Behind a Mask: Short Response

Read the passage below and then outline why you might agree or disagree with this interpretation of the story. Ultimately, you should establish how you read the final pages of the novella.

Many critics also note, however, that Jean's final transformation into the role of wife to Lord

Coventry potentially problematizes the story's radical message. For while Jean's assumption of the title "Lady Coventry" does help destabilize certain class biases such as the idea of aristocratic birth-privilege (an idea most of the other characters in the tale unthinkingly endorse), her marriage to Sir John also places her squarely in the position of sanctioning the hierarchical class entitlement that her earlier actions worked to critique. Additionally, the fact that the governess's ultimate ambition, despite all her formidable powers of artistry and perception, is to "trick" a man into marriage serves to affirm the idea that a woman's highest achievement -- the goal towards which she should direct all her powers -- is her marital status. Moreover, readers are explicitly assured at least three times in the tale that Jean, after her marriage, will permanently change her delightfully devious ways and spend the rest of her life as a true domestic angel, quietly and selflessly serving her lord: an uneasy ending for a story that has, up to the end, exposed angelic, domestic female behavior to be a diabolically manipulative, self-interested performance.

With Jean's final unsettling transformation in mind, I propose a reading of Behind a Mask that, among other things, can allow for a smoother reconciliation of the story's end with the substance of its whole. Keeping in sight the ways in which gender and class operate in the tale, I consider how the story can be read as a complicated and allegorical meditation on storytelling itself. If we attend not just to the tale's depiction of a powerful female character (an extraordinary actress engaged in class and gender warfare) but also to the story's powerful, if masked, commentary on the influences, pleasures, and uses of different kinds of fiction, we discover another important facet of Alcott's radical politics. Jean Muir can be seen both as a psychologically complex character and as a kind of metafictional allegory: her sensationally "masked" character, as she enters and stirs up the Coventry household, can be seen to figure the new, sensational fictions that were infiltrating, disturbing, and titillating households of all stripes in 1860s America and England. . . .

As with most of her sensational thrillers, she carefully wrote Behind a Mask under a pseudonym while she simultaneously worked on the more "respectable" fiction to which she put her real name. Given that Behind a Mask was published just two years before Little Women catapulted the name Louisa May Alcott into a kind of wholesome household word, it is tempting to read the story the way Stern persuasively has, as a kind of dark literary watershed for Alcott: a tempestuous fictional purging of "many of the elements" -- frustrations, difficulties, hardships -- "that had gone into the life of its author"; a "gothic roman à clef" in which "the future author of Little Women sits for a dark but revealing portrait" (xvii-xviii). I suggest, however, that we might find in Behind a Mask not just a reflection of Alcott's own particular, complicated psyche, but also a compelling celebration of the complicated psychological effects sensation fiction might have on its writers and readers more generally. At the heart of the story's class and gender politics we find an allegorized battle of the books: one in which the "sensation" genre, a fictional mode largely seen as working-class and predominantly disparaged by critics of the time, serves to reinvigorate and significantly transform the "establishment" from within as it simultaneously works to energize its readers and empower its writers. Behind a Mask can be read as a parable that dramatizes the controversial emergence of sensation fiction on the mid-century literary scene and, in the end, champions its rather disreputable but seductively powerful arrival.

Hackenberg, Sara. “Plots and Counterplots: The Defense of Sensational Fiction in Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask.” American Transcendental Quarterly 22.2 (2008): 436-37. Print.

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