By John Matteson
Although I am certain to slight someone’s favorite book and thereby incur some wrath by saying so, it seems to me that three American fictions of coming of age stand above all others: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; and Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women, of course, differs from the other two in that its protagonists are female, but this for me is not the most important distinction. What has always intrigued me more is that, unlike Twain and Salinger, Alcott is optimistic about the passage from youth to adulthood. Huck Finn lights out to the territory because the brutal hypocrisies of the “sivilized” world are too much for him to bear. Holden Caulfield winds up in a mental institution, pouring out his frustrations with the world’s phonies to a psychoanalyst. Among the three, only Alcott dares to imagine a happy ending for American adolescence, though the nature of that happy ending is, in itself, fascinating.
The first twelve chapters of Little Women are an engaging set of sketches about the March girls’ struggles to achieve virtue. Yet in one sense the book is not yet a novel. Apart from the taming of their various moral failings, the sisters have yet to find larger motivations. Chapter Thirteen, “Castles in the Air,” supplies them, even if in a somewhat unrealistic way, as each of the minister’s daughters declares her lifelong ambition. A suggestion by Jo initiates the book’s essential novelistic tension: she plans for the four sisters to reunite in ten years’ time to see whether their dreams have come true.
The remarkable fact is that, when we arrive at the last chapter of Part Two, “Harvest Time,” none of the sisters finds that she has reaped the crop that she intended to sow. Instead of a grand estate and “heaps of money,” Meg has only her poor but devoted husband and two sweet but not especially promising children. Jo, failing at her dream of winning fame as a writer, has become the mistress of a school. Amy’s ambition to become a renowned artist has similarly died on the vine. Even Beth, who has wished only to stay home and care for the family, has had her modest hope snuffed out by death. And yet, memorably, Marmee has the last line of the novel: “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!” The reader is likely to object that there are plenty of greater happinesses to be wished, and that Alcott has grievously shortchanged her heroines. Some extra salt in the wound is the fact that, after all of Jo’s struggles to achieve female independence and self-realization, her school is open only to “little lads.”
Is “Harvest Time,” then, a betrayal of both the March sisters and the reader? One is welcome to say that it is, but it does not seem so to me. The stronger and more satisfying view, it seems to me, is that Alcott is pointing to a truth about how happiness really works. Live long enough in the world, and you are likely to discover that your greatest joys have not come from conceiving a self-centered goal and achieving it; that kind of happiness is a more sophisticated version of having an itch and scratching it. The greater pleasures tend to reside in becoming the best thing one can be in the lives of others, even when that thing is less grand and bedecked with glitter and tinsel than one has imagined. There is a kind of sacrifice that makes us greater, not lesser, and this is what the March sisters have learned.
It is positively essential to observe that the sacrifices imposed by Alcott in “Harvest Time” do not fall solely onto her female characters. Laurie has become a full partner in Amy’s philanthropic enterprises, and of course Professor Bhaer is Jo’s co-equal at Plumfield, an institution that takes the nuclear family and, with the addition of scores of boys, renders it thermonuclear. Finally, if one pursues Alcott’s trilogy to its end in Jo’s Boys (1886), one discovers that Jo’s sacrifice of literary fame has been only temporary; she has written a novel that has brought her both fortune and undesired fame. At the same time, the all-male Plumfield has given way to a coeducational college, where young women become doctors and gleefully drub the boys on the tennis courts.
“Harvest Time” ends by observing a trinity of values that have little to do with self-aggrandizing achievement. We hear them in Marmee’s voice, a “voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility.” It’s a rather pleasant trio, and perhaps not such a bad one to shoot for, even 150 years later.
John Matteson is a distinguished professor at John Jay College in the City University of New York. His first book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The editor of W. W. Norton’s Annotated Little Women, John is finishing a book on the Battle of Fredericksburg.