By Marlowe Daly-Galeano
As an adult reader, I think the most important relationship in the “Dark Days” chapter is Jo and Beth’s. The anguish that Jo experiences during Beth’s illness stems from her awareness that she may lose the companionship of her dear sister. When Beth finally pulls through the threatening fever, Jo and Meg “[rejoice] with hearts too full for words.” Yet, when I was a young reader, the sisters’ relationship in this chapter mattered far less to me than the relationship between Jo and Laurie. In fact, if you had asked my junior-high self what was significant about “Dark Days,” I would have rolled my eyes and answered, “The most important part is the kissing.”
For years, I thought of this as the chapter that revealed the chemistry between Jo and Laurie, the proof (in those few kisses) that they belong together. And, yes, I know you may be rolling your eyes now, because you recognize something I didn’t: Jo wants the comfort of a friend; she doesn’t want to be kissed by Laurie.
In defense of my younger self, I’ll explain that I learned all of my lessons about sexuality from novels. Consent was not taught in sex ed classes in the 1980s in the Great Lakes Midwest where I grew up, but it figured prominently, if problematically, in the literature I loved. I fully understood that when Anne Shirley rejected Gilbert Blythe for calling her “Carrots,” she would have another chance to say yes to him later on. After Elizabeth Bennet declined Mr. Darcy’s insulting first offer of marriage, she would enthusiastically accept his improved second proposal. And when Jane Eyre left Rochester because he already had a wife, of course I knew that she would go back to him.
And so I internalized some unfortunate lessons about consent. From these novels that shaped my vision of romantic love, I took away the misguided idea that women should say no to the first advance. How they feel is irrelevant; they should always say no. Next, I learned that saying no opens the door (and the expectation or demand) to say yes later on.
I now understand that these are bad lessons.
But the lesson Alcott teaches in “Dark Days” is much better. Jo appreciates the compassion that Laurie offers her as she bears the stress of her sister’s illness and her parents’ absence. However, after “flying at” Laurie and being kissed by him, Jo clarifies that she does not want anything other than friendship. She will maintain this stance throughout the novel, and, later, when Laurie proposes, Jo will reiterate her position. She does not consent. I missed the message the first time I encountered it in Little Women, because I was saturated with romantic myths that obscure the value of consent. I now see how clearly Alcott negates the pervasive and pernicious idea that “no means yes.” Jo says no to Laurie once, and she says no again, and again. And that’s okay. No, actually, it’s awesome.
Marlowe Daly-Galeano is associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College, where she teaches courses in American literature, writing, and humanities.
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915