The section on domesticity displays how the boundaries between adolescence and womanhood are blurred in the Little Women. In the novel, when the March sisters are in a relationship or even married, they are infantilized by their husbands. Alcott presents these women in a child-like manner. In this section I would analyze the marriage of Meg with Mr.Brooke and Jo with Mr. Bhaer and show that Alcott believes that marriages are unequal alliances. Alcott was a feminist writer, she fought for women’s equality through her novels. She never got married in real life but the heroines of her novel did succumb to that societal pressure. Her stories do not portray the equality in marriage, it is perhaps her way of criticizing the institution at the time. The way she depicts women being treated in a child-like manner, and the marriages as unequal is by establishing them as student-teacher relationships. The student-teacher like relationship between Meg and Mr.Brooke, and Jo and Mr. Bhaer led to marriages that were unequal. Alcott’s use of sentimentality further supported her claim.
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Little women paints a picture of marriage that can be considered anti-feminist but fitting for the time. She portrays men, who’s only flaw is that that they are flawless, marrying women who have a lot to learn from them. Instead of being just husbands they act like teachers or father figures to help them overcome what they are lacking. This father-husband like figure that the men of little women morph into creates an unequal power dynamic. Alcott picks apart this model of marriage to find flaws in it, and to support her view that marriage is not egalitarian.
Marmee, the mother of the March sisters is a matriarchal figure in the novel. In Chapter 8 she says something which is not explored further in the novel but that one sentence provides the reader when a much deeper insight into the lives of women at the time. Marmee says to Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life” . On the surface it seems that Marmee is angry due to the frustration she feels for not getting enough opportunities as a woman to live her life the way she wanted in 19th century America. Jo has always seen her mother calm and hence her mother is telling her this to calm her down after Jo was angry at Amy for burning her manuscript. In the conversation that follows Marmee reveals to Jo that she learned how to be calm and patient from her mother, and when she died she asked Jo’s father to do the same for her. Marmee says, “Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes and works and waits so cheerfully”.“I used to see father sometimes put his finger on his lips and look at you with a very kind, but sober face; and you always folded your lips tight, or went away”. In these lines from the text, one can see that a seemingly perfect husband has to help Marmee overcome her shortcomings. The way Mr. March used to put his finger on his lips can be interpreted as a way one uses to silence a child. This conversation early in the novel sets a tone for what the reader can expect the marriages of the March sisters to be.
Meg and Mr. Brook’s is the first relationship to be established and the first couple to marry. John Brooke was a paternal figure from the beginning because the reader is first introduced to him as the tutor for the boy next door. At a picnic with the sisters, John, Laurie and his friends, Meg and John talk about German. Laurie’s friend is surprised that Mg cannot read German. She explains that she was taught German by her father before he went to war. Her study of German has been incomplete since then. John who has romantic interest in Meg steps in and offers to help her. John acts like a stand-in for Meg’s father when it comes to teaching German. This instance sets up John to be a ‘father-husband” for Meg. The start of their relationship was that of a teacher and student, with unequal power dynamic.
Meg and John eventually get married and begin their married life. In the novel there are several chapters dedicated to their marital life, the problems they face and what Meg learns from them. In chapter 28 titled “Domestic Experiences,” John invites a friend home after a day of work for dinner, unaware of his wife’s frustration from making jelly. John makes a joke about the jelly and tells his wife to fix him and his guest something to eat. An upset Meg tells John to take his guest to her mother’s house. John feels betrayed that Meg could not fulfill her duty when he needed. After some time when the situation calms down he thinks, “It was hard upon her when she tried so heartily to please me. She was wrong, of course, but then she was young. I must be patient and teach her” . John feels more sympathetic towards Meg, he thinks that he must “be calm and kind, but firm, quite firm, and show her where she had failed in her duty to her spouse” (page278). In these sentences it is hard to ignore the parent-like tone John adopts when talking about Meg. As a reader it seems like he is disciplining a child rather than solving a dispute with his wife. Meg decides to swallow her pride and apologize first. It becomes hard for her to say so she kisses her husband on the forehead. Her “penitent kiss was better than a world or words, and John had her on his knee in a minute. This sentence fits with the child-like depiction of women in this novel as Meg ends up in a child-like position in her husband’s lap. The fact that Meg had to be the first one to apologize shows that she has accepted her unequal role as a wife. As young girls the March sisters had to assume responsibilities of grown women but Meg going through her married life was treated close to a child by her own husband. This is in conformity with the idea that Alcott blurred the lines between adolescence and womanhood.
Jo meets Professor Friedrich Bhaer in New York where they reside in the same house. Friedrich is a German philosophy professor. Just like John, Friedrich is also seemingly perfect in a moral sense but he is more real. Their relationship also begins as one of a student and teacher. Jo offers Friedrich to mend his socks and in return Friedrich gives her German lessons just like Mr. March used to do for the girls. Jo is already familiar with Shakespeare but Friedrich helps her view it from a completely different perspective. While in New York, Jo starts writing sensational stories to make money to help her sister Beth who is sick. Friedrich does not like her sensational literature because of these immoral stories affect the readers. He educates Jo about what he thinks about such stories without letting her know that he is aware that she writes them. In chapter 34 titled “friend”, Friedrich assumes a father-like role when he remembered that Jo was, “a girl far away from mother’s love and father’s care: and he was moved to help her with an impulse as quick and natural as that which would prompt him to put out his hand to save a baby from a puddle” (page 354). Friedrich compares Jo to a baby and takes a parent-like role
In both relationships, Meg and Mr. Brook, and Jo and Mr. Bhaer, Alcott makes the women seem childlike. The responsibilities that the girls have has more to do with their gender than their age. In Alcott’s novel women do have a presence in both the public and the private sphere but her heroines in this novel ultimately settle for the domestic. Alcott uses sentimentality in parts of the novel which can also be classified as domestic fiction to affirm the connection between gender and sentimentality.