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A Biblical Critique of the Works of Louisa May Alcott

By Sally Walker
August 01, 1999

Louisa May Alcott's writings have been considered good reading for over a century; however, upon closer inspection, one finds that her ideas verge on the heretical. My goal in this critique is to explore her works and compare some of Louisa's statements to what God has revealed to us in His Word.

Her Life
Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania to Bronson and Abigail May Alcott. She was the second of four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May. Her father was a teacher and philosopher. He experimented with many different jobs and moved his family around Massachusetts a great deal. Bronson Alcott was a firm believer in a cult called Transcendentalism. His close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was America's leading Transcendentalist.

Transcendentalism teaches that "reality exists only in the spirit world, and that things which are seen in the physical world are only reflections of the spirit world."1 One uses one's senses to learn about the physical world, but the spiritual world is discovered through reason, which is defined as "the independent and intuitive capacity to know what is really true."2 The physical world is second to the spirit world, though it is useful and makes people aware of beauty. One ought to learn all that he can through observation and science, but his life should be ordered according to the truths discovered by reason. Emerson and his followers believed that people find truth within themselves, hence they emphasized self-reliance and individuality.

Transcendentalists believed that in order to learn what is right, a person should rely on reason. Transcendentalism teaches that the doctrines and organized churches of orthodox Christianity interfere with the personal relationship between a person and God, and that we should reject the authority of Christianity and gain knowledge of God through reason. Bronson Alcott brought up his family to believe in Transcendentalism and all its teachings.

As Louisa grew, her talent for writing became evident. Her mother encouraged Louisa as she began to write plays and short stories.

Her father never stayed with one job long enough to make much money, so Louisa worked as a tutor, seamstress, and maid, and wrote as she found time, while her sister Anna worked as a governess. In 1854, she published her first book, entitled Flower Fables. In 1858, her younger sister, Elizabeth, died.

Louisa volunteered as a nurse for the Union army in November, 1862. She was impressed by the sight of so many suffering soldiers. She went home after a few weeks, ill with typhoid fever. In July, 1865, Louisa went to Europe as a nurse to a young lady.

After returning home, she wrote Little Women in 1868 at the request of her publisher, Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers Publishing House. It was unlike any other book she had written.

Louisa was a strong supporter of women's rights. This movement started in the early 1800s, when women began to receive higher education and to participate in reform movements which involved them in politics. As a result, they questioned why they should not have "equal" rights with men. It was not only voting rights these women wanted. They hoped that if women gained the vote, they could use it to fight for additional rights.

During the next twenty years, Louisa continued to write, care for her family, and advocate women's rights, although she was frequently troubled by bouts of illness.

In 1877, her mother died. Her sister, May, who had married Ernest Nieriker a year earlier, died in 1879, leaving behind her baby daughter, Louisa. The baby was sent to live with Louisa May in 1880.

In 1882, Louisa's father had a stroke, and Louisa and her sister, Anna, were his nurses. In 1888, Louisa's health began to deteriorate, so she went to live in a nursing home.

On March 1, Louisa went to visit her father, whose end was very near. She caught a chill coming home and died March 6, 1888.

Evidence of Feminism
In Genesis 3:16 God says to the woman, " . . . and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." This means that the woman would desire her husband's office and want to rule over him. It is very evident from Louisa May Alcott's later works that the desire to rule was strong in her.

She writes in Jo's Boys, "Old maids aren't sneered at half as much as they used to be, since some of them have grown famous and proved that woman isn't a half but a whole human being, and can stand alone."3

God created woman to complete man, not to be a completely separate, independent being. "Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man" (1 Cor. 11:9).

In Little Men, Louisa asserts that women who marry regret the act after awhile and tire of being helpmeets by writing, "`I'm tired of dolls, and I guess I shall put them all away and attend to my farm; I like it rather better than playing house,' said [Nan], unconsciously expressing the desire of many older ladies, who cannot dispose of their families so easily however."4 Also, "`I sometimes feel as if I'd missed my vocation and ought to have remained single; but my duty seemed to point this way, and I don't regret it,' said Mrs. Jo, folding a large and very ragged blue sock to her bosom."5

Though "Mrs. Jo" doesn't regret it, how can her husband trust her knowing that such thoughts are in her mind? In writing this, Louisa is sympathizing with women who do not respect their husbands and fulfill their duties, but instead long after a career. "The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of Spoil'' (Pr. 31:11). "But godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim. 6:6).

Along the same lines, Louisa scorns the wifely duty of caring for their household when she writes:

"Phebe and I believe that it is as much a right and duty for women to do something with their lives as for men; and we are not going to be satisfied with such frivolous parts as you give us," cried Rose, with kindling eyes. "I mean what I say, and you cannot laugh me down. Would you be contented to be told to enjoy yourself for a little while, then marry and do nothing more till you die?" she added, turning to Archie.
"Of course not: that is only part of a man's life," he answered decidedly.
"A very precious and lovely part, but not all," continued Rose; "neither should it be for a woman: for we've got minds and souls as well as hearts; ambition and talents, as well as beauty and accomplishments; and we want to live and learn as well as love and be loved. I'm sick of being told that is all a woman is fit for! I won't have any thing to do with love till I prove that I am something beside a housekeeper and baby-tender!"6

In Proverbs 31:15, 27, God tells us the godly woman "riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens," and "She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness."

Concerning careers for women, Louisa writes:

"I have made up my mind not to be cheated out of the real things that make one good and happy; and, just because I'm a rich girl, fold my hands and drift as so many do. I haven't lived with Phebe all these years in vain: I know what courage and self-reliance can do for one; and I sometimes wish I hadn't a penny in the world so that I could go and learn my bread with her, and be as brave and independent as she will be pretty soon," [said Rose].7

And also, "Nan . . . clamored fiercely to be allowed to do everything that the boys did."8

Women should not be working outside their home. If they must work, it should be a task within the realm of the home. It is not a woman's place to be "independent" in the sense of being out from under the authority of men, and especially not over men in authority. "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence"(1 Tim. 2:12). "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor. 11:3).

Louisa writes of the wife submitting to her husband as something to be avoided: "`I think I should like [being a spinster], on the whole — they are so independent. My Aunt Jenny can do just what she likes, and ask no one's leave; but Ma has to consult Pa about everything.'"9 Louisa makes it seem as though "Pa" is being rather tyrannical to be always wanting "Ma" to "consult" him about "everything." She portrays "Ma" as "Pa's" slave and hints that it would be wiser to remain a spinster who is "independent." However, "[t]herefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing" (Eph. 5:24).

Lastly, on the subject of votes for women, Louisa writes, "[About a statue Rebecca is molding] `Give her a ballot box,' cried a new voice, and turning round, they saw an odd-looking woman perched on the sofa behind them. `Thank you for the suggestion, Kate. I'll put that with the other symbols at her feet, for I'm going to have needle, pen, palette, and broom somewhere to suggest the various talents she owns, and the ballot box will show that she has earned the right to use them' [said Rebecca]."10 "`The women of England can vote, and we can't. I'm ashamed of America that she isn't ahead in all good things,' cried Nan, who held advanced views on all reforms, and was anxious about her rights, having had to fight for some of them."11

Now, it is not a woman's place to vote. All this about "earning the right" to use God-given talents is nonsense. These talents that she writes of can be used to God's glory without women having to do everything that men are called to. A woman simply should not be voting. It is the men's job to elect leaders of our country; it is not necessary for women to assist, much less run for office. "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. . . . For Adam was first formed, then Eve" (1 Tim. 2:11,13).

Evidence of Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism is also present in Louisa May Alcott's works, though not so blatantly as feminism. Rather, she introduces her religious beliefs subtly. While reading her works, one becomes aware that the references to Christ, life, death, and soul do not ring true. For instance, she writes, "Alas for Charlie! his to-morrow [sic] never came: and, when [Rose] saw him next, he lay there looking so serene and noble, it seemed as if it must be well with him; for all the pain was past; temptation ended; doubt and fear, hope and love, could no more stir his quiet heart, and in solemn truth he had gone to meet his Father, and begin again."12 "Charlie" is a wild, intemperate youth who had an early death as a result of an excess of drink. She speaks not of Christ and the need for His blood to cleanse our hearts of sin, rather it was because "Charlie" was in heaven that he was "serene and noble." One might wonder: how did "Charlie" get to heaven? This would seem to be a statement of the Transcendentalist belief that truth is found within one's self, which is a denial of total depravity. "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one"(Rom. 3:10). The only One Who can make us righteous is Christ. Not even going to heaven can do that. As C. H. Spurgeon said, "Put a thief in heaven and he will pick the pockets of the angels."13 What Louisa writes of Christ is more glaring: "`That is Christ, the Good Man, and He is blessing the children.'"14 ". . . and Nat lay fast asleep, lying with his face toward the picture, as if he had already learned to love the Good Man who loved little children, and was a faithful friend to the poor."15 This is a direct denial of the deity of Christ! She writes of Him as nothing more than a Good Man.

But God tells us in John 1:1,14, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." This clearly shows that Christ is God.

Regarding sin, Louisa's character, Miss Celia, states:

"I try to be [pious], but I very often fail; so every Sunday I make new resolutions, and work hard to keep them through the week. That is a great help, as you will find when you begin to try it."
"Do you think if I said in meetin', `I won't ever swear anymore,' that I wouldn't do it again?" asked Ben soberly; for that was his besetting sin just now.
"I'm afraid we can't get rid of our faults quite so easily; I wish we could: but I do believe that if you keep saying that, and trying to stop, you will cure the habit sooner than you think."16

Another character, Mrs. Bhaer, declares:

"I want my boys to love Sunday, to find it a peaceful, pleasant day, when they can rest from common study and play, yet enjoy quiet pleasures, and learn, in simple ways, lessons more important than any taught in school. Do you understand me?" she asked, watching Nat's attentive face.
"You mean to be good?" he said, after hesitating a minute.
"Yes; to be good, and to love to be good. It is hard work sometimes, I know very well; but we all help one another, and so we get on."17

The thought she expresses is that we can rid ourselves of our sin by ourselves. This is wrong, for the only way our sins can be cleansed from us is by God's gift of faith in Christ's cleansing blood: "But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:5). "That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (Jn. 3:15).

Conclusion
I think it should be very evident that, although Louisa's works are generally considered "moral," they contain very serious theological errors which must be detected in order to make her books safe and instructive reading. By examining Louisa May Alcott's works in the light of Scripture we may better analyze the thinking of those outside Christ and be prepared to "give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Pet. 3:15).

Notes

1. John Clendenning, "Transcendentalism," World Book Encyclopedia, ed. 1990, 371.

2. Ibid., 371.

3. Louisa May Alcott, Jo's Boys (Garden City, NY, 1957), 247.

4. Idem.,Little Men (Mahwah, NJ, 1988), 235.

5. Idem.,Jo's Boys (Garden City, NY, 1957), 25.

6. Idem.,Rose in Bloom (New York, 1918), 10-11.

7. Ibid., 11.

8. Idem.,Little Men (Mahwah, NJ, 1988), 285.

9. Idem.,Jo's Boys (Garden City, NY, 1957), 250.

10. Idem.,An Old Fashioned Girl (New York, 1996), 241-242.

11. Idem.,Jo's Boys (Garden City, NY, 1957), 74-75.

12. Idem.,Rose in Bloom (New York, 1918), 253.

13. Pastor Jim West of Covenant Reformed Church used this quote during a class he was giving on the Heidelberg Catechism.

14. Louisa May Alcott, Little Men (Mahwah, NJ, 1988), 44.

15. Ibid., 46.

16. Idem.,Under the Lilacs (Garden City, NY, 1955), 116.

17. Idem.,Little Men (Mahwah, NJ, 1988), 28.


Topics: American History, Biography, Family & Marriage, Theology

Sally Walker

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