Xavier Journal of Undergraduate Research

Article Title

The Nineteenth-Century Enigma


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Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, an American classic beloved by many young readers, is oft recognized by scholars as an examination of nineteenth-century subversive feminism, embodied by the tomboyish and resolutely unconstrained Jo March. However, Amy, the precocious, charming, and materialistic youngest March sister, is just as often overlooked as an equally commanding figure in Alcott’s early feminist discourse. Perhaps it is her seemingly complacent subscription to social expectations of feminine behavior, her fascination with traditionally “female” preoccupations that prompts readers to ignore her dissident potential. This potential is present though, and is what I explore in this essay. I argue that Amy is both champion and challenger of nineteenth-century societal norms, simultaneously embracing that which society dictates she must become and rebuffing it. Indeed, the very act of consciously molding herself into the ideal image of feminine refinement demonstrates her agency and self-possession, two characteristics quite at odds with such an image. I explore how Amy’s social maneuvers secure for her a wealthy husband and the life of a wealthy gentlewoman, though her forceful attempts at encouraging her husband to abandon his indolence in favor of activity resonate with insubordinate implications. Thus, Amy is much more nuanced than traditionally read. Ultimately, I argue that Alcott’s portrayal of Amy taps into powerful dichotomies between conformity and rebellion, between the socially acceptable and the socially rebellious, and illuminates the complexities inherent to interpreting a woman that desires the conventional, but also is able to achieve the conventional by her own artistry, finesse, and agency.

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