By Anne Boyd Rioux
This overlooked chapter is, to me, one of the most important in the book. It clearly shows how the differences between Jo and Amy, the most interesting pairing in the book, manifest themselves in adulthood. When the sisters were younger, it was Jo who had the upper hand, by virtue of being older, but now the scales have tipped. Amy is prepared to win the prizes that charming, agreeable young women have open to them, while Jo represents a very different, less appreciated, idea of adult womanhood.
As the chapter begins, Amy cajoles Jo into going on a round of social calls, or visits, to their neighbors. In preparation, Amy dresses up Jo to “look aristocratic” and instructs her to be on her best “lady-like” behavior. Instead, Jo exaggeratedly plays “the part of a prim young lady” and “charming girl,” essentially mocking the roles that Amy admires. Their confrontation comes to a head when Amy admonishes Jo for refusing to be polite to the snobbish Mr. Tudor, who is distantly related to the English nobility, and instead bestowing her attention on the poor young Tommy, however good and clever he may be.
In the chapter’s final pages, Jo criticizes Amy’s “morality,” for which Amy makes no apologies. It’s simply “the way of the world,” and she can’t stand the idea of going against the world and getting laughed at. Jo, in contrast, proudly announces her allegiance with the “reformers,” the “new set,” while Amy belongs to the “old.” Jo doesn’t mind being laughed at, for she knows the world needs those who look ahead and can imagine a future where character trumps nobility and social manners. History, she seems to suggest, is on the side of the Jos and the Tommies.
Those looking for evidence of Jo’s rebelliousness tend to focus on her not wanting to be a girl, wishing she could go to war, becoming the breadwinner of the family and starting a writing career. Yet these are all things, one could argue, that she eventually grows out of. Here in the “Calls” chapter, however, Jo articulates a philosophy of progressive reform that Louisa herself shared and never grew out of. She was fond of signing her letters, “Yours for Reform of All Kinds.”
At this point we are likely to side with Jo, but the chapter doesn’t end there. Jo herself foreshadows that it will be Amy who “get[s] on the best” because she has the demeanor and charm that society appreciates in women. The day of the Jos had not yet come, Alcott seems to be saying. This had something to do with Louisa’s feelings about the real-life Amy, her youngest sister, May, who, she once said, “always had the cream of things.” This was ten years after the publication of Little Women, when, she also concluded, “My time is yet to come” (Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine Stern, eds., The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, p. 209).
Anne Boyd Rioux is the author of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, published by W. W. Norton in 2018. She also edited a 150th anniversary of Little Women for Penguin Classics, and is a professor at the University of New Orleans.
Image by Frank Merrill (1880)
4 thoughts on “Chapter XXIX. Calls”
Interesting thoughts on this underrated chapter! It is continued with “Consequences”. In the movies, these events are omitted and, with them, the actual reasons for choosing Amy for the Europe trip. The chapter demonstrates different concepts of social life – the “perfect” Amy and the “misfit” Jo. It is interesting to read in the essay, that “The days of the Jos had not yet come”. But are they really here or are the Jos still ahead, always to reform and shape the future?
I don’t approve of Amy’s kowtowing to the upper classes (Mr. Tudor) and dismissing Tommy, but I don’t agree with Jo’s belief that it is up to women, specifically, her, to arbitrate how other people behave. It isn’t up to Jo to criticize Mr. Tudor in public. If she wants to avoid his company privately, that is certainly her prerogative, but it is not good manners to shun him when they are both guests in someone else’s house.
This seems to be a common thread in the “Little Women” books. Women and girls are tasked with turning boys into civilized beings: Daisy in “Little Men” and all of the female students, but particularly Bess and Josie, in “Jo’s Boys.” In “Little Women,” Jo hammers away at Laurie, and he is grateful for it. That may be okay with someone who spends every free hour at your house, but not for mere acquaintances.
I guess I don’t agree with Jo’s brand of “reformation.”
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I agree and would like to add that also Amy is tasked to influence Laurie in the second part of Little Women.
However, I think this trope is still quite popular. Whether “After” or Star Wars fanfiction, girls love to help their boys to get redeemed, even if sacrifying themselves. Whether Laurie or Dan, Hardin Scott or Kylo Ren – the redeeming part seems to be a girl’s job – although more innocent in Alcott’s past days.