Issuu on Google+

AMER LITER ISBN 978-961-237-640-6

Literature, be it realistic or fantastic, does not exist in a vacuum. It is firmly rooted in our everyday reality and is therefore deeply informed by very specific social relations and historical contexts, which shape its content and form. The textbook carries analytical chapters on a selection of socially engaged literary works

that function as examiners of American reality. By shedding light on the constructs of race, gender and class that continue to underpin the organization and functioning of American society, these literary works call attention to the need for a critical reading and the writers’ and readers’ committed engagement.

LILIJANA BURCAR, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. Her research interests include feminist theory and gender studies, social justice, postcolonial and neo-colonial theory, and contemporary British and American literatures. She is the author of The New Wave of Innocence in Children’s Literature, published in Slovene.

LILIJANA BURCAR: AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

9 789612 376406

LILIJANA BURCAR

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT Oddelek za anglistiko in amerikanistiko Ljubljana 2014


Lilijana Burcar

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

Ljubljana 2014


AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT Author/Avtor: Lilijana Burcar Reviewers/Recenzenta: Meta Grosman, Neva Šlibar Proofreading/Lektor: Kirsten Margaret Hempkin Technical editing and layout/Tehnični urednik: Jure Preglau ©University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts, 2014/Univerza v Ljubljani, Filozofska fakulteta, 2014 All rights reserved./Vse pravice pridržane. Published by/Založila: Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete Univerze v Ljubljani (Ljubljana University Press, Faculty of Arts) Issued by/Izdal: Department of English/Oddelek za anglistiko in amerikanistiko For the publisher/Za založbo: Branka Kalenić Ramšak, the dean of the Faculty of Arts/Branka Kalenić Ramšak, dekanja Filozofske fakultete The head of the editorial board (textbook section)/Vodja Uredništva visokošolskih in drugih učbenikov: Janica Kalin Design/Oblikovna zasnova: Jana Kuhar Printed by/Tisk: Birografika Bori, d. o. o. Ljubljana, 2014 First Edition/Prva izdaja Number of copies printed/Naklada: 300 Price/Cena: 12,90 EUR

CIP - Kataložni zapis o publikaciji Narodna in univerzitetna knjižnica, Ljubljana 821.111(73).09(075.8) BURCAR, Lilijana American literature and its socio-political context / Lilijana Burcar. - 1st ed. = 1. izd. - Ljubljana : Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete = University Press, Faculty of Arts, 2014 ISBN 978-961-237-640-6 273361664


Content

3

Content

Introduction: LITERATURE AS SOCIAL DISCOURSE/SOCIAL PRACTICE...................11 Chapter 1 – Toni Morrison: THE BLUEST EYE (1970) .............................................................19 1 The construct of beauty....................................................................................................................19 2 Racialized standards of beauty as a form of domination .....................................................20 3 Internalized racism..............................................................................................................................23 4 The necessity of exposing whiteness as a political category ..............................................24

Chapter 2 – Louisa May Alcott: LITTLE WOMEN (1868)......................................................26 1 Fiction and gender ideology...........................................................................................................26 2 The cult of domesticity......................................................................................................................28 3 Domestic fiction...................................................................................................................................29 4 Practising self-restraint, consolidating self-effacement........................................................32 5 The writer’s negation of social responsibility............................................................................36 6 The title....................................................................................................................................................37

Chapter 3 – Russell Banks: RULE OF THE BONE (1995)........................................................38 1 Operations of the US capital (and its elites) on its home turf..............................................40 1.1 Inner-city devastation and the re-creation of working-class “white trash” ��������40 1.2 State-endorsed and legalized exploitation of migrant labour from new-old colonies.....................................................................................................................42 2 The US empire: impoverishement and modern enslavement of the Carribean and Latin America............................................................................................. 44 2.1 The promotion of the tourist industry..............................................................................45 2.2 Modern day slavery and its self-appointed masters ..................................................47 2.3 Coming face to face with the Father.................................................................................48 2.4 The Empire: its drug trade and the war on drugs.........................................................49 3 Gender issues: modern re-instalment of the traditional bildungsroman’s hero-centered paradigm .................................................................................................................50

Chapter 4 – Sandra Cisneros: THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET (1984)......................52 1 The house as a symbol and textual marker of exploitation and poverty........................54 2 The house as a symbol of gendered subjugation....................................................................57 2.1 High-heel shoes: sexual control through objectification..........................................57 2.2 The home: a symbol of women’s domestic confinement and drudgery �����������58


4

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

2.3 Patriarchy and cultural racism.............................................................................................59 3 The house as a symbol of artistic creativity and the author’s social responsibility ����������61 3.1 The necessity of social awareness and critical literacy...............................................61 3.2 Liberal turn/twist.....................................................................................................................62

Chapter 5 – John Dos Passos: THE BIG MONEY (1937)........................................................64 1 Montage..................................................................................................................................................66 2 Biographies and their social context............................................................................................67 2.1 Historical figures.......................................................................................................................68 2.2 Scientists’ social responsibility............................................................................................71 2.3 Narrative pieces and fictional characters: case studies of the era..........................72 3 Newsreels...............................................................................................................................................73 4 Camera eyes..........................................................................................................................................74 4.1 The Sacco-Vanzetti trial and death by electrocution..................................................75 4.2 The trial and its ramifications...............................................................................................76 4.3 Stream-of-consciousness technique: a solipsistic or eye-opening narrative device?......................................................................................................................80 Appendix 1................................................................................................................................................82

Chapter 6 – John Steinbeck: THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1939).........................................83 1 Oklahoma: land privatization, tenant farming, cash crops and price speculation ��������� 86 1.1 The origins of land theft, private land ownership and its monopolization ���������� 87 1.2 Private landownership and consolidated landholdings: tenant farming ����������87 1.3 The new phase of the capitalist restructuration of agriculture...............................88 2 California – mythological land of plenty and the final western frontier: corporate agribusiness and migrant labor.................................................................................89 2.1 Land theft and the creation of indentured/serf-labour.............................................89 2.2 The temporary replacement of Mexican migrant workers with displaced tenant farmers from the Great Plains...........................................................91 2.3 Fascism and corporate (agricultural) capitalism...........................................................94 3. Critique ..................................................................................................................................................99 3.1 Adaptation to exploitation or system change: social/liberal democracy vs. socialism..............................................................................99 3.2 Ethnocentrism.........................................................................................................................101 4. The aftermath of The Grapes of Wrath: Business as usual...................................................101 Appendix 1..............................................................................................................................................103


Content

5

Chapter 7 – Kurt Vonnegut: SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1969).......................................105 1 “Vietnamization of WWII”: historical background and narrative techniques...............107 1.1 WWII as an imperial war ......................................................................................................108 1.2 The firebombing of Dresden...............................................................................................113 1.3 Napalm bombing of Vietnam.............................................................................................114 1.4 Narrative technique...............................................................................................................117 2 “Avoidance and denial”: historical amnesia and collective blindness ...........................118 2.1 Freudian psychoanalysis......................................................................................................119 2.2 Science-fiction as “mind poison”.......................................................................................120 2.3 In lieu of conclusion ….........................................................................................................122

Bibliography...............................................................................................................................................123


26

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

Chapter 2 Louisa May Alcott: LITTLE WOMEN (1868)

Little Women was originally published in two separate and fully-fledged book volumes. The first volume, which included twenty-three chapters, appeared in October 1868, while the second, consisting of chapters that now range from twenty-four to forty-seven, was first brought out in April 1869 (Abate 22). Little Women is a canonized work of American children’s literature and a (female) bildungsroman, a literary genre also known as a novel of formation or a novel of education. What makes Little Women distinct today in terms of its publication format, but not at the time when it was written, is the fact that the novel, which in its own right already comprises two volumes, belongs to the so-called “books in a series” format. This is a subcategory of serialized books or series fiction, the distinguishing feature of which is that the stories/books focus on character development. Therefore, by necessity, they span a protracted period of time while the characters themselves progress in age, finally reaching “maturity or self-knowledge” upon having acquired or succumbed to the socially acceptable forms of behaviour, aspirations and occupation (Inness 2; Chew 22).5 The point of a traditional female bildungsroman - which is what Little Women amounts to despite its subversive elements - is to trace the development of a prepubescent girl through the trials and tribulations that lead towards her accepting the cultural constraints and constructs of femininity once she reaches adulthood. By embracing the limitations of femininity and capitulating to the narrowly defined roles as prescribed for women within the socio-political framework of industrial or advanced capitalism that these novels tacitly endorse, the girl character is understood to have come of age, that is, to have reached her very much lauded maturity. 1

Fiction and gender ideology

1. Little Women is a prime example of American domestic fiction or girls’ story which came into full bloom in the 19th century and continues to be one of the main staples of popular fiction today, having undergone many revisions and adaptations, as manifested most recently in the emergence of so-called chick-lit aimed 5  The format of “books in a series” stands in stark contrast to the so called “series books” in which characters are arrested in time and therefore permanently frozen in their prepubescent stage (Inness 2). These stories deal with adventures and mysteries that need resolving most often by boys, and sometimes girls, turned amateur detectives or daring explorers either within the pastoral confines of a boarding school or some other environment that is artificially cut off from the rest of the society and seemingly uninhibited/unaffected by adults (Cadogan and Craig).


Chapter 2 – Louisa May Alcott: LIT TLE WOMEN (1868)

27

at teenage girls and their older counterparts. Literature for children was split along gendered lines in the 19th century, with the rise and consolidation of children’s literature as a literary field in its own right (Reynolds). The division of children’s literature into separate boys’ and girls’ genres, which rested on the forced enculturation of different socially prescribed behavioural patterns, aspirations, interests and possibilities of self-fulfilment, had a drastic effect on the formation and shaping of subjectivities for boys and girls. By looking at the explanatory excerpts below, try to establish the ways in which traditional children’s literature functions not only as a repository of gendered ideology but as its conduit and agent. What is the nature of prescribed behaviours for boys and girls that mainstream children’s literature tries to inscribe, and what is the purpose behind it all? … during the early nineteenth century … stories for boys and girls now began to be sharply differentiated: boys’ stories often involved travel to far-flung places and advocated the less reflective virtues – courage, endurance, loyalty and patriotism. Stories for girls were typically set in the home and exemplified charity, kindness, patience and self-discipline, virtues which most girls had ample opportunity to practice. (Briggs qtd. in Foster and Simons 2)

The girls’ stories of 19th century America were, typically, intensely domestic and interior. Where the boys’ books increasingly revolved around a young man’s encounter with the outside world – in the army, in the West, in the city – and around active, extroverted adventure, girls’ novels focused on character and relationships, … (MacLeod 14)

What was a ‘girls’ story? Essentially moralistic, it was designed to bridge the gap between the schoolroom and the drawing room, to recommend docility, marriage, and obedience rather than autonomy or adventure. (Showalter 50) IDEOLOGICAL MOTIVE: ‘Girls’ literature ought to help to build up women,’ wrote one nineteenth-century critic, Edward Salmon. ‘If in choosing the books that boys shall read it is necessary to remember that we are choosing mental food for the future chiefs of the race, it is equally important not to forget in (p. 51 ) choosing books for girls that we are choosing mental food for the future wives and mothers of that race. (Showalter 50)

THE ROLE OF THE CRITICAL LITERARY ESTABLISHMENT: “Girls’ literature [should] perform one very useful function. It enables girls to read something above mere baby tales, and yet keeps them from the influence of novels of a sort which should be read only by persons capable of forming a discreet judgement. (Foster and Simons 1)


28 2

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

The cult of domesticity

As an agent of socialization, domestic fiction endorses the cult of domesticity and the image of the domesticated woman as an angel in the house, whose identity is invested in self-effacement and exclusive care for others. This kind of subjectivity has been conditioned/reinvented by the onset of the capitalist ­socio-economic system and its gendered division of labour, which domestic fiction has been designed to uphold by naturalizing restrictive constructs of femininity. Little Women is no exception and subscribes to the same image of the domesticated, ideal woman despite its titillating appearances to the contrary. By looking at the explanations below, discuss the way in which the cult of domesticity is directly tied to the political economy of capitalism and the way this is reflected in the novel itself. ANGEL IN THE HOUSE, THE CULT OF DOMESTICITY … … a redefinition of womanhood sought to tie women to the home and domestic life, and to make women less sexually responsive and aware, and therefore more submissive and socially subordinate. The increasing separation of the home from the workplace in the late seventeenth century and eighteenth century laid the foundations for a bourgeois ideology of femininity, according to which women were very separate, special creatures … Sexual differences received emphatic attention; and with their endless discussions of ‘femalities’ and ‘feminalities’ eighteenth century writers were helping to construct a new definition of womanhood. (Spencer in Wilkie-Stibbs 354-355)

Its main precepts hardly need rehearsing: the view of the world as divided into two utterly separate but perfectly complementary spheres--the theater of politics, commerce, and public action under the responsibility of men, and the smaller domestic sphere of subjective emotions and Christian morality, under the care and influence of women; the naturalization of this division through the claim that men and women are biologically suited to their respective spheres, that women are born with a stronger capacity for feelings and intimacy, allowing them, through “gentle suasion” and self-sacrifice, to exert their equally natural moral superiority; the elevation of the private sphere above the public, and of “feminine” values like affection and staunch moralism over intellectual rigor. In America, as Ann Douglas and others have shown, the cult of domesticity was particularly forceful, via the joint propaganda of ministers and women writers like Sarah Hale. In this “feminization” of American culture, sentimental fiction played an important role, spreading domestic behavioral codes beyond the middle class to all strata of society. (Shamir N. pg.)


Chapter 2 – Louisa May Alcott: LIT TLE WOMEN (1868)

29

“… patriarchal values were being actively inscribed … In widely circulating periodicals like the Girl’s Own Paper [… and the juvenile fiction produced for the young] girls were encouraged to accept simultaneously characteristics gendered feminine – ‘purity, obedience, dependence, self-sacrifice and service’ – and an ‘image of feminine womanhood [which rested on becoming and remaining] financially dependent’. (Nelson 1991: 141). Those contradictions still haunt women today.” (Paul 148) … AND ITS SOCIO-ECONOMIC FACTORS “the ideal of the family wage and the male bread-winner imposed on women the multiple burdens of housework and outside employment with unequal pay. … the habitual distinction between the housewife and the paid worker [if seen in its proper perspective, must be in fact replaced] by the concept of a twofold economy in which marriage, work and kinship overlap. Along-side the formal economy of the labor market [there is] an “informal” one. Typically, a woman would work in the formal economy until marriage, after which she would shuttle back and forth between the two economies or else confine her activities to the informal: taking in lodgers (often kin), doing laundry, working as a charwoman, ­babysitting and so forth. Much of this informal work established or relied on links between households. Home and work [… are in fact] complementary aspects …”. (Hearth 18)

3

“… one of the effects of promoting the domestic code … [s]tarvation wages and exploitative working conditions [which] were often justified on the grounds that women did not belong in the workplace or were not ‘fit’ to work outside the home. One contemporary went as far as to suggest that “the only way to make husbands sober and industrious was to keep women dependent by means of insufficient wages” (Kessler-Harris, 1981, p. 67).” (Dawson 128) “The more perfectly [one ] performs the job of a little woman, the less they feel they have to pay… the assumption is that she should provide her services free of charge … The ultimate intention behind the myth of [gendered] difference becomes clear: if to be womanly is to be other than human, then the way is open to viewing women as commodities to be gotten as cheaply as possible, used as hard as possible, and replaced as rapidly as possible when worn out.” (Fetterley 11)

Domestic fiction

Girls’ domestic stories and boys’ adventure stories “associate[] femininity with [domestic] confinement, submission and restraint, and masculinity with independence, adventure and excitement” (Abate 39-40). Domestic fiction functions as one of the tools of literary socialization, the aim of which is to acculturate girls into feminine roles of domesticated subservience, self-restraint and self-denial, dependency, helplessness and passivity. This is a form of behaviour and self-perception that needs to be learnt, hence also the need for its strict enforcement and regulation through the stories told. One of the ways traditional girls’ stories


30

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

teach girls to stifle their ambitions and grow into the role of “a little woman” is by introducing the character of a tomboy, a gender-bending figure that allows for a temporary suspension and seeming subversion of socially expected forms of behaviour, bodily comportment, (intellectual) pursuits and interests prescribed for feminized and domesticated girls. Tomboyishness, however, is depicted as a temporary stage of development that the girl character on her way to adulthood, and alongside it the girl reader, must learn to renounce through the lessons thrust in her way. Tomboyishness is vehemently pictured as a temporary phase to be finally abandoned in favour of “domestic incarceration, sacrificial goodness, [and] the enforced silencing of voice, eroticism, and anger” (Grasso 188), that is, in favour of “docility, marriage and obedience rather than autonomy and adventure” (Showalter 60). Self-abnegation rather than ambition is the ultimate template on which girls’ identities are expected to be anchored. Seemingly empowering traditional girls’ stories thus feature a tomboy, who first rebels against the constraints and limitations of the constructs of femininity, but who in the end is broken and tamed when she learns to embrace them, seemingly out of her own volition. a. Look at the characteristics of the tomboy below and find others as presented in the novel. How do these characteristics implode the constructs of femininity, pointing to the “difficulties and the anxieties of girlhood, suggest[ing] that becoming a ‘little woman’ is a learned and often fraught process, not an instinctual or natural condition of female development” (Foster and Simons 87)? Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt; for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty; but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman, and didn’t like it. (LW 11)

'You are old enough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better, Josephine. It didn’t matter so much when you were a little girl, but now you are so tall, and turn up your hair, you should remember that you are a young lady.’ ‘I ain’t! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty,’ cried Jo, pulling off her net, and shaking down a chestnut mane. ‘I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China-aster! It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman,’ … (LW 9-10)


Chapter 2 – Louisa May Alcott: LIT TLE WOMEN (1868)

31

Jo’s gender transgression[s] … She does not like to wear dresses, she does not want to have to wear gloves, she would rather fight instead of her father, she longs to go to college, she hates needle work and other domestic chores, and she loves to run wild and cherishes independence. (Laire 27)

b. To annihilate or at least neutralize the gender-bending figure of the tomboy and the threat it poses to the binary constructs of gender and division of labour that goes along with it, various narrative techniques of behaviour and thought amelioration are used. The point is to re-cast rebellious girls into gender appropriate roles by teaching them a moral lesson that boisterous behaviour and ways of thinking that challenge the ideal of femininity and hence the assigned role of passivity and dependency, servitude and submissiveness might bring them only bad luck. What is camouflaged as well-intended advice and help provided by the surrounding environment is in fact part and parcel of the taming process also referred to as the “taming of the shrew”. In her comprehensive analysis, Abate lists the two most common techniques associated with the taming of the tomboy in children’s literature in general while also drawing attention to contemporary medicalized approaches that stigmatize gender-bending in order to sustain gender binaries. Are these techniques the only ones used in the novel? How are the narrative techniques of taming given a veneer of acceptability, desirability and finally, inescapability? If a tomboyish character was too young for wedlock or the author did not wish to engage in a conventional marriage plot, another popular method for eliminating ­gender-bending behavior was a life-threatening illness or injury. Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872) largely established the paradigm. In the opening chapters of the novel, twelve-year old Katy Carr “tore her dress every day, hated sewing, and didn’t care a button about being ‘good’” (9). But, as Elizabeth Segel notes, the punishment for her gender disobedience “is an injury to her back that keeps her bedridden and in pain for four years” (“Tomboy” 54). Katy’s invalidism provides instruction in “‘God’s School,’ the School of Pain, with its lessons

Final common paradigm for tomboy taming, especially in narratives written for children, was the relocation of a gender-bending character to a strict boarding school or the home of urban relatives. In Allyn Allen’s Lone Star Tomboy, Francie Lou is taken away from the family’s ranch and sent to live with relatives in San Antonio, where she quickly discovers that city children behave quite differently: “The girls walked more quietly, talking in much softer voices. And Francie Lou made up her mind to be like them, and not ever to forget and shout and yell like she and [her brother] Grayson did outdoors at the ranch. She did not want the people here to call her a tomboy” (153). Laura Ingalls has a similar experience while attending


32

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

of Patience, Cheerfulness, and Making the Best of Things” (Coolidge 54). By the time her injury heals, the young girl has sloughed off her tomboyish independence. (Abate xx)

the town school in the sixth book of the Little House series, The Long Winter (1940). When the active tomboy leaps up to catch a ball at recess, the other children ridicule her gender inappropriate action. Laura, who was formerly so proud of her strength and agility, now ruminates: “She did not know why she had done such a thing and she was ashamed, fearful of what these girls might think of her” [italics added] (78). (Abate xx)

“When such behavior becomes associated with what Halberstam dubs ‘preadult female masculinity’ (“Bondage” 160), societal tolerance for it changes. The moment that gender rebellious girls insist on wearing only boy’s clothes, adopting a boy’s identity, or refusing to relinquish their tomboyism at puberty, they are punished and–with the advent of Gender Identity Disorder–even pathologized. In the wake of GID, such girls became subjected not simply to peer ridicule or parental disapproval, but to gender reorientation counseling, aversion therapy and even institutionalization.” (Abate xxiii) Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid; what was, she had no idea, but left it for time to tell her; and, meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, run, and ride as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic. But the training she received at Aunt March’s was just what she needed … . (LW 51)

4

Practising self-restraint, consolidating self-effacement

a. TAMING rebellious girls: suppressing anger at GENDER INJUSTICES In addition to learning how to passivize her body, which is part and parcel of the forced mastering of self-restraint, the protagonist is constantly subjected to lessons that demand she give up her voice and practice self-silencing and


Chapter 2 – Louisa May Alcott: LIT TLE WOMEN (1868)

33

self-effacement as the ultimate virtues of femininity and thereby patriarchal social acceptability. The institution of femininity requires that the tomboy sooner or later not only gives in to the limitations imposed on her behaviour and bodily comportment but learns to give up her dreams of meaningful self-fulfilment, intellectual advancement and independence. In the process of doing so, the girl is taught not only to subdue her temperament but to control and finally repress the anger that arises from seeing the possibilities of growth and having a voice and mind of her own diminish and finally dwindle away. By studying some of the representative paragraphs below, establish how the process of Jo March’s self-silencing and the final diminishment of her aspirations operates in Little Women. What kind of narrative techniques and turns in storytelling are used that support its seeming neutrality and naturalness? I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, - something heroic, or wonderful, - that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.’ (LW 178) Amy [who has burnt Jo’s book out of spite and revenge because Jo would not allow her to go to the theatre with her and Laurie] got no further, for Jo's hot temper mastered her, and she shook Amy till her teeth chattered in her head, crying in a passion of grief and anger, - “You wicked, wicked girl! I never can write it again, and I'll never forgive you as long as I live.” Meg flew to rescue Amy, and Beth to pacify Jo, but Jo was quite beside herself, and, with a parting box on her sister's ear, she rushed out of the room up to the old sofa in the garret, and finished her fight alone. (LW 96) Jo’s book was the pride of her heart, and was regarded by her family as a literary sprout of great promise. It was only half a dozen little fairy tales, but Jo had worked over them patiently, putting her whole heart into her work, hoping to make something good enough to print. She had just copied them with great care, and had destroyed the old manuscript, so that Amy’s bonfire had consumed the loving work of several years. It seemed a small loss to others, but to Jo it was a dreadful calamity, and she felt that it never could be made up to her. (LW 96) ‘It’s my dreadful temper! I try to cure it; I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever. Oh, Mother! what shall I do! what shall I do!’ cried poor Jo, in despair. ‘Watch and pray, dear; never get tired of trying; and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault,’ said Mrs. March, drawing the blowzy head to her shoulder, and kissing the wet cheek so tenderly, that Jo cried harder than ever.


34

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

‘You don’t know; you can’t guess how bad it is! It seems as if I could do anything when I’m in a passion; I get so savage, I could hurt anyone, and enjoy it. I’m afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me. Oh, mother! help me, do help me!’ ‘I will, my child; I will. Don’t cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve with all your soul that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world; but mine used to be just like it.’ ‘Yours, mother? Why, you are never angry!’ and, for the moment, Jo forgot remorse in surprise. ‘I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.’ The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her, the knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it, though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray to a girl of fifteen. (LW 100-101) Jo’s only answer was to hold her mother close, and, in the silence which followed, the sincerest prayer she had ever prayed left her heart, without words, for in that sad, yet happy hour, she had learned not only the bitterness of remorse and despair, but the sweetness of self-denial and self-control; and, led by her mother’s hand, … (LW 104)

Here are some of the exemplary critical comments that help us to understand how perfidiously the ideology of self-repression and capitulation to the constructs of femininity, cult of domesticity, self-erasure and dependence operates in the text. Try to draw parallels to contemporary popular literature. Evidently, Marmee has been fighting her anger for forty years, but she has learned to repress her anger and she encourages her daughter to do the same, repress her feelings. Though it is not explicitly said, it is implied that this anger is a result of the sickening and suffocating treatment women knew in the nineteenth-century [and face in its updated, modernized forms in the 21st century]. (Laire 28)

Jo's mother, unlike her quick-tempered daughter, is no longer tormented by her anger. She has learned to repress her anger, and she consoles Jo by telling her that the events of the day will help Jo school herself in a similar lesson of repression. (Foote 64) … the lessons that Little Women teaches to its readers and to its characters about gender, anger, and repression … how the novel seems to tell its readers that women must not have, much less act on, negative emotions. … responses that include but are not limited to anger, resentment, and self-recrimination, in order to understand its construction of a particular kind of “little woman.” (Foote 65)


Chapter 2 – Louisa May Alcott: LIT TLE WOMEN (1868)

35

b. The process of taming is accomplished when Jo March, under the instruction and careful moral guidance of her husband-to-be, agrees to give up her writing career, autonomy and financial independence in favour of domesticity, meekness, subservience and second-class status. This kind of status conferred upon women in capitalist societies implies a double-exploitation of women as unpaid reproductive workers and a reserve army of secondary, underpaid workers. The secondary status assigned to women in the capitalist gendered economy – which rests on a regular reinforcement of gendered constructs of femininity – is one of the “key source[s] of capitalist accumulation” (Federici N. pg.). Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes; she excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons; she studied faces in the street, - and characters, good, bad, and indifferent, all about her; she delved in the dust of ancient times, for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed. She thought she was prospering finely, but, unconsciously, she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman’s character. She was living in bad society; and, imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us. (LW 430-431) As soon as she went to her room, she got out her papers, and carefully reread every one of her stories. Being a little shortsighted, Mr. Bhaer sometimes used eye glasses, and Jo had tried them once, smiling to see how they magnified the fine print of her book, now she seemed to have on the Professor’s mental or moral spectacles also, for the faults of these poor stories glared at her dreadfully and filled her with dismay. ‘They are trash, and will soon be worse trash if I go on; for each is more sensational than the last. I’ve gone blindly on, hurting myself and other people, for the sake of money; - I know it’s so - for I can’t read this stuff in sober earnest without being horribly ashamed of it, and what should I do if they were seen at home, or Mr. Bhaer got hold of them?’ Jo turned hot at the bare idea, and stuffed the whole bundle into her stove, nearly setting the chimney afire with the blaze. ‘Yes, that’s the best place for such inflammable nonsense; I’d better burn the house down, I suppose, than let other people blow themselves up with my gunpowder,’ she thought, as she watched the “Demon of the Jura” whisk away, a little black cinder with fiery eyes. (LW 438-439)


AMER LITER ISBN 978-961-237-640-6

Literature, be it realistic or fantastic, does not exist in a vacuum. It is firmly rooted in our everyday reality and is therefore deeply informed by very specific social relations and historical contexts, which shape its content and form. The textbook carries analytical chapters on a selection of socially engaged literary works

that function as examiners of American reality. By shedding light on the constructs of race, gender and class that continue to underpin the organization and functioning of American society, these literary works call attention to the need for a critical reading and the writers’ and readers’ committed engagement.

LILIJANA BURCAR, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. Her research interests include feminist theory and gender studies, social justice, postcolonial and neo-colonial theory, and contemporary British and American literatures. She is the author of The New Wave of Innocence in Children’s Literature, published in Slovene.

LILIJANA BURCAR: AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT

9 789612 376406

LILIJANA BURCAR

AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT Oddelek za anglistiko in amerikanistiko Ljubljana 2014


AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT