Chapter VIII. Jo Meets Apollyon

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.

Frank Merrill’s illustration of Laurie and Jo rescuing Amy from the pond in winter, from the 1880 revised edition of Little Women.

Chapter VII. Amy’s Valley of Humiliation

By Alicia Mischa Renfroe

I became an Alcott “scholar” at age six when I found an old copy of Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston by Jean Brown Wagoner in a box of books that my grandfather had rescued from a one-room school slated for demolition. I read it so many times that my concerned mother (unaware that I had found my career) eventually hid it and substituted Little Women. Part of the Childhoods of Famous Americans series, this biography reveals how little Louisa learns to be a “good girl.” Drawing on a memorable anecdote from Alcott’s life, Wagoner describes three-year-old Louisa’s birthday party where she must forgo her own piece of cake for another child, and such moments appear throughout Little Women as well as Alcott’s other work.

One of four consecutive chapters drawing on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation” focuses on the youngest March—the artistic, sometimes selfish, and often irrepressible Amy. Like Bunyan’s Christian, Amy learns a lesson about the consequences of her actions, though an impulsive decision in the next chapter will bring out the dragon “Apollyon” in Jo. Amy is “suffering” for a lime, so Meg contributes her hard-earned rag money so that Amy can repay her “debts of honor” and enjoy a few of the pickled treats herself–Amy likes her limes.

Alcott uses this humorous vignette to introduce several concerns about education that run throughout the novel. Unlike the breakfast freely given to the Hummels, the limes are part of a schoolyard economy of exchange, generating an obligation to repay in kind and teaching the lesson that some “gifts” are not gifts at all. When Amy’s teacher discovers her “contraband,” he uses corporal punishment in direct contrast to Bronson Alcott’s progressive ideas about education. Emphasizing pedagogy grounded in mutual respect and hands-on learning, Bronson occasionally used the ruler “as a last resort” and once punished some unruly students by asking them to strike his hand, illustrating “his belief that it was far more terrible to inflict pain than to receive it” (Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts 58-59). Following this approach, Marmee supports Amy’s self-development and agrees to “a vacation from school,” at least in part due to the negative influence of the teacher and the other girls. As the chapter concludes, Amy realizes that the issue isn’t the limes but the economy they represent: “it’s nice to have accomplishments…but not to show off.”

I regularly teach Alcott and continue to be amazed by how her fiction speaks to students today: “Are you a Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy?” sparked many a class discussion well before the creation of internet quizzes devoted to the question. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an “Amy.” I did identify with Jo—I loved to write and play with the boys—but I was always a little disconcerted by how much Jo (and Alcott herself) must give up. From the opening chapter, Amy questions this expectation and the justice of their situation: “I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all” (Chapter 1). Though focused on “pretty things,” she makes an important point about economic inequality and tempers the emphasis on self-sacrifice that runs throughout the novel.

Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston by Jean Brown Wagoner
Lime | Amy March
“I lime Amy March” Pro-Amy propaganda

Alicia Mischa Renfroe is Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.

Chapter VI. Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful

By Sandra Burr

As a ten-year-old, I didn’t know what to make of Beth. She never seemed solid, unlike her sisters. Meg was worldly because she was sixteen and seemed closest to my high-school babysitters and their mysterious algebra homework. Jo was lively and talkative and always up to something, and Amy was snooty and generally repulsive. Those three sisters made sense. Beth didn’t—probably because I couldn’t grasp who she was.

I’ve learned a thing or two since I was ten, and Beth, while still elusive, presents a mystery today far more fascinating than algebra! What animates her beyond gentle timidity and maternal leanings?  I decided to use Chapter 6, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful,” to delve into this question, hoping to find something real about Beth as she finds something real in and through the Palace Beautiful next door.

This chapter focuses on Beth’s musicality, which strikes me as a helpful key to her soul (pun intended!) because here her relationship to music changes so quickly and unexpectedly. She morphs from a person who can play the piano to a music aficionado palpably excited and deeply moved by Mr. Laurence’s tales of singers and concerts and such, transported to ecstasy by the possibility of creeping next door to play a very fine instrument without having to talk to anyone! Beth dreams about playing so strongly that Amy’s face becomes her keyboard, which signals how intimately music orchestrates her inner pulses and rhythms. No wonder Beth is so quiet! Her ear, like her emotions, is tuned inward to an appropriately private place inaccessible to all but her and free from outside judgement. Beth’s inner world is her concert hall, where she can have a quiet riot if she wants to and still be safe. Music, symbolized most strongly by the Laurence piano, allows Beth to create and to commune with the world on her own terms.

As Louisa May Alcott transforms Beth through music, she also reveals Beth’s eye color, a detail conspicuously lacking from the character’s initial description in Chapter 1.  There Beth is all light and texture—shining eyes, smooth hair—with a bit of rosiness to indicate health. Once Mr. Laurence gives Beth his granddaughter’s former piano in Chapter 6, however, we learn that Beth’s eyes are blue, as if music exists to help color her in and fill her out for us. Laurence’s gift also provides the one stimulus that would prompt Beth to thank him in person immediately and fearlessly, thereby permanently deepening their relationship and providing both characters with an emotional ballast each sorely needs. (Of the sisters, Beth arguably misses her father the most.) Sitting in Laurence’s lap, an iconic childhood site of emotional stability, Beth enacts how essential music is to her and how she relates to the world. This Beth makes sense, thanks to Alcott’s brilliance.

Sandra Burr is Associate Professor of American Literature at Northern Michigan University and a longtime fan of Louisa May Alcott.

Claire Danes as Beth in the 1994 film version of Little Women

Chapter V. Being Neighborly

By Sarah Wadsworth

Looking through the clear plastic dust jacket of my childhood copy of Little Women is like peering through a window: behind the transparent “pane,” Marmee plays the piano while the girls joyously sing. Inside, a bookplate signed in my neatest thirteen-year-old hand takes me from the Marches’ parlor to my own family home. I turn the page and an inscription—”December 1976 / Merry Christmas Sarah”—calls to mind the kindness of the giver to a book-loving girl growing up, like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, in a home defined by a father’s absence as well as a mother’s presence.

In “Being Neighborly,” kindness is key. The adjective “kind” appears four times, “kindly” three times, and “kinder” once. Kindness is made manifest in acts of thoughtful generosity, each one begetting reciprocal acts in kind. Eager to make friends, Jo arrives at the Laurence house bearing three kittens from Beth and, from Meg, a blancmange decorated with blossoms from Amy’s geranium. Jo tends to the convalescent Laurie, straightening his sickroom while amusing him with stories. Bashfulness dissipates as the pair discover shared and complementary interests, leaving behind laughter and glee. When Jo returns home, she carries heliotrope and roses fresh from the Laurences’ conservatory and a veiled compliment about the “medicine” Marmee sent.

Kindness penetrates the barriers between neighboring homes. Near the beginning of the chapter, we encounter a stark image of physical separation: two houses on either side of a hedge, each hemmed in by its suburban garden. It is not only the partitioned gardens that separate the “bare and shabby” March house from the “stately stone mansion,” however. The two homes are also divided by wealth, generations, and gender. When Jo crosses from the “old, brown house” to the “fine house” that seems to her an “enchanted palace,” the effects of these divisions begin to dissolve.

“Being Neighborly” asks us to think about what it’s like to be on the outside looking in and longing for connection. Alcott knew what it was like to be a stranger. By the time she was six years old, she had moved eleven times. We shouldn’t be surprised then to find Jo explaining, “We haven’t been here a great while, you know,” although it’s easy to forget that the Marches are new to the neighborhood. From her side of the hedge, Jo looks up at Laurie’s face in the window, recognizing his lonesomeness and finding her own yearning for friendship reflected back. Later, Laurie recounts how he would gaze through that window and into the room below where the March family often gathered.

The “picture” Laurie sees framed by the window mirrors the scene on the cover of my Illustrated Junior Library edition with its see-through jacket. “Being Neighborly” shows how kindness begets kindness, visits give rise to visits, and stories engender stories. Reading it, we, like Laurie, cease to be on the outside, as the storyteller, being neighborly, lifts the sash and invites us in.

Sarah Wadsworth is Professor of English at Marquette University. She has written many articles and book chapters on Little Women and other works by Louisa May Alcott.


Grosset & Dunlap’s Illustrated Junior Library edition with cover art by Louis Jambor.


Chapter IV. Burdens

By Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

The central concerns of “Burdens” may be character development and self-education, but within its domestic lessons, this chapter also foregrounds the inequities of Civil War- era America. It is an especially valuable chapter when teaching Little Women.

A brief synopsis: “Burdens” builds on the Pilgrim’s Progress allegory introduced in Chapter One. The post-holiday reality has set in, and the March girls “take up our packs and go on,” as Meg puts it, each with her own particular trial: Meg’s teaching of “four spoilt children,” Jo’s work as a companion for the “fussy” Aunt March, Beth’s household drudgery and lack of music lessons, and Amy’s misshapen nose and hand-me-down clothes. As “Burdens” concludes, Marmee points out what many discerning students will also have seen—that in confessing their day’s respective trials, each girl has already learned her own particular lesson, thus putting Bronson Alcott’s Transcendentalist self-culture into practice.

Through Jo and Meg, especially, this chapter prompts classroom discussions and research projects on the limited vocational options for antebellum women. But more important cultural work occurs here that doesn’t center on the March sisters. By bookending the chapter with Irish servant Hannah and enslaved Chloe and Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Alcott juxtaposes the girls’ comfortable lives with fellow Americans whose “burdens” were not only far heavier than those shouldered by Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, but were also not theirs to regulate.

As many critics have noted, and as students also quickly grasp, the privilege of a live-in servant belies the narrator’s persistent reminders of the March family’s poverty. As a “faithful” woman-of-all-work who tends to the girls’ every whim, Hannah Mullet also expands discussions of women’s labor; whatever the limited options for Jo and Meg’s working days, their choices are far greater, and more appealing, than most employment open to Hannah. Students are startled to discover through a cursory review of antebellum Boston and New York newspapers the plentitude of “No Irish Need Apply” in “help wanted” ads for even the most menial labor.

Reinforcing this class consciousness, “Burdens” concludes with Jo’s “morsel of fun” at the expense of Tom and Chloe. Though Jo mistakenly attributes (and heightens the dialect of) Tom’s words to Chloe, the sentiment of extreme Christian forbearance resounds in their last poignant moment together before Tom is sold, as he bids his family “‘tink ob yer marcies, chillen.” Students find it disturbing that a chapter centrally about work ends by invoking as comic relief characters whose black working bodies have determined their status in antebellum America. Yet in portraying Hannah’s service, the poor immigrant’s plight, and in alluding to Chloe and Tom’s long-suffering enslavement, this chapter directs us to consider the March girls’ collective lament about the severity of their “burdens” through a much more complex lens, one mindful of their privileged status. When we empathize with the subjects of class and race that frame this chapter, we more readily accept Marmee’s “sermon” that her daughters are indeed fortunate.

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Penn State, Altoona.


Chapter III. The Laurence Boy

We are going to experiment this week by offering two different perspectives on the same chapter, both by distinguished Alcott scholars. The ways they complement each other, intersect, and diverge are fascinating. Enjoy!

Take One

By Eve LaPlante

In the gender-bending world of Little Women, the Laurence boy plays an important role. A lovely, compassionate, accommodating young man with a girl’s name, Laurie serves as a mirror to our heroine, Jo, a daring and ambitious young woman with a “gentlemanly demeanor” and a male-sounding name. It’s clear from the start that Laurie and Jo are a pair, two cross-gendered friends who seem more typical of the modern era than a century and a half in the past.

It seems fair to ask – given that Jo and her sisters were inspired by the four Alcott girls and that no Alcott boy existed (much to the dismay of Louisa’s father, Bronson) – on whom did the author model Laurie? Several names have been suggested, including one of Louisa’s maternal first cousins and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian. Louisa herself wrote in a letter to Alfred Whitman, whom she knew in her twenties, that Laurie was based jointly on him and a Polish man she met in her thirties on a trip to Europe, the former being the “sober half” and the latter, “the gay whirligig half.”

The problem is that none of these males was an intimate of the Alcotts in the way that Laurie is with the female Marches. In the novel, Laurie often feels like – and is referred to as – a brother to the sisters and a son to their mother. So who else could have inspired such a character?

I propose that the loving, gender-bending intimacy shared by Laurie and Jo was modeled on the lifelong relationship of Louisa’s mother, Abigail, with her brother, a prominent minister, abolitionist, and suffragist named Samuel Joseph May. If at first an uncle of Louisa seems an unlikely candidate to be Laurie’s progenitor, consider the fact that Abigail, too, grew up as one of four sisters. She often talked with her children about her sisters, who had all died by the time Louisa was born. Abigail’s brother, three years her senior, was her greatest friend and benefactor, providing her and her family with not only money and places to live but also enduring love. Abigail’s life-long correspondence with Sam provides a fine lens through which to observe the hardships endured by the Alcotts until the publication of Little Women, which enabled thirty-five-year-old Louisa to support them all.

It’s also possible that Louisa’s uncle the Reverend Mr. May inspired another important character in Little Women, but that’s a subject for another post.

Eve LaPlante is the author of several biographies, including a dual biography of Louisa May Alcott and her mother called Marmee & Louisa (Simon & Schuster, 2013), and the editor of My Heart Is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother (Free Press, 2013).

Take Two

By Joel Myerson

Chapter Three, “The Laurence Boy,” follows the chapter in which we see that the family’s decision to give their Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummel family resulted in the unexpected gift of a “feast” from their neighbor, Mr. Laurence, whose grandson had not yet been formally introduced. That event takes place at a fancy party where Meg is determined to have the “right” fashions for the dance, even if her shoes are uncomfortable (and soon result in her turning her ankle), whereas Jo is decidedly unconcerned with fashion and the need to impress others. While Meg wants to shine and dance with as many partners as possible, Jo flees the dance floor lest someone approach her and hides in an alcove. There she meets Mr. Laurence’s grandson, who has decamped from the crowd for the same reason as Jo. His name is Theodore, but, because his classmates had taunted him by calling him “Dora,” he chose “Laurie.”

Here we see the questioning of gender roles in the first part of Little Women as Laurie prefers the company of the March girls to the usual male friendships of someone his age (partly as a result of his being tutored at home), but declines the feminine nickname “Dora.” We also see how the names “Laurie” and “Jo” (for “Josephine”) advance both the androgynous aspects of the characters as well as their role reversals: Laurie is a boy who fits in with girls, whereas Jo is a girl who acts like a tomboy more than she does a young lady (by the standards of the time). Also of note is how Marmee acts as a father-figure—indeed, many of the illustrations to Little Women have the girls sprawled at Marmee’s feet or surrounding her, receiving advice in the same way that male authors, like Hawthorne in Grandfather’s Chair, have frontispieces showing children spread out around an elderly male figure to receive his stories:



Finally, the theme of being fashionable and the issues that arise from it stretch throughout the book with Amy and also in Meg’s disappointment at Miss Moffat’s party (in Chapter IX, “Vanity Fair”), where Meg tries her best to fit in among a group of wealthier adolescent girls.

Joel Myerson is Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Emeritus, at the University of South Carolina.

Chapter II. A Merry Christmas

By Katherine Paterson

Of course I wanted to be Jo. There’s nothing unusual about that. Is there a single woman’s writer of my generation that didn’t identify with her? Meg was dutiful and a bit prim, Amy was self-centered and a flibberty-gibbit. And Beth, well, of course we cried when she died, but, honestly, just between us, wasn’t she a bit tediously angelic? But Jo! She actually did things.

I remember coming into the house one day after a bout of street football with the neighborhood boys. In the living room my mother was entertaining at tea. As I listened to the cacophony of soprano voices I was struck with a sudden horror. I might have to grow up and be a woman. And all they did was talk.

In addition to her Tomboy ways, Jo was a great reader, which I certainly was, and a writer, which I didn’t think of myself as being, but wait! For Christmas she writes and stars in a melodrama. I did that in sixth grade.

Chapter One begins with Jo’s complaint, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and Chapter Two reveals the merriest of holidays.

It begins in a proper pious manner with a reminder of the true meaning of the holiday. Marmee has tucked a New Testament under each girl’s pillow and then she asks her hungry daughters to carry their Christmas breakfast to needy neighbors. Interestingly, this part of the chapter is closely based on an experience from Alcott’s own childhood when her father persuaded his family to give away their New Year’s breakfast.[1] The moral here is apparent: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

But for those of us who dislike having our fiction over-salted with moralizing, Jo saves the day and the chapter with her operatic melodrama, playing both the loathsome villain and the swashbuckling hero, perhaps as an excuse to wear her beloved russet boots which no proper lady could ever be seen wearing on the street.

We readers are sitting at a remove from the tiny audience of girls in that upstairs room, so it’s all right for us to laugh at the earnest playwright and her cast. Alcott herself is laughing as she writes of Jo’s outlandish plot and dialogue, the  makeshift costumes and fanciful scenery, the nervous actors playing multiple roles, the collapsing scenery that buries the actors if not the boots, and the folding bed that envelopes the audience mid-applause.

And there is a surprise happy ending to the day when virtue is rewarded with cake and ice cream.  A merry Christmas indeed. Hurrah for Jo! Hurrah for Louisa!

A distinguished, acclaimed, and beloved writer of children’s literature, Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books. She has won the National Book Award twice (for The Master Puppeteer in 1977 and The Great Gilly Hopkins in 1979) and the Newbery Medal twice (for Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and Jacob Have I Loved in 1981).




[1]From Merry’s Museum I (1868) 35-36. Complete text in Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Norton Critical Edition, Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein, editors, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) 541-543. See below for the original pages.