Behind a mask : performativity in the Gothic thrillers of Louisa May Alcott.

Date of Award


Document Type



College of Liberal Arts

Degree Name

Bachelor in Arts


This paper analyzes the theoretical concept of performativity--the construction of identities through the performance of a discourse--in two pseudonymous gothic thrillers of nineteenth-century American author Louisa May Alcott, "Behind a Mask, or A Woman's Power" and "A Marble Woman." Many of Alcott's gothic novellas depict women in revolt against patriarchal ideals of femininity, situating Alcott in a tradition first described by literary critic Ellen Moers as the "female gothic," a sub-genre of the traditional gothic that concerns itself with the ambiguity of the female identity in a male-dominated society. The gothic was seen in the nineteenth century as a distinctly "feminine" literary form, and has traditionally been used, in works like mystery novels and popular romances, to formulate and reinforce the singular domestic roles which it accords its heroines. Furthermore, the feminine stigma popularly attached to the gothic excluded the genre from the realm of literary critical interest in the nineteenth century and for much of its history, problematizing the integrity of the female gothic as a vehicle of social dissent. As Diane Long Hoeveler claims, writers of the female gothic can only articulate their ideological concerns, and dissent, through a variation of "victim feminism" in which female characters achieve agency through pretend submission, pretend absence. The two Alcott heroines in this analysis, Jean Muir and Cecil Stein, achieve agency by employing what I have termed a counter-performativity to the patriarchal ideological framework of the traditional gothic: through dissimulating acceptable nineteenth-century conventions of femininity, they are capable of covertly undermining the literal and figurative fathers who oppress them. In "Behind a Mask," Jean Muir instigates a real-life romance plot to disguise her mercenary machinations; Cecil Stein of "A Marble Woman," rather than fleeing the father who imprisons her in her marble identity, opposes him through her rigid submission to that identity, forcing him to see how his own self-assumed identity has entrapped him and cut him off from his desire. Alcott's use of performativity in these stories, as performances that have an ideological signification, suggests not only her divide with the traditional gothic story but also her struggle to realize her own identity as a nineteenth-century woman writer. Central to this paper is the recognition that Alcott wrote from behind a mask of sentimentality, professionally dependent as she was on her status as "The Children's Friend." Her use of performativity signals both her ideological position toward a patriarchal literary tradition and her complex development as a woman of the pen.