By Anindita Bhattacharya
Louisa May Alcott has immortalized American girlhood in her nineteenth century novel Little Women. The narrative reflects Louisa’s own very ambivalent views on womanhood with a curious juxtaposition of didacticism, sentimentalism, and feminism. Whether it is Jack and Jill: A Village Story or Behind a Mask, her ‘women’ are always struggling to strike a balance between fulfilling their womanly duties and nurturing their ambitions, and also being sufficiently punished for such predilections.
The seventeenth chapter of Little Women represents this conflict through the episode with Beth. It begins with the girls giving themselves a little ‘holiday’ from all the household chores and responsibilities in the absence of Marmee. Meg promises to watch over her sisters, Jo agrees to help everyone and refrain from her brash manners, Beth avows complete faithfulness to the little duties at home, and Amy pledges obedience in Chapter Sixteen when Marmee leaves for Washington to tend to their ailing father. Of the three, it is only Beth who chooses to stay true to her asseveration, an act of ‘faithfulness’ that culminates in her undoing. The name of the chapter, “Little Faithful,” has a dual significance here. This chapter not only focuses on the consequences of faithfulness/unfaithfulness but also can be seen as a continuation of the Pilgrim’s Progress allegory. Beth, in the novel, is the least confrontational, most vulnerable, and unequivocally angelic in her intentions and actions. She is akin to Faithful from Bunyan’s novel–someone who has already established a powerful bond with God and shows faith in Him, a faith that Christian is initially reluctant to accept but gradually acquires in the course of his journey. He also, therefore, has the easiest passage to the Celestial City, although he has to suffer before he can unite with Him. He is like Elijah from the Old Testament, a symbol of unwavering faith in the Lord. So is Beth: she must suffer and accept an ill fate as a consequence of her ‘faithfulness,’ as the ‘little’ faithful woman of Louisa’s family drama and also due to the lack (little amount) of faithfulness of Meg and Jo, who forget to perform their womanly duties and promised chores and therefore must pay the price of such wanton neglect.
Marmee had asked the sisters to call on the poor Hummels from time to time while she is away. The Hummels’ baby has scarlet fever and Beth has been regularly visiting them and taking care of the afflicted child. This particular day, a sickly Beth entreats one of her sisters to take on this duty. But they make silly excuses to stay home and finally the faithful Beth, seeing no alternative, sets out to the Hummels’ with “a heavy head and a grieved look in her patient eyes.” Beth witnesses the passing of the Hummel baby in her own lap, and it completely shatters her spirit. She then contracts the fever from the child. Had Meg or Jo volunteered, both of whom had had scarlet fever before, Beth could have been spared her misery. Beth is never quite able to recover completely.
In “Chasing Amy: Mephistopheles, the Laurence Boy, and Louisa May Alcott’s Punishment of Female Ambition,” Holly Blackford points out the following:
Alcott repeatedly features plots in which warm-blooded womanhood expels the demon of artistic creation and passion, whether the demon is within the woman or embodied by a Mephistopheles figure chasing her about.
This is also alluded to in this chapter. Jo refuses to go to the Hummels’ because she has to finish her ‘writing.’ Her ambition comes in the way of her duties towards her home and family and therefore, she must live forever with a guilt-ridden conscience.
Anindita Bhattacharya @zooiebeard is a doctoral candidate at Dublin City University. Her research interests include children’s literature, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies.