By Kathryn V. Graham
Now it’s Jo’s turn–after individuated attention paid to Beth and Amy in chapters 6 and 7, where the former finds the Palace Beautiful and the latter suffers her Valley of Humiliation, and before Meg’s Chapter 9 trial at Vanity Fair. These four clustered titles offer strong allusions to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but Jo’s encounter with Apollyon is the knottiest of the references. Even a reader unversed in Bunyan would have no trouble grasping the other three concepts. But who (or what) is Apollyon, and what does this encounter mean for Jo?
Jo has experienced the devastating loss of the sole copy of her hand-written collection of fairy tales, “the loving work of several years,” a project she hoped to share with her father and see in print. Amy has burned Jo’s manuscript in a fit of pique after being excluded from an excursion to the theatre with Laurie and the older girls. This dreadful blend of loss and betrayal cannot be minimized; Jo’s anger is white-hot and, to many readers, totally excusable. For those who have cherished Alcott’s novel over the years and have sympathized with Jo’s desire to write and create, the wanton destruction of her hard work is almost unendurable. Part of me thinks that a shaking and ear-boxing is the very least Amy deserves. A careful, though perhaps prejudiced, examination of the text makes me think that Amy isn’t properly sorry for her action. Do other readers agree?
In earlier chapters, the novel has alluded to the quickness of Jo’s temper. She knows that it’s her “bosom enemy,” the inner quality that needs to be fought and overcome. In Bunyan’s novel, Christian struggles with the “foul fiend” Apollyon, whose name in Greek means “Destroyer.” Apollyon is a servant of the devil Beelzebub; his infernal temptation encourages Christian to break faith with God, which he must resist. After a lengthy battle and the loss of his sword, Christian wrestles with the beast until he is able to regain his weapon and strike. In having Jo’s chapter allude to Apollyon, Alcott emphasizes Christian self-control over the demonic tyrant temper, the soothing of discord between family members, and the importance of a mature, self-abnegating faith.
In one of the chapter’s most fictional moments, the unforgiving Jo is brought to her literal and figurative knees as manuscript-burning Amy plunges into frigid water while skating on rotten ice (of which Jo is aware but too angry to warn her). Jo’s realization of how tragically the episode might have ended provides an opportunity for Marmee to confess her own struggles with temper and ensuing regrets. Her tender remonstrance, “You have had a warning; remember it, and try with heart and soul to master this quick temper, before it brings you greater sorrow and regret than you have known today,” helps Jo learn what Alcott calls “the sweetness of self-denial and self-control”: one more step in the “pilgrim’s progress” of life.
While Kathryn Graham always taught from a scholarly edition of Little Women in her children’s literature courses at Virginia Tech, her cherished reading copy is the one given her by her grandmother Irene Tolar Gillis (b. 1889) on Christmas Day 1960.