Louisa May Alcott’s Language Problem in “The Brothers”

Louisa May Alcott’s short story “The Brothers”, originally published in the November 1863 issue of The Atlantic, details the complicated relationship between two brothers, one a former slave and the other his former owner, as told through the point of view of the hospital nurse charged with taking care of both of them. The story draws from Alcott’s experiences as a hospital nurse during the American Civil War. An underlying theme of the story is the duality of the “quadroon” former slave, someone who is both black and white, someone who knows both slavery and freedom, and thus embodies a sort of double consciousness, if you will. This duality is symbolized by the physical injury on the young man’s face; he is described by the narrator as having a “handsome profile”, but the other side of his face reveals a gruesome cut. The narrator describes the patient’s “comeliness” at length, to the point that it wouldn’t be a leap to say the nurse has a crush on him. Yet, while complimenting his appearance, the narrator also establishes the impossibility of romance between the two of them. There is the “boy” within the man; the two occupy vastly different spaces in their society because of their respective colors, and there is an inherent servility that the narrator notices in her patient. The language the narrator uses does not shy away from further illustrating the unequal nature of their relationship to one another, and the language could be considered problematic if it betrayed Alcott’s own preconceptions on the nature of black and white relations in the United States. So when the narrator states condescendingly that, “Every woman has her pet whim; one of mine was to teach the men self-respect by treating them respectfully,” how much of Alcott herself is present in this narration?

When the narrator describes the patient’s physical appearance, she reveals some preference for more western standards of beauty: “the profile which I saw possessed all the attributes of comeliness belonging to his mixed race.” Basically: he’s black, but at least he has a white-looking nose. While I’m not sure if the revelation that the narrator prefers Anglo-Saxon features is necessarily racist, the whole story is imbued with this sort of borderline language. The time period in which the story was written is important. While it might be easy to assume that Louisa May Alcott was both a progressive in her time and still a little bit racist, I think the symbolism present in the character’s facial scar speaks to the fact that Alcott is ultimately aware, or at least as aware as she can be, of the very specific plight of black people in America that she comments on in the story, the theme of “double consciousness”, a term that isn’t coined until later by W.E.B Du Bois but is nevertheless present in the story in a less explicit way. All this is to suggest that, while Alcott’s narrator uses racist language, I think Alcott herself is being a little tongue-in-cheek in this characterization of the narrator. The narrator resembles Alcott herself in many ways, but Alcott’s recognition of her use of language is apparent in her deeply intimate observations of the black character.

The issue of this partially black character not really fitting into any place in society is most explicitly stated by the character’s own words: “I’d rather be up here with the fever than down with those niggers; and there a’n’t no other place fer me.” It’s interesting that the character refers to fully black people as “those”; it suggests that he himself does not believe himself to occupy the same place in society as fully black people. But of course, it’s not actually the character who believes this, and Alcott’s cognizance of this issue illustrates the fact that she herself is painfully aware of the differences in color among people. Alcott’s invented narrator describes the “helplessness” of the black man, and the story as a whole works to humanize the black character, even if there are some patronizing uses of language. For example, the whole dynamic of the relationship between the white narrator and the black patient is unequal, and the language used by the narrator reinforces this: “What could I do up there alone, locked in with a dying man and a lunatic?” The patient’s wish for revenge isn’t understandable human behavior but the desire of a “lunatic”. Furthermore, the “pity” and “sympathy” that the narrator expresses toward the patient does not illustrate an equal relationship or a respect toward the patient as someone capable of handling his own future. With that said, there is a degree of separation between the narrator’s language and Alcott’s, and Alcott herself shows awareness both through her use of devices and in her compassionate depiction of a former slave.

Portrait of Louisa May Alcott
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230421
Portrait of Louisa May Alcott
Civil War Hospital
By Civil War Glass Negatives – Library of CongressCatalog: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000976/PPOriginal url: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.04246, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65996837


Alcott, Louisa May. “The Brothers.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 July 2018, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1863/11/the-brothers/306503/.

Civil War Hospital

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