Instances of ‘Ideological Ambivalence’ in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Introduction

‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott is a story that revolves around a family of four teenage girls and their mother in Concord, Massachusetts. Their father is absent since he is a soldier in the American Civil War. As such, the story mainly focuses on how the four sisters, and their mother, manoeuvre their way through life with different degrees of success. The central theme of the novel, which was written about 150 years ago, was to challenge the stereotypical gender roles of the time, speaking against the notion that women are born solely for the purpose of marriage and catering to their husbands. It was thus a ground-breaking book for its time.

The following discussion shall be a critical evaluation of the book. The analysis will tackle the concept of ideological ambivalences and what this means in the context of ‘Little Women.’ During the course of the discussion, the critical readings of ‘Little Women’ by Judith Fetterley, Ken Parille and Nicola Watson shall be referred to for a comprehensive overview of this highly influential piece of children’s literature.

Ideological Ambivalences in ‘Little Women’

Ideological ambivalence is a phrase that refers to the confusion and contradiction in relation to beliefs and ideas. In literature, ideological ambivalence is when the implicit message in the narrative subverts the explicit message i.e. when a writer attempts to pass a certain message on the one hand, yet unwittingly passes contradictory messages on the other hand (Watson, 2009, p. 3). This may be in their depiction of the characters, the language they have used, or in any of their chosen stylistic devices.

Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ is an excellent example of a piece of literature that is replete with ideological ambivalence. For one, for a book that is meant to challenge gender stereotypes, it surprisingly tends to reinforce them in many instances. Judith Fetterley, in her critique of ‘Little Women’ rightly points out that Alcott repeatedly sends out the message that girls should renounce self, be content with whatever conditions they find themselves in, and think of others before they think of themselves. This is shown in the first two chapters of the book, the first time being in the Chapter One when the four girls complain about not having gifts for Christmas. Their mother Marmee, who is portrayed as the model strong woman, reproaches their discontentment, a reproach that is given credence in a letter sent by their father who exhorts his daughter to “conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women” (Watson, 2009, p. 10). The message that stems from this exhortation is that women should not only be content with their circumstances but also be happy while at it.

The message of the need to renounce self as a woman and to think of others is further drummed home in the next chapter. Armed with gifts for their mother (proof that they had indeed made an attempt to think of others before themselves), they discover that their mother has been visiting an underprivileged family in the neighbourhood and wants her daughters to offer them their breakfast as a Christmas gift. After an initial reluctance to this new demand for sacrifice, the girls give into this request wholeheartedly, giving up their breakfast to them and in the process, realised that helping others was the best breakfast ever (Watson, 2009). This reinforces the patriarchal message that the purpose of women is to give to others before they give to themselves, an ideology that is in total contrast and contradiction to the feminist leaning and theme of the book.

Furthermore, the book contains a surprising number of women who were not independent. One would argue that the message gets lost in the substance of the narrative since, on the surface, it is feminist in inclination but in actuality it unintentionally endorses the opposite. Beth, one of the little women, is so shy and withdrawn that she prefers studying at home instead of going to school. Amy and Meg, on their part, are both into the finer things in life and vanity as can be seen in Meg’s dream for her life when she stated:

“I should like a lovely house, full of all sorts of luxurious things – nice food, pretty clothes, handsome furniture, pleasant people, and heaps of money. I am to be mistress of it, and manage it as I like, with plenty of servants, so I never need work a bit” ’ (140) (Watson, 2009, p. 21).

In addition, both Meg and Amy opt to get married rather easily. Amy, most notably, accepts to get married to Laurie after he went to be her side when she received the news of Beth’s death. The fact that Amy and Meg both love the materialistic things in life and get married without much hesitation is an affront to the heart and soul of the book i.e. that women can be independent and different and that they do not have to succumb to societal stereotypes. Amy and Meg, to a large extent, fit the usual societal depictions of women as being vain and materialistic and thus, their characters are a disservice to the theme of the book. Therefore, while Alcott attempts to depict the women characters as strong and independent, she unwittingly undermines this effort by showing some of them in a less than independent and non-stereotypical light.

This ideological ambivalence is inadvertently shown even in one of the strongest female characters. One of the daughters, Josephine, is the most independent of the girls.  She is high-spirited, confident, and very intelligent and yet is a tomboy. The fact that the author had to paint Josephine as a tomboy is evidence that Alcott was still using men as a yardstick and point of reference for female independence and strength. Alcott would have been more effective if she had depicted Josephine as being strong yet still feminine. This would have sent a very powerful message that women need not be masculine to be considered independent or strong and the measure of a woman’s strength should be gauged from her value, character and personality as opposed to a masculine-related demeanour.

Furthermore, the strongest women characters in the book, Marmee and Josephine, are showcased as having issues with anger. This sends out an unfortunate message, which prevails in modern society, that for women to be independent and not fit within gender roles, they have to have a certain level of angst. In addition, the underlying message the book sends out is that strength in a woman can only be as a result of a rebellion against men and/or a patriarchal society and not something that is naturally occurring. In the book, Marmee’s strength and anger are mainly as a reaction to her husband’s controlling nature and Josephine’s is against the society.

There is also a substantial amount of the text that focuses on looks which is self- defeatist since the aim should be to showcase the deeper characteristics of women as opposed to their physical appearance. Women have, for the longest time, been seen as only being worthy if they fit within society’s perspective of physical attractiveness. ‘Little Women’ should have countered this mentality by showcasing strong women who do not fit into this category yet they still emerged as victorious and happy, their looks notwithstanding. Consider, for instance, this quote from their father about Meg’s hard work:

“I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in this seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt offering has been made to vanity, this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters…”

While on the surface it appears that the virtue of hard work is being extolled, at the heart of the father’s focus is Meg’s looks because it is the starting point in the discussion. In addition, Alcott unwittingly reinforces the idea that women need to be extoled by men so as to feel validated.

The conclusion of the book is, without a doubt, the major culprit with regard to the presence of ideological ambivalence therein. Towards the end of the book, Marmee rejoices thus: “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!” As she listens to her daughters take stock of their lives and the lessons they have learned, she is overjoyed that they have found happiness and their identities. For her, nothing else mattered than the happiness of her daughters. The underlying message here is that the ultimate joy of a woman should be in her children. This is a common thread in patriarchal thinking, which is surprisingly emphasised in the book despite the otherwise feministic leaning of ‘Little Women’.

If Marmee was a man, the conclusion of the book may have been different since happiness for men is often seen as being as a result of professional or monetary success. It is interesting that Alcott chose to conclude a feminist book by reinforcing the idea that the joy of a woman is in her children. It would have been more powerful and noteworthy if her joy would have come from some other accomplishment in her own personal life, completely unrelated to her family.

As Watson (2009) aptly explained, the greatest ideological ambiguity can be found at the end of the novel. Josephine, having all along shown an aversion to marriage, finally decided to get married. What value is accorded to such a conclusion and what message was Alcott trying to send— that all women must end up getting married eventually? Her feminist message would have really hit home if Jo were to have been shown as having ended up being ‘happily single ever after.’ The fact that this did not happen sends the unspoken message that the source of joy and identity for a woman lies in her identity within the family set up and as a wife.

In must be noted that this ambivalence is not just shown in the women characters— her portrayal of the male characters is similarly ambivalent. Another critic of the book, Parille (2009), dissects the book from a male point of view and argues that Alcott, in her bid to give strength to the women characters, inadvertently reinforces gender role stereotypes. For instance, Amy considers her husband Laurie to be less of a man and she opts to nickname him ‘Lazy Laurence’ to feminize him by stressing how lazy, and therefore unmanly, she considers him to be (Watson, 2009, p. 35). As such, while the intent of the book was to challenge gender roles about women, Alcott unintentionally reinforced those very same roles by showing that men such as Laurie were not ‘real’ men simply because he is not as hardworking as men are supposed to be according to society or doesn’t follow the usual career paths that men are expected to.

Conclusion

Louisa May Alcott, in writing ‘Little Women,’ set out to challenge the deep-seated gender stereotypes of her time by showcasing women who went against the grain as far as traditional gender roles are concerned. In large part, she managed to accomplish her objective and showed that women can do what men can do by illustrating a unique type of family comprising of women who did not completely fit the expected characteristics of femininity. However, despite being well intentioned, the book is full of several examples of ideological ambivalences that undermine her aim. This possibly speaks to her upbringing and how deep-rooted gender stereotypes were at the time. It is a fascinating example about how writers do not always get it right as far as achieving their set out goals and themes and also speaks to the powerful influence that society has on a writers thinking and ultimately, writing.

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