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Childrens Stories Of The Nineteenth Century English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2425 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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memorable adventures that remain popular today. Children continue to feel the heartaches of heroines such as Jo March in Louisa May Alcotts Little Women -which has never gone out of print, (Watson, 2009, p13) and eagerly turn the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson's colonialist Treasure Island to read about Jim's adventures and bravery. Yet these seemingly fun-filled Bildungsroman stories are reliant upon a value-system delineated by patriarchal constructions of gendered social roles of the late nineteenth century in which they were written. Both novels overtly indicate that in order to achieve personal value or capital (and thus maturity), the boy and girls of these stories are expected to succumb to the social expectations defined by their respective genders, ultimately replacing their juvenile freedom with responsibility and obligation. Consequently, for the purpose of this essay, fatherhood has been interpreted as influential masculine authority that invests both guidance and support in achieving this maturity. These depictions will be compared and contrasted in an attempt to argue that despite absent fathers, seemingly opposite contexts, perspectives and heavily gendered ideals, these novels both depict fatherhoods that challenge the gendered 'assumptions and values underpinning the imperial beliefs and identities .. of this period' (Montgomery, 2009,p108.) Whilst 'seek(ing) to empower young readers to become active agents of future change'(Sambell, Reader 2, p.386) by challenging the apparent 'flight from domesticity' (Tosh, 1999,p4)of the time.

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Little Women and Treasure Island stand at the threshold of changing notions about childhood (and consequent changes in children's literature), between more didactic literature from earlier in the century, and the more purely amusing literature written later. Little Women, focusing on four sisters in a middle-class New England domestic setting, gives particular insight into the changing position of fatherhood to girls and women in American Civil War society, whilst Treasure Island forefronts an imperial masculine identity aimed towards British boys in the height of colonial expansion (Montgomery, 2009,p74). These differing contexts are crucial to consider as they serve as a "frame" by which the child, and (importantly) parent, reader would interpret the authors' messages and ideals of fatherhood, and ultimately contributed to their success. The comparison of the depictions of fatherhood will begin by analysing Alcott's portrayal of key father-figures within Little Women, followed by a comparative study of fatherhood issues addressed in Treasure island.

The March family, with their initially absent father, portrays a female-dominated domestic world in which men, including Laurie, Mr. Lawrence, publishers, suitors, and even Mr. March, play second fiddle. However, the patriarchal society of the time dictate that, just as Jim Hawkins' journey towards accruing capital must be initiated by an investment of masculine capital, the lessons of domestic virtue within Little Women are always framed within the context of physically or ethereally present father-figures. Mr. March's letter sparks his daughters' journeys toward virtue in the novel and he is credited as the guiding source of Marmee's goodness as well as providing the time frame for the first half of the book. When Jo questions her mother on how she learned to control her emotions, she turns to the example Mr. March set before her. She claims;

'He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works

and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. He helped

and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I

would have my little girls possess, for I was their example.' (p76)

Through Alcott's use of heterodiegetic  narrative the reader is shown how each of her daughters strive to become the selfless, loving woman that Marmee represents, and by making Mr March the source of her goodness, Alcott attributes all moral authority and value to him. Alcott, through Mr March, constructed the home and Marmee herself, so that even when he is gone she remains behind, reinforcing the values of the patriarchal domestic authority her husband instilled within her. Alcott states (perhaps a little too earnestly) that despite the clear image of the 'five energetic women [who] seemed to rule the house' (p229) he remains 'head of the family' (p230) and the underlying source of social value and authority in the March family.

These (frequent) explicit assertions of need for masculine validation and portrayal of domesticated manliness however, are in complete contrast to the image Alcott uses of his return as an 'invalid' (p168)'muffled up to the eyes'(p164). This 'broken man leaning on his wife's arm' (Fetterley, p26), consigned to the library for the majority of the story, seemingly contradicts the very patriarchal assertions that Alcott loudly professes throughout. Similarly, as Fetterley asserts, Mr March's illness is 'consigned to the distant background and only vaguely referred to ' (ibid) instead hinting at a new form of patriarchal role-model; one that plays second fiddle to 'God and Mother' (p181).

Alcott's use of Intertextuality in the thematic elements of Pilgrim's Progress woven throughout the plot reaffirm her religious ideologies and highlight the novel's links to more didactic nature. Christian becomes a masculine authority of piety and perseverance to whom the March girls look for guidance and strength . Similarly, the March girls are repeatedly instructed to call upon their "Heavenly Father" to help them bear their burdens. The girls therefore have three ethereal masculine figures of moral authority steering them as they learn to fulfil their gendered roles: their father (in his absence), God, and Christian. When the girls need the physical presence of a man, they have Laurie:

The girls describe Laurie as 'a remarkable boy' (p278) whom they use as a standard to measure both other young men and their own behaviour; Angry Jo's ill temper is highlighted when 'even good-natured Laurie had a quarrel with her' (p104); Vain Meg first realises her misconduct through Laurie's disapproval in 'Vanity Fair' (p87); shy Beth is shown Laurie as a model of accomplishment without conceit (p67); and selfish Amy is saved from thin ice by his composure, from dull Aunt March by his ability to entertain, and from an unsuitable marriage by his reprimand (p74,180,397). Yet, despite this conformance to the conventional father role, the relationships also prove reciprocal as Laurie is also educated by the March girls:  It is Amy who urges Laurie to 'wake up and be a man' (p384), Jo who manages his relationship with his grandfather (p198-203) and he himself credits them 'for a part of my education' (p429) resulting in newly acquired 'manly' virtues (p395.)

This re-education of the male characters to conform with the female model that the women provide, along with Marmee's pleas for the equal involvement of fatherhood in family life(p366), is put into increasingly successful practice by each of her sons-in-law.

Fetterley describes how when Jo gets final father-figure, her 'big man' or 'Papa Bhaer..her rebellion is neutralized' (p29) and suggests Alcott's compliance with the gendered assumptions of fatherhood, yet once again there are clues that covertly challenge this view. Jo and Friedrich exhibit the most reformation of the traditional family in that Jo 'chooses the life work for herself and her partner, and provides the setting for their new school' (Dalke, p563). She is financially independent and ultimately becomes responsible for educating boys.

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It is the opportunities provided by the strength and stability of the March matriarchy for reinventing manhood that lead the husbands, sons and fathers of Little Women to be re-educated by the women they love. Love which becomes, by the novel's end, not the power play described by Fetterley, but rather an act performed mutually by both mothers and fathers to promote the reformation of a patriarchal society by beginning with the reformation of a single family.

Like Little Women, Treasure Island can be read as a Bildungsroman, however in direct contrast it involves a rite of passage of Jim Hawkins' predominately autodiegetic (retrospective) narration of his journey to maturity from which, as Stevenson notes, 'Women were excluded' (xxvi) (with the exception of Jim's mother and Captain Flint- who notably gets the last word in this masculine novel.) Whilst Little Women is saturated with figures of masculine authority and guidance, Treasure Island subjects its protagonist to little or no direct masculine, patriarchal authority as Jim's father is fatally ill and soon dies. Yet, unlike Alcott's explicit portrayal of what the children should and should not be, the men Jim comes to admire are neither wholly good nor bad examples; they each contain traits Jim admires and traits he detests, and Jim's achievement of independent mature identity lies in his own negotiation of father figures and rival male groupings, reaffirming the 'ideology of individualism' (Loxley, p63) and, like Little Women, emphasising the authors' belief in the need for change.

In contrast to Mr March, Jim's biological father is immediately portrayed as weak and lacking of authority. Jim's lack of respect for this authority is demonstrated when he takes Billy Bones' money to stand watch instead of helping his father as he should. Stevenson's focalisation through 'young Jim' (Montgomery,2009,p99) of his weak, 'poor father' (p11) whose 'unhappy death' (p10) was attributed to his 'terror' (p10) heightens the sense of disappointment and serves to justify Jim's delight in the company of men as different from his father as he can find. Jim's disappointment in the 'chicken-hearted men' (p32) in town is also clear; none of whom offer to help his mother retrieve the money owed to her (ibid) and it is instead left to a woman and a young boy. Stevenson's choice of these weak male authorities suggests a failing model of masculinity, frail in the threat of adversity. Jim's father is unable to contend with the problems caused by the pirate; his son, and wife, however, can.

In Jim's quest for self-definition it becomes clear that, from the start, Jim respects Long John Silver and prefers him to all other father-figures offered to him. Among the gentlemen, the Squire is too imperceptive and too gullible to carry sufficient moral authority, and too self-involved to be aware of Jim's needs. Captain Smollet, from the start, establishes himself as stern and uncompromising. Only Dr Livesey shows any readiness to respond emotionally to Jim, as Sandison suggests, his 'confident authority' (p55), 'innate compassion' and demonstrable 'integrity' (p56) set him up as an appropriate 'alternative moral authority' (p57) but Stevenson questions this choice as a father-figure through his (pirate-like) 'mercenary pursuit of profit' (Loxley, p75).

Silver's clean and well-run inn, his appearance, demeanour, and the obvious efficiency with which he  runs his establishment, clearly impress Jim and immediately contrasts are drawn to his biological father's inability to run his own inn (ibid.) The connection between the two fathers is quickly established and continues when Silver almost immediately takes on Jim's education at the docks (p72-73,) more than we have been told Jim's father ever bestowed upon his son. Stevenson differentiates Silver from other pirates - such as Flint and Pew, who 'died a beggar-man' (p106) - by emphasising how he has a wife and has his money properly invested. Trelawney introduced him as 'a man of substance': 'he has a banker's account which has never been overdrawn' (p69.) Silver, too, boasts about his financial success: 'I laid by nine hundred safe, from England, and two thousand after Flint … all safe in bank' (p101). Silver has a keen eye for accounts and savings, just as those pillars of the community, the doctor and the squire, are eager to get their hands on pirate treasure.

At odds with the increasingly industrial and imperial society in which Treasure Island was written, was the earlier notion that 'the domestic sphere . . . is integral to masculinity'(Tosh,1999,p4). In this romantic adventure-story filled with gentlemen, Stevenson leaves a lasting impression that the most admirable are: a boy of fourteen; whose actions from the start are driven by a wish to protect his mother and home, and a crippled pirate; the only married adult in the book besides Jim's father. These characters operate in an absence of conventional nineteenth century acceptable masculinity, yet they affirm qualities ascribed to the gentleman as, first, a husband and a father. Stevenson's critique of masculinity in the empire, lies in the depiction of Silver as paternal surrogate father to Jim. It is this non-biological redefinition of the father-son relationship in Treasure Island -which Stevenson wrote with input from his young stepson-that the strength of his argument lies.

Stevenson seemingly blames the empire for the erosion of British fathers' importance in their children's lives. His juxtaposition of treasure-seeking pirates and gentlemen as potential fathers for Jim portrays scathing critiques of the types of men created by greed, capitalism, and colonialism, and highlights the need for the individual child to be cautious of false promises for adventure. By the end of the novel, Stevenson's view of the British Victorian gentleman emerges as part pirate and part child, but most importantly, like the fathers of Little Women both committed to their roles in the family.

Despite the obvious contrasts in technique, context, subject matter and style of fatherhoods depicted in Little Women and Treasure Island, similarities have been highlighted in the authors' subversion of nineteenth century patriarchal ideals. Both texts have been shown to implicitly promote domesticity in their key father figures, whilst encouraging reformation of the traditional family model by rewarding individualism and therefore 'seek(ing) to empower young readers to become active agents of future change' (Sambell, Reader 2,p.386.)

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