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.