The Subjugation of Males in Louisa May Alcott’s Thrillers
In Behind a Mask by Louisa May Alcott, gender roles are reversed as males become objects of lust and women become the people in power. Unlike the more common male protagonist-centered stories, Alcott has women as the main character of her fiction. As a result, while there are elements of female oppression in the novels, there is also a strong theme of male subjugation by females in her stories. As women overcome their oppression and rise above their circumstances, males begin to fill a more traditionally female role in literature, becoming secondary characters that are the objects of desire, lust, and oppression.
This theme is most clear in “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” The story is about Pauline, who has been deceived and rejected by Gilbert. Pauline sets out to exact revenge on Gilbert, with the help of Manuel, a young boy of exotic decent. From the opening lines, Manuel is portrayed as young, passionate, and innocent (Alcott 112). He is also an object of desire, and described in very sensual language. Describing Manuel in love, Alcott writes, “the eloquent blood rushed over swarthy cheek and brow, the slumberous softness of the eyes kindled with a flash, and the lips, sensitive as any woman’s trembled yet broke into a rapturous smile” (113). These characteristics- passion, beauty, and innocence- are normally typical of the female protagonist, who is the one that is taken advantage of.
Yet in “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” it is Manuel who is taken advantage of by Pauline. It is Manuel who swears “to obey you in all things; make me what you will, for soul and body I am wholly yours henceforth” (116). This echoes the vows a woman traditionally makes in a wedding, to “love, honor, cherish and obey you always” (?). Pauline is the one that orchestrates the revenge on Gilbert, and manipulates Manuel to do her bidding (137). She manipulates Manuel’s passions at sacrifice to his principles, costing him his innocence and self-respect (138). Traditionally, it is the women who is the one sacrificing her innocence for a man. Yet here it is Manuel who is sacrificing his innocence for his wife. Again, Manuel echoes the traditional woman’s vow saying, “Soul and body, I belong to you; do with me as you will” (138).
Later Alcott manages to have Gilbert and Pauline face off against each other. The masculine Gilbert is the one that is a foil for Pauline’s wits in “a tournament where the keen tongue is the lance, pride the shield, passion the fiery steed, and the hardest heart the winner of the prize” (131). Manuel and Gilbert’s wife become counterparts to each other as well, likening, again, Manuel to a more feminine role and Pauline to a more masculine, confrontational role. However, the previous passage also has another purpose. Earlier in the story Manuel is described as passionate, and here, passion is the steed. Manuel is thus likened to a steed, to be ridden, controlled and manipulated at will.
Alcott’s subversion of the normal roles of male and female give the story a gothic atmosphere, a feeling that all is not quite right in the world. Thus, when Manuel dies at the hands of Gilbert at the end of the novel the result is a surprise, but not quite as much one as might be expected. Through the ending Alcott implies that while the switching of roles for revenge is possible, such a relationship cannot be sustained. Pauline’s relationship creates disharmony, and thus, something must give. When Manuel dies, not only does it punish Pauline, but it signals to the reader that the relationship is not one that is natural.
Alcott, Louisa May. Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott.