Monday, 31 March 2008

Thoughts on Louisa May Alcott

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. New York, New York: Quill William Morrow. 1995.

4 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

Given that Manuel is "a young boy of exotic decent" how does race fit into this? I mean, you're describing both Gilbert and Manuel as "male" but maybe there's a racial as well as a gender hierarchy, and so the white man is at the top, followed by the white woman, with the non-white male depicted as being below her. As for "When Manuel dies, not only does it punish Pauline, but it signals to the reader that the relationship is not one that is natural" that "unnatural-ness" might have something to do with ideas that existed at the time about race and miscegenation.

JC said...

That's an interesting thought. In other parts of the story it is made clear that Manuel is Cuban, of Spanish decent, so he isn't black, per se, though he is darker-skinned. Alcott also makes note of his "noble bearing" (I don't have the book on me right now so I can't quote passages to back that up)... so I would hesitate to necessarily call it a racial issue.

In Alcott's "Behind A Mask" there is also a female heroine who has a more "masculine" motive. In that story though her strength is in mesmerism- a profession dominated by men who used mesmerism on women during the time. Then men who fall victim to her in that story are both white.

This makes me think that even though Manuel is darker-skinned, this is more a result of setting than it is because Alcott was trying to subliminally say something about race.

What do you think? Have you read any of Alcott's thrillers?

Laura Vivanco said...

In other parts of the story it is made clear that Manuel is Cuban, of Spanish decent, so he isn't black, per se, though he is darker-skinned. Alcott also makes note of his "noble bearing" (I don't have the book on me right now so I can't quote passages to back that up)... so I would hesitate to necessarily call it a racial issue.

Given his name, I was assuming he was Hispanic. There are lots of racial stereotypes about Hispanics. I've touched on some of them briefly here in the context of a romance novel partially set in Cuba.

Being described as having "noble bearing" doesn't rule out the possibility of there being a racial element to the power/gender hierarchies. The "noble savage" stereotype, for example, involves both racial stereotyping and the admission that the savage may be "noble" in some ways.

I haven't read this, or any other of Alcott's non-Little-Women books, so obviously I'm only judging this one on the basis of what you've said about it.

This makes me think that even though Manuel is darker-skinned, this is more a result of setting than it is because Alcott was trying to subliminally say something about race

I don't think that Alcott was necessarily "trying to subliminally say something about race" but I do wonder whether her subversion of gender roles isn't that really that subversive if one thinks of Manuel not as a male, but as a non-white male (and from what you're saying, he's quite clearly described as non-white). Many of Alcott's readers might well have expected him to be lower down the hierarchy of power than Pauline because of his race.

In Alcott's "Behind A Mask" there is also a female heroine who has a more "masculine" motive. In that story though her strength is in mesmerism- a profession dominated by men who used mesmerism on women during the time. Then men who fall victim to her in that story are both white.

That made me think of the Belle dame sans merci. The seductress/witch is a type of woman who does traditionally have power. When she appears and has power in a narrative (even if only temporarily), it's not necessarily very subversive of normal gender roles. Instead it perhaps plays into the madonna/whore, Virgin Mary/Eve dichotomies which have long existed.

Not having read the Alcott stories myself, I'm only responding to elements that you're describing. But I suppose I'm just raising these questions because I think that gender is only one of many aspects of a person's identity which can affect their power and place in society. Other factors which can affect an individual's status are race, age, social class, beauty, whether the individual is considered to have magical abilities etc. Some of these factors might trump gender in particular contexts, so just because a particular woman has power over men doesn't automatically mean that a text is being subversive of gender norms, because gender norms are already a bit more more complicated than a binary opposition between all men and all women.

To take a hypothetical example, if a man and a woman of equal status were depicted in a novel and the woman had more power in the relationship and treated the man as a sex object, it would probably be a quite clear case of a text in which "gender roles are reversed as males become objects of lust and women become the people in power." However, if the woman is punished for this reversal and/or if the woman is powerful because of some factor which would make her status higher than that of the male, then it would be less clear that the story involved a real challenge to the gender roles existing in the society in which the text was written.

muralimanohar said...

Umm..hmm..I'm staying out of the race issue here...I just thought this was such an interesting post, stemming from my remembering just yesterday how much my mom hated Little Women, et al. She was of the opinion that it made the goal of a girl's life to just be married, and that was it, be the Good Wife. While her comments did make me think harder about what I was reading, it didn't necessarily bring me to agree with her. There was so much more to the text than that. IMO, anyway.

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