“A Modern Cinderella and Other Stories” by Louisa May Alcott includes four short stories, each with different themes, tones, structure and point of view. Yet on a careful reading of these four stories one can discern a common theme that can be loosely applied to all the four stories.
This common theme of love and compassion is brought out in each of these stories in a very distinctive way, making each one stand out in its own right. This essay will compare and contrast the various literary elements of the four short stories and highlight the common theme of love and compassion running through the entire collection.
The structure of each of these stories is laid out in a way to have maximum impact on the readers. A Modern Cinderella starts out like Cinderella’s story and shows one sister toiling hard while other rest and ends like Cinderella when John produces the slipper. The beginning and the end justify the title for the rest of the story is nothing like the fairy tale and lays out the daily trials of simple folks.
But while the Cinderella like start hooks the reader, the happy ending gives reader something to cheer about after the tragedy that had befallen the family in the middle of the story. The structure provides a perfect blend wherein comparison with the fairy tale is juxtaposed with the harsher realities of life.
Debby’s Debut follows a simple structure of a love triangle where the love of the two suitors is alternately discussed to create the suspense as to which of the two Debby will chose. Although the reader is told that Debby loves Evans and there are a number of signs pointing towards Evans as the eventual winner, the depth of Leavenworth’s love is discussed in enough details to create doubt in the reader’s mind, especially in light of the pressure from Aunt Pen. This story follows the classical structure of a love triangle to keep the readers interested.
The Brothers has an ebb and flow like structure. It starts slowly but the momentum builds up and reaches its high point when Robert’s identity is revealed. The tension continues as Robert proceeds to kill Ned and Faith tries to stop him.
Once Robert agrees to back off, the narrative once again slows down only to rise again towards the climax. This structure has a very dramatic effect on the story and gets the reader involved in the lives of the lead characters.
Each of the stories introduces the loving and compassionate nature of its lead characters in the opening scene. The first story, A Modern Cinderella, starts on a hot summer day when the main protagonist, Nan, is toiling alone in the kitchen while her younger sisters laze around.
The arrival of John in this setting and subsequent change in Nan’s demeanor immediately makes the reader aware of the spark between these lead characters. Similarly in the Debby’s Debut, the reference to Aunt Pen’s intention of finding a suitable match for Debby, gives the first hint of an impending romance.
The themes of The Brothers and Nelly’s Hospital center more around the compassion of its lead characters for other creatures. In The Brothers, nurse Faith Dane finds compassion in her heart for both the rebel soldier as well as the Mulatto, when it is clear that no one else in the hospital want to have anything to do with either of them.
The main theme of Nelly’s Hospital is her compassion for her living being and once again this theme is introduced early in the story. Thus, each one of the four stories gives very specific and clear hint about their main theme in the early stages.
Another idea repeated through the stories is that of loving one’s enemy. In The Brothers, Faith immediately agrees to care for the rebel soldier declaring that though she could not quite love her enemies, she was “willing to take care of them” (55). This theme of loving one’s enemies is repeated in Nelly’s Hospital, When Nelly compares the snake with a Rebel soldiers and yet decides to help it.
In Debby’s Debut, Debby feels compassion for Clara, who would have been considered competition by other girls in her place. Astute enough to realize that Leavenworth was flirting with Clara to get her attention and that Clara might be falling for him, Debby chides Leavenworth for his actions.
In the Modern Cinderella, although her sisters are not her enemies and are not intentionally cruel to her, at the beginning of the story, they come across as the “wicked stepsisters” and yet Nan jokes about them when John asks where they are. At this stage, the reader is not aware of the true nature of the relationship between the sisters, and Nan’s charitable description of her sisters’ activities hint at her compassionate constitution.
Thus the idea of compassion towards enemies is firmly established across the four stories.
The common theme of love and compassion is supported by author’s tone which is mostly optimistic in each of the stories. Modern Cinderella starts with the various domestic problems facing Nan, but the entry of John quickly turns the tone into optimism.
The sisters share a loving relationship and even though Di and Laura tend to avoid house work and responsibilities, John’s reproach of their attitude is playful and their reaction suggests at the tight bond shared by the sisters. Despite all the problems faced by lovers, the tone never becomes pessimistic.
Even the death of the sisters’ father does bring down the narrative and when Nan falls ill, it is quickly balanced by Laura’s optimistic thoughts about her sister and her resolve to become more like Nan. In Debby’s Debut, the tone is earnest and joyful as Debby attempts to please her aunt but cannot help herself from enjoying simple pleasures of life.
As Debby enjoys her life despite Aunt Pen’s strict rules, the readers get pulled into the lively girl’s adventure and enjoy the vacation with her. In keeping with the subject of the story, The Brothers has a rather solemn tone. Although Robert’s experiences as a slave make him bitter, it does not affect the tone of the story which remains optimistic throughout.
Finally, Nelly’s Hospital has an earnest tone as all the major characters chip in to help Nelly in her noble cause. As mentioned, each one of these stories remains optimistic even in the face of adverse circumstances and avoid any kind of negative tone.
The stories make ample use of foreshadowing to prepare the readers for the budding romance of its lead characters. In Modern Cinderella, Nan is facing a number of problems in the kitchen as she is trying to prepare the dinner all alone. But with the arrival of John “seemed to soothe all unpropitious powers with a sudden spell” (5).
This is the first hint of about Nan’s feeling for John. Similarly, the mention of John giving “his own gift in his mother’s name” hints at John’s feeling for Nan long before he confesses about it to his mother. In Debby’s Debut, the readers get the first hint Frank Evans and Debby may fall in love which each other by referring to Evans as “her fate” (26).
In The Brothers, Robert’s trance like conduct when Faith first sees him gives the first hint that something is right. These foreshadowing makes the readers look forward to impending romance in The Modern Cinderella and Debby’s Debut, while incites the curiosity in The Brothers.
The stories introduce conflict at various stages in the plot. In a Modern Cinderella, the conflict first arises somewhere in the middle of the story when John’s mother advices him to wait a year before proposing to Nan. It is further heightened by the death of the sisters’ father which puts the responsibility of the family on young Nan’s shoulders.
In Debby’s Debut, conflict is present from the very start since the Aunt Pen obviously wants Debby to marry rich and Evans comes from a working class background. Leavenworth’s growing affection for Debby further complicates the conflict. In The Brothers, the conflict is introduced rather late when Robert discloses his true identity and his intentions of taking revenge.
The introduction of the conflict at various stages makes the readers react in different ways in each of these stories. In the Modern Cinderella, just as the reader is starting to believe that the main protagonists will soon get together, the introduction of conflict brings back the suspense. The love triangle and Aunt Pen’s clear preference for the rich Leavenworth keeps the suspense alive throughout the story in Debby’s Debut.
In The Brothers, once the conflict is revealed, readers develop sympathy for Robert and subsequently, when the Rebel recovers, readers get the feeling of injustice towards the former slave. The strategic positioning of the conflict in each of these stories keeps the reader involved and raises varying emotions.
Coming to the point of view, Alcott uses various points of view in the four stories to make the desired impact. Both Modern Cinderella and Debby’s Debut are romantic stories and so the omniscient point of view of these stories keeps the readers aware of the feelings of each of the characters and heightens the conflict and suspense in these stories.
The Brothers uses a First Person narration resulting in a limited point of view which in turn heightens the suspense of the proceedings. The third person narrative of Nelly’s Hospital provides readers with the facts as seen from the perspective of a young girl. This helps the readers appreciate Nelly’s efforts and empathize with her concerns.
Thus using the right point of views makes conflict and the suspense of each one these stories stand out and helps the reader to identify with the characters.
While each of the stories has their own ironies, The Brothers is perhaps one of the most ironic tales ever told. Robert finds himself caring for and trying to save the man who was responsible for his wife’s death. Even though he hates Ned, for an entire week he works hard to improve his condition so that he can learn what happened to his wife.
When Robert tries to kill Ned to take revenge for her wife’s death, Faith ironically evokes the dead woman’s memory to stop him from committing murder. And in the end, even though he had been wronged again and again by his former master, he is unable to get his revenge when not him but another soldier kills Ned while he dies as a result of wounds inflicted upon him by Ned.
Robert feels avenged and says that “it’s better so”, perhaps because the way the things played out ensured that Robert was not guilty of murdering his own brother. Once again the readers witness the irony of the situation since even though he had been wronged by Ned in so many ways Robert continues to think of him as his brother.
While The Brothers is full of irony, other stories in the collection also have their ironic moments. In A Modern Cinderella, the biggest irony is perhaps the fact that the girls lose their father on the happiest day of their life. Just a few hours after he accepts Phillips proposal to allow Laura to marry him, he is found dead in his garden.
Alcott further brings out this irony in announcing the death. She refers to fields of grain and ripening fruits, all of which are symbols of prosperity and life and then mentions almost offhandedly that “In the silence of the night a greater Reaper had passed by…leaving only tender memories” (18).
In Debby’s Debut, we witness the happy irony of Debby falling in love with the poor Mr. Evans despite her aunt’s best efforts to get her married to the rich Leavenworth. Also, while Aunt Pen tries to educate her niece in the sophisticated ways of the rich society, ironically it is Debby’s simple and honest demeanor which attracts Leavenworth to her.
The stories also make ample use of symbols, metaphors and imagery to get the message across. A Modern Cinderella starts with a description of the sisters’ house and its surrounding and refers to the trees as “patriarchal elms stood sentinel upon the lawn, as they had stood almost a century ago” (3), just as their fathers “paternal love … had been its strength and stay” (20). The problems facing Nan as she braves the house work all is best captured by the words “domestic purgatory…, kitchen” (4). Later, when it is obvious that Nan has fallen in love with John, the grove which she had visited since childhood to enjoy its solitude no longer felt deserted and “all things seemed to wear one shape”(13), an obvious reference to John. Just before announcing the death of their father, Alcott tells the readers the good news of Laura’s impending engagement. A little later, John and Nan walk out into the garden to look for Nan’s father. As they are walking down the garden, Alcott describes the scenery as
“Fields of yellow grain were waving on the hill-side, and sere corn blades rustled in the wind, from the orchard came the scent of ripening fruit, and all the garden-plots lay ready to yield up their humble offerings to their master’s hand” (18).
These words serve a dual purpose at this point of the story. Besides bringing out the irony of the old man’s death, they also refer to the happiness felt by the young lovers in wake of the recently receive good news. Although the sisters always had a close bond, the death of their father brought them closer and prepared them for the long life that lay in front of them.
Alcott has described this formation of a close bond between the sisters using the metaphor “the soil was made ready, and in the depth of winter the good seed was sown, was watered with many tears, and soon sprang up green with a promise of a harvest for their after years” (20). As the girls grew closer and became more responsible, their actions are described as “herbs of grace” (21). Time heals all wounds and by spring the girls had taken control of their lives and moved on after their father’s death. This aptly symbolized as “spring cleaning”.
In Debby’ Debut, the contrast between old age and youth is brought out by the fact that while even though they had both had the same exhausting journey, Aunt Pen chose to sleep earl while Debby was forced to be patient even though she wanted to play at the beach. Also, while Debby rose early, Aunt Pen continued to sleep till much later.
The rising sun is an apt symbol for Debby’s youth and her soon to follow debut. The youngsters at the summer watering hole had completely different dispositions in the privacy of their home but took on more polished roles in the each other company. This change in their personalities is captured by Alcott using the words “actors and actresses” to refer to the young crowd.
In the Brothers, the various injustices faced by Robert are compared with Michael Angelo’s bronze prisoner. Also, Robert refused to adopt the last name of his masters but later took Faith’s last name as a sign of his respect for the woman who gave him a second life free of vengeful thoughts.
Another symbol is Alcott’s reference to the fact that “all colored men are called boys”. Robert is described as a twenty five year old strong-limbed and manly person. Yet he is referred to as a “boy” because of his race. As Patterson points out, this confuses his identity, just as his being of mixed race results in him belonging to neither race.
Similarly, being a contraband “he is neither a slave nor free” (Patterson para 5). By referring to this manly person as “boy”, Alcott symbolizes the confused nature of his identity. Thus Alcott has made ample use of imagery, symbols and metaphors to get across her message in her stories.
Alcott also had a tendency to borrow heavily from her own life and experiences and this lends the realism to her stories. A Modern Cinderella, tells the story of three sisters. As pointed out by Keyser, this sister theme is repeated over and over again Alcott’s writing. A Modern Cinderella like several other of Alcott’s work, including her most famous novel, Little Women, “are based on the experience of Alcott and her sisters” (Keyser 84).
Similarly, Alcott’s brief work as a nurse during the Civil War is reflected in The Brothers and Nelly’s Hospital. On the other hand, Debby’s Debut reflects her limited knowledge of fashionable society since by the time she wrote the story it was no longer considered necessary for poor girls to “make hay and eat bread and milk out of a bowl” (Harris 117). It is obvious that her stories were much more realistic when they were directly inspired from her personal experiences.
In conclusion, the four stories in the collection each have a unique take on theme of love and compassion and loving ones enemies. Each one of these stories skillfully uses the various literary elements to create the mood and deliver the punch at the right places. The fourth story, Nelly’s Hospital is simple tale of a little girl who feels compassion for living beings.
Although the story is not as dramatic as the other three stories, it portrays the innocence of childhood and brings out the healing power of a kind deed. A Modern Cinderella and Debby’s Debut are classical love stories told in a simple way.
And The Brothers highlights the importance of forgiving those who have sinned against us. Each one of these stories provides a new insight into human nature and has a literary structure to keep its readers hooked from the first word to the last.
Alcott, Louis May. A Modern Cinderella and Other Stories. Web. 18 November 2010.
Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1991. Print
Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. “The Most Beautiful Things in All the World” Little women and the feminist imagination: criticism, controversy, personal essays. Eds. Janice M. Alberghene, Beverly Lyon Clark.USA: Psychology Press. 1999. Print.
Patterson, Mark. “Racial sacrifice and citizenship: the construction of masculinity in Louisa May Alcott’s ‘The Brothers.’.” Studies in American Fiction 25.2 (1997): 147+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Nov. 2010.