Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair
Many of the female characters in the Gothic thrillers of Louisa May Alcott wear masks or are or portrayed as “actresses” who conceal their passion with the appearance of being the typical domestic woman. This idea is most clearly presented in “Behind a Mask” and “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” In these thrillers, hidden passion causes problems in each heroine’s life, either because her strong will is an unacceptable female characteristic and she will therefore be shunned in some way by society or by those dear to her; or, expressing her passion will result in disaster of some kind. This representation is twofold, in that the heroines are literally actresses in some sense, but they also figuratively act how society expects them to, as many women of the nineteenth century were apt to do. Alcott’s social commentary in these thrillers seems to show her discontent with the expectations placed on women. Louisa May Alcott herself had to “wear a mask,” so to speak, when she published these thrillers; she published them either anonymously or pseudonymously, for it would have tarnished her reputation as an author of both domestic tales and children’s stories if it were known that she had written thrillers as well.
In her life, she was an atypical woman for her time; she tried to be self-reliant, seeking independence by finding ways to earn an income to support herself and her family. Many of the ways she earned that income, however, were by means of the typical female employments, such as sewing, going to service, and writing. Difficult as it was to break free from a woman’s role, Alcott did in many ways. Much like her Gothic heroines, she struggled to find balance between her desire to be independent, her passion, and her need to survive as a woman in nineteenth-century society. Her career as an author, and more specifically, a female author, depended on her finding and maintaining this balance. She would likely have lost some readers of her domestic tales if it were widely known that she was also the author of these “racy” thrillers.
Also of interest is the alteration of some of the typical Gothic themes in Alcotf s thrillers. Although her “blood and thunder” tales basically follow the Gothic “formula,” there are elements that are slightly shifted, which reveal the female author’s touch. One example of an ironic twist on a typical Gothic theme in Alcotf s thrillers involves marriage between different classes. In “Behind a Mask,” the heroine/villainess, Jean Muir, claims to be of noble blood to gain the sympathies and affections of the men of the wealthy Coventry family. Truly an actress, she tricks her way in to marrying into the family in order to gain power, wealth, and a noble title. Ironically, however, through this marriage, Jean Muir remains powerless and becomes trapped in the domestic role she had played for so long; she is doomed to continue her “act” as Lady Coventry. So, although Jean Muir (as well Alcotf s other heroines/villainesses) has done wrong, her situation evokes pity at the end of the story, as we see that for all her efforts, she does not ultimately win and must remain in the domestic sphere.
Although Alcott was ashamed that she had written these thrillers just because they paid well, it seems that through these stories she was able to present stronger, more passionate women, women that perhaps mirrored her own hidden desires. And even if these women did not always win in the end, they at least took the initiative to become something more; to be more than passive, submissive women.
Poggi, Lisa, "The Many Masks of Louisa May Alcott’s Gothic Heroines" (2008). Theses, Dissertations and Culminating Projects. 1235.