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.