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  • Reading a Feminist Romance:Literary Critics and Little Women
  • Gregory Eiselein (bio)
Little Women: A Family Romance, by Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays, ed. Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark. New York and London: Garland, 1999.

Prior to 1940, as Alberghene and Clark explain in their introduction and as Aiko Moro-oka and Clark and Linnea Hendrickson document in the volume's bibliographies, Louisa May Alcott's work was never discussed in professional literary journals. Beginning with Madeleine Stern's and Leona Rostenberg's work in the 1940s and especially since the mid-70s, academic attention to Alcott has expanded exponentially. The major reason for this transformation in critical attitudes has been feminism. Earlier in the century critics were accustomed to seeing this popular girls' book as "beyond the reach of criticism" (qtd. in Alberghene and Clark xxix). Alcott's later, feminist critics disagreed, and their analysis discovered a significant cultural phenomenon and a resonant work of art.

It is perhaps also true that feminist critics needed Little Women. It was an opportunity to consider the construction of gender; the value of women's and girls' experience, intellect, and creativity; the importance of women's and girls' relationships with other women and girls; the role of identification and affect in reading; and the question of women's power (what constitutes rebellion, resistance, subversion, submission? how do you tell the difference?). These are the issues that animate Little Women: A Family Romance and Little Women and the Feminist Imagination, though the treatment of these characteristically feminist concerns is often surprising.

Divided into two sections, "Literary and Historical Context" (chapters 1-3) and "A Reading" of the novel and its sequels (chapters 49), Little Women: A Family Romance does not explicitly announce itself [End Page 238] as feminist in the way the Alberghene and Clark volume does, but its feminist perspective is salient. The opening chapter, "Historical and Biographical Context," highlights the well-known biographical connections between the novel and Alcott's life as well as the formative influence of the women's movement on Alcott. Chapter 2, "The Importance of the Work," examines not only the novel's influence on the female bildungsroman but also "the role that Little Women has played in the lives of countless women and girls" (13). Keyser's account of the novel's critical reception (chapter 3) devotes most of its attention to feminist examinations of the novel, though such an emphasis perhaps reflects the history of Alcott's critical treatment within the academy as much as Keyser's own theoretical orientation.

As her subtitle suggests, Keyser's reading of Little Women turns partly around the Freudian notion of "family romances," the daydreams in which subjects imagine for themselves new relations with their family members. Such fantasies (for instance, imagining oneself born of aristocrats, though living with a set of imposter parents) are part of developmental processes whereby subjects liberate themselves from parental authority to establish an identity. Keyser uses the Freudian concept to shed light, for example, on Jo's dream of becoming a writer. Freud tells us that such daydreams "have two principal aims, erotic and ambitious" (qtd. on 33), and Keyser demonstrates the concept's relevance to Little Women by showing how Jo's own conflicted family romance involves her ambitious desire for fame and her erotic wish to win her family's approval.

Yet Keyser's deployment of the family romance formulation is not simply an application of Freudian theory. Indeed her departures from Freud are as interesting as her uses of his work. Although she is extraordinarily attentive to the dark, aggressive aspects of Alcott's writing (as she demonstrates in her dazzling Whispers in the Dark [1993]), Keyser's family romance theory does not always take up Freud's emphasis on hostility, retaliation, and devaluation of parents. Instead she highlights the idealizing and romanticizing of family members as a means of distancing subjects from their parents. Moreover, Keyser has seized the notion of "family romances" not merely for its developmental psychology but also for its allusion to Hawthorne's romances, its association with popular romance heroines, and...


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