Date of Award

1-30-2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Lingyan Yang, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

David Downing, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Beverly E. Schneller, Ph.D.

Abstract

This dissertation explores the competitiveness of female characters in selected fiction by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). Utilizing a feminist theoretical approach, this discussion shows how Alcott situates her characters in settings where she explores ideas of competition within emergent feminism and capitalism. Alcott, counter to the nineteenth-century norm, shows that women must assert themselves and learn how to compete in a patriarchal capitalist economy. Alcott's progressive strategy contributes to making women's need for self-assertion, with competition as the catalyst for change, more fully understood within a society immersed in the idea of separate spheres for women and men. Alcott reflects her own feminist identity through the characters she designs in her short fiction and novels, including "Behind A Mask, or A Woman's Power," "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," "The Rival Prima Donnas," "Thrice Tempted," "Perilous Play," "Which Wins?," "Betrayed by a Buckle," Moods, Work: A Story of Experience, Little Women, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom. This study includes references to Alcott's personal journals and letters that show the correlation between her personal and literary lives. It also includes a discussion of Alcott's publishers and several popular nineteenth-century periodicals in which Alcott's works appeared. Feminist theorists including Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter, and Nancy Hartsock provide a theoretical basis for an examination of Alcott's works. Because of Alcott's own life experiences, she was acutely aware of the unfairness of woman's situation within a man's world. She revisited this topic through her female characters across her writing career who rebel against this unfairness by asserting their competitive ambitions to find identity and self-fulfillment. The importance of competition as a theme in Alcott's fiction requires closer scrutiny in order to be fully appreciated in literary and biographical terms. Even though Alcott's female characters are shrouded in domestic or sensational settings, their competitive attributes hold a previously underestimated significance within nineteenth-century women's literature.

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