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