power. In both cases, the male figure is astonished at the outburst of sentiment, seeing his superiority threatened:

‘No, I will not go to listen to that woman's songs. I hate her!…. You treat me like a child; but I am not one.’…. Disturbed by the sudden passion of the hitherto meek girl, I sat down on the wide steps of the balcony and essayed to draw her to my knee, hoping she would weep this grief away…. But she resisted my caress…. I should have been more just and gentle; but her indignant words, the sharper for their truths, roused the despotic spirit of the man, and made me sternest when I should have been most kind. (303)

14Angered at Effie’s resistance, Basil uses mild reproaches, and soon she returns to her selfless self. This shows how emotional manipulation has an impact on women, leaving men untouched: “Forgive me, Sir… I am truly grateful for all you have done for me, and will try to be a docile child to you” (304). As seen in this story, male self-centeredness leads to their inability to not only sympathize but also tolerate females who openly express their emotions and desire for love. In this situation, men often consider that women “dramatize” the situation and, thus, oblige them to have more self-control. The perpetuation of women’s roles as selfless caregivers is a persistent trait in all cultures and continues until today (Chodorow).

15The situation presented in “Love and Self-Love” holds many similarities with Alcott’s family environment, particularly with regard to her emotional outbursts, lack of self-esteem and, in particular, to the psychological crisis she suffered in 1858, two years before the publication of the story. Bronson’s brother had committed suicide in a horrible way. The family was again relocating and suffering from financial difficulties (Matteson 220-222; Raisen 141). Struggling “to turn my brains into money by stories” (Letters 14), Alcott’s despair after her sister Elizabeth (Beth) died of scarlet fever, and her older sister Anna married soon after (Matteson 235-6). Increasingly burdened, seeing herself as main provider to the family (Journals 167, 171, 191, 214), she contemplated suicide: “everyone was so busy, & cared so little whether I got work or jumped into the river” (Letters 34). Her “fit of despair was soon over for it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over I couldn’t do it” (Letters 90). From this statement, it is clear that Louisa’s main motivation for not ending her life was self-control and self-sacrifice, qualities she had been encouraged to acquire in her home education.

16Effie, Alcott’s alter ego, goes through a similar suicidal moment in the story, when she throws herself off the boat she shares with Basil and Agnes, engaged in romantic flirtation. Exploring suicide in the 19th century, Olive Anderson noted that death by drowning was a way through which victims and families escaped suicide stigma and its negative legal consequences (Anderson 44). Fictional drowning, such as that of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Zenobia’s fate in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, or Maggie’s in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss might have been in Alcott’s mind, as well as the death of the family friend, Margaret Fuller, upon her return from Europe in 1850. In other of her narratives, we find similar suicidal moments. In A Long Fatal Love Chase (formerly titled A Modern Mephistopheles, 1866), a sort of re-writing of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the protagonist Rosamond finds the body of a woman in the water and attaches her own name to the woman’s body, allowing her to abandon one identity and take on another, as it happens metaphorically in “Love and Self-Love.”

17Besides the theme of the heroine’s “awakening” and the gaining of a certain financial independence, the question of self-worth is fundamental in the story, and echoes Louisa’s own childhood concerns, with statements such as the following filling up her journal: “I am very naughty, I feel bad…. Father don’t love me, mother don’t love me, little sister don’t love me, God won’t love me” (Cheney 16, cited also in Reisen 30). Allusions to her own bad temper are recorded constantly by Cheney (see for instance 38, 56) This lack of self-esteem might have led to the life of self-sacrifice that Louisa forced upon herself and which is reflected in “Love and Self-Love,” as well as in her diaries (Journals 61). Indeed, Bronson Alcott’s upbringing and the family financial difficulties “left the naturally ebullient Louisa with permanent feelings of guilt and worthlessness; she could never be gentle, loving or meek enough to please her father, and these were the traits he associated with femininity” (Showalter xii). Thus, the self-control and self-sacrifice exhibited by Alcott’s heroines are symptoms of inner forms of self-imposed discipline that, according to Showalter, their father might have used, encouraging excessive responsibility and withholding affection.

18The emphasis on self-control and sacrifice often resulted in female passivity, like Effie first exhibits. The absence of a mother figure in the story, (Effie is an orphan and her guardian has died), reinforces her total submission to male authority. In Louisa’s case, her mother taught her and her sisters to regard self-sacrifice as the right path, perhaps as a coping mechanism in their continuous economic struggle. It is also from this pain that the sisters learnt to sympathize with others in similar situations (Matteson 297). Even in the potboilers written between 1863 and 1869, self-control and self-sacrifice are recurring themes (Stern 115). The intense desire to sympathize with those suffering, perhaps a symptom of her own feelings of lack of affection, emerged in the different activities Louisa undertook during her life, from her nursing during the Civil War to the persistent care for her mother’s ill health and the responsibility over her sisters and nephews (see for instance Journals 177, 183).

19Like Bronson Alcott, the male protagonist and narrator of “Love and Self-Love,” Basil, is cold and distant towards Effie, blind in his obsession for Agnes. Reisen compares the situation to Louisa’s jealousy of her older sister Anna, Bronson’s favorite (Reisen 150). His statements in Louisa’s praise where restrained: “I see nothing in the way of a good appreciation of Louisa's merits as a woman and a writer,” he claimed after Louisa’s sickness which followed her volunteering experience as nurse recorded in Hospital Sketches (cited in Schreiner 219).

20This troubled relationship is evident in “Love and Self-Love.” The story has a happy ending in that Effie emerges from the waters and after a long recovery, she rises up a new woman: “A sweet sobriety shaded her young face, and a meek smile sat upon her lips, but the old blithesomeness was gone” (306). Basil goes on to describe Effie’s outings to visit young friends, and realizes his loneliness, learning an important emotional lesson: “If I had ever felt she was a burden to the selfish freedom I desired, I was punished now… I sat alone… no soft caress assured me that I was beloved” (306).

21As Agnes stops her visits to Basil, and her brother Alfred continues to visit Effie, Basil’s jealousy turns to self-pity. Eventually his own suffering teaches him to empathize with Effie. The final test to his self-love comes after he decides to grant Effie total freedom by divorcing her: “I had not learned the beauty of a perfect self-forgetfulness… cherished a desperate hope that I might be spared this loss” (307).

22Marriage is the ultimate concern of Louisa in “Love and Self-Love.” She felt that marriage only held women back in their freedom and independence. In a letter from 1865, discussing her story Moods and the topic of marriage, Alcott emphasized that “self-abnegation is a noble thing” but that “half the misery of the world seems to come from unmated pairs trying to live their lie decorously to the end” (Letters 108). In the same quotation, she adds that couples bring children into the world “to inherit the unhappiness and discord out of which they were born” (Letters 108).

23Some of Alcott’s female characters, her “children” as she called them (Journals 163), struggle to maintain their personal independence, as in “Psyche’s Art” (1858), an allusion to the family’s pet name for her sister Beth who died in 1858. This is again a story where the female protagonist sacrifices her artistic ambitions while the male pursues his dreams. Once more marriage is an unhappy conclusion.

24In “Love and Self-Love,” the possibility of divorce makes marriage appear not as an obligation but as a choice that can be rejected. Louisa viewed marriage as a contract based on friendship and mutual understanding, and with a division of tasks that would help coexistence. She also saw it as a necessary step to equality, since only through mutual knowledge would prejudices disappear. “Love and Self-Love” begins with the interrogation “Friendless when you are gone?” (298). Friendship is very important in the story. The marriage between Basil and Effie only becomes a ‘real’ relationship when both partners are in equal partnership and have reached equal emotional and economic balance: Basil becomes more empathetic, and Effie inherits money.

25At the end of the story, a letter from Effie’s dying grandfather arrives and she resolves to visit him. Several months pass before Effie’s return, and Basil’s despair grows as he faces some financial difficulties. To his surprise, Effie comes back when those who he believed friends desert him. For the first time she dares speak of her sacrifice: “Basil, the grief you saw was not for the loss of any love but yours; the conflict you beheld was the daily struggle to subdue my longing spirit to your will; and the sacrifice you honor but the renunciation of all hope. I stood between you and the woman whom you loved and asked of death to free me from that cruel lot” (310).

26The final consummation of Effie’s self-worth and Basil’s appreciation comes when he realizes that she has received her grandfather’s inheritance: “You gave me your home when I was homeless; let me give it back, and with it a proud wife. I, too, am rich; for that old man is gone and left me all. Take it, Basil, and give me a little love” (310). As in Jane Eyre, the husband-master is finally brought to the same affective and financial level as the much younger wife. “A Whisper in the Dark” is another tale in which Louisa uses a similar plot line (Seelye 153). In both stories, female characters are first silenced for the sake of the narrative versions of their male counterparts. Like the author, who seems to have recognized the problems she faced in her own education, the heroines in these stories struggle to find their own self-love and make their voices heard.

27As a conclusion to this part, we can affirm that in her younger years and her early fiction, Louisa’s struggle for equality was not in opposition to domestic life and marriage. This is evident in a journal entry from 1860, when she published “Love and Self-Love”: “All the philosophy in our house is not in the study; a good deal is in the kitchen, where a fine old lady thinks high thoughts and does kind deeds while she cooks and scrubs” (Journals 101). In a letter to Maggie Lukens (Concord: February 21, 1886) she also wrote that “The home-making, the comfort, the sympathy, the grace, & atmosphere that a true woman can provide is the noble part, & embraces all that’s helpful for soul as well as body” (Letters 296-297). Additionally, the use of domestic plots in her early narratives could be seen to overturn the ideology of separate spheres, as Louisa herself stated (189-190), a rhetoric that may have been largely a reaction to the increased influence and activism of educated women (Zagarri).

28Additionally, Elizabeth Barnes (1997) has explained how the rhetoric of “sympathy” became one of the ways by means of which North American women were able to influence the revolutionary discourse of virtue, as reflected in the literary fiction generated in the emerging nation at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Using forms of sympathetic “tuning,” as Louisa does in “Love and Self-Love,” women conveyed their lack of fulfilment and recognition in the domestic sphere to their male counterparts.

29Alcott’s short story highlights major concerns at the time of the emergence of the first proto-feminist movements in the United States, when women actively claimed equality, visibility, and self-worth. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The Declaration of Sentiments” (1848), signed during the first women's rights convention in the United States, the Seneca Falls Convention, emphasized that all men and women are created equal and that their rights included the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without these rights, the capacity to feel self-worth and self-love disappeared (Cady Stanton 74). Passages in the Declaration are almost an echo of Louisa’s own concerns: “In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master…. He has endeavoured, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect” (n.p. emphasis added).

30The appeal to self-respect is explicit, as it is the reference to “sentiments,” aligned with the dominant Western conception of personhood, grounded on free-agency and individuality, equality, and social good (fraternity) as correlative forms of the recognition of self-respect. Free agency was based on the notion that all persons have equal fundamental moral worth and standing in the community, which entitles each to ‘respect’ from all. This recognition of respect and self-respect is a consequence of an understanding of oneself as an equal person among persons, including all genders. To say that self-respect is a socio-political construction is to say not only that it develops and plays out against the backdrop of social and political contexts. But it also, and more importantly, is constituted by and reflects prevailing forms of social and political life. Improving these contexts leads to improved self-understanding.

31These aspects are evident in Alcott’s story “Love and Self-Love” as well as in her other sentimental fictions, all of which served for many years as additional pedagogic tools in schools all over the United States. In this way, Alcott’s narratives may have functioned as active forms of political engagement, emotionally transforming the social forces responsible for diminishing female self-worth and respect and contributing to the transformation of the public sphere, in Habermas’ terms.

3. Conclusions

32This paper has argued that Louisa May Alcott’s sentimental fictions and in particular, her story “Love and Self-Love,” aim at shifting power structures in the public sphere by means of educating the male reader. The story shows that self-respect and self-love are constructed in the emotional interplay of early family relationships. Unconditional parental love is an important source of secure, positive self-love. Alcott became conscious of this lack in her own life and sought to include the notion of “sympathy” in a radical way in her fictions. As educational tools, her stories replaced the view of self-respect as a private, personal phenomenon with one that stresses mutual awareness, particularly within the marriage contract.

33“Love and Self-Love” makes evident that for Alcott a woman cannot allow herself to be defined by her social roles as wife and mother. Instead, she must first develop her inner sense of self-worth, along transcendental lines, and only then she can become a good partner to her husband, who must also accept the equality of the marriage relationship. In Louisa’s novels, women compete to establish their superiority and self-respect, as Effie does with Basil. Thus, under the cover of the sentimental novel and subverting the influence of her father’s Socratic pedagogy, Louisa created avenues for the empowerment of women and for the subtle subversion of gender restrictions.

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Electronic reference

Asun López-Varela Azcárate, “Love and Self-Love”: The Balance between Sympathy and Self-Respect in Louisa May Alcott’s Early FictionEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 27 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Asun López-Varela Azcárate

Asun López-Varela is Associate Prof. at the Complutense Univ. in Madrid. In 2007 she established the research program  Studies on Intermediality and Intercultural Mediation SIIM at UCM and is Vice-Chair at European Commission Unit REA.A2, Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Postdoctoral Fellowships. Her publications focus on Margaret Cavendish, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Fanny Fern, Margaret Fuller, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy.

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