By Mo Li
Before departing for her trip to Europe, Amy announces that it “‘isn’t a mere pleasure trip to me’” (ch. 30). Instead, she aims to explore the future of her artistic career. Her purpose echoes the American tradition of formative foreign travel: Young, privileged American men traveled not for pleasure, but for elevating their mind and taste to suit their future calling (Levenstein, ch. 1). However, many men succumbed to the temptation of carnal pleasure, especially prostitution and gambling in Paris, which distracted them from their purposes (Levenstein, ch. 6).
Amy’s three enthusiastic letters home quickly reveal her own temptation amidst her report of sightseeing, shopping, and sketching. Rich, well-mannered, and occasionally “sentimental,” Fred Vaughn now epitomizes the romantic and economic boon of marrying into the “best” society (ch. 26).
In her third letter, Amy reveals her rationale for potentially marrying Fred, with whom she is “not madly in love:” “One of us must marry well; Meg didn’t, Jo won’t, Beth can’t, yet,–so I shall, and make everything cosy all around.”
Like a good artist, Amy sketches the March girls’ marital prospects. Meg has not married well, and the reader can recall her struggles as a poor man’s wife. Jo will not marry well, since her blunt tongue and uncompromising independence will clash with the intricate social web of agreeableness. Fragile and shy, Beth cannot marry well, and the kindly added “yet” by Amy does not dispel the ominous shadow looming over the ethereal little figure. Consequently, Amy “shall.” Coolheaded, winsome, and vibrant, Amy appoints herself to fulfill her personal ambition and perceived familial responsibilities.
The three negatives and a positive perfectly encapsulate the gritty side of striving for high thoughts, true hearts, and charitable hands. In fact, the bitter taste of poverty was no fiction to Alcott, as her family lived and barely survived Fruitlands, the failed commune of admirable yet unrealistic ideals (Matteson, chs. 7 & 9).
Non-carnal in its nature, Amy’s temptation is sympathetically logical. Marrying Fred might actually offer the artist more freedom and opportunity, thus posing no real danger to her original purpose. However, Amy’s third letter is addressed solely to Marmee, the girls’ moral center and spiritual guide. Therefore, the chapter suggests that the temptation threatens Amy’s mastery of inner principles.
How Amy fares won’t be fully revealed for another 10 chapters, but chapter 31 has planted the seeds that erode the veneer of Amy’s “best society” and suggest how she might overcome her temptation. While enjoying the gentlemen’s romantic gallantry, Amy observes their flaws: Men are prone to vices when they are not advised or admonished. Yet, Amy’s third letter noticeably foregoes mentioning Fred’s flaws. Thus, the chapter hints that Amy will have to assume responsibility for her future partner’s moral or spiritual welfare before she can enjoy the reward of a loving marriage, as Marmee advised Meg after the “Vanity Fair” episode (ch. 9). What is reserved for the artist, however, remains to be seen.
Levenstein, Harvey. Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age. University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Matteson, John. Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. New York, Norton, 2007.
Mo Li received her M.A. in English from Kansas State University and her Ph.D. in English from Middle Tennessee State University. Now she tutors, edits, and translates, striving to be happy and useful.