Chapter XLI. Learning to Forget

By Claudia Mills

Beth has just passed through the valley of the shadow and been given up to God, following the chapter in which Amy unmercifully lectures Lazy Laurence. But it’s Laurie who is now trying to forget a different sister, the one he loved first and longest: Jo.

It’s strange that the chapter in which Laurie proposes to Amy has such a backward-gazing title, for here Laurie and Amy are not so much learning to forget, but starting to remember: who they both most truly are. And this will lead them to realize that their future lies together.

Few lovers come to each other with fewer illusions. Their previous encounter destroyed those illusions forever. Amy tells Laurie, truthfully, that she “despises” him for his indolent and self-indulgent ways. When Amy coolly confesses to Laurie that she plans to marry Fred Vaughn for his money and social position, Laurie observes that this “sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.” So: Amy knows that Laurie can be spoiled and entitled; Laurie knows that Amy can be mercenary and shrewd. These are serious flaws, indeed.

Both Amy and Laurie have also given up any illusion of artistic genius. Laurie abandons his efforts at composing a requiem (mourning Jo) and opera (starring Jo) after hearing one of Mozart’s “grand operas”: Mozart’s music “takes the vanity” out of Laurie just as the great artworks of Rome took the vanity out of Amy. Both must now accept the limits of their lesser gifts.

And as Laurie tries to forget Jo – succeeding far more easily than he had expected – he himself expresses the prospect of marrying Amy as a second-best outcome: when Mozart “couldn’t have one sister he took the other, and was happy.”

Alcott has made abundantly clear her intention to strip all romance away from the Laurie-Amy mating, taking care that Laurie’s proposal to Amy does not transpire, as Laurie had imagined it would, “in the chateau garden by moonlight, and in the most graceful and decorous manner,” but “exactly the reverse”: “the matter was settled” (what businesslike terminology!) “on the lake, at noonday, in a few blunt words.” While Laurie falls short of saying, “So, Ames, ol’ gal, should we go and get hitched?” his wish that they might “always pull in the same boat” has a similarly pragmatic ring to it.

And yet . . . and yet . . . when Laurie hastens to Amy after hearing of Beth’s death, and she hurls herself into his arms, crying, “Oh, Laurie, Laurie! I knew you’d come to me!” it’s hard not to feel one’s eyes growing misty. (And there are many less romantic spots to become engaged than Lake Geneva on the shores of picturesque Vevey!) Maybe, in the end, there is something to be said for love grounded in clear-eyed reality rather than “delusive fancies,” a deeper tenderness to sadder-but-wiser affection, and a happier ever-after when fairy tales are forgotten.

Claudia Mills is Associate Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a faculty member in the graduate programs in children’s literature at Hollins University. The author of almost sixty books for young readers and editor of Ethics and Children’s Literature (Ashgate, 2014), she has published articles on Alcott’s Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom and on Alcott’s childhood experiences at Fruitlands.

Images by Frank Merrill (1880).

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