Should - Millennium: Journal of International Studies

Should Little Women be in International Relations? A Dialogue between the
Opposing Traditions of the Novel and International Relations1
Vanessa Pupavac
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Nottingham
The article discusses the opposing traditions of the novel and the discipline of
International Relations and the need for dialogue between IR and the key literary
genre of modern society. The article highlights the gendered public and private
spheres, and the tensions between the individual and history, which underpin their
opposition, drawing upon Hannah Arendt’s reading of Kant’s political philosophy.
The novel’s consciously domestic and sentimental character, associated with women’s
historically restricted lives, opposed its inclusion in International Relations.
Nevertheless a shared sense of the tragic human condition unites the traditions of the
novel and International Relations. The novel tradition found the individual to be a site
of conflict and questioned cultural representations of women as ‘angels in house’. The
novel offers insights for critically analysing women’s entry into International
Relations as idealised subjects and global governance: its understanding of the
individual, human feelings and relationships; and its erosion of the divisions between
the international and the national, and the public and the private domains.
Novel approaches to International Relations
I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever
now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay at home and
knit like a poky old woman’, and Jo shook the blue army-sock till the needles
rattled like castanets, and her ball bounded across the room2
So Louisa Alcott’s classic Little Women introduces her impatient heroine Jo March.
Little Women has been stereotyped as sentimental drivel (unread its advocates
suspect), but inspired feminists including Simone de Beauvoir and Elaine Showalter.3
The power of Alcott’s Little Women for generations of women has been how it asserts
women’s independence through lively, strong-willed sisters, acting in a supportive
community of women, striving to integrate their creative ambitions and their personal
relations. The novel as a proto-feminist text legitimises claims for women’s
independence and paid work from the heart of the home decades before women’s
suffrage began to be recognised internationally.4
I would like to thank colleagues and anonymous reviewers who gave very useful comments
earlier versions of this paper.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (London: Penguin, 1989): 3.
Simone De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963): 8991, 104-105; Elaine Showalter, ‘Introduction’, in Alcott, 1989: vii-xxviii.
Alcott, 1989: 118.
The history of the novel and the history of women’s emancipation in the West are
closely linked. Women developed consciousness of their condition through the novel,
while any history of the novel cannot ignore women’s role in the genre’s
development. Feminist writing has strongly identified with the novel and its special
affinity with women’s experience. The rise of feminist approaches in International
Relations may encourage its use as a familiar source in feminist writing. However the
novel does not have an established presence in International Relations, although it is
commonly studied in cognate disciplines like history, area studies and post-colonial
studies. Could Little Women contribute to our understanding of global governance
and its gender politics?
The article discusses the opposing traditions of the novel and International Relations.
My analysis deliberately emphasises the differences between the two traditions and
selects examples of the classic English novel to draw out their distinct characteristics
before identifying underlying commonalities. I begin by highlighting the novel’s
significance for women’s writing and philosophical thinking. Little Women’s heroine
is tempted by Kantian philosophy until warned away by her future husband. To Jo’s
frustration, women were not supposed to write philosophical books or be actors in
war. I discuss the novel’s relative absence from International Relations and how the
novel’s consciously domestic and sentimental character, associated with women’s
historically restricted lives, opposed its inclusion in International Relations. I then
consider the historical novel, alongside Kant’s explicit endorsement of historical
transformation, and his contrary equal condemnation of its horrors.5 I discuss the
longing to retreat into the private world of feeling and the contrary longing to escape
into the public world of action. I observe how the novel discovers the individual to be
a site of conflict and how a shared sense of the tragic human condition unites the
traditions of the novel and International Relations. The novel questions cultural
representations of women as ‘angels in house’. Alcott, author of Little Women, Good
Wives and other wholesome family fiction, also wrote melodramatic fiction portraying
satanic figures behind angelic domestic masks. Finally I conclude how the novel
offers insights for critically analysing women’s entry into International Relations as
idealised subjects. The novel may help us explore the limitations of global
governance’s understanding of individuals, their feelings and relationships; and the
implications of its erosion of the divisions between the international and the national,
and the public and the private domains, which have informed the traditions of both the
novel and International Relations.
Women’s consciousness and the novel
Virginia Woolf’s influential A Room of One’s Own describes the shelves of women’s
writing as being almost exclusively novels until the twentieth century. 6 The novel
genre, evolving from women’s letter writing, became pivotal for women to explore
artistic expression, personal experiences, social problems and philosophical ideas. 7
The genre’s strong association with women encouraged both female and male writers
Immanuel Kant, ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ in Kant’s
Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970c): 41-53; Immanuel Kant,
‘Perpetual Peace’ in Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970e): 93124.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Granada, 1977): 63.
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel (London: Pandora, 1986); Woolf, 1977.
like Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Mary Hays, Mary Wollstonecraft
and others to address the women’s question through novels. Many feminist
autobiographical writings like Simone de Beauvoir allude to the defining influences
of Alcott’s Little Women and other novels.8 Plays including Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll
House and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie have also been important. Indeed
Aristophanes’ Lysistrata has been considered the first international feminist text. But
the novel was the genre above all, which women not only used, but shaped and made
their own.9 Symbolically the female identity of the novel is captured in the many
novels, which bear individual women’s names: Emma, Evelina, Indiana, Jane Eyre,
Lelia, Ruth, and Shirley. This close identification includes novels by male writers:
Pamela, Clarissa, Madame Bovary, Tess of D’Urbervilles, Anna Karenina and Effi
Briest to name just a few classic works.10 Women, whether as writers or readers,
propelled the novel’s establishment and development as the dominant modern literary
Women’s philosophical and social engagement through the novel helped advance
women’s voices and claims in the public sphere. Historically female writers like
Alcott, Frances Burney or George Eliot used fictional genres rather than direct
philosophical writing, even if they were embedded in intellectual circles and were
‘not by nature novelists’.11 Alcott’s intellectual ambitions are reflected in her attempts
to resist pressure from publishers to write safe light fiction. Jo in Little Women is
almost seduced by Hegelian and Kantian metaphysics.12 But ‘intellectual freedom
depends on material things’, Woolf bluntly stated in her essay A Room of One’s
Own.13 Or as Jo is advised by her sister, ‘when you’ve got a name, you can afford to
digress, and have philosophical and metaphysical people in your novels’.14 Alcott
wrote popular fiction to support her family, allowing her father, Branson Alcott, to
pursue his philosophical writing, while constraining her own.15
Yet exclusion from the public sphere alone cannot explain why the novel became so
important to women writers to address philosophical ideas and social problems.
Crucially women writers found the novel could recognise women’s struggles and the
importance of the private sphere in its own right. As Jean Elshtain’s seminal Public
Man, Private Woman (1981) argues:
To affirm a vision of the private-familial experiences as having its own dignity
and purpose is to insist that particular experiences and spheres of social
relations exude their own values and purposes, and have ends not attainable
by, or within, other spheres. To assert the continued necessity of such relations
de Beauvoir, 1963; Showalter, 1989.
Aristophanes The Acharnians; The Clouds; Lysistrata (London: Penguin, 1973).
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and
Fielding (London: Hogarth, 1987).
Woolf, 1977: 64.
Alcott, 1989: 351-353.
Woolf, 1977: 103.
Alcott, 1989: 270.
Sarah Elbert, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott's Place in American Culture (New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
and a particular notion of their reconstructed vitality is to recognise that we are
all impoverished if all of life falls under a single set of terms.16
Novel as lived philosophy
The Platonic philosophical tradition sees the body and its senses of pain and pleasure
as distractions from the mind, while the Aristotelian tradition acknowledges the
senses as important for stimulating thinking. The novel has particularly lent itself to
philosophical thinking, seeking to reconcile mind and body, and the individual and
society. Kant’s philosophy, drawing upon the Aristotelian tradition, suggests
cognition arises through the senses and intellect.17 Alcott’s Little Women alludes to
Kantian philosophy and I will draw attention to Kant’s relevance to relation between
the novel and International Relations. Here I apply Arendt’s reading of Kant, because
Arendt engages with the tensions in Kant’s moral philosophy and philosophy of
history, while her own writing extensively engaged with the characteristics of the
public and the private, and the individual and history, which are significant to the
opposing traditions of the novel and International Relations.18 Kant’s philosophy,
founded on human ‘unsociable sociability’, is interested in how frictions between
individuals and different spheres develop human understanding and sociability.19
Reason and sentiment are often represented as belonging to different gendered
spheres, including by Kant,20 and are extensively addressed in feminist writing from
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women21 to Jean Elshtain’s Public Man,
Private Woman. Kant sees philosophy as fundamentally about evaluating life, and
since life concerns everybody, philosophy is something that anybody may potentially
do, not just philosophers.22 And to evaluate life, the philosopher needs to live among
fellow citizens, not just fellow philosophers, for Kant believes that sociability,
communication and the capacity to imagine other’s standpoints are vital for thinking
and allowing us to appeal to community sense and achieve relative impartiality.23
Impartial judgement does not stand above society, but is achieved through
engagement with society, while examples synthesising the general and the particular
help develop judgement.24 Kant believes philosophical thinking should be popularised
Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman (Chicago: Chicago University Press,
1981): 334-335.
Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1992): 27; Immanuel Kant, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (London: Macmillan,
1929): 300; Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Hague: Martinus
Njihoff, 1974): 21-29.
Arendt, 1992; Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1998); Kimberly Hutchings, Kant, Critique and Politics (London: Routledge, 1996); Immanuel
Kant, Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970a).
Arendt, 1992: 10-12; Hutchings, 1996: 48-50; Kant, 1970c: 44-45.
Kant, 1974: 166-173.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (London: Penguin, 1992).
Arendt, 1992: 28-29; Immanuel Kant, Notes and Fragments (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2009): 13; Immanuel Kant, ‘Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”’ in
Basic Writings of Kant, ed. Allan Wood (New York: Modern Library, 2001b): 133-142; Immanuel
Kant, The Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (London and New York, 2005): 7677).
Arendt, 1992: 10-12; 72-74; Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1952): Section 40: 150-154.
Arendt, 1992: 38-39, 76; Kant, 1952, Section 40: 150-154.
through society and contribute to the rights of man,25 while Wollstonecraft’s
Vindication shows how philosophy has degraded women and denied them rights.
Kant’s own philosophy denies women the possibility of full citizenship rights. 26 And
yet his philosophy, not withstanding his prejudices against women, logically implies
women’s involvement in making philosophical judgements.
Here we come to the novel’s relevance to philosophy for all and the struggle for
women’s emancipation. Kant is sceptical of the genre’s philosophical potential.27 And
he is no champion of women’s emancipation and believes women threaten masculine
virtue, although they have a role in cultivating and refining society. 28 Yet Kant’s
philosophy gives importance to the imagination, which liberates us from private
experiences and helps us enlarge our minds towards developing relative impartiality
and good judgement.29 The novel represents ‘ethics in action’ or at least imaginative
action. Novels allow us to visit other places and other standpoints and develop our
general understanding, beyond our particular experience, yet appealing to us through
the novel’s portrait of particular lives. Philosophers like Rousseau used the novel to
outline how a philosophy could be applied in individuals’ lives.30 Novels’ merits over
traditional historical or philosophical writing were explicitly debated at the end of the
eighteenth century. The writers Joanna Baillie, Maria Edgeworth and William
Godwin among others argued for the moral superiority of romances against the dry or
bellicose character of historical accounts.31 Individual stories striking the imagination
enlarge understanding of human nature and foster better judgement and justice.32
Understanding individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, their motives and personal
experiences helps us learn historical lessons for the benefit of humanity. Historical
romances, following historical figures into the closet or showing ordinary private
individuals, touch our sympathies and leave lasting (moral) impressions. 33
Kant’s philosophy seeks to give dignity to individuals and is concerned the idea of
infinite historical progress denies their importance.34 Kant believes an individual’s life
should be treated as a meaningful story, whereas infinite historical progress
contradicts individual stories with a beginning and an end. The novel as a genre gives
importance to individual stories and has consciously sought to portray ordinary
women and men, neglected or caricatured by traditional philosophy. Historically the
novel has offered women a voice and an audience in which to assert women’s dignity
Arendt, 1992: 29, 38-39; Kant, 1929: 312; Kant, 2009: 13.
Immanuel Kant, ‘On the Common Saying: “This may be true in theory, but it does not apply
in practice’ in Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970d): 61-87;
Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Hague: Martinus Njihoff, 1974): 7980, 166-173; Susan Mendus, ‘Kant’, in Women in Western Political Philosophy, eds. Ellen Kennedy
and Susan Mendus (Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books, 1987): 21-43.
Immanuel Kant, ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ in Kant’s
Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970c): 50; Kant, 1974: 5 & 79.
Kant, 1970d; Kant, 1974: 79-80; 169; 166-173; Mendus, 1987.
Arendt, 1992: 38-39, 73-76; Kant, 1952, Section 40: 153-154.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or, On Education (New York: Basic Books, 1979).
Joanna Baillie, ‘Introductory Discourse’, in The Dramatic and Poetical Works (London:
Longman, 1853); Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000);
William Godwin, ‘Of History and Romance’, in Things as they are, or The Adventures of Caleb
Williams (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988): 359-373.
Baillie, 1853: 4-5.
Baillie, 1858: 5-9; Edgeworth, 2000: 1-3; Godwin, 1988.
Kant, 1970c: 44.
and contest the degraded role assigned to them by society and male philosophers like
Kant and Rousseau. The novel has been used to explore the course of a woman’s life,
her relations, and how society fosters her degradation or self-realisation.
Wollstonecraft observed women could not develop general thinking or interest in
wider public affairs because their restricted lives, restricted forms of polite
conversation and lack of solitude discouraged thinking from other standpoints.35 The
novel engaged women with particular characters whose preoccupations they could
recognise and take them beyond their narrow perspectives. The novel could thereby
help women to bridge the gap between their limited personal outlook and abstract
writing, and enlarge their minds and potentially develop their philosophical
Significant feminist thinking continues to be conducted in novels as lived ethics,
whether Maya Angelou’s explorations of race and gender or Margaret Atwood’s
explorations of gender and environmentalism. Consequently the novel remains
important in gender studies. Nevertheless the novel, as the dominant modern literary
form and its centrality in feminist writing, has not translated into International
The novel’s neglect in International Relations
International Relations as a discipline has historically been influenced by approaches
from diverse disciplines, notably history, political philosophy, political science,
psychology and sociology. The discipline in the last two decades has opened up to
alternative approaches, but has been slow to embrace the novel as the dominant
modern literary form. The novel is still not quite respectable in International Relations
as a substantial source to analyse international politics. The sub-genre of science
fiction has gained interest,37 but the discipline tends to regard these contributions as
light-hearted exercises from the main business of International Relations – such as its
reception of Harry Potter and International Relations.38 Literary sources tend to be
used in International Relations as incidental decorative colour. Joseph Conrad’s Heart
of Darkness is an enduring metaphor in International Relations writing on Africa.
[Reference to the novel by International Relations scholars is more common in
monographs or edited books than International Relations journals. The International
Relations journal Millennium seems the most receptive to the novel with its 2001
special issue on Images and Narratives in World Politics. Jutta Weldes’ edited
volume on science fiction and world politics indicates how much more could be
mined from the sub-genre.39 Generally though, we have to search hard for the novel’s
Wollstonecroft, 1992: 132, 150, 314-315.
Chris Brown, ‘Special Circumstances: Intervention by a Liberal Utopia’, Millennium, Vol.
30, No. 3, (2001): 625-633; Jutta Weldes, ‘Globalisation is Science Fiction’, Millennium, Vol. 30, No.
3, (2001): 647-667; Jutta Weldes, (ed) To Seek Out New Worlds: Science Fiction and World Politics
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann (eds) Harry Potter and International Relations (Langham:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
Weldes, 2003.
substantial rather than incidental use in International Relations journals. 40 Articles on
themes such as the relationship between the American spy novel and the Cold War are
more likely to appear in history journals.41]
The novel’s lack of attention in International Relations is striking when compared
with cognate disciplines, particularly its prominence in post-colonial studies for
understanding trans-national relations and the post-colonial experience. The genre
appears to have allowed post-colonial subjects an international voice that has carried
better than other forms of writing, echoing the experience of women writers up to the
twentieth century. Postcolonial and feminist studies have extensively explored how
the novel intertwines concerns about race and gender.42 Indeed the novel’s dominance
in the field has made post-colonial studies synonymous with post-colonial literary
Herbert Butterfield, an influential figure in British International Relations, wrote The
Historical Novel, supporting the genre’s value for historical understanding.43 His
interest demonstrates that International Relations did not have to wait for the rise of
postmodernism to endorse the novel,44 and that the novel’s application is not
necessarily tied to postmodern theories, although they have dominated aesthetics in
International Relations.45 Postmodern theories on textuality blurring the distinction
between fiction and non-fiction obviously lend themselves to the novel’s use,46 but
other genres such as film have been more readily included in International Relations
than the novel. Why has the novel not translated as readily as film into International
Relations, despite the advancement of feminist approaches in International Relations
over the last two decades? The feminist International Relations scholars Ann Tickner
and Cynthia Weber have highlighted the marginal status in International Relations of
narrative and other methods favoured in feminist research and how feminist
approaches have been more readily absorbed where they have kept to traditional
Could the genre’s association with the ‘feelings of women in the drawing room’ make
International Relations overlook the novel?48 Wollstonecraft warned against the
Anthony Lang and James Lang, ‘Between Theory and History: The Remains of the Day in
the International Relations Classroom’, Political Science and Politics, Vol. 31, No. 2, (1998): 209215.
Katy Fletcher, ‘Evolution of the Modern American Spy Novel’, Journal of Contemporary
History, Vol. 22, (1987): 319-331.
Feminist Review ‘Political Histories’, Vol. 85, Issue 1 (2007).
Herbert Butterfield, The Historical Novel: An Essay (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1924).
Fred Halliday, ‘“High and Just Proceedings”: Notes Towards an Anthology of the Cold
War’, Millennium, Vol. 30, No. 3, (2001): 691-707.
Roland Bleiker, ‘The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory’, Millennium, Vol. 30,
No. 3, (2001): 509-534.
John Horton, ‘Life, literature and ethic theory: Martha Nussbaum on the role of the literary
imagination in ethical thought’, in Literature and the Political Imagination, eds. John Horton and
Andrea Baumeister (London: Routledge, 1996): 79-80.
Ann Tickner, ‘What is your research program? Some feminist answers to international
relations methodological questions’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1, (2005): 1-22;
Cynthia Weber, ‘Good Girls, Little Girls and Bad Girls: Male Paranoia in Robert Keohane’s Critique
of Feminist International Relations’, Millennium, Vol. 23, No. 2, (1994): 337-349.
Woolf, 1977: 70.
novel’s sentimental illusions as she strove to overcome the dichotomy between reason
and feeling.49 George Eliot attacked the triviality of much women’s fiction in her
essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’.50 Are there lingering Platonic or puritanical
anxieties in International Relations over the novel as fiction? Aristostlean philosophy
challenged Platonic antipathy to fiction and suggested the special capacity of poetry
or drama to express the human condition and embody historical truths. Indeed Plato’s
desire to exclude fiction arguably related less to questions over its veracity than his
fears over its corrupting influence and implications for political authority.51
The novel’s neglect, as a genre, suggests continuing gendered methodological norms
in International Relations. Without the novel, swathes of women’s philosophical or
historical writing are effectively excluded from International Relations. Reference to
women writers like George Eliot remains an anathema in International Relations,
while reference to her contemporaries Mill or Feuerbach would not raise an eyebrow.
Could fictional classics like Little Women seriously contribute to International
Relations? Is there more to International Relations’ spurning of Little Women than
prejudice? If classical drama is where ‘the political sphere of human life [is]
transposed into art’, 52 what is the novel? Are there reasons integral to the novel as
opposed to drama or film, that make the genre less relevant to International Relations?
The sub-genre of science fiction, with its inter-galactic worlds, speaks most obviously
to international politics and is gaining attention in International Relations, 53 while the
core tradition of the novel remains absent. If we leave aside ‘Silly novels by Lady
Novelists’, are the concerns of the novel tradition simply incompatible with the
concerns of International Relations? Are the concerns of the novel ‘too small an
affair’ for International Relations?54
Little Women against International Relations
The novel’s history has been influenced by women’s restricted social roles, exclusion
from the public sphere, and the social position of women who could take up writing.
As Eliot observes:
A loving woman’s world lies within the four walls of her own home; and it’s
only through her husband that she is in any electric communication with the
world beyond.55
The novel’s ‘perennial interests of domesticity’ have been shaped by the domestic
circumstances of women novelists who have overwhelmingly come from the middle
Wollstonecraft, 1992.
George Eliot, ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, Westminster Review, Vol. 66, October,
(1856): 442-61.
Susan Mendus, ‘“What of soul was left, I wonder?” The narrative self in political
philosophy’, in Literature and the Political Imagination, eds. John Horton and Andrea Baumeister
(London: Routledge, 1996): 53.
Arendt, 1998: 188.
Weldes, 2003.
Henry James on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, quoted in George Steiner, Tolstoy or
Dostoevsky (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967): 54.
George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1858): 119,
discussed in Jenny Uglow, George Eliot (London: Virago, 1997): 90.
classes.56 In the words of Woolf, ‘all the literary training a woman had […] was
training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion. Her sensibility had
been educated (…) by the influences of the common sitting room’.57 Consider the
symbolic geography of the Little Women cooped up sewing sheets, imagined by them
into a map of world:
They adopted Jo’s plan of dividing the long seams into four parts, and calling
the quarters Europe, Asia, Africa and America, and in that way got on
capitally, especially when they talked about the different countries as they
stitched their way through them.58
Kant, like the Little Women, only travelled in the imagination,59 but even women’s
imagination was constrained by their narrow domestic realm. Indicatively the
frustrated Madame Bovary, nurtured on a diet of silly novels, merely imagines herself
shopping in the capital when she buys a map of Paris and walks its streets in her
The dominant feminine domestic character of the novel defines the genre’s tradition
as the antithesis of International Relations. The genre’s domestic inclination evolved
from the eighteenth century novel of manners, concerned with cultivating polite
society and civilised conversation, and distancing itself from violent political conflict.
Its mode ‘deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women,
where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent clashes’.61
The common domestic themes of the novel compliment how the genre is
fundamentally ‘the art of the housed and private man’ or woman: a privately-enjoyed
art form, read by individual readers to themselves in their own rooms. 62 The novel’s
private character contrasts to the public character and collective experience of other
genres: the oral recitation of epic poetry in pre-literate or semi-literate communities,
theatrical performance of drama, or cinematic screening of films. Michael Shapiro
(2001) discusses the physical space of the novel, but not its gendered aspect.63 The
gendered space is mapped out by the rebellious Maggie in Eliot’s The Mill on the
Floss, with whom de Beauvoir strongly identified64:
So it has been since the days of Hecuba, and of Hector, Tamer of horses:
inside the gates, the women with streaming hair and uplifted hands offering
prayers, watching the world’s combat from afar, filling their long, empty days
with memories and fears; outside, the men in fierce struggle with things divine
and human, quenching memory in the stronger light of purpose, losing the
sense of dread and even of wounds in the hurrying ardour of action.65
Woolf, 1977: 79.
Woolf, 1977: 64.
Alcott, 1989: 10.
Arendt, 1992: 44.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1981): 53-54 .
George Meredith, The Egoist (London: Penguin, 2007): ‘The Prelude’: 1.
Steiner, 1967: 25.
Michael Shapiro, ‘Sounds of Nationhood’, Millennium, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2001): 583-601.
de Beauvoir, 1963: 140.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (London: Penguin, 1996): 405.
An unhistorical domestic private world of reproduction is separated from an
international world of historical destruction and creation. And a feminine world of
sentiment and enforced passivity is contrasted to a masculine world of agency and
action. Sometimes the domestic realm is represented as the civilised sphere against
masculine wildness as in Laura Wilder’s Little House series, sometimes as the natural,
maternal refuge against alienating modern industrial society, as in Charles Dickens’
writing, 66but however traditionally represented, divisions are gendered. Meanwhile
the tomboy Jo hates being a girl and wants to escape domesticity for war, but
symbolically the nearest she gets to fighting is knitting army socks.67
The novel’s development was closely entwined with women’s fate and its typical
narrative framework reflected their expected social paths. The novel plot became
framed by the quest to marry successfully because marriage remained the primary
way that women could secure or better their social position in Western societies until
the twentieth century. Eliot’s essay ‘Silly Novels’ parodies the novel’s stereotypical
The men play a very subordinate part by her side. You are consoled now and
then by a hint that they have affairs, which keeps you in mind that the
working-day business of the world is somehow being carried on, but
ostensibly the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the
heroine on her ‘starring’ expedition through life.68
The novel, enjoyed primarily as a private literary form, explored the inner world of
individuals against the great social and political changes. The very name of the genre
is linked to its exploration of novel feelings.69 The novel’s elevation of sentiment
sought to expand beyond the early Enlightenment’s foregrounding of reason and
defend humanity’s soul against the alienating mechanisation of people into hands. The
novel has often been deliberately anti-heroic, narrating ordinary unhistorical lives.
The social novel developed by Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens and others suggested
the polite society of refined feeling enjoyed by the minority-privileged sections of
society depended upon the oppression of the many.70 However they did not abandon
the genre’s domestic interest and considered the feminine private sphere as crucial to
social improvement, intertwining the causes of women and their domestic roles in
social reform. Synthesis between reason and feeling, action and sentiment also
implied greater synthesis between the sexes. Thus the novel historically both reflected
women’s exclusion from the world of action and asserted a feminine world of feeling
against an unfeeling alienating world.
The novel has classically preferred a domestic feminised interior world, even when
protagonists’ lives have been touched by wider political conflicts or wars. Jane
Austen’s Mansfield Park is defined by the cultivated space of the country estate and
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Penguin, 2003).
Alcott, 1989: 30.
Eliot, 1856.
Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (London: Allen
Lane, 2000).
Eliot, 1985: 385, discussed in Uglow, 1987: 138.
her heroine’s moral development.71 The Napoleonic Wars, the international slave
trade, the British navy’s expansion and imperial mission are absent presences in her
fiction.72 Similarly Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, set during the Napoleonic Wars and
Luddite unrest, avoids the spaces of political conflict and is dominated by confined
domestic spaces and the inner world against the outer world. 73 War is pointedly kept
off-stage in the ‘Great Tradition’ of the novel, especially the English novel.74
Returning to Little Women, its action is deliberately domestic and symbolically begins
when the father enlists in the American Civil War. Both the father and the war are
excluded from the novel, although Alcott had brief wartime experience nursing
wounded soldiers, she could have drawn upon. Little Women’s absence from
International Relations is therefore unsurprising.
This pattern is not just observable among women writers, but male novelists not
domestically constrained as their female counterparts, even where the novel’s
protagonists are involved in war.75 Walter Scott’s acclaimed historical novels proved
to be an exception to the dominant English novel tradition.76 His novels lost critical
literary favour and were excluded from the Great Tradition, along with works like
Fennimore Cooper’s popular The Last of the Mohicans, which exposes a nation’s
violent history. International conflict was typically addressed by English novelists
such as Dickens or Thackerey at a safer, temporal distance in the historical novel.
The historical novel, although developed by Scott to European acclaim, arguably
flourished more in Russia and America than Europe, the former with its dread of
social catastrophe, the latter with its sense of being a frontier society and civil war. 77
The external world violently forced itself into national literatures where the social
position of the middle classes and their enjoyment of ‘the art of the housed and
private man’ were more precarious.78 [War dominates novel themes in postwar
Yugoslav literature]. The novel’s range was contained where the stabilised postrevolutionary conditions of mid-nineteenth Europe allowed for the domestication of
themes.79 International and colonial affairs were commonly ‘absent presences’ in the
English novel whose relation to the domestic sphere are mystified, whether the
colonial relations which underpin the tranquillity of Austen’s Mansfield Park or haunt
Bronte’s Jane Eyre80.81
Temptations of history and the novel
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994); Igor Webb, From Custom
to Capital: The English Novel and the Industrial Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1981); Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
Charlotte Bronte, Shirley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974).
F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962).
Steiner, 1967: 99.
Walter Scott, Waverley; or, 'Tis sixty years since (London: Penguin, 1980); Walter Scott,
The Heart of Midlothian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Steiner, 1967: 43-49.
Ibid. : 25.
Ibid.: 43-49.
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes (Basingstoke: Macmillan,
1988); Said, 1994; Webb, 1981.
Despite the ‘Great Tradition’ of the novel marginalizing war, the genre pioneered
analysis of modern warfare, notably in Scott’s historical novels and Wells’ science
fiction.82 Georg Lukacs’ seminal study of The Historical Novel links the rise of
historical consciousness and the historical novel to the French Revolution and the
Napoleonic Wars, which made history ‘a mass experience’ and posed ‘problems of
social transformation’, connecting ‘national and world history’.83 Hegelian dialectics,
Clausewitz’s science of war84 and Scott’s historical novel appeared in a period of
heightened historical consciousness, but Scott’s Waverley, published in 1814,
preceded both publication of Clausewitz’s On War and even some of Hegel’s major
works. Scott’s pioneering historical novels address how a nation and society are
developed through conflict and may be counted among the first historical sociology
texts, before even the term ‘sociology’ had been coined. According to Lukacs, the
historical novel’s significance is to depict the evolving historical consciousness and
broad historical change, rather than a comprehensive account of specific historical
events.85 The best historical novels are those which juxtapose the ‘heroic and the
domestic’.86 They explore how ordinary individuals at a specific historical juncture
are torn between conflicting historical forces; they narrate war’s victors and casualties
and how conflict transforms popular life.87 The artistic need to intensify action and
clarify character may lead to a cavalier approach to historical records, but the effort to
capture historical consciousness remains.88
The historical novelist epitomises Kant’s world citizen or Hegel’s philosopher as
world-spectator who does not make history, but narrates its significance after the
events are over.89 Here we see tensions between Kant’s moral philosophy and
philosophy of history.90 Kant believes in historical progress and endorses historical
revolution, but sees history working behind individuals - analogous to Adam Smith’s
hidden economic hand.91 Kant gives no guide to historical action and condemns its
protagonists for engendering horrific violence.92 Kant’s world citizen is conscious of
the opposing positions of the individual and history, and war and peace. Kant asserts a
duty to promote peace and defend individuals’ dignity against universal history’s
demands.93 Yet Kant’s philosophy of history believes that war may be sublime and
better than ‘soulless despotism’ of a universal autocracy.94 Antagonism, pain, war and
H.G. Wells, The War in the Air. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1941); H.G. Wells, The War of
the Worlds (London: Penguin, 2005).
Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (London: Merlin, 1989).
Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (London: Penguin, 1982).
Lukacs, 1989: 42.
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990): 26.
Lukacs, 1989: 198-204.
Butterfield, 1924; Lukacs, 1989.
Arendt, 1992: 44-46; Immanuel Kant, ‘The Contest of the Faculties’ in Kant’s Political
Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970b): 182-183; Kant, 1970c: 51-53. Immanuel
Kant, ‘On the Common Saying: “This may be true in theory, but it does not apply in practice’, in
Kant’s Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970d): 61-87.
Hutchings, 1996: 41-56.
Kant, 2001a: 119-120; Kant, 1970b: 182-183; Kant, 1970c: 41-53.
Arendt, 1992: 44-46; Kant, 1970c: 93-130, Kant, 1970e.
Kant, 1970c: 41-53.
Kant, 1952, Section 28: 112-113 and 83: 96; 1970e: 113; 2001c: 384; discussed in Arendt,
1992: 53.
disaster, according to Kant’s historical philosophy, are necessary to propel human
cultural advancement and prevent humanity sinking back into an animal existence.95
Perpetual peace, were it realised, would resemble the eternal peace of the grave.96
Kantian philosophy does not resolve the tensions between ethics and history, or
between the public and private worlds. But the frictions between them may be viewed
as creative. Arendt’s The Human Condition and Elshtain’s Public Man, Private
Woman assert the distinct characters of the public and private spheres enrich human
lives and encourage imagination of different ways of living. Kantian opposing ideals
point to both sublime and tragic potential, following Hegel’s definition of tragedy as
conflict between opposing rights.97 The tragic novel addresses irreconcilable clashes
between personal desires, social morality and historical social conditions and reminds
us of the limits of (women’s) emancipation in given historical material conditions.98
Kantian political philosophy did not affirm actual political movements. The novel,
including the historical novel, too has struggled to portray collective action positively
and create ‘positive’ characters ‘who takes an active part in public life’.99 Many
historical novels impose the perspectives of the privatised individual of late modernity
onto very different social conditions, making history incidental to the conflict and
resolution of the novel.100 If novels seek to convey the feelings of war as individual
protagonists,101 and Kant is correct that the protagonists do not understand the
historical significance of events,102 novels will emphasise war’s incomprehensible
horrors for individuals. The war novel has taken from the novel tradition its interest in
ordinary, unhistoric people, their inner feelings and personal relations within the
historical action. Many twentieth century classic war novels suggest war’s absurdity
and historical actions as purposeless at the micro level. Meanwhile just as characters
in the historical novel have sought to escape the pressures of history, so the historical
novel has come under pressure to offer readers escapism and yielded to the historical
romance. The historical romance continues the novel of sentiment and is organised
around the archetypal courtship plot, which makes history a colourful romantic
Returning to Little Women, the heroine Jo is tempted by Kantian historical progress
through war against the domesticated religious Pilgrim’s Progress, around which the
story of the four March girls is consciously organised. Alcott protects her heroine
from the metaphysical glorification of history, even as her heroine rebels against
women’s traditional domestic role and is attracted to war:
The conversation was miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though
Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible
Arendt, 1992: 26, 53; Kant, 1952, Section 28: 112-113 and 83: 96; Kant, 1970c: 44-45.
Arendt, 1992: 52; Kant, 1970e: 114; Immanuel Kant, ‘Religion within the Limits of Reason
Alone’ in Basic Writings of Kant, ed. Allan Wood (New York: Modern Library, 2001a): 384.
Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics (London: Penguin, 2004).
Woolf, 1977: 46-49.
Lukacs, 1989: 34.
Lukacs, 1989: 198-204, 244.
Richard Lee, ‘History is but a fable agreed upon: the problem of truth in history and
Kant, 1970c: 41.
terms; and the only thing “evolved from her inner consciousness,” was a bad
headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually, that the world was being
picked to pieces, and put together on new, and, according to the talkers, on infinitely
better principles than before; that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into
nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God. Jo knew nothing about philosophy
or metaphysics of any sort, but a curious excitement, half pleasurable, half painful,
came over her, as she listened with a sense of being turned adrift into time and space,
like a young balloon out on a holiday.103
Jo is explicitly warned away from the seductive appeal of metaphysics by her
Professor Bhaer, who fears an ‘inflammable young soul would be led astray by the
rockets, to find, when the display was over, that they had only an empty stick, or a
scorched hand’.104 Alcott’s defence of her heroine against metaphysical temptations
anticipates a major theme of the twentieth century historical novel such as Boris
Pasternak’s popular Dr Zhivago: the enticements of history, repentance in the face of
its horrors of world war and totalitarianism, and the wish to return to the domestic.105
Yet despite her condemnation of the temptations of history and war, Alcott cannot
easily accept domestic passivity. The vivid picture remains of the rebellious Jo,
frustrated with domestic feminine roles, and eager to act the witch or the murderer
Macbeth. ‘I always wanted to do the killing part’, she declares in the first chapter.106
Jo’s very idea of ‘fighting Apollyon’ involves her identification with the death angel’s
destructive powers as against the ideal of women as peacemakers.
Romance of war
International peace policies commonly links women’s voices to antiwar politics.
Women’s writing on world politics has historically been associated with peace studies
rather than war studies (or International Relations) in works such as Betty Reardon’s
Sexism and the War System.107 Consider the confident statement in the 1915
Militarism versus Feminism essays, ‘The antithesis between Militarism and Feminism
is not only emphasised throughout history in every age and country but it is inherent
in the very nature of things’.108 Woolf’s Three Guineas identifies women as better
able to transcend national boundaries and become potential world citizens compared
to men because they are excluded from full membership of their national public
spheres.109 The careers of women like Eglantyne Jebb, a pacifist, a nurse in the
Balkan Wars and later founder of Save the Children in 1919, confirms this gendered
opposition. Jebb entered international politics and claimed an international voice
opposed to a Westphalian system of international relations. Jebb lobbied the League
of Nations to make human rights rather sovereignty the founding principle of the
international system.
Alcott, 1989: 352.
Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago (London: Collins, 1961).
Alcott, 1989: 7.
Betty Reardon, Sexism and the War System (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).
Mary Sargant Florence, Catherine Marshall and C.K. Ogden, Militarism versus Feminism
(London: Virago, 1987): 143.
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, 1966).
And yet idealising women as peacemakers and their natural opposition to war does
not always accord with women’s historical experience or writing which may question
gendered dichotomies of male bellicosity and female pacifism and domesticity.110
While women are too often victims in war, a war’s overall outcome may improve
women’s social position in the peace that follows. War, notwithstanding its terrible
sufferings, may overturn traditional social norms, even if only temporarily, and forge
new social norms that give women greater freedom for action and thought. War’s role
in women’s emancipation was apparent to older champions of the women’s cause.
Woolf, among others, thanks wars for helping emancipate women: ‘the Crimean
which let Florence Nightingale out of her drawing-room and the European War which
opened the doors to the average woman some sixty years later’.111 Alcott’s brief
experience as a nurse in the American civil war helped her develop her thinking on
women’s emancipation, although she does not allow her heroine Jo to become a
nurse. Women may take up public action in war, only to return to their narrower
domestic roles in peacetime, as Alcott and Nightingale and so many women in
postwar Europe. Nevertheless women’s return to the domestic was not complete and
their wartime experiences of acting outside the home influenced women’s greater
political participation, including antiwar politics.112
Furthermore the novel does not necessarily uphold the gendered dichotomies around
men’s attraction to heroic war and women’s preference for domestic peace. Not least
the flourishing of popular women’s historical romances after the Second World War
in the UK suggested a sublimated desire for action among a generation returned from
wartime action to the domestic, even if the historical romances commonly shared the
fault of transposing contemporary consciousness onto past figures. Popular historical
romances such as Georgette Heyer’s Spanish Bride or An Infamous Army,113 drawing
upon extensive historical research, document women following the drum in the
Napoleonic Wars, may be read as pro-feminist research into women’s presence in
international war and politics, which introduce themes such as diplomatic wives and
base women critically explored by a later generation of international feminist
scholarship such as Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches and Bases.114 Moreover
women’s antiwar politics historically may shock polite society, disturbing civil order
and cultural norms of womanhood – as the Greenham Common women’s peace camp
and direct action against cruise missiles.115 Indicatively a militarist anticolonial
feminism justifying revolutionary violence and questioning whether peace and
demilitarisation are necessarily associated with gender equality is an important strand
of postcolonial studies,116 a field strongly influenced by the novel genre. I return to
women’s historical exclusion from the world of action.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995).
Woolf, 1977: 103.
Andrew Munton, English Fiction of the Second World War (London: Faber, 1989): 94-96;
Angela Woollacott, On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1994).
Georgette Heyer, Spanish Bride (London: Arrow Books, 2005); Georgette Heyer, An
Infamous Army (London: Arrow Books, 2004).
Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International
Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
Lynne Segal, Is the Future Female? (London: Virago, 1987): 162-203.
Jacklyn Cock, ‘Women and the military: implications for demilitarisation in the 1990s in
South Africa’, Gender and Society, Vol. 8(2), (1994): 152-169.
Behind a Mask and longing for action
The novel has explored how the tensions between the individual and society are
refracted in the world of feeling. Indeed the novel, in marginalizing war and
international conflict from their narratives, heightens the sense of domestic conflict.
The novel thereby suggests elemental conflicting internal forces are part of the human
condition. Freud’s theories of the unconscious, of opposing drives of eros and death,
were influenced by his wide literary reading from the Greek classics to Shakespeare’s
dramas to modern novels and plays. His Civilization and its Discontents sees conflict
as inevitable given the conflictual character of human nature, the opposing human
desires, and the inherent tensions between the individual and society.117 For Freud,
civilization involves collective pacification of opposing human drives.
Suppressed tensions are apparent in the novel’s domestic world of sentiment, even
where characters are socially secure, and suggest correspondences with the conflictual
character of international politics, notwithstanding their differences. The novel
discovered a tumultuous world when it turned inwards and that the individual herself
was a site of conflict between opposing conscious and unconscious feelings: ‘one
shadowy army fighting another, and the slain shadows for ever rising again’.118 The
novel highlights how individuals can be imprisoned by a world of feeling, in
particular the anguish of women imprisoned by feelings in ways that men are not
because they are unable to escape into action.119 The novel cries out against women
trapped in the world of feeling and speaks to their longing to participate in a world of
action. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre speaks to women’s frustration at their domestic
confinement and their longing to participate in a world of action, in a widely cited
It is vain to say human being ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have
action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller
doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how
many rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are
supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need
exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;
they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men
would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say
they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to
playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or
laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced
necessary for their sex.120
The novel suggests domestic confinement and the want of action makes women the
frail sickly creatures they are deemed by custom to be (Bronte, 1974: 200). Here the
novel embodies Kant’s fears of a despotic domestic peace and its resemblance to the
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989).
Eliot, 1985: 405.
Jane Austen, Persuasion (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965): 236; Bronte, 1974: 128-130,
188-190; Bronte, 1980: 110.
Bronte, 1980: 110-111; discussed in Woolf, 1977: 66.
eternal peace of the grave.121 Or Elshtain’s warning against life being impoverished
‘if all of life falls under a single set of terms’.122 Where infantilised women are able to
hold sway, they reinforce domestic or cultural tyranny. 123 Excluded from the world of
action, the novel suggests women become malign influences, echoing Kant’s concerns
that peace may corrupt men.124 Gwendolen in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda argues women
are corrupted and turn poisonous through their pastoral domestic confinement:
We women can’t go in search of adventures – to find out the North-West Passage or
the source of the Mile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we grow, or
where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look
as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the
plants: they are often bored, and that is the reason why some of them have got
Women’s exclusion from the harsh world of action paradoxically makes unfeeling
economic calculations intrude into the world of feeling. When women’s future is
secured through a suitable marriage, the unworldly world of feeling necessarily
clashes with external worldly interests. The conflict between sentiment and interest
runs through the novel tradition which both reflects and rages against the sentimental
education of girls, their smattering of superficial accomplishments to charm an
eligible husband and their diet of silly novels conspiring to foster infantile creatures
ill-prepared either for the responsibilities of married life or independent living.126
When Little Women novelists rebelled against domesticity and women as selfless
‘angels in the house’, they might escape into the unreality of Gothic melodrama or the
sensationalist novel.127 Alcott, author of Little Women and Good Wives, had another
subversive authorial identity, whose heroines are ruthless Machiavellian figures
exploiting cultural ideals of feminine sentiment to realise their ambitions. If Little
Women as wholesome family reading reconciles personal desires, morality and social
experience, sensationalist novels by Alcott, Wilkie Collins and others explore
antagonisms in the private housed world, especially for women. Alcott’s scheming
spiteful heroine Jean Muir with false teeth in Behind a Mask outwits respectable
society and wins the wealthy husband.128 The active female characters of
sensationalist writing rebel against cultural dependence, illustrating its perils in an
unequal, unjust world. They also warn polite society from within domestic sphere of
the potential for social revolt, as one alarmed critic wrote: ‘a little fierce incendiary’
and ‘inimical to the peace of society’.129
Arendt, 1992: 52; Kant, 1970e: 114; Kant, 2001a: 384.
Elshtain, 1981: 335.
Eliot, 1985: 636-637; Steiner, 1967: 103-104.
Kant, 1970c: 44-45.
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (London: Zodiac Press, 1978): 119, discussed in Uglow,
1987: 230.
Wollstonecraft, 1992.
Louisa May Alcott, Behind a Mask (London: Hogarth Press, 1985); Alcott, 1989: 265-269,
345-356; Steiner, 1967: 26-27.
Alcott, 1985.
Margaret Oliphant ‘Modern Novelists - Great and Small’, Blackwood's Edinburgh
Magazine, No. 77, May, (1855): 554-568.
Feminist critiques have argued Little Women retreats from a vital female order to a
modified patriarchal order in marrying Jo to the professor.130 Indicatively Jo is
returned from the temptations of sensationalist writing and their wicked women to the
masculine literary tradition of Milton and Shakespeare associated by feminists with a
patriarchal order.131 Yet female alter egos are asserted in Shakespeare’s androgynous
roles and Milton’s Eve tempted by Satan.132 Milton’s Paradise Lost associates ‘man’s
first disobedience’, with becoming fully human and upsetting the ordered chain of
being under a jealous God. This hierarchal patriarchal order is represented as
vulnerable to the rebel angel through Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit’s promise of
equality.133 Ironically Milton historically supported regicide and Alcott’s Jo identifies
with Shakespeare’s regicidist Macbeth rather than the tamed shrew. Symbolically
Alcott, the Brontes and other women novelists adopted male pseudonyms to escape
the cultural strictures placed on women’s imagination. Tellingly Eliot liked to sign
herself Pollian or Polly – after the Apollyon, the Angel of Destruction, subverting the
Angel in the House identity.134
The novel’s feminised world of feeling is only ostensibly opposed to masculine
values of action, when the imperative of securing an eligible suitor demands action.
Heroines’ ruthless pursuit of marriage may resemble Clausewitzian stratagems:
whether the single-handed campaigns of Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or
Jean in Alcott’s Behind a Mask.135 Since the domestic realm is permeated by the
demands and the characteristics of the external world, the novel thereby questions the
apparent clear-cut gendered distinctions between the domestic world of feeling and
the external world of action. This perspective is reinforced by the way that the
domestic world and the world of action are pitted as rival empires, and the female
pursuit of marriage as the conquest and domestication of male suitors. Sharing this
understanding of marriage, Kant asserts that ‘one party must be subject to the other’
for a union’s harmony, but fears that women may disarm a man’s capacity ‘to
command in the house’:
He loves domestic peace, and readily submits to her regime, if only so that he
will not be prevented from attending to his own business: she does not shrink
from domestic warfare, which she wages her tongue; and nature came to her
aid here by endowing her with loquacity and emotional eloquence, which
disarms the man.136
Kantian ethics and masculine virtue waiver in the face of Kantian anthropology,
whose military metaphors associate domestic peace with surrender and pacification.
The tensions between Alcott’s melodramatic and family fiction, which became more
sentimental and conventional after Little Women, suggest how Alcott struggled to
develop a consistent political or moral philosophy beyond the angel of the house–
Apollyon dichotomy. Both de Beauvoir and Arendt sought a politics going beyond the
Showalter, 1989.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the
Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000): 189.
John Milton, Paradise Lost (London: Penguin, 2000); Gilbert and Gubar, 2000: 187-212.
Gilbert and Gubar, 2000: 196.
Gilbert and Gubar, 2000: 479; Uglow, 1987: 35.
Alcott’s Behind a Mask (1985)
Kant, 1974: 167.
paradigms of violence and subjection, de Beauvoir highlighting the uncertainties of
violent action achieving its goals and therefore justifying its violence, and Arendt
opposing the conflation of power (grounded in human relations) and violence (based
on physical force).137 I do not have the space here to develop how the novel could
specifically contribute to their ethics of ambiguity. Instead my concluding comments
simply draw attention to the genre’s broad potential contribution to contemporary
International Relations debates.
Little Women and global therapeutic governance
The opposing traditions of the novel and International Relations have been informed
by fundamental conflictual relations between the individual and world history, as
Kant’s philosophical thinking was conscious. The declared ‘end of history’ of 1989
implied both lessening tensions between the individual and the world, and the
international and public realms becoming less distinguishable from the domestic
private realm. Global governance strategies of the last two decades have questioned
distinctions between the national and the international, and between the public and the
private realms. The ‘personal is political’ was a key feminist slogan in the ‘battles of
the sexes’, associated with the women’s liberation movement. Feminists challenged
the divisions between the public and private realms for excluding women and
women’s concerns from politics such as their unpaid domestic labour, and domestic
violence, and denying their rights to equal pay, abortion, and legal redress. Western
post-Keynesian social policies see social reform arising through improving
individuals’ attitudes and behaviour.138 They have taken up gender politics and
enlarged therapeutic governance of the personal - modelled on Western functionalist
social psychology rather than Freud’s tragic psychoanalytical philosophy.139 Global
strategies, through mechanisms such as Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, have
become concerned with populations’ life cycles and seek to change community and
household (gender) norms and relations deemed dysfunctional to enhance people’s
survival in the absence of significant material transformation.140 Here the global
community assumes a role analogous to the head of household.
Developments domesticating International Relations and globalising domestic norms
need to be understood if the discipline follows Hedley Bull’s expectation to pursue
contemporary questions. The evolving global governance has been linked to the
Kantian ideals but Kant’s ethics and philosophy of history are in tension, as discussed
above.141 Kant believed humans were purposive beings, whose individuality and
Hannah Arendt, On Violence (London: Allen Lane, 1970); Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics
of Ambiguity (New York: Citadel Press, 1978); Kimberly Hutchings, ‘Feminist ethics and political
violence’, International Politics, Vol. 44, (2007a): 90-106; Kimberly Hutchings, ‘Simone de Beauvoir
and the ambiguous ethics of political violence’, Hypatia, No. 223, (2007b): 11-132.
Ruth Levitas, The Inclusive Society? Social Exclusion and New Labour (Basingstoke:
Macmillan, 1998; James Nolan, Therapeutic State (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
Nolan, 1998; Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London:
Free Association Books, 1999); Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (London: Penguin, 2002):
xvii, 4.
Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples
(Cambridge: Polity, 2007); Vanessa Pupavac, ‘Human Security and the Rise of Global Therapeutic
Governance’, Conflict, Security and Development, Vol 5, No. 2, (2005): 161-181.
Kant, 1970c and 1970e.
restlessness propelled history.142 Since humans were distinct individuals and could
never be content, the potential for history and conflict could not be eradicated.143
Kant’s fears over world government’s tyranny and peace as pacification imply his
scepticism towards global therapeutic or biopolitical governance.144 Global
prescriptions restrict the world of action and imply the public realm takes on aspects
of the stifling character of domesticity, while the private realm loses its intimacy.
The novel could help today’s pursuit of International Relations because of its
extensive exploration of tensions between the public and private realms and the
negative consequences for individuals who cannot escape from domesticity into the
world of action or from public scrutiny into a private world. The novel illuminates the
individual as a site of conflicting feelings and suggests the tensions in global
governance and global prescriptions of social justice, even where well-intentioned. A
sense of the tragic human condition perhaps most closely unites the Great Tradition of
the novel and International Relations, where conflicting rights and imperatives may
lead to the tragic historical necessity of war.
The idea of tragic historical necessity, uniting the opposing traditions of the novel and
International Relations, is missing from global governance and its conflict
management and sustainable development models. The worldview of global
governance is distant from the novel’s Great Tradition and is much closer to that
expressed in the girls’ fiction of the Progressive Era, which follows Alcott’s Little
Women. Stories such as Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Ann of Green
Gables present a world with wrinkles and sorrows that is encouraged to smile by the
simple artful actions of a girl. The tragic impossibilities expressed in the novel’s Great
Tradition are smoothed away in their sunny homilies. Alcott had sought to distinguish
her writing from these secularised morality tales, but her family’s novels after Little
Women became more conventional. Instead of tragedy, the girl’s stories suggest an
essential harmony of personalities and interests exists in the world if only people open
themselves up to each other and can be taught to communicate better. Alcott
elsewhere satirised how philosopher-kings might happily preach their schemes for
simple living far away in comfortable lecture halls while women endured their
realities.145 Concurrently the individual as an end in herself appears increasingly
insecure and a means of progress as human rights are subsumed into global
governance, whether in the Millennium Development Goals or rights-based
I began with the frustrations of Little Woman confined to home knitting and sewing.
Global governance seems to share traditional ideals of womanhood and womanly
occupations, against which the heroines of Little Women, Jane Eyre and Mill on the
Floss rebelled. In their numerous sewing, weaving or knitting projects for women,
global policy-makers evidently find it difficult to shake off the ‘Angel in the House’
image of women, even following women’s involvement in the Abu Graib atrocities or
paramilitary groups. Moreover global policy-makers such as, Radhika Coomarasarmy
Arendt, 1992: 9, 13.
Arendt, 1992: 16, 75; Kant, 1970e: 113-114.
Louisa May Alcott, Transcendental Wild Oats (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Common Press,
Duffield, 2007.
(UN Under-Secretary-General, Special Representative for Children and Armed
Conflict, and former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women), seem to
imagine even former female soldiers will want to become seamstresses rehabilitation
programmes training former female soldiers, whose experiences have taken them
beyond traditional domestic roles, will want to take up sedentary occupations and
become seamstresses.147 Indicatively too global advocacy has preferred the cause of
diminutive ‘girl soldiers’, rather than adult female or women soldiers. The novel’s
questioning of women as self-sacrificing domestic angels and notions of unwomanly
conduct could illuminate the reductive stereotypical ways women have been allowed
to enter the international sphere. It would also raise questions about how feminist
concerns have been co-opted to support paternalistic forms of global governance over
populations. As Cynthia Weber provocatively asked over a decade ago, are only good
little girls allowed into International Relations?148
The novel has long offered insights into humanitarians who have lost their
humanity.149 But more than that, the novel’s individual stories testify to how
humanity is made up of individuals who cannot be managed simply on mass as a
species. New individuals will be born who, precisely because of their individuality,
always have the potential to transform world history.150 If ‘theater is the political art
par excellence’,151 if ‘the modern age – which began with such an unprecedented and
promising outburst of human activity – may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity
history has ever known’,152 the novel suggests frictions between the individual and
society cannot be administered away by global governance and illuminates our
contemporary post-‘prepolitical’ and post-‘prehistorical condition of history’.153
Little Women’s potential to illuminate international politics may appear far-fetched,
but then the reach of global governance into the private realm would once have
appeared far-fetched. The forces eroding the former boundaries, which separated the
dominant traditions of the novel and International Relations, may not necessarily
welcome Little Women and their companions. Administrators of global governance
who recall Plato’s warning over fiction undermining political authority could rightly
be wary of their interference into debates. For Behind a Mask154 lurk ‘dangerous little’
persons keenly aware of the etiquette and inequalities of polite society and ‘inimical’
to its peace.155 They defy global governance’s understanding of individuals’ feelings
and aspirations, and behavioural prescriptions.
A defensive discipline of International Relations, concerned that its disciplinary
identity is imploding, may seek to retreat to its traditional canon as a way of
preserving itself. However the discipline would miss how the novel could help
understand the meaning of the former boundaries, and what significant could be lost if
Address 22 October 2009, Brussels.
Cynthia Weber, ‘Good Girls, Little Girls and Bad Girls: Male Paranoia in Robert Keohane’s
Critique of Feminist International Relations’, Millennium, Vol. 23, No. 2, (1994): 337-349.
Bronte, 1980; Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Penguin, 2003); Virginia Woolf, Mrs
Dalloway (London: Granada, 1976).
Arendt, 1998: 175-188.
Ibid.: 188.
Ibid.: 322.
Ibid.: 184.
Alcott, 1985.
Oliphant, 1856.
they were dismantled and life were to fall ‘under a single set of terms’.156 Kant’s
philosophy spoke of the tragic tensions between the individual and world history,
Arendt’s philosophy spoke of the human vitality fostered by our experience of distinct
public and private spheres.157 International Relations scholars pursuing today’s
international political questions should welcome the novel’s critical potential to
analyse global developments and recapture a sense of human subjectivity in world
history. After all Kant recalled the novel, albeit sceptically, when he outlined his
aspiration to write a general world history affirming human potential to create a better
world.158 But in admitting the novel, International Relations would be admitting some
bad girls159 who might upset polite international society.
Elshtain, 1981: 335.
Arendt, 1998; Kant, 1970c and 1970e.
Kant, 1970c: 52.
Weber, 1994.