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  • Louisa May Alcott:The Separation Between Art and Family
  • Suzy Goldman (bio)

For Louisa May Alcott the problem of the child artist was intimately bound to the problem of the maturing woman. Indeed, long before Yeats, she gave her women a choice: perfection of the life or of the work. This is particularly true in Little Women, but even in later works, where Alcott allows her female characters to develop their artistic facilities, their full potential is always checked at the altar. For the young male artist it was easier. He could combine his art with his career and family.

In Little Women three of the four sisters have high artistic ambitions; two of them work eagerly at their careers. "Jo's ambition," we are told, "was to do something very splendid." And her greatest pleasure is to devour "poetry, romance, history, travels, and pictures like a regular bookworm."1 This youthful ambition is associated throughout the novel with her boyishness, but Alcott regards both qualities with skepticism and ultimately insists they be tamed.

Jo's enthusiasm for writing is considerable. Her first publications are well received by the family, and Jo is happy to be on the manly road to independence. After Meg's wedding, we learn, Jo literally burns with the urge to write. Yet Alcott describes these writing sprees curiously; the gift she obviously admires and possesses herself is pictured fully but then mocked:

When the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon and led a blissful life . . . sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her "vortex" hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.

(p. 241)

As time goes on, Jo receives less and less praise for her [End Page 91] writing and ultimately she condescends to a great deal of hack work. Her monetary goals soon prevail over her purer literary ones. Attending a lecture, for example, Jo notices a young man reading "trash" in a newspaper. When Jo learns that the authoress of this piece earns a good living from such writing, she enters the paper's sensational story contest. She wins $100 and is totally exuberant until she receives only modest praise from her mother and sisters and still less from her father. "You can do better than this, Jo," he says. "Aim at the highest and never mind the money" (p. 244). The adored father's criticism of Jo's art foreshadows Mr. Bhaer's rebukes. Men, it seems, never fully admire this young woman's talents. Jo's father repeats his warning when her first novel is accepted on condition that she "cut it down one-third" and omit "all the parts she particularly admired" (p. 245). Although the reader is inclined to agree with the father whose advice seems genuine and not at all competitive, Jo chooses cash over conscience. Indeed Jo experiences very little conflict in choosing between being a poor "artist" and a wealthy "hack." She seems quite happy to use her abilities to make money, and perhaps her decision is justified by her use of her profits to supply all her family's wants. Later, when she is made to realize the immorality of such profits, she simply stops writing rather than trying to compose truly worthy pieces.

Jo's spirits are temporarily daunted by the novel's rather unenthusiastic reception, but shortly she returns secretly to writing her thrilling tales, a selling out of which Alcott herself disapproves. Not surprisingly, either, Alcott regards such work as unbefitting to Jo's femininity:

She thought she was prospering finally, but unconsciously she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her.

(p. 316)

It is then Professor Bhaer, Jo's future husband, who finally checks her vaulting ambitions, advising her at first to study "simple, true, and lovely characters" (p...


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