Race and Gender in Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband"

Term Paper, 2006

13 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Historical Background: Slavery, Abolitionism and the Civil War

3. Construction of Race and Gender in “My Contraband”
3.1. Description and development of the contraband
3.2. Description and development of Nurse Dane

4. Summary

5. Literature

1. Introduction

Louisa May Alcott is one of the best known American female writers of the 19th Century. Her work primarily dealt with the role of women in society, accompanied by other topics such as work and the issue of slavery. The short story “My Contraband”, first published in 1863 under the title “The Brothers”, depicts both gender and racial issues. Set in the sphere of the Civil war and war hospitals, it is the story of the encounter of a white nurse and a mulatto contraband. Throughout the plot, Alcott paints a fascinating and dense picture of female desire and the fascination emanating from the mulatto. Though no explicit sexual action happens between the two, there are many hints at a strong erotic desire on the nurse’s part.

This paper will investigate the way in which this mulatto is described, in which way this is linked to the forbidden desire of the white nurse and what her strategies are to make this desire less a taboo. My assumption here is that the nurse has to somehow “whiten” the contraband in order to make her desire more explicable and at least a little more “legal”.

To prove this thesis, I will begin with a short overview of the historical background against which the story is set. In the following chapter, after a synopsis of the story itself, I will firstly take a closer look at the introduction of the contraband, secondly at the description of the nurse and investigate in how far racial stereotypes are introduced and used and, in the description of the woman, in how far she does or does not correspond to the ideal of womanhood in the 19th century. Concluding, I will describe the tabooed relationship between the two and the woman’s strategy to deal with her desire.

2. Historical Background

The period around 1810 – 1870 was of major importance for the development of American society as we know it today. Starting still influenced by Puritan ideas, the young generation developed concepts like women’s and racial equality and fought for it. The Civil War (1861 – 1865) was essentially fought over the question of slavery and the rights of African Americans. The Abolitionist Movement, most prominent in the North, struggled to free slaves from the South and to abolish slavery in general.

Women’s rights were also a major issue in the 19th century. The dominating ideas of “The Cult of True Womanhood”[1], still promoted by authors like Susan B. Warner in the beginning of the Century[2], were more and more attacked by Women who were no longer content with the fact that they were restricted to the ideals of female piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness but wanted to have the right to choose their own lifestyle, and, most importantly, the right to vote – thus, these early feminists were also called suffragettes.

In short, one may say that this historical period marked the beginning of reform thinking and movements, not unlike the 1960s and 70s. Nevertheless, from a recent perspective, the postulated reforms went in no way as far as did those from the 1960s. Abolitionists were primarily well-educated white middle and upper class people from the North, who were indeed fighting for the freedom of the slaves, but nevertheless clung to racist ideas and did not regard black people as similar to themselves. Cultural differences were seen as racially determined (this was also the case with Native Americans), and one goal was to bring the “superior” white Anglo-Saxon culture to the poor African Americans, who were perceived as “cultureless”.

As for the Women’s movement, not all ideas of True Womanhood were rejected, but women were still regarded as morally superior to men. Thus, the ideal of a “New Womanhood”, as described by Blanche Glassman Hersh[3], was promoted, which still included piety and purity, draw slight changes to domesticity as women should also be allowed to work apart from their homes, and rejected only submissiveness.

In both cases, the minority group (African Americans/ women) was not seen as genuinely equal to the majority group (white people / men), but as different but with the eligibility of the same rights.

Against this background, the here discussed short story takes places. It was inspired by the experiences Alcott made during her short time as a nurse in a war hospital in Georgetown.

3. Construction of Race and Gender in “My Contraband”

The short story describes the encounter of Nurse Dane, a nurse in a war hospital, and a young mulatto, who has been picked up by soldiers when they found him beside his dead master and brought to the hospital. Robert is assigned to Nurse Dane to help her care for a young rebel who is suffering of typhoid. In the progress of the story, it turns out that the men are brothers and that the white rebel has taken away Roberts pregnant wife, who afterwards killed herself – the latter Robert does not know. Obsessed by the idea of revenge, Robert wants to kill his brother, but Nurse Dane manages to prevent him from doing that by reminding him of the Christian ideal of forgiveness. She provides him with money and sends him off to the North to start a new life. There, Robert joins the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the famous first major American military unit made up of African Americans. He is deadly wounded in the fight about Fort Wagner and brought to the hospital ship in Hilton Head harbor, where Nurse Dane, now working on this very ship, meets him a last time and is with him when he dies.

In this narration, Alcott combines features from both sentimental and gothic literature. These two kinds of literature were quite popular among 19th century readers. Sentimental literature tends to evoke positive feelings in the reader. He identifies with the “good” but suffering character and accompanies him /her through his/ her emotional experiences like sadness, joy, or love, feeling with him/her. Women in sentimental literature are shown according to the ideal of “True Womanhood”, being pious, pure, domestic and submissive – or on their way to achieve these “qualities”.

In gothic writings, however, the characters are not so “good” – they experience strong “negative” emotions like anger or hatred. The reader, accompanying the character in these emotions, is thus led on a path towards his/ her own aggressive feelings, which was of course regarded as highly dangerous for women. Erotic affection and passion for the “wrong” man or in a too overt way are also among these emotions.

The combination of both features in this story allow the reader to identify thoroughly and on a full emotional range with the protagonist, Nurse Dane, who appears as the 1st person autodiegetic narrator. This has another intensifying effect as there is no instance of an heterodiegetic narrator who might build up a certain distance between reader and story. Adding to the notion of the reality of the story is also the fact that it takes part against a real historic background: the Civil War and the Fight about Fort Wagner. Thus the reader is inclined to read the story like a diary, very realistic and very close to his or her own experiences.

The description of the contraband hence takes place through the eyes of Nurse Dane.

3.1. Description and development of the contraband

The reader encounters the contraband short after the beginning of the story. Nurse Dane goes up to the room where he is and firstly just watches him from a certain distance, describing his appearance as well as her own feelings:

“Feeling decidedly more interest in the black man than in the white(…) I had seen many contrabands, but never one so attractive as this. All colored men are called "boys," even if their heads are white; this boy was five-and-twenty at least, strong-limbed and manly, and had the look of one who never had been cowed by abuse or worn with oppressive labor. He sat on his bed doing nothing; no book, no pipe, no pen or paper anywhere appeared, yet anything less indolent or listless than his attitude and expression I never saw. (…) His face was half averted, but I instantly approved the Doctor's taste, for the profile which I saw possessed all the attributes of comeliness belonging to his mixed race. He was more quadroon than mulatto, with Saxon features, Spanish complexion darkened by exposure, color in lips and cheek, waving hair, and an eye full of the passionate melancholy which in such men always seems to utter a mute protest against the broken law that doomed them at their birth. (…) I had seen colored people in what they call "the black sulks," when, for days, they neither smiled nor spoke, and scarcely ate. But this was something more than that; for the man was not dully brooding over some small grievance,-- he seemed to see an all-absorbing fact or fancy recorded on the wall, which was a blank to me. I wondered if it were some deep wrong or sorrow, kept alive by memory and impotent regret; if he mourned for the dead master to whom he had been faithful to the end; or if the liberty now his were robbed of half its sweetness by the knowledge that some one near and dear to him still languished in the hell from which he had escaped. My heart quite warmed to him at that idea; I wanted to know and comfort him (…)”[4]


[1] Barbara Welter: The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860. In: American Quarterly 18 (1966), pp.151-174.

[2] compare Susan B. Warner, on http://library.marist.edu/diglib/english/americanliterature/19thc-american-authors/warner-susan_b.htm

[3] Blanche Glassman Hersh: The “True Woman” and the “New Woman” in Nineteenth-Century America: Feminist-Abolitionists and a New Concept of True Womanhood. In: Mary Kelley ed.: Woman’s Being, Woman’s Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History. Boston: Hall, 1979.

[4] My Contraband, on http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/96/ in the following abbreviated as MC

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Race and Gender in Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband"
University of Hamburg
Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries
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Race, Gender, Louisa, Alcott, Contraband, Emily, Dickinson, Contemporaries
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Cornelia Charlotte Reuscher (Author), 2006, Race and Gender in Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/60172


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