By Joy Smith
The deaths of Louisa May Alcott’s close family and friends profoundly impacted her in part because she played nurse to them just as she had been a nurse during the Civil War. We know she wrote many of her elegies following the deaths of close family and friends. She was especially affected by the deaths of her sisters Elizabeth and May, her mother, and her close friend Henry David Thoreau. Here, we will look at Beth, inspired by “Lizzie,” whose death Alcott represents in Chapter XL, “The Valley of the Shadow.” In her journal entry for March 14, 1858, Alcott describes her “dear Beth[’s] death” (Journals, 88). She explains how Beth called them together and held their hands a few days before she passed away. She recounts how as Beth died she “saw a light mist rise from the body, and float up and vanish in the air” and how her “[m]other’s eyes followed” hers, which the doctor said was “the life departing visibly” (89). In her journal entry the next month, Alcott states of Beth’s death that “I don’t miss her as I expected to do, for she seems nearer and dearer than before; and I am glad to know she is safe from pain and age in some world where her innocent soul must be happy” (89). She adds, “Death never seemed terrible to me, and now is beautiful, so I cannot fear it, but find it friendly and wonderful” (89). In these journal entries, Alcott incorporates sentimentalism.
In examining the chapter, we see these same sentiments from Alcott’s life echoed in the novel. Just as in nineteenth-century elegies, the narrator reflects on Beth’s last days. We see this through the family placing Beth in the “pleasantest room in the house” and providing her with “everything that she most loved.” She is the nineteenth-century angel of the house and “like a household saint in its shrine” who exclaims “[h]ow beautiful this is.” Beth’s statement in this chapter reflects the nineteenth-century fixation on “the beautiful death.” She again is the “Angel of the house” as the narrator describes her as “benignant angel–not a phantom full of dread” after she passes. The narrator echoes the nineteenth-century custom of depicting death as sleep as “mother and sisters made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again.” The hope of eternal rest and happiness comes through the bird whose song made “those who loved it best” smile “through their tears, and thank . . . God that Beth was well at last.” These words echo the nineteenth-century hope of eternal rest, peace, and wholeness.
The poem, “My Beth,” though written prior to Beth’s death, also incorporates nineteenth-century elegiac conventions and echoes nineteenth-century mourning custom conventions. An elegy, a poem written upon the death of a loved one, contains the conventions of lament, complaint, commemoration of the deceased’s last days, and consolation. In the opening stanza, the speaker expresses the elegiac convention of lament: “Earthly joys, and hopes, and sorrows, / Break like ripples on the strand / Of the deep and solemn river / Where her willing feet now stand.” The sorrow echoes both Jo’s grief and Alcott’s own experience of losing her sister. The complaint is seen as the speaker calls out, “Oh, my sister passing from me, / Out of human care and strife.” The speaker complains of being left alone while acknowledging that her sister gets to leave all care and struggles behind. Nevertheless, just as Alcott finds solace in knowing that her sister no longer suffers, Jo finds consolation in knowing that her sister leaves behind lessons to learn from and makes her calmer, more focused, and more trusting.
The elegy and chapter resound with the sentiments Alcott expresses in her journals and letters upon her sister’s death, commemorating their bond. They also enshrine within Little Women central components of nineteenth-century American mourning customs.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine B. Stern. Little Brown, 1989.
Joy Smith is an Instructor of English at Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, LA where she teaches English and Reading courses. She earned her PhD from Middle Tennessee State University where her dissertation focused on the elegies of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Stephen Crane.