Little Women v Treasure Island: How Ideals of Boys and Girls are Constructed.

In the nineteenth century Alcott and Stevenson created their respective novels Little Women (1868-9) and Treasure Island (1883). Both convey explicit and implicit ideologies concerning gender construction.
In the late 19th century ‘domestic novels’ incorporating emphasis on home, character and relationships were promoted and marketed as a women’s and girl’s domain. Adventure stories however, with themes of expeditions, risk and danger, were aimed at men and boys. Such books have been identified as forms of social control, influencing and shaping a constructed ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ identity, and cultural norms, promoting ideals of how societies should be arranged.

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A influential masculine identity over the century is linked with the expansionism of 19th century imperialism and capitalism. An ideal of active males as adventures, entrepreneurs, pioneers and speculators is neatly played out against the domestic realm as cultural spaces for women. Such codified gender models therefore, suited the needs of the state and those in the ruling classes.
Treasure Island, was intended as a story for boys, in which women are largely absent. Little Women was originally sub-titled ‘A Girl’s Book’.
Stevenson’s novel incorporates a familiar ‘quest’ plot structure and young male protagonist. Here a squire and cabin-boy, despite customary barriers of class, because both are male, share the adventure. An absence of females and family after the first chapters, liberates the maturing male from overtly emotional and sentimental familial relationships. Therefore, a constructed masculinity is presented, in which the protagonist is shown as enabled to grow with emphasis on self-reliance, bravery and physical and mental strength.

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In contrast, Alcott sets her work firmly centered on the home, female characters, emotions and family. The author employs another familiar trajectory of heroine(s)’s journey from difficulties to good fortune as in the domestic novel, such as The Wide, Wide World (1850). Alcott focuses on the emotions (‘remorseful’, ‘imploring’). This reflects sentimental novel influences such as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), itself utilised in ideological (abolitionist) causes, in which the family is sacrosanct.

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Womanhood is defined as ‘patient…faithful…obedient… at home’, as adjectives such as ‘sweet’, ‘slender’, ‘Pretty’ objectify and imply passivity. Female characters, including the less conforming, and therefore described as ‘non-feminine’ ‘gentlemanly’ protagonist Jo, are steered towards an idealised cultural conclusion of marriage and family, typifying a domestic plot structure.

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While Alcott seemingly presents a constructed femininity anchored to the home, Stevenson allows his white English boy the freedom to roam the world. Akin to Deafoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), both works promote the idea of the colonial adventurer. The treasure map is central to the plot and is symbolic of control-male control, white patriarchal imperialist control, aligning masculinity with conquest. Stevenson refers to those colonised and subjugated as passive and conquered-‘good-humoured faces’. Male hero, Jim, is aligned with ‘civilized’ white men. Portrayals of the good white British Christian gentlemen are juxtaposed with those ‘othered’ through ethnicity, class, disability and irreligiousness. ‘Civilized’ gentlemen demonstrate many shared codes of behaviour and language such as sharing their ‘word of honour’ and speaking ‘King George’s English’. ‘Others’ act as exotic and unruly foils to a middle-class polite, white patriarchal ‘normality’.
In order to prove his masculinity, however, Jim becomes ‘savage-like’ himself at times, suggesting brutal expectations of both colonialism and a constructed masculine gender identity.

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Alcott’s work is underpinned by a Christian ideology. All are implored to ‘try to be better’. Emphasis is on reunions and celebrations, ‘home-festivals’ as utilization of language such as ‘warm’, ‘laughing…loving’ creates a cosy atmosphere and tone which implicitly transmits ‘feminine’ values. Patriotism is juxtaposed with ideals of femininity, exemplified in the women’s supportive efforts and self-sacrifice for the (Union) cause, while self-improvement, ‘self-denial, self-control’ are central expressions of Christian / ‘feminine’ goodness.
While the work is utilised to purvey moral meanings, such as ‘duty’ aligned with family reward and recognition, there are is also an interesting subtext however. There is a lack of automatic happiness within marriage for example. Alcott is not formulaically sentimental (not ‘a heroine….only a struggling human’ ). Also, the author challenges societal expectations  in her depiction of bonds between women, with a lack of a patriarchal figure (any focus on women was itself pioneering), while utilizing the Civil War setting as a metaphor to question the idea of ‘feminine’ compliance. Alcott somewhat autobiographically positions her protagonist Jo, as a female writer close to (but not involved in) a discussion on women’s rights, while portraying her protagonist as highly unusually turning down a perhaps ‘expected’ marriage.
Jo’s rebellion is however curtailed somewhat as Alcott’s own limitations as a 19th century female writer are exposed (‘Do as he tells you’). The author’s, like Jo’s, need for money suggests she somewhat satisfied the patriarchal demands of the marketplace in, for example, her conventional ‘happy endings’.

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In terms of gender construction and social control therefore, both works display a conveyance of particular values. Alcott’s work especially, as an expression of a 19th century female author, however, needs to be considered within the limits she faced due to her sex in conjunction with markets, publishers and societal expectations.


Fiction has often been used quite consciously as a form of social control, reflecting and endorsing patriarchal societal norms. Damaging and opposing constructions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ remain pervasive in fiction both influencing and endorsing such dangerous ideals in wider culture.

This entry was posted in gender, history, identity, Literature, politics, Uncategorized, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Little Women v Treasure Island: How Ideals of Boys and Girls are Constructed.

  1. Henke says:

    I really enjoy following this blog. The posts made here are so well written and thoughtful.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you, you’re very kind.

  3. A really interesting post. Have you read Sue Sharpe’s ‘Just Like a Girl’? I read it years ago now, but at the time I found it a revelation in terms of how gender is constructed from a very early age.

  4. Yes I have….like you I read it years ago, great….really highlighted the problem. Things seem to be getting worse in many ways, not better sadly, though there are some good books around-only if you hunt them out!

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