- "Unlovely, Unreal Creatures":Resistance and Relationship in Louisa May Alcott's "Fancy Friend"1
Once, at a time when I was asking women to solve moral problems that men had framed . . . a woman—a college graduate—looked at me and said, "Would you like to know what I think or would you like to know what I really think?" thus conveying that she had learned to think in a way that differed from the way she really thought. Increasingly, I suspected that this learning takes place during adolescence, the time when girls come up against the wall of Western culture.(Gilligan, Making Connections, 4)
Joy Marsella concludes her work on the children's stories of Louisa May Alcott (The Promise of Destiny) with a discussion of Alcott's "Fancy's Friend" and its placement as the final story in the six-volume Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag series.2 Marsella argues that the story epitomizes and clarifies Alcott's approach to her children's fiction; Alcott recognized, says Marsella, "the practical nature of her work" (145) and was fully aware of her responsibility to her young readers to contribute "to the education of the child" (147): "Alcott conceded that although fantasy gave pleasure to children, ultimately it had to be replaced by an acquiescence to reality" (146). Marsella argues further that Alcott's opting to teach the young how to navigate the responsibilities of the actual adult world and her decision to answer "market demand" cost her "the opportunity to strive for truly great artistry" (147).
Such a reading of this complex story about a young girl's entry into the world of adulthood accedes to the very attitudes Alcott criticizes in this [End Page 154] work and neglects the artistry and subversive designs of her children's fiction in general and this story in particular. Our attention and our sympathy are focused in "Fancy's Friend" on young Fancy, who is vacationing at the seashore with her Aunt Fiction and Uncle Fact. Fancy is not a particularly gregarious youngster, and she finds that her best friend during the summer is a mermaid—the creation of her own imagination—who becomes visible to the entire community. Aunt Fiction, an imaginative and accepting woman, deems the young mermaid, Lorelei, charming, but Uncle Fact—a logical, rigorous, "grim, grave, decided man" (218)—finds her a threat to all he stands for and believes in. The conflict in the story involves Uncle Fact's insistence that Fancy relinquish her cherished friend—since, in his view, she represents only a childish escape into the world of fantasy—and take her place in the world of reality and fact. Fancy ultimately defers to Uncle Fact's demands and loses her Lorelei—her friend—forever.
According to Marsella, "Fancy's Friend" "is obviously meant to teach a moral lesson," and she finds that "the story's conflict revolves around whether Fact or Fiction will govern Fancy's life" (13). While Marsella concedes that Fancy experiences "a sense of great sadness and loss" (15) in giving up Lorelei, she concludes that "Fact wins" (13) because fact—"that which is real"—must prevail over "the glories of the enrichment of the personal life of the imagination" (146). Not only does Marsella here deny the actuality of the imagination (it is not "real"), but she also seems to find that the enrichment of the life through the imagination—in the view of some, the motivation for creating and experiencing art—must be forsaken:
Although Fact is yoked to Fiction in an indissolvable relationship and hence recognizes her validity, Fiction is not an appropriate guide for life. The encyclopedia is more useful and gives validity to reality in a way that Fiction cannot. A child who is already prone to succumb to the whims of the imagination, as Fancy was to Lorelei, is especially susceptible and therefore in need of the countervailing force of reality to provide balance.(14-15)
But, if our concern in this story is the welfare of the young and impressionable Fancy, if Alcott's point is to demonstrate how Fancy will best make her way into...