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Louisa May Alcott Research Papers

Research papers on Louisa May Alcott can discuss her most famous novel, Little Women, or her life story. You dictate what you want the writers at Paper Masters to write about regarding Louisa May Alcott.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was an American novelist and poet, best remembered for her 1868 work Little Women. Her parents were transcendentalists, and included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne among their social circle. Because of this influence, Louisa spent her life attempting to achieve perfection, one of the stated goals of the transcendentalist movement.


Life of Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May AlcottAlthough she was born in Philadelphia, Alcott’s family moved to Boston in 1838. Most of her schooling came from her father, although Emerson was a part-time tutor. The family’s financial troubles forced Louisa to go to work at a young age, laboring as a seamstress, governess, and eventually a writer.

During her career, Louisa May Alcott was an outspoken abolitionist and feminist. In 1847, she and her family operated a station on the Underground Railroad. Her literary career began in 1860, but she was soon serving as a nurse in the Union Hospital at Georgetown during the Civil War.

Her early writing career was under the pen name A.M. Barnard, but the 1868 publication of Little Women, a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood, brought her fame in her own right. The novel proved so popular that she wrote two "sequels":

  • Little Men (1871)
  • Jo’s Boys (1886)

After a lifetime of frail health, she died in 1888 from a stroke, two days after the death of her father.

Louisa May Alcott and Little Women Research

Little Women has obviously been read—as its author and publishers partly intended—as a text that wonderfully supported the White, Christian, middle-class ideals of domesticity and female subservience that prevailed in New England and in much of the rest of the United States at the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, although Alcott wrote and published over 200 pieces on a wide range of themes—including a number of sensational so-called “blood and thunder” tales, it was the well-received idealized representations of nineteenth-century domesticity in this text and in its sequels were the overwhelming source of her financial fortunes and enduring literary fame, earning her the title of “domestic goddess".

On its surface, therefore, Little Women is essentially the story of the transformation of healthy young girls, into grown women who would faithfully subscribe to and live by the gendered ideals of their day. As a wise and dutiful mother, Marmee March mediates this transformation through her strict but loving guidance and training in the standards of nineteenth-century womanhood. At this level the novel appears to almost perfectly conform to the gender ideals of a nineteenth-century American society that, even while sanctioning some forms of education for women, continued to dictate that women’s principal concerns lay in the domestic arts. Little Women appears in this regard to have been quite loyal to prevailing convention that women’s writing should celebrate the “feminine” ideal of domesticity. Indeed, some critics have argued that even the very title of the book seems to belittle women, who, during Alcott’s time, were essentially regarded as overgrown children.

Of course, the commercial success of a book that was largely conceived of and received as a model for the teaching of established feminine ideals was contingent upon its denial—at least on an explicit level—of any “theory” that might question or challenge the prevailing social ideals. As has been widely noted, Little Women in large part represented a brilliant marketing effort by Alcott and her publishers, rather than a true representation of the sentiments and attitudes of a complex woman who in other places explicitly explored radical themes that directly challenged and laid waste to the domesticity ideal. Considering the nature of the public discourse at the time—and the power that this discourse had over the American literary marketplace—Alcott was well aware that to achieve commercial success her text had to rigidly adhere—at least on a superficial level—to established conventions for writing about female protagonists and about their narrators’ attitudes towards them. After all, Little Women was written just a few years after Alcott’s first major work, Moods (1865) had scandalized Victorian critics and quickly went out of print as a result of its apparent condoning of marital separation in cases where love no longer existed between the partners. Driven by economic desperation, Alcott went to great lengths with her second major work to avoid overtly flouting the convention that women’s overriding goal in life was complete devotion to family life and dutiful service to the loved ones in her household. The conformist strategy worked marvelously: Little Women emerged as Alcott’s “golden egg” and meant the end of almost constant economic insecurity for the author and her family. Yet as authors such as Gaard note, closer readings reveal almost the entire piece to be pervaded by fierce underlying tensions deriving from the persistent and only partially resolved “civil war” between its overt and covert messages. In simple terms, the overt messages in Little Women concern advocacy of the societal conceptualizations of “true” womanhood in nineteenth century America: purity, piety, submissiveness, domesticity, and cheerful self-sacrifice. Yet although on a more superficial reading the text explicitly appears to champion these ideals, Alcott’s covert messages indicate that girls and young women of her day were not wholly reconciled to their socially prescribed roles. Through these covert messages the author subtly and indirectly argues that although the prescribed gender ideals were often said to come “naturally” to young women as they “blossomed” into womanhood, many American girls and women in fact possessed hopes and aspirations that conflicted with these ideals.

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