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The paper is aimed at discussing and analyzing the role women authors played in history and literature during the period of 1865-1912. The discussion is centered on the creative work of Louisa May Alcott, and her major work Little Women as one of the literary pieces, which provide the contemporary reader with insight into social and gender relations of the then society.
As long as people write, writing will remain an effective instrument of expressing the authors’ views and opinions on the society in which he (she) lives. The works of literature created in the periods, when serious social and cultural changes take place, acquire additional historical value and frequently become the object of analysis in contemporary society. The period between 1865 and 1912 can be characterized as the time of difficult reconstruction and restoration; the need for restoring has not only been physically required after the war end – the war has also revealed profound need to implement changes into all spheres of social and cultural life. Female writers of that time have not only become the mirrors of the then societal events, but they have also represented their own interpretations and analyses of the deep social changes affecting human relations and creating new strata of social conscience.
Louisa May Alcott was one of those talented people, whose works are immortal and never lose their significance. Having become well-known for her work Little Women, she was also one of the brightest representatives of her time and has created the literary work which is constantly addressed by contemporary scholars for the research of the changing social status of women during the period of Alcott’s life.
The importance of Little Women is not in realistically depicting the role of women in the 1865-1912 society; Alcott’s work is for through having displayed the process of the changing social status of women, and the women’s attempts to expand the traditional boundaries of their gender roles. With several women being the protagonists of the book, Alcott has provided its reader with the vast opportunities to compare and contrast the roles of women traditionally held in the society of that time, and the roles they acquired through the ever lasting process of the gender and social development. Female socialization is depicted by Alcott as the combination of class and gender attributes. As belonging to a certain class remains crucial for any women during the period of Alcott’s life, there are numerous signs of how women attempt at breaking the tradition to conform to the societal gender requirements. (Baym 1978, p. 94)
The author recognizes the importance of class distinctions in the gendered society of her time, but she also gives her 'Little Women' some space to erase these requirements in order to remain individual and to be happy in their lives. In this aspect Alcott frequently steps away from conformity in terms of gender relations. It is possible to suggest, that she expresses her desire and dream about the status women should possess in the society gender
The major characteristics making Little Women stand out, is the description of how gender and financial status are mutually determining. The first pages of the book make us familiar with the fact that young girls clearly realize their societal status; moreover, it is not that the lack of finances makes them unhappy – it is the fact that this lack of finances does not allow them looking like other young ladies at their age. This is the first sign of class stratification and the personal identification of class in the book. Moreover, the scenes of rage and envy usually displayed by girls within the family circle are replaced by public scenes of humiliation and class shame. (Foot 2005, p. 129)
‘Women, already excluded from the growth of a professionalized white collar identity, are especially sensitive barometers of the injuries that accompany the emergence of middle class styles and sensibilities. Limited in terms of their economic production, […] middle-class women become the guardians of the difference between economic class and social status and they do so by knowing which feelings to have about which kinds of people.’ (Foot 2005, p. 130)
Alcott describes Amy as the representative of traditional social and class attitudes, as well as the supporter of the opinion that ‘women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones’ (Alcott 1993, p. 263). Amy views the need to conform to gender roles as the compensation for belonging to the lower social class. Member of the nineteenth century society, she does not see any other pathway except for closely following the conventions of her social class and gender.
The fact that all March girls work is another relation to the gender status of the society in which Alcott lived. Working for a woman meant the conflict of both gender and social attitudes, but Jo has become the only girl in the family to break those prejudices and to achieve the position of the successful New York author. Her life attitudes are briefly expressed in the response to the young boys’ commentary related to her style (or rather, absence of this style): ‘A governess is as good, as a clerk. I hate ordinary people!’ (Alcott 1993, p. 300) But depicting Amy and Jo as the two contrasting characters of the nineteenth century’s society, Louisa May Alcott has not yet clearly identified what a woman in the society should be.
As long as the reader may perceive the equality with which Alcott treats her characters, it is difficult not to emphasize the social and financial rewards Amy obtains by conforming to the requirements of her social and gender status. Moreover, with Alcott frequently compared to her Jo character, she has implicitly viewed Amy’s behavior as more accepted within her societal environment. Jo has displayed solid abilities to sustain her independence and to erase the limits female gender determined during 1865-1912, but the society has not been ready to those changes. It is possible to assume that Jo has appeared ahead of her time, as well as Alcott has clearly predicted or even prepared her readers towards the gender status’ changes, which are accepted as a norm among contemporary people.
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