The Absent Male in Little Women “No gentlemen were admitted” writes Louisa May Alcott in Little Women to describe the all-female private revue the March sisters perform. And as the novel progresses, one cannot help but wonder if this same sentiment does indeed echo throughout the novel, as male characters are conspicuously absent while all the pivotal parts are played by the women characters. This gender imbalance — in that there are more female characters than male in Little Women — is especially obvious when male authority figures such as Mr March and Mr Lawrence are markedly absent for most of the novel. When they do appear, they are in need of love and care from the women. Mr Lawrence, who is nursing a broken heart over the death of his daughter, is healed by Beth’s gentle manners, while Mr March’s broken constitution is nursed back to health by his loving wife and daughters. The only male character who appears prominently in Little Women is Laurie, who, although the richest and most eligible bachelor for miles, is drawn to the motherly smile and warmth of the little cottage, despite the luxuries of his mansion next door. John Brooke, Lauries tutor and Megs husband, too, is drawn to the homey atmosphere of the March residence, having recently lost his mother.
In a bold move that differentiates Alcott from her contemporaries, the male characters in Little Women are all not capable of providing sustenance to their womenfolk as they are incapacitated (either by a war injury, an emotional scar, or an impoverished background). The women are thus forced to take on varied roles in order to provide materially and emotionally for the family. They are the ones who shoulder the burden in situations not unlike those of the Alcott family. Is it by chance, or is premeditation, that most of Alcotts novels feature an absent father? And when he does reappear, he is very often silent, ill or injured. It is obvious Alcott has problems portraying strong male characters, probably from the fact that she hadnt seen too many of them. Furthermore, Alcott is not able to describe a situation where love is emoted expressively from men.
In all her novels, the male characters disappoint — in one way or the other. In many ways, they are very similar to her own father. Bronson Alcott was a man who preferred dreaming, shirking his fatherly and husbandly duties, and was prone to going on extended trips without his family. Bronson Alcott deserted his family for months at a time purportedly to earn a living. But he was not very successful in that area.
Once he came back with a new scarf and a dollar in his pocket to a hungry family waiting for the money to buy some much needed bread. He handed over the token that he was paid to Alcott with the careless remark: Well, Louisa, theres little money, but I had a great time and was asked to come again. In Little Women, the appearance of these hapless males in search of a mother figure to comfort them celebrates the Good Mother, a role played by Marmee and her four daughters. The Good Mother figure, as explained by French feminist writer Helene Cixous in her manifesto The Laugh of the Medusa, is a woman who is an omnipotent, generous dispenser of love, nourishment and plenitute. And in a departure from the patriachal system that she grew up in, Alcott proclaims women as the source of life, power, energy and advice.
In Good Wives (pages 211 – 213), Marmee says to Meg, beginning with: “May I speak quite freely, and will you remember that it’s mother who blames as well as mother who sympathises?” before concluding with “Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.” Then later on in Good Wives (page 318), Jo exclaim about Marmee: “How goo! d she is to me! What do girls do who haven’t any mothers to help them through their troubles?” Alcott’s portrayal of a strong mother figure is no surprise considering that she was very much influenced by her mother, and much of her journals was annotated by her mother who read them and made notes within them. Just as Abba Alcott was very caught up with womens rights, so too was Alcott. The suffrage movement, equality in housework, and other talk of independence for women excited them both who had laboured so hard under a shiftless and irresponsible man. In Alcott’s novels, the adult woman is not only mother, wife, daughter, or loyal friend, she is also nurse, governess, seamstress, writer, artist or actress. With the absence of a father in the house, womanhood — and in particular, motherhood — is not obscured by the patriachal values which dominate our culture.
Motherhood is thus not seen as a full-time, life-long routine job, but as an inevitable and natural situation which allows the woman to combine her maternal chores with her other interests. A prime example is Marmee who not only runs a household single-handedly, but also indulges in charitable acts around town. And to relieve Marmee from the drudgery of household chores, is yet another woman — Hannah Mullet, in the form of the maid. The very absence of men in Alcotts novel reflects her own interests. A staunch believer of womens rights, Alcott was raised in a family where women wield the power.
As such, Alcott allows her female characters contact with the outside world. Not for them the cloistered world of the nunnery, they are adventurous and they travel the world, often with another woman’s help. In Good Wives, Amy travels to Europe with Aunt Carrol, courtesy of Aunt March, who controls the purse-strings. Alcott’s heroines demand independence, and at times even modest adventure. But in keeping with the period that she lived in, such independence is not an alternative to domesticity, but as a necessary precondition to its success.
It is only while she is travelling in Europe and having been exposed to a wide variety of people and experiences that Amy begins to see Laurie in a different light and comes to the realisation that she is in love with him all along. This is an about turn for Amy who had originally contemplated marrying Fred Vaughn as he is rich. Women in Little Women are allowed to be impulsive. No sooner is the thought in their head, then the deed is at hand. In Alcotts novel, her characters lead lives that are more impetuous and daring than her own.
Alcott thinks of selling her hair; Jo does it, in a moment of self-sacrifice for her father. “That’s my contribution towards making Father comfortable, and bringing him home!” “My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars? Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?” “No, it’s mine honestly; I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it; and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.” As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short. Little Women, pages 210 & 211 Without strong male characters to patronise them, Alcott’s women are given full reign to be strong and decisive. Marmee is portrayed as a strong character who is able to take charge and delegate duties even in her hour of grief.
She is brave even without money and husband at her side. She and her four daughters survive without a husband and father to provide for them. On the contrary, they have to seek the means to bring him home after he is stricken ill while at war, and following that, help him regain his health. For a family as proud as the Alcotts, it must have been difficult for the women to survive on handouts from neighbours and friends. As a result, Alcott grew up with a warped idea of men and marriage. Like Marmee, Alcott would never dream of begging her relatives for money.
Yet, Marmee did borrow from Aunt March for the sake of her husband — money with which to travel to her husband’s bedside. “I’m not too proud to beg for Father; he shall have the best of everything,” Marmee proclaims in Little Women (page 209). It is noteworthy at this point, that it is the man who needs the comfort of the woman, and that it is a womans money which enables Marmee to effectively provide for her husband. It is also Aunt March’s will which enables Jo and Professor Friedrich Bhaer to set up home in Plumfield. Professor Bhaer, pleasant man though he may be, is in no position to provide for Jo, being an impoverished — albeit cultured — professor.
Therefore, Aunt March’s legacy has “made all sorts of joyful things possible.” (Good Wives, p335) Housework, a traditionally female occupation, is not trivialised in the novel. Instead, it is elevated to new importance. Alcott does a good job of proving that domestic work is real work, and that women at home have a vital role to play in the well-being of the homes occupants. Take for example the episode in Little Women when the March sisters decide to take a vacation from housework. The result: a messy house, a dead canary and four grumpy and unhappy young ladies. Cooking, in addition to housework, is deemed a very necessary skill, as without sustenance, (hu)mankind can hardly function.
Alcott accepted that womens traditional commitment is to family and home life; yet she also demanded individuality as her natural rights. Without a man to contradict her, Jo is able to fully explore her imagination. She writes dramatic stories which she sells to earn her keep. And as long as she manages to keep the Weekly Volcano away from the males in her life, she makes an honest living out of it. However, Professor Bhaer’s disapproval makes her “hard-earned money lay rather heavily on her conscience”. Notwithstanding the hurdles placed in her writing path, Jo still manages to be the most intellectually fulfilled of the four sisters — in particular, Meg who seems all lost in motherhood and wifedom, and whose life is thereafter measured as somebodys wife and mother. Without a strong male focus in her life, Alcott grew up understanding girls better than boys, although she once announced: I was born with a boys bib and tucker.
Her understanding of what makes girls tick contributes to the success of her novels for girls. Girls are able to identify with her characters as the female voices are more clearly defined. The males seem but mere ornaments around which the girls interact.