Sunday, October 5, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 246: Louisa May Alcott, Anna’s Whim (#246)

Louisa May Alcott, "Anna’s Whim" (1873) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

There's a rather standard story-trope where a woman says how much she wants to be treated as a man; then she is treated equally and discovers that it's terrible. Where's the chivalry? Where's the protection and worldliness of a man to shield her delicate sensibilities? Because, sure, women may be oppressed and limited, but at least there's someone to open the door for them, and isn't that the best?

Louisa May Alcott is too smart to fall into this trap--and so smart that she includes some notes of this expected story. Here, Anna has a crazy whim: what if women were treated equally? And, true to form, Anna finds a man who will treat her equally--an old friend named Frank, now all grown up--and it has all sorts of problems. Frank doesn't help her to row unless asked directly or spend too much time making sure she's entertained. Boy, that experience sure shows Anna that it's better to be in a gilded cage than free, right?

Not so fast there, legacy-of-patriarchy. Yes, Alcott does describe some of Anna's distaste for this situation at first. But then Anna goes on: she has trouble following the serious topics of the day because her education didn't prepare her for discussions of moral and political economy. Anna may react to other women negatively--as if they were all hunting for the same scarce resource (husband material)--but ultimately, she affirms what she says at the beginning, that there's a lot more to life than being someone's wife.

So many other writers would use this story as a means to punish the rebellious woman. Alcott takes the opportunity to write a realistic woman who comes into her own.

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