A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Louisa May Alcott’s “Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power”

The (belated) eighth installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

Behind a Mask: or, A Woman’s Power by Louisa May Alcott

This 1866 novella (published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard) warrants the same criticism as some of the previous entries in Crow’s anthology: it is a Gothic work by an American author, but (set squarely on an English country estate) is not a work of American Gothic. Crow also misleads in his editorial headnote when he cites Alcott’s character Jean Muir as a “Scottish witch.” Jean does not literally bewitch anyone in the narrative. She is less a weird sister than a scheming Lady MacBeth, more gold-digger than hex-slinger. While her horrified victims claim she possesses “the art of a devil” at tale’s end, she is not actually in league with Satan. Her titular Power is not supernaturally-endowed, but the product of her own feminine wiles.

Alcott does succeed here in transforming traditional Gothic elements, but is not by translating them into American alternatives. She reworks the paradigm of Persecuted Maiden relentlessly harassed by a sinister suitor (significantly, the duplicitous Jean draws on just such a plotline as part of her elaborate ruse). No, it’s Jean herself who is the ruinous seducer, the heroine-villainess who conceals harm within her charms as she toys with the eligible bachelors of the Coventry family. Not merely seeking to marry into money, the proud Jean is motivated by the desire for vengeance against anyone who has slighted her in any small way (especially the protagonist Gerald Coventry). It is with this central theme of masking–the disparity between superficial appearance and secret purpose, between Jean’s seeming meekness and underlying ambition–that Alcott anticipates a staple aspect of American Gothic fiction.

The cunning con-woman Jean (a former actress) insinuates herself into the Coventry family by posing as a governess. In the novella’s opening scene, Gerald expresses a dislike of governesses in general and develops an instant, if vague, mistrust of Jean in particular (if only he had trusted his instincts!). Ignorant of just how truly he speaks in Jean’s case, Gerald later denigrates governesses as “such a mischief-making race.” Alcott’s casting of a trusted domestic figure in an ambiguous light prefigures the darkened depiction of the governess in another Gothic novella we will encounter in later pages of Crow’s anthology: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.


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