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Doctoral Dissertation Announcement
Candidate: Rebekka Anna Mehl
Doctor of Philosophy
Department: Comparative Religion
Title: Spiritual Independence in Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore Series, Alcott’s Little Women Series, and Wilder’s Little House Series
Dr. Brian C. Wilson, Chair
Dr. Gwen A. Tarbox
Dr. Timothy Light
Date: Thursday, June 30, 2011 10:00 a.m. to Noon
2016 Moore Hall
This project bridges the academic fields of comparative religion and children’s literature by examining depictions of religious experience in children’s literature. I specifically discuss how female religious experience and morality are depicted in three single-author series for girls set between 1850 and 1900—the Elsie Dinsmore series by Martha Finley, the Little Women series by Louisa May Alcott and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I examine the moral principles of honesty and obedience, longsuffering contentment and industriousness and how they can come together to contribute to the development of a sensitive conscience that can encourage a sense of spiritual independence. The development of spiritual independence is an important aspect of both the Elsie Dinsmore series and the Little House series. Sometimes, however, the focus on honesty and obedience, longsuffering contentment and industriousness do not encourage the growth of spiritual independence. The Little Women series does not develop the same concept of independence and reform-thinking. Despite Alcott’s acknowledgement and support of the progressive movements of the 19th century, the characters in the Little Women series do not generally reflect a sense of spiritual independence and reform thinking.
Although the close relationship between the progressive movements of the 19th century with religious ideology has occasionally been noted in adult literature and culture, it has frequently been overlooked in children’s literature. I am arguing that girls and women who are encouraged to be spiritually independent learn to make decisions that allow them greater freedom. They learn not to be afraid to think for themselves, which encourages reform thinking and contributes to social change. This pattern shows, at least in part, the link between evangelical thinking and the progressive movements of the 19th century and highlights that conservative religious belief can encourage reform ideology.