This Table of Contents is a chronological guide to the fifty blog entries that make up “Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: A 150th Anniversary Celebration,” as it unfolded over the course of 2018-19, the sesquicentennial year of the original publication of Little Women.
By Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein
As we bring the Little Women 150 blog to a close, we offer some concluding thoughts on the project and the amazing year in Alcott it has been.
We are deeply grateful to our fifty-three contributors for their insightful reflections on the chapters of Little Women. Every post offered food for thought, including observations about Alcott’s life, her family’s interpersonal dynamics, her writing process, her attitudes toward gender, race, class, and ability, her reform impulses, and the contexts for her work, among other topics. We have delighted in premiering these posts on Monday mornings each week since July 2018, and we feel some sadness at having come to the end of the book.
We are very grateful to our readers, who shared responses with us (often while extending access to our posts through their social media). Some of our participants and friends have used the blog postings as teaching tools, and student responses have been shared with us, for which we express thanks while hoping that the posts might continue to prompt student discussion and reflection. Writing about Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’ observations about Chapter IV, “Burdens,” for instance, Karenah Harewood wrote that the post “really opened my viewpoint on the March girls. Before I thought that I could see myself actually sympathizing for them but after reading this, it makes me not want to sympathize for their decrease in fortune.” Detailing her concerns about the March sisters’ complaints despite their evident privilege, and taking exception as well to Hannah’s uneducated speech, Harewood concluded by expressing appreciation for the way that Petrulionis made her “think critically about what’s going on.” Petrulionis’ observations about Hannah’s race, by the way, prompted much debate among Alcott scholars, and that debate has led to additional and forthcoming scholarly activity.
In another enthusiastic response, Mary Shelden has written:
I especially loved Marlowe Daly-Galeano’s piece on Jo’s knowledge of her own mind, and Kristen Proehl’s piece on considering Elbert and Trites with her students. So refreshing! I tried to work in a back-and-forth with these actual blogs in my post, but in the end, couldn’t spare the word count — so if you have the chance, please share my appreciation with them, as they truly helped me get to the point where I could say what I’ve said here. Love this project!
Some of the responses have come from international audiences. Niina Niskanen shared thoughts about Friedrich Bhaer’s reference to Jo as “Professorin.” Her perspective was so interesting that we begged permission to share it with you:
I was 17 when I read Little Women II (also known as Good Wives) for the first time and there was something in the proposal under the umbrella that always bothered me and now after a decade later I found out that it was a translation error. In this beautiful scene Friedrich tells Jo that he is traveling to the west to provide education for his nephews Franz and Emil and Jo is heartbroken because he is leaving and they finally reveal their true feelings for one another. They both agree to work hard to build their life and future together. As a symbol of this Jo takes some of the parcels he is carrying. In the Finnish translation that I’ve read Friedrich gives Jo the title of ‘professorin rouva’ which literally means ‘professor’s wife.’ I found this very strange. There is all this talk about them being equal to one another and then this. I’ve come to known Friedrich as a man who mends his own socks, has re-built his life in a foreign country and as someone who has managed to raise two young boys by himself. He is not possessive over women, especially not over Jo for whom he has utmost respect (and a heart full of love). Friedrich is like Jo, someone who doesn’t think that marriage should be a goal of one’s life but a union between two people based on love and trust. Neither of them represents the traditional role of men and women of the time and their marriage is going to be unique because of that.
I recently read Little Women I and II for the first time in English and in the English version Friedrich gives Jo a German title of Professorin. I happen to speak German and I know that Professorin doesn’t mean professor’s wife. It is not even close to it. It means a female professor. By giving this title Friedrich makes Jo equal to him and Jo is delighted because as a woman (and coming from a poor family) she has not been allowed to continue to higher education. Little Women II takes place [at a time when] women were allowed to participate on university lectures and exams but they were not allowed to matriculate or graduate . . . Friedrich’s attraction to Jo is as well both physical and intelligent. He knows she is very well-read and has a sharp mind. Her interests hardly fit within the domestic sphere; she can achieve many great things if she wants to and he is more than willing to support that. I nearly missed all of that because of a translation error which completely changed the meaning of his words.
Finally, if you have enjoyed this project and remain hungry for further discussion of Little Women, we would encourage you to seek out the latest issue of Legacy (vol. 36, no. 1), arriving this month, which contains a delightful and diverse “Forum: Little Women at 150,” with an introduction by Jennifer Putzi and contributions from a wealth of scholars, including Donna Campbell, Randi Tanglen, Katherine Adams, and Anne Boyd Rioux, among other eminent voices.
Thank you for joining us as we say goodbye to our sesquicentennial celebration and hello to future readings, editions, interpretations, retellings, and engagements with Louisa M. Alcott’s beloved masterpiece, Little Women.
By John Matteson
Although I am certain to slight someone’s favorite book and thereby incur some wrath by saying so, it seems to me that three American fictions of coming of age stand above all others: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; and Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women, of course, differs from the other two in that its protagonists are female, but this for me is not the most important distinction. What has always intrigued me more is that, unlike Twain and Salinger, Alcott is optimistic about the passage from youth to adulthood. Huck Finn lights out to the territory because the brutal hypocrisies of the “sivilized” world are too much for him to bear. Holden Caulfield winds up in a mental institution, pouring out his frustrations with the world’s phonies to a psychoanalyst. Among the three, only Alcott dares to imagine a happy ending for American adolescence, though the nature of that happy ending is, in itself, fascinating.
The first twelve chapters of Little Women are an engaging set of sketches about the March girls’ struggles to achieve virtue. Yet in one sense the book is not yet a novel. Apart from the taming of their various moral failings, the sisters have yet to find larger motivations. Chapter Thirteen, “Castles in the Air,” supplies them, even if in a somewhat unrealistic way, as each of the minister’s daughters declares her lifelong ambition. A suggestion by Jo initiates the book’s essential novelistic tension: she plans for the four sisters to reunite in ten years’ time to see whether their dreams have come true.
The remarkable fact is that, when we arrive at the last chapter of Part Two, “Harvest Time,” none of the sisters finds that she has reaped the crop that she intended to sow. Instead of a grand estate and “heaps of money,” Meg has only her poor but devoted husband and two sweet but not especially promising children. Jo, failing at her dream of winning fame as a writer, has become the mistress of a school. Amy’s ambition to become a renowned artist has similarly died on the vine. Even Beth, who has wished only to stay home and care for the family, has had her modest hope snuffed out by death. And yet, memorably, Marmee has the last line of the novel: “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!” The reader is likely to object that there are plenty of greater happinesses to be wished, and that Alcott has grievously shortchanged her heroines. Some extra salt in the wound is the fact that, after all of Jo’s struggles to achieve female independence and self-realization, her school is open only to “little lads.”
Is “Harvest Time,” then, a betrayal of both the March sisters and the reader? One is welcome to say that it is, but it does not seem so to me. The stronger and more satisfying view, it seems to me, is that Alcott is pointing to a truth about how happiness really works. Live long enough in the world, and you are likely to discover that your greatest joys have not come from conceiving a self-centered goal and achieving it; that kind of happiness is a more sophisticated version of having an itch and scratching it. The greater pleasures tend to reside in becoming the best thing one can be in the lives of others, even when that thing is less grand and bedecked with glitter and tinsel than one has imagined. There is a kind of sacrifice that makes us greater, not lesser, and this is what the March sisters have learned.
It is positively essential to observe that the sacrifices imposed by Alcott in “Harvest Time” do not fall solely onto her female characters. Laurie has become a full partner in Amy’s philanthropic enterprises, and of course Professor Bhaer is Jo’s co-equal at Plumfield, an institution that takes the nuclear family and, with the addition of scores of boys, renders it thermonuclear. Finally, if one pursues Alcott’s trilogy to its end in Jo’s Boys (1886), one discovers that Jo’s sacrifice of literary fame has been only temporary; she has written a novel that has brought her both fortune and undesired fame. At the same time, the all-male Plumfield has given way to a coeducational college, where young women become doctors and gleefully drub the boys on the tennis courts.
“Harvest Time” ends by observing a trinity of values that have little to do with self-aggrandizing achievement. We hear them in Marmee’s voice, a “voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility.” It’s a rather pleasant trio, and perhaps not such a bad one to shoot for, even 150 years later.
John Matteson is a distinguished professor at John Jay College in the City University of New York. His first book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The editor of W. W. Norton’s Annotated Little Women, John is finishing a book on the Battle of Fredericksburg.
By Krissie West
Jo’s poem, “In the Garrett,” is discovered by Friedrich Bhaer and returned to her on the occasion of their engagement “under the umbrella” in Chapter 46 of Little Women. In what Jo calls her “very bad poetry” and which she subsequently rips up to let “the fragments fly away on the wind,” Jo has written of four chests that revisit the characters of the sisters first established in the fireside scene of Chapter 1.
Meg’s shows the “record of a peaceful life,” with her own children taking away the toys that once lay there now that she is “a happy mother.” Beth’s is that of a “saint,” canonised by death but always “less human than divine,” and now a bittersweet memory for her grieving sister. Amy’s chest bears testament to a more fashionable life than her sisters—no toys, but slippers and snoods—yet it is still a record of a childhood completed and a heart “now learning fairer, truer spells.” Jo’s own chest is sadder even than Beth’s. While the younger sister is lamented in her early death, the older seems stalled: “memories of a past still sweet” are giving way to “hints of a woman early old.” But in the poem’s return to Jo by Friedrich Bhaer, readers already know that the poem’s promise, “Be worthy, love, and love will come,” has been fulfilled.
Yet the concept of Jo’s writing in Little Women is always, of course, that it was Alcott’s writing first. And in this case, the poem had a life prior to the text: “In the Garrett” was first published in The Flag of Our Union (18 March 1865) but with a number of differences. It discussed the chests of Nan, Lu, Bess, and May, rather than Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Many of the other differences are minor—a word omitted or added, the line order sometimes swapped—but the final four lines are significantly different. The Little Women version, from the 1869 text, reads:
A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing like a sad refrain,—
“Be worthy, love, and love will come,”
In the falling summer rain.
The earlier version (as read from a manuscript in the Houghton Library, Harvard University) reads:
A woman musing here alone,
Hearing ever her life’s refrain —
“Labor and love, but make no moan”—
In the drip of the summer rain.
Alcott troubles the divide between author and narrator to claim herself, if problematically, as character, as the “Lu” to whom she has given a version of her own name in this earlier rendering of the poem. And this woman’s fate differs from that of Jo: no love waits for her except the love that she must give, second only to labor; neither of which, it seems, can make her happy.
But Jo is granted a reprieve in the fulfillment of romantic love with her professor, one which may have upset both generations of fans who were eager for her to marry Laurie and feminist critics who felt that she should not have sacrificed her career for any man. For Jo, though, Bhaer means the most important thing of all: a turn “from the night and storm and loneliness to the household light and warmth and peace.” For Jo, Bhaer means home.
Krissie West is a British scholar working on American literature, particularly New England Transcendentalism and representations of childhood. Her first monograph, Louisa May Alcott and the Textual Child, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan later this year, considers the portrayal of childhood in Alcott’s works for children beyond Little Women. She is currently researching her second book, Reading Childhood in the Salem Witch Narratives, forthcoming from Palgrave next year.
By Anne Longmuir
As the Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia remind us, Charles Dickens was one of Alcott’s “early literary idols” (81). His novels have a pervasive influence on Little Women—from the allusions that pepper chapter after chapter to the March sisters’ “Pickwick Club.” Chapter XLV, “Daisy and Demi,” is no exception, bearing Dickens’s imprint not just in its literary references, but in its presentation of childhood itself.
As its title suggests, this chapter is almost entirely given over to Meg and John Brooke’s young twins, Daisy and Demi. Besides cataloguing the twins’ delightful precocity, this chapter also marks a crucial progression in Jo and Mr. Bhaer’s romance, thanks to the innocent question Demi poses to “the bear-man,” “Do great boys like great girls too, ‘Fessor?” (362).
The allusions to Dickens are immediately apparent. The narrator suggests, for example, that the children’s “tranquil audacity” reveals them to be “accomplished Artful Dodgers,” a reference, of course, to the bold young man who recruits Oliver Twist to Fagin’s gang of pickpockets in Dickens’s novel.
Similarly, Jo invokes another of Dickens’s characters when she declares that her nephew “is a born Weller” (361). Though perhaps now one of Dickens’s less familiar characters, Sam Weller of The Pickwick Papers was enormously popular during the nineteenth century, known best for his humorous sayings or “Wellerisms”—much like the young Demi.
But beyond these direct allusions to Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers, what makes this chapter closer to Dickens than, say, Charlotte Brontë is the depiction of the children themselves. Children in Brontë’s works are rarely charming or presented sentimentally: in Jane Eyre, the Reed cousins are violent and selfish, Adele’s precocity is not delightful but disturbing; in Villette, the young Paulina Home is positively eerie.
In contrast, both humour and pathos mark Alcott’s and Dickens’s portraits of children. Not only does Alcott’s treatment of Daisy and Demi evoke Dickens’s comic vignettes of family life (the Bagnets of Bleak House or the Pocket family of Great Expectations, for example), but as in so many of Dickens’s novels, Alcott reminds us that childhood is a precarious time. Much as childhood mortality preoccupies Dickens (we think of Paul Dombey or Little Nell), so Beth’s death haunts Daisy’s early care, prompting Meg “to pray that she might be spared a loss like that which had lately taught them how long they had entertained an angel unawares” (359).
But perhaps the closest analogue to Meg’s twins in Dickens’s work is Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. Like Daisy and Demi, Tim is a sweet child, sentimentally observed, whose childish sayings, like Demi’s, help the adults around him see their world differently—and potentially make it a better place. No wonder, then, that Aunt Dodo rewards her young nephew at the end of this chapter with “a big slice of bread and jelly” (362).
Eiselein, Gregory and Anne K. Phillips. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 2001.
Anne Longmuir teaches English at Kansas State University. She co-edited Victorian Literature: Criticism and Debates (Routledge 2016) with Lee Behlman (Montclair State University) and has published articles and book chapters on Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, John Ruskin, and Wilkie Collins, among others. To her shame, she didn’t read Little Women until she was fully grown up.
By Elise Hooper
In “My Lord and Lady,” we get a glimpse of newlywed life for Amy and Laurie as they plot how to use their wealth to help Jo and her penniless suitor, Dr. Bhaer. It’s easy to be charmed by the couple’s newfound maturity, optimism, and interest in philanthropy, and I think we’re supposed to marvel at how far these two have come, but this chapter always strikes me as a bit heartbreaking when Amy laments, “Ambitious girls have a hard time, Laurie, and often have to see youth, health, and precious opportunities go by…”
I picture Louisa writing those lines for Amy while hunched over the little desk that Bronson built her in her upstairs bedroom in Orchard House, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted to throw open the window beside her and yell, “Is anyone listening? Being a woman and a professional writer is hard!” After all, few knew how ambitious girls suffered more than Louisa. After nearly three decades of trying to paddle her own canoe, Louisa was still pegging away at her writing despite the fact that she was no longer a girl and her health had taken a turn for the worse. And Louisa wasn’t the only ambitious girl in this family. May, the real-life sister who inspired the character of Amy, also spent years struggling to find success as a professional painter at a time when women were widely discouraged from pursuing art as a serious vocation.
Of course, one hundred and fifty years later, we know something that our beloved author didn’t: the precious opportunity that Louisa had been awaiting was taking shape in the manuscript being written by her own cramped, ink-stained fingers.
Little Women ended up being the book that secured Louisa’s future and positioned her to reach out a hand to help others girls who were less fortunate, including her sister, May. Louisa used some of her hard-earned income to travel to Europe with May and further her sister’s art instruction. So, while Amy and Laurie vow to use their resources to help Jo, I love that real life brought a far more satisfying plot twist in Louisa’s life than a benevolent relative offering her financial aid. Our ambitious girl-turned-woman produced her own opportunity through her own tenacity and creative talents.
Elise Hooper received her BA from Middlebury College and her MIT from Seattle University. She has taught literature and American history in high schools throughout the Seattle area and has written two novels, The Other Alcott (2017) and Learning to See (2019). Her forthcoming novel Fast Girls (2020) focuses on the lives of women athletes competing in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She currently lives in Seattle with her family, but grew up outside of Concord, MA and credits Louisa May Alcott with inspiring her to write fiction.
By Azelina Flint
Putting on airs, sleeping with a peg on her nose, and, of course, burning Jo’s manuscript, young Amy is for many readers of Little Women the least favourite March. In the second part of the novel, though, Amy undergoes an edifying transformation. She swallows her pride at May Chester’s fair and eventually marries for love, instead of money (or so she claims). In the end, we forgive Amy for being annoying when she was a child. But this is actually her punishment. Adult Amy is Louisa May Alcott’s revenge upon her little sister, May, for refusing to embrace the model of “little womanhood” she had fashioned in Little Women. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “My Lord and Lady.”
The chapter begins with Laurie asking permission to borrow his wife who is seated on her mother’s knee. Amy is made the baby again, mirroring the way that May Alcott was “babied” within the Alcott family. Critic Natania Rosenfeld cites an 1877 letter from thirty-seven year old May to Abigail Alcott in which she refers to herself as “Marmee’s…big baby”; a charcoal drawing in May’s bedroom at Orchard House depicts a mother with a giant baby on her lap. Here is the primary point of rivalry between the sisters: Louisa and May were in competition for Abigail’s affections. Louisa may have dedicated her 1873 novel Work to her mother, but Abigail’s last diary was inscribed to May.
If Louisa viewed her sister as the primary rival for her mother’s heart, why is Amy and Marmee’s bond given such attention in this chapter? Marmee may state that “[t]o be loved and chosen by a good man is the best … thing which can happen to a woman” (Chapter IX), but real life Marmee did not see marriage as the ultimate aim: “My girls shall have trades,” she wrote–not benign accomplishments, but actual careers (LaPlante 88). Of course, Amy gives up her “trade” because she realizes that “talent isn’t genius” and “want[s] to be great, or nothing” (Chap XXXIV). But May Alcott was all about the genius. According to Lauren Hehmeyer, May pursued the “immortal fire” relentlessly, even climbing the pass of Mount St Bernard in a lightning storm so that she could undergo sublime experience.
Unfortunately, May’s pursuit of genius came at her sister’s expense. Her studies abroad were financed by Little Women and other bestsellers that Louisa churned out to support her family. Louisa had her ambitions, too, but was sidelined by what she referred to as “moral pap for the young” throughout her journals. Louisa’s revenge is the creation of a parallel reality: Marmee’s favourite child is advised by the March matriarch that she should settle for marrying a rich man, while Jo goes on to write a bestseller.
Item number two in Louisa’s revenge plan is Laurie. Some readers, disappointed because Laurie and Jo don’t get together, might think that this is just another instance of Amy getting what Jo secretly wants—but Laurie is Jo’s cast-off. This is a case of Louisa saying, “Here, take this failed composer who isn’t going to be a genius either and you can sit around decorating society together.” Can’t you just imagine Louisa gleefully rubbing her hands together and cackling while she’s doing it?
At the close of the chapter, Amy likens herself to the “beggar-maid in the old story” of Cophetua, a celibate king who marries a beggar, Penelophon, when he falls in love with her after a chance sighting. While the story is often used as an illustration of how love transcends class, it’s disturbing that Penelophon is only “rescued” on the condition that she marries a man she barely knows.
Young Amy will always have a special place in my heart because she was unashamed of her ambition. Adult Amy should have remained in Paris, made a name for herself and married a man who was her equal. Instead, she became Penelophon: a figure who in Burne-Jones’s iconic painting is nothing more than a vapid objet d’art. She exists purely to be rescued; even her scantily-clad rags seem arranged for the purpose of alluring the king. This beggar-maid is Louisa’s revenge: “my lady,” the adult Amy March, is the little sister Louisa knew she would never have.
Hehmeyer, Lauren. “May Alcott Nieriker and Louisa May Alcott Confront Nineteenth-century Ideas About Women’s Genius”. American Studies Journal 66 (2019). Web. <10.18422/66-03>
LaPlante, Eve. My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother. Simon & Schuester, 2012.
Myerson, Joel and Daniel Shealy, editors. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. U of Georgia P, 1997.
Rosenfeld, Natania. “Artists and Daughters in Louisa May Alcott’s Diana and Persis“. New England Quarterly 64.1 (1991): 3-21.
Azelina Flint recently finished her PhD at the University of East Anglia. Her doctoral dissertation recovered the influence of the religious beliefs of Louisa May Alcott’s and Christina Rossetti’s mothers and sisters in their literary works. Azelina fell in love with May Alcott after spending a semester conducting archival research at the Houghton Library and hopes to complete a post-doctoral project on Louisa May Alcott’s precocious younger sister in the future.
Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884.
By Paige Gray
Not far into the Little Women chapter “Surprises,” Jo awakens to find her long-absent best friend not in Europe, but very present in the March home. Astonished and bewildered, Jo wonders how “Laurie’s ghost seemed to stand before her” (343). Indeed, Jo then determines, this is some spectral version of her Teddy, a “substantial, lifelike ghost leaning over her, with the very look he used to wear when he felt a good deal, and didn’t like to show it” (343).
“Surprises” pivots around the idea of ghosts and how they haunt us—not a haunting through terror, but a haunting through the heartache of memory, of past lives and paths not chosen. However, the chapter also makes us confront what and who become ghosts. Is the ghost this married man, this dignified, self-assured Laurie who now deeply loves Amy, or is the ghost the memory that Jo holds with her—the awkward Teddy who worships, adores, and loves only her?
Rather than definitively answering such an impossible question, Jo and Little Women instead focus on how to navigate a life populated with such ghosts, those ghosts of our former selves, with all their triumphs and our tragedies, and those ghosts of our present, like this Laurie, who seemingly defy the existential truths upon which our identities have been built.
With the arrival of newlyweds Amy and Laurie to the March home, and with the recent loss of Beth, Jo must find a way to live with these hauntings. Because “Beth still seemed among them—a peaceful presence—invisible, but dearer than ever” (352), Jo can use this “presence” as a source of strength and affirmation. Beth’s ghost ostensibly comforts Jo, instilling her with a sense of determination to move on. The memory of her meek sister suffuses the March house in a way that makes Beth more present in death than she was, perhaps, in life. In death, she uncharacteristically commands Jo, telling her to “[b]e happy!” (352).
The ghosts that surround the marriage of Amy and Laurie—this ghostly new man who challenges Jo’s former idea of Laurie, the ghost of the boy-dreamer Teddy, and the ghost of their childhood friendship and infatuation—lead Jo to a different ghost. When Professor Bhaer shows up at the March house, Jo thinks “another ghost had come to surprise her” (350). Bhaer is “another ghost,” a figure that challenges and unsettles—he haunts her, but haunts her in the sense that he accompanies her into a new way of understanding and constructing her future life.
“Surprises” underscores the power of those ghosts that haunt us, and ultimately suggests that ghosts do not surprise us through their presence—they surprise us through their considerable influence.
Paige Gray is a professor of liberal arts and writing at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her book, Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age, will be published by SUNY Press in August 2019.
By Mary Lamb Shelden
The chapter “Surprises” should be understood as a turning point in Little Women, for it begins with Jo as “a literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse,” and closes with Jo and Professor Bhaer singing to one another as “my beloved,” for all to hear. It bears some thinking through how Alcott gets from one point to the other.
In paragraphs 3-4 of the chapter, we receive what the narrator refers to self-effacingly as a “little homily” on spinsterhood – two stout paragraphs that strike me as Alcott’s bargain with her readers: for you, I have done my best to imagine Jo happily married to a man; as compensation, you must learn to understand and treat spinsters like me with respect. While our narrator acknowledges that “many silent sacrifices” may be “hidden away in the hearts” of some spinsters, still spinsterhood is “not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in oneself to fall back on.” To be sure, Alcott had that something in herself, and this should help us to consider what she’s doing here.
I so appreciate that in Roberta Trites’s exploration of Jo’s sexuality as important to our understanding of her romantic choices, she acknowledges that Alcott’s sense of her own identity may ultimately have been “influenced by the sexologists’ notion of inversion” (36). It’s important to understand, also, that Havelock Ellis’s idea of inversion did not encompass sexuality merely, but rather understood sexual attraction to be bound up with what we would now call gender identity – and that it’s possible Ellis himself could well have been influenced by Little Women and its internationally popular protagonist. This understanding helps us see differently Alcott’s assertion that she “went and made a funny match” for Jo “out of perversity” (125). So long as we are trying on ahistorical categories for Jo, we should consider her as a transgender man. Indeed, much of the textual evidence offered by critics for Jo’s lesbian identity is actually about her gender non-conformity, which Jo wrestles with on nearly every page of the novel where we find her name. What if, in imagining a mate for Jo (and by extension, for herself), Alcott tried to imagine into being the man she yearned to become? Strong and free, paddling his own canoe – caring and working for his family, but by finding his way in the world, rather than stuck at home. Free to proceed as his heart directs, Bhaer chooses an independent woman – an authoress he calls “professorin,” who will carry her share and help him to earn the home (ch 46) – and takes her mind and talent seriously, helping her indirectly (with Marmee’s more direct urging) to find her own way to the better writing that will bring him to her. And once his heart has chosen Jo, Bhaer works and waits for Jo to know her own heart and choose him, too. If Jo – if Alcott herself – could have transitioned to become the man she yearned to be, he would have made a fine mate for the woman she was constrained to be. Though she acquiesced to marrying Jo to a man, perhaps Alcott’s transcendent resolution, conscious or not, was that she would marry Jo to herself – that is, to a male version of herself – thus in a way staying true to Alcott’s own life as a spinster into the bargain.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeline Stern. Little Brown, 1987.
Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd, U of Michigan P, 2011, pp. 33-58.
Dr. Mary Lamb Shelden (she/her) is Director of Lifespan Religious Education at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, where one of the big meeting rooms for lifespan learners is named for Unitarian Louisa May Alcott. Her 2003 dissertation, “Novel Habits for a New World,” considers cross-dressing as a literary device in American novels throughout the Nineteenth Century and finds Alcott’s Jo March to be the first example of a “true transgender” character – for example, more comfortable in the clothes associated with the “opposite” sex than in those associated with what others understand to be “her own” sex.
By Karyn Valerius
Despite its autobiographical roots, Jo’s story diverges from Alcott’s by the end of Little Women. Alcott embraced her literary vocation as a welcome alternative to marriage for herself, but she conceded to pressure from her publisher and readers to “marry off” the surviving March sisters in Book 2 “as if that were the only end and aim of a woman’s life” (Letters 122, Journal 167). Alcott registered her discontent with this turn of events by denying readers the match they desired between Laurie and Jo, and more subtly, by sowing doubt about Jo’s motives for reconsidering marriage as an acceptable option in Chapter 42, “All Alone.”
The chapter opens with a description of Jo’s distress after Beth’s death. Overwhelmed by grief and loneliness, Jo cannot imagine a tolerable future for herself: “for something like despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier.” Jo finds solace in her parents’ sympathy and wise advice, in Meg’s good company, and in cheerfully performing Beth’s household chores. She reimagines her promise to devote herself to her parents in Beth’s absence as a “splendid” and difficult achievement worthy of her effort. At Marmee’s suggestion, Jo also immerses herself in her writing, achieving literary success precisely when she wasn’t seeking fame and fortune. The renewed sense of purpose Jo discovers in her family and professional ambitions suggests one satisfying resolution to her crisis.
And yet, the chapter closes with Jo crying in the garret and wistfully thinking about Professor Bhaer. The example of Meg’s contentment with her husband and children makes Jo susceptible to the idea that “[m]arriage is an excellent thing, after all,” and news of Amy and Laurie’s engagement stirs Jo’s “natural craving for affection.” In a frank conversation with Marmee, Jo generously refuses to be jealous of Amy’s happiness, and she affirms that it would be wrong to marry Laurie herself both because she does not love him and because they are temperamentally incompatible. However, Jo admits that if Laurie had proposed to her a second time, she might have consented out of loneliness. This conversation reveals Jo’s vulnerability. Given the “hungry look” Marmee observes in Jo’s eyes, her wish to see Professor Bhaer again seems suspect since, like Laurie, Bhaer is more friend than lover. The chapter ends ambiguously with a series of questions about Jo’s feelings for Bhaer: “Was it all self-pity, loneliness, or low spirits? or was it the waking up of a sentiment which had bided its time as patiently as its inspirer? Who shall say?”
Karyn Valerius is associate professor of English and director of the Disability Studies Program at Hofstra University. Her chapter “’Is the young lady mad?’: Psychiatric Disability in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction” appears in the volume Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) edited by Elizabeth J. Donaldson.