The Nineteenth-Century Enigma: Amy March as Champion and Challenger of Society
Though Louisa May Alcott’s strong-willed female protagonist Jo March claims many contemporary analyses of the subversive feminist in Little Women, her younger sister Amy proves just as complex in the ways in which Alcott shapes and reshapes her character. Always with an eye for finery, from a young age Amy desires a life of genteel luxury and resolves to marry for money to secure that life. Through her attention to social decorum and careful maintenance of her appearance, she does just that by marrying Laurie, the Marches’ wealthy, handsome, and intelligent childhood neighbor. In this way, she embodies that which society wishes her to be–a beautiful, well-mannered wife of genteel status with an affluent husband. Becoming this idealized woman, however, requires the abandonment of her passion for art, a sacrifice which society necessitates as payment for an elite marriage. Nevertheless, by depicting Amy as intensely happy with Laurie, Alcott suggests that Amy’s satisfaction with life does not depend upon her ability to become an artist; the conditions of socially-prescribed female domesticity are not restrictive for her but, rather, fulfilling, as she assumes those conditions as a gentlewoman with a man whom she loves. Loving Laurie, though, is dependent on shaping him from rich and kind gentleman to rich and kind and active gentleman, a process to which Amy is instrumental. By calling attention to Laurie’s indolence as a significant flaw, Amy seeks to change him and, in doing so, reverses the socially constructed gender roles by which she routinely abides. In Amy, Alcott captures the spectrum of social attitude: she is the embodiment of the expected and the victim of it, both the willing champion of the socially constructed female and the unwitting challenger of her. Through such a nuanced characterization of her, Alcott posits that woman is not simply a rejection of or an acceptance of what society dictates she must be. Rather, she is a complex amalgamation of many psychological elements that simultaneously embrace and rebuff society’s attempts at defining her.
Alcott introduces Amy as the precocious, pragmatic youngest daughter of the March family who seeks to break free from the fetters of monetary paucity that prevent her from claiming the gentlewomanly lifestyle that her social class merits. From an early age, Amy touts the value she places in self-perception: “though the youngest, [she is] a most important person, in her own opinion at least…and [is] always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners” (Alcott 13-4). Geraldine Brooks captures the materialistic side of Amy’s VIP mindset in her novel March; as her mother Marmee tends to an escaped slave girl’s feet and dresses them with new cloth, Amy, upon Marmee’s severe look, takes the soiled bundle with “care to hold it well away from her spotless pinafore” (Brooks 174). Brooks strikes an interesting juxtaposition between Amy and her mother through this interaction, characterizing the former as appearance-oriented and the latter as emotion-oriented. Amy’s fascination with luxury rings true in Brooks’ source text; Alcott’s narrator observes that “money, position, fashionable accomplishments, and elegant manners, were most desirable things in her eyes” (Alcott 205). These values, which Amy holds dear throughout the course of the novel, align with Marmee’s wish for her “‘daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected’” (84). Amy, though, founds her entire personal philosophy upon such beliefs, with the profound dream of rendering herself a gentlewoman and rising out of her family’s poverty. Indeed, her values qualify her as quite the poster-woman for mid-nineteenth century institutional femininity, as she seeks to embody the type of woman her society expects her to be.
However, there is particular power in Amy’s pragmatic approach towards achieving this goal. Her complete and unabashed awareness of what it takes to become this “expected woman,” and her distinctive agency in reinventing herself in light of what distinguishes the ideal feminine, give her a degree of independence that, through its assertiveness and self-assuredness, challenges the very ideal towards which she strives. Amy is remarkably cognizant of her own practicality, referring to herself as Marmee’s “‘prudent Amy’” who “‘will do nothing rashly’” (253). Indeed, she regards it as her duty to make calls to her wealthier neighbors with unwavering agreeableness and attention because “‘it’s the way of the world’” (235). And even though she is faulted by Alcott for being vain and materialistic, “she seldom fail[s] to have common sense on her side” (207). In this way, Amy is quite a unique character, not absorbed in the sentimentality and dreaminess of those with grand goals for themselves, but, rather, practically applying her social finesse to her daily experiences to achieve the lifestyle that will eventually satisfy her material inclinations.
And Amy definitely has social finesse. Holly Blackford calls it Amy’s “tendenc[y] to sculpt herself for a social gaze” (Blackford 3). Even as a young girl, she tells her older sister Jo that “‘it’s proper to use good words, and to improve your vocabilary’” (Alcott 12). Continuing to associate the proper with her own behavior, she develops “an instinctive sense of what [is] pleasing and proper, always [says] the right thing to the right person, [does] just what suit[s] the time and place, and [is] so self-possessed” (204-5). Moreover, fulfilling the role of the feminine charmer, the agreeable young miss of status and class, gives Amy pleasure. She performs social calls at the homes of the family’s acquaintance so cheerfully, “pleas[ing] everybody” so that she finds herself “in a most angelic frame of mind” (235). By systematically and willing deriving her pleasure from her practical adherence to the social customs of the genteel and dignified, Amy stands as true champion of her society, even more so when she attempts to convince Jo to do the same. Whenever her tomboyish older sister acts in a way unbecoming to the feminine sex, Amy makes her disapproval known: to a whistling adolescent Jo, Amy bluntly announces that she “‘detest[s] rude, unlady-like girls’” (12). Furthermore, she seeks to align Jo’s sensibilities with those of the socially graceful, like herself. Before their social calls, Amy promises to “‘tell [Jo] how to behave at each place, so that [she] will make a good impression’” because she “‘want[s] people to like’” Jo (229). Her knowledge of how to behave is detailed: “‘gossip as other girls do, and be interested in dress, and flirtations, and whatever nonsense comes up’” (230). Her use of the word “nonsense” implies a sort of nonchalance about the content of these interactions, so long as their results are manifest in “‘good impressions made’” and “‘valuable persons’” met (230). Indeed, securing these connections is vital for the ever practical Amy, who “‘mean[s] to make the most of every chance that comes’” so as to negotiate the lifestyle of the would-be gentlewoman to the best of her ability (206-7). Her ability to capture the essence of what makes an agreeable, beautiful, and well-liked young woman – as defined by general social consensus – and perfectly embody that essence makes Amy what I call a social artist. She observes, assumes, and owns the traits of the gentlewoman she yearns to be, and is remarkably attuned to and pragmatically compliant with the necessary interplays between herself, her acquaintance, and her society.
Social artistry is not Amy’s only artistic skill, though. Alcott gives both Amy and Jo artistic prowess, Amy in drawing and Jo in writing. At a local fair, “Amy’s talent and taste were duly complimented by the offer of the Art table,” and the youngest March approaches her accomplishments with the resolution “that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’” (237, 204). Alcott adds a layer of complexity to Amy’s character through her desire to “‘do something to prove’” her artistic “‘genius’” (244). We are comfortable with her goal to distance herself from the relative poverty of her genteel family through the attitudes and connections of an upper-class gentlewoman; this new goal, then, must be examined as a corollary to or as a replacement for the former, as one cannot exist in her society at the same time as the other. Indeed, Amy discovers this reality on her trip to Europe, where the works of great artistic masters convince her that she is merely “‘a common-place dauber,’” so she does not “‘intend to try anymore’” and seeks instead to “‘polish up [her] other talents, and be an ornament to society’” (317).Tapping into a source of Alcott’s own artistic genius, Blackford draws parallels between Alcott’s treatment of art in Little Women and Goethe’s in Faust “as a way to understand how art might involve selling the soul, whether prostituting the self for fame and fortune or pursuing the ever-elusive genius” (Blackford 3). Such an interpretation of art fosters the sentimental, the moody, the irrational, and the passionate; that is, what threatens to consume Jo as she writes her stories. It is obvious, though, that Amy is far from the sentimental – she is “prudent Amy,” after all. Her sketching never threatens to envelop her in a romantic haze. It never supersedes her ultimate goal of becoming a gentlewoman. I do not claim that it was ever completely peripheral to her, but I do argue that it is not the means by which she achieves what she desires most, and thus Amy is never truly at risk for selling her soul to artistic passion. Alcott suggests as much when she explains that Amy is “learning, doing, and enjoying other things, meanwhile, for she [has] resolved to be an attractive and accomplished woman, even if she never [becomes] a great artist” (Alcott 204). Once again, Amy finds herself a champion of society, a woman who does not give into the subversive urge to forge her own career at the expense of marriage, but a realistic, goal-oriented pragmatist whose foray into an artistic career Alcott all but tells us to doubt.
Though Amy forsakes her physical art in Europe, she further develops her social art there, remaining true to her practical spirit and claiming powerful agency over her life and her future. Alcott enriches much of Amy’s nuanced character during her European getaway, where it is unclear whether the little woman is “simple, innocent baby Amy or ‘illusive’ European lady who promotes herself as her own central artistic project” (Blackford 13). I argue that, though Amy is the youngest March daughter, she has never truly been “simple, innocent baby Amy,” and Europe allows her to flourish as she naturally exists: a driven, graceful, practical woman who knows what she wants and who constantly repositions herself within the framework of a social model oriented towards wealth and aristocratic values. Indeed, her relationship with Theodore Lawrence, better known as Laurie, the Marches’ handsome, wealthy, and intelligent neighbor boy, draws out the full extent of her impressive social artistry. Each of her actions is calculated to attract the type of man whom will secure her a life as a gentlewoman, for they paint her as the gentlewoman she hopes to become. Just as “ladies drive their own ponies [in Europe]…because the effect is attractive and stimulating,” Amy exemplifies each of the characteristics that reflect upper class sensibilities, like beauty, grace, elegance, agreeableness, and good breeding. And doing so enables her to influence and control men, giving her a degree of power not to be overlooked in the gendered spheres of social interaction. For example, at the Christmas party in Nice, when she disapproves of Laurie’s relief at skipping a dance, she deliberately ignores him in such a way that “her anger [has] a good effect” – “Laurie’s eyes follow[ing] her with pleasure” – because “she [hides] it under a smiling face, and [seems] unusually blithe and brilliant” (Alcott 302). As Blackford notes, she is “the master self-sculptor,” the perfect arranger of figure, expression, appearance, and speech to captivate the man upon whom her sights are set (Blackford 6). She also appears artless, though, an even greater feat that enables her to retain a youthful vibrancy, a delicate vivacity that makes Laurie find “himself both admiring and respecting the brave patience that [makes] the most of opportunity, and the cheerful spirit that cover[s] poverty with flowers” (Alcott 304). Though there is a certain level of deception in ornamenting herself as a gentlewoman would, there is something pure in Amy’s efforts, which are so rooted in an accepted social structure for feminine behavior, not to mention a practical and oft-spoken desire not “‘to bear’” poverty “‘a minute longer than [she] can help,’” though she admits to being “‘mercenary’” (252). These skills render her a social artist, a woman with the independence, self-awareness, and clear-sightedness to align herself with what society wants, but the socially subversive female power and agency to actually elevate herself and achieve her goals.
Amy further attracts Laurie by, ironically, criticizing him for his indolence; in doing so, she is at once the champion and the enemy of social convention. The content of her censure tends towards the former. While in Europe, “Laurie [makes] no effort of any kind, but just let[s] himself drift as long as comfortably as possible” (314). Amy takes offense to this laziness, delivering progressively sharper criticisms aimed at his “‘dreadful…natural indolence’” and his “‘faulty, lazy and miserable’” disposition (316, 319). She urges Laurie to “‘be a man’” and embody what society expects of men: action (322). The act of the censure, on the other hand, suggests that Amy breaks with social custom. In seeking to shape Laurie, a gentleman of respectable means and influence, she herself is a woman of action, a descriptor quite contrarian to the traditional characterization of the feminine as passive and submissive. And her action has a profound effect: “At Nice, Laurie had lounged and Amy had scolded; at Vevey, Laurie [is] never idle, but always walking, riding, boating, or studying, in the most energetic manner” (335). Thus, Amy is much more complex than simply conformist or nonconformist.
Through both her traditionally feminine and her more assertive efforts, all of which fall within her careful social structuring of herself, Amy achieves her ultimate goal by marrying Laurie. The match is practical, as she hopes for, but is also rooted in love for each other. Mary Richardson Walker, a nineteenth-century American woman, chronicles a similar experience in a letter to her husband, assuring him that, “however much at first [she] was influenced by expediency and a sense of duty in [her] decision, there now exists a deep rooted affection” (Walker 123). Amy has a model for such affection in her mother’s advice, for Marmee emphasizes how being ‘“loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman’” (Alcott 84). However, her primary motive for much of the novel is her sense of duty to her family and herself, to secure that noble future she wishes to seize, as evidenced by her confession to Marmee that one of the sisters “‘must marry well’” (252). Such a sentiment falls in line with social tendencies to seek advantage and wealth through marriage, and characterizes Amy as a societal adherent and her mother, who exhorts her daughters to “‘never…think [money] is the first or only prize to strive for,’” as somewhat of a nonconformist (84). Amy captures both money and love, though, in Laurie, who is both protector and partner for the youngest March girl (334). He embodies what the March parents seek to impart on their daughters: a marriage in which husband and wife “‘work together, always’” in the domestic sphere (307). Brooks corroborates this matrimonial model in March through Marmee’s observation that, before the Civil War, the time shared between her and March “had succeeded in drawing only pleasant lines upon [March’s] face: the marks of laughter that webbed the corners of his eyes and etched a deep parenthesis as brackets for his smile” (Brooks 212). Anne Dalke characterizes this model as a companionate one, “in which husband and wife share the economic and, more significantly, the emotional responsibilities of group existence” (Dalke 576). Laurie and Amy seem to best even Marmee and March as the quintessential example of the companionate couple, as Amy does not have to “bear the small insults and indignities of poverty” with which Marmee struggles in March (Brooks 222). Indeed, Laurie proves himself, once roused into action by the assertive Amy of Europe, to be “‘a steady, sensible, business man, doing lots of good with [his] money’” (Alcott 375). In this way, Alcott suggests that Amy finds the perfect mate, one who elevates her to the level of status and wealth towards which her conventional social aspirations are directed.
Despite Laurie’s fair management of his money, it is vital to note that the majority of his action – and Amy’s praise for it – is directed towards the domestic and not the public. At the novel’s end, Amy beamingly explains that she has “‘Laurie to take more than half of every burden,’” which indicates his unconventionally feminine approach towards paternal involvement at home (380). In this way, Amy’s disparagement of his laziness and provocation to action is two-fold in their social tendencies. On one hand, Laurie is moved to some sort of action, which befits the customs of masculinity; on the other, the action he takes up is more tender and domestic, which defies those very same customs. His response to Amy’s lecture reveals intriguing dichotomies within Amy, encapsulating both “the opportunities provided by the strength and stability of the March matriarchy for reinventing manhood” (the influence she draws from her mother) and the practical processes and determined independence she draws from herself (Dalke 572). For, at the same time as she is “stamped…with the unmistakable sign of the true gentlewoman she had hoped to become,” she discovers how “‘beautiful’” it is “‘to be loved as Laurie loves’” her (Alcott 349, 341). With the most socially successful marriage of the surviving March sisters, Amy subscribes herself to the idealized vision of female success: the reputable wife of an attractive young gentleman. Her marriage, though, is also the most personally successful – she and Laurie are intensely in love and enviably happy. In this way, Alcott seems to argue that Amy, by tending to social considerations and performing careful social maneuvers within the framework of feminine refinement, is the matrimonial victor of her sisters, the seemingly self-made woman who takes pragmatism, social skills, and a dream and earns for herself, in a way not entirely socially condoned, a life that society ultimately commends.
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