By Mary Lamb Shelden
The chapter “Surprises” should be understood as a turning point in Little Women, for it begins with Jo as “a literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse,” and closes with Jo and Professor Bhaer singing to one another as “my beloved,” for all to hear. It bears some thinking through how Alcott gets from one point to the other.
In paragraphs 3-4 of the chapter, we receive what the narrator refers to self-effacingly as a “little homily” on spinsterhood – two stout paragraphs that strike me as Alcott’s bargain with her readers: for you, I have done my best to imagine Jo happily married to a man; as compensation, you must learn to understand and treat spinsters like me with respect. While our narrator acknowledges that “many silent sacrifices” may be “hidden away in the hearts” of some spinsters, still spinsterhood is “not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in oneself to fall back on.” To be sure, Alcott had that something in herself, and this should help us to consider what she’s doing here.
I so appreciate that in Roberta Trites’s exploration of Jo’s sexuality as important to our understanding of her romantic choices, she acknowledges that Alcott’s sense of her own identity may ultimately have been “influenced by the sexologists’ notion of inversion” (36). It’s important to understand, also, that Havelock Ellis’s idea of inversion did not encompass sexuality merely, but rather understood sexual attraction to be bound up with what we would now call gender identity – and that it’s possible Ellis himself could well have been influenced by Little Women and its internationally popular protagonist. This understanding helps us see differently Alcott’s assertion that she “went and made a funny match” for Jo “out of perversity” (125). So long as we are trying on ahistorical categories for Jo, we should consider her as a transgender man. Indeed, much of the textual evidence offered by critics for Jo’s lesbian identity is actually about her gender non-conformity, which Jo wrestles with on nearly every page of the novel where we find her name. What if, in imagining a mate for Jo (and by extension, for herself), Alcott tried to imagine into being the man she yearned to become? Strong and free, paddling his own canoe – caring and working for his family, but by finding his way in the world, rather than stuck at home. Free to proceed as his heart directs, Bhaer chooses an independent woman – an authoress he calls “professorin,” who will carry her share and help him to earn the home (ch 46) – and takes her mind and talent seriously, helping her indirectly (with Marmee’s more direct urging) to find her own way to the better writing that will bring him to her. And once his heart has chosen Jo, Bhaer works and waits for Jo to know her own heart and choose him, too. If Jo – if Alcott herself – could have transitioned to become the man she yearned to be, he would have made a fine mate for the woman she was constrained to be. Though she acquiesced to marrying Jo to a man, perhaps Alcott’s transcendent resolution, conscious or not, was that she would marry Jo to herself – that is, to a male version of herself – thus in a way staying true to Alcott’s own life as a spinster into the bargain.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeline Stern. Little Brown, 1987.
Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd, U of Michigan P, 2011, pp. 33-58.
Dr. Mary Lamb Shelden (she/her) is Director of Lifespan Religious Education at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, where one of the big meeting rooms for lifespan learners is named for Unitarian Louisa May Alcott. Her 2003 dissertation, “Novel Habits for a New World,” considers cross-dressing as a literary device in American novels throughout the Nineteenth Century and finds Alcott’s Jo March to be the first example of a “true transgender” character – for example, more comfortable in the clothes associated with the “opposite” sex than in those associated with what others understand to be “her own” sex.