Chapter XXXIV. A Friend

By Daniel Shealy

The chapter “A Friend” presents readers with two important topics: a glimpse into America’s mass-market publishing world of the 19th century and the nascent romance between Jo and Professor Bhaer. While these two topics initially appear at odds with each other, they instead blend together by the chapter’s end to give us a better understanding of both the Professor and Jo.

When Jo, in her best attire, climbs the stairs to the “Weekly Volcano” office, she stands in stark contrast to the male world she enters—a world Alcott herself knew well since she was still penning thrillers for Frank Leslie, even as she was composing this chapter. (From the late 1850s until 1870, Alcott published over 30 sensational stories.) In this portrait of a shabby room engulfed in cigar smoke, the author paints an unflattering image of a slightly seedy male-dominated publishing world. As Mr. Dashwood edits Jo’s story, striking out all of her “moral reflections,” he advises her, “Morals don’t sell nowadays.” However, readers often overlook the narrator’s ironic comment immediately following his remark: “[This] was not quite a correct statement, by the way.” With winking self-regard, the author ridicules one genre while embracing another. Part 1 of Little Women was already successful when Alcott wrote these words. The qualifying “not quite a correct statement” whispers to the reader: consider the volume in your hand.

As Jo conjures up heroes “with every perfection under the sun” for her sensation stories, she discovers, in Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house, “a live hero”: Professor Bhaer. After he condemns the writing of thrillers in general, she takes his message to heart because she values Bhaer’s “goodness” and “intellect.” Examining her own work, she realizes that her stories “are trash” and abandons them. Her attempts at didactic fiction and children’s stories prove unsuccessful, so she gives up writing and begins to spend more evenings with Bhaer, a good use of her time as our narrator hints of Jo’s future: “she was learning other lessons besides German, and laying a foundation for the sensation story of her own life.”

As the chapter closes with Jo’s preparation to return home, readers get the first glimpse that Bhaer is romantically interested in Jo. When she asks him to come and visit, Bhaer questions, with a look of “eager expression, which she did not see,” if her request is genuine. But after Jo quickly invites him to come the following month for Laurie’s graduation, he immediately thinks that she is in love with Laurie and speaks to her in “an altered tone.” As he sits in his room alone later that night, we see him hoping for a future that he does not think possible. But Alcott, in the final lines of the chapter, gives her readers a hint as to how it may all turn out. When Jo says goodbye to Bhaer the next morning, she notes that she has made a good friend and thinks to herself: “I’ll try to keep him all my life.”

Daniel Shealy is Professor of English at UNC-Charlotte.  He is co-editor of Alcott’s Selected Letters and Journals and most recently edited Little Women: An Annotated Edition.  In the late 1980s, he discovered “new” Alcott thrillers, which were later published in Freaks of Genius.

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Image by Frank T. Merrill (1880)
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Image from the 1994 feature film of Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong

 

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Chapter XXXIII. Jo’s Journal

By Suzanne Rahn

They need to get away from home and “find themselves.” Today they’d be in college—bright young women in their late teens and early twenties, majors in Art and Creative Writing, measuring their talents and discovering (by trial and error) their core values.

The difference between Amy’s “college” year in Europe and Jo’s in New York City is obvious. Even the chapter titles are comically contrasted—the dignified, impressive “Our Foreign Correspondent” versus the home-grown, unassuming “Jo’s Journal.” Amy has beauty and luxury for her share, and Jo only penny-pinching drudgery and low social status in uninspiring surroundings. Yet there are parallels. Both girls, yearning to escape poverty, will realize that money should not be their primary objective. And while Amy re-discovers Laurie, Jo discovers—Professor Bhaer.

The delay between the first volume of Little Women and the second allowed ample time for reader input, and Alcott knew that “everyone” wanted Jo to marry Laurie. Vowing, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody!” she created a mate for Jo who would be virtually Laurie’s opposite—neither young, handsome, nor rich, but middle-aged, homely, and poor, with a bushy beard and a funny German accent. “Jo’s Journal” takes on a daunting challenge—to introduce an entirely new character, late in the story, who will nonetheless be of crucial importance, and to lay bare his un-Laurieish characteristics while still making him attractive.

Her strategy is to present Professor Bhaer as a mystery for Jo to solve, a man who piques her curiosity from the first. Newly arrived at Mrs. Kirke’s boarding-house, Jo sees “a gentleman” carry a heavy load of coal up three flights of stairs for “a little servant girl.” She is impressed by this unusual act of kindness—in the nineteenth century, virtually no one (including, clearly, Mrs. Kirke) found this backbreaking daily chore too much to ask of little servant girls.

“That must have been Professor Bhaer; he’s always doing things of that sort,” Mrs. Kirke tells her later. So Jo learns what the Professor is even before she knows who he is, and he has already aroused her respect—and curiosity.

By a fortunate happenstance, there is only a curtained glass door between the nursery where Jo sews and teaches Mrs. Kirke’s daughters and the parlor where the Professor gives German lessons. She tells her correspondents (Marmee and Beth), “I mean to peep at him, and then I’ll tell you how he looks.” Admitting it was “dreadfully improper. . . but I couldn’t resist the temptation,” she notes (and passes on) every detail of his face and clothes, witnesses a visit from little Tina (wondering if she is his child), listens while he gives a lesson to two dense young ladies, and takes another sympathetic peep “to see if he survived it.” Later, at the communal dinner table, she is not at all put off by the ways he “shovels in” his food, reasoning that “the poor man must have needed a deal of food after teaching idiots all day.” She is already on his side.

Thus Alcott enables us, too, to spy on the Professor and learn intimate and endearing details of his appearance and behavior, a not-quite-forbidden pleasure that continues even after he and Jo have been introduced. Jo (“by accident,” she insists) knocks open his bedroom door and sees him in his dressing gown, darning his own sock.   Next day, with Mrs. Kirke, she takes a thorough look around Bhaer’s “den” while he is out, and decides to secretly darn his socks herself. It is not long after this that the Professor—no fool—notices the darned socks, catches Jo in the act of trying to pick up some German on her own, and insists on teaching her in payment. If Jo’s spying has made her (and us) feel slightly guilty, his kindly “you peep at me, I peep at you, and that is not bad” lets us all off the hook.

The seal on their growing friendship comes at Christmas, when the Professor—aware by now of Jo’s ambitions—gives her his treasured one-volume Shakespeare. The gift makes her feel “rich.”

Jo will continue pondering the Professor. But in the fifteen pages of this “total immersion” introduction, she (and we) have already gotten to know and like him quite well.

Whether Alcott succeeds in winning the reader’s assent to Jo’s marrying him is another question. The Laurie-versus-Bhaer controversy rages to this day. But the depth of Jo’s love for her Professor by the story’s end seems to me entirely convincing.

Suzanne Rahn is the author of Rediscoveries in Children’s Literature and co-editor of “St. Nicholas” and Mary Mapes Dodge. She founded the Children’s Literature Program at Pacific Lutheran University. 

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Image by Frances Brundage (1929).

Chapter XXXII. Tender Troubles

By Susan Bailey

Marmee was worried about Beth and for good reason. Her daughter was quieter than usual, even withdrawing from her father. She would cry when visiting with Meg’s babies. Her music was tinged with sadness. Unable to draw Beth out, Marmee asked Jo to find out what was wrong.

Jo thought she had the answer: Beth was in love with Laurie. But in her lack of experience with matters of the heart, she misread the signs. Does a girl in love stare out of a window with a tear sliding down her cheek? Does she cry over her little niece and nephew because she is longing for Laurie? Why would she withdraw from her family?

Jo tried to look at the bright side when it came to her favorite sister even if the signs were pointing in the opposite direction. Hoping that Beth had moved beyond her lingering illness, Jo anticipated a future for her sister that was not to be. Beth would never realize womanhood; never know of marriage, motherhood and the building of her own home apart from her family.  Instead, she would die. In crying over Demi and Daisy, Beth knew she would not live to see them grow up. She would never have a child of her own.

Jo had noticed Beth’s face brighten when she saw Laurie but failed to grasp the true meaning of her sister’s remarks about his health and vitality. Instead, Jo deceived herself into believing that Beth loved Laurie. It was all a fantasy, like one of her stories.

Jo lived through her characters just as Beth lived through her dolls and imaginary friends. This is one of the many interesting parallels between these polar opposite sisters. Drawn to each other because they complemented each other, Jo longed for Beth’s moral strength and courage in the face of adversity while Beth yearned for Jo’s vitality and audacity. But they also shared a common wish: that their family would not change; that they would never have to grow up.

Jo dreaded the restrictions and obligations of womanhood. Her aversion to Laurie’s advances signaled her conflict regarding marriage and children (the very essence of womanhood) clashing with her dreams of independence and literary success (a male ambition). Her solution was to run away to New York.

Beth harbored no ambition. She never imagining herself as a grown woman, leaving home and creating her own family. Her unexplained sense of worthlessness coupled with her poor health made such a life impossible to realize.

To escape growing up, both lived in imaginary worlds. Beth had her dolls, kittens and make-believe friends while Jo lost herself in her fictional characters, first writing about them, and then often embodying them on the stage.

Life and death however, began to press in on all sides. Beth could not run away from her fate so she had to learn to accept it. Ever self-sufficient, she worked through this trial on her own, willing to share only after she had conquered her demon. Unable to perceive the truth, Jo could only hold her sister close, offering hugs and sympathy.

Beth could no longer draw upon Jo’s vitality. But Jo could always rely upon Beth’s example of courage, of meeting life head on even if it meant great sacrifice.

Jo would take off for New York, but her sojourn only delayed the inevitable: a confrontation with Laurie and an eventual coming to terms with her life. It would take all the courage she had to face what was to come.

Susan Bailey is the author of Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message. Her blog — Louisa May Alcott is My Passion — offers analysis and reflection on the life, works and legacy of Alcott and her family. Susan is an active member and supporter of the Louisa May Alcott Society, the Fruitlands Museum, and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

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Jesse Wilcox Smith, “Jo and Beth” (1915)

 

Chapter XXXI. Our Foreign Correspondent

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.

Works Cited

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.

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Amy, Fred, Aunt March, and Laurie. Film still from Little Women (1994).

 

 

Chapter XXX. Consequences

By Leslie Perrin Wilson

I appreciate Louisa May Alcott’s emphasis on family as a major focus of Little Women, but the struggle of each March girl to navigate between personal desires and ethical and social standards beyond themselves is at least as important to the story of their development toward maturity. The chapter “Consequences” explores what it takes to advance in the world.

Amy deals with hurt and anger over being demoted from the art table at the Chesters’ fund-raising fair to the less desirable flower table. Mrs. Chester, her daughter May, and May’s friends are swayed by jealousy (Amy attracts a lot of male attention and is talented, to boot), damaged pride (Jo has made fun of May while paying calls with Amy prior to the fair), and an underlying sense of class superiority.

Amy behaves well, conciliating the Chesters and making a success of her table with the help of Laurie and his friends. She learns that pushing back her inner feelings and impulses and conforming in some measure to expectations—which she genuinely acknowledges as necessary guides—will be rewarded by a trip to Europe with Aunt Carrol. She is aware of the connection between her actions and their outcome, and matter-of-factly embraces the consequences as her due, despite Jo’s disappointment at having been passed over for the trip.   From Amy’s perspective, virtue may be its own reward, but there’s nothing wrong with the personal benefits that may follow from it.

Working some years ago on an exhibition showcasing May Alcott as an artist, I explored Louisa May Alcott’s ambivalence about her youngest sister’s natural ability to get what she wanted from life. May’s inborn talent for fulfilling her aspirations by making others like her and securing their assistance by accommodating to accepted paradigms of womanly behavior ran counter to Louisa’s independence and drive for success entirely on her own terms. Louisa worked like a demon and often felt as if she were swimming upstream, while things seemed to come easier for May. That May was able to get what she wanted without the struggle and self-doubt that plagued her older sister did not escape Louisa’s notice, and seemed unfair. “Consequences” highlights Louisa May Alcott’s consciousness, learned first-hand, of the complicated relationship between self-fulfillment and the ability to push ourselves back and make compromises.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each balance the relative importance of external models of behavior and the voice within in their own way, as did Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May Alcott. However differently Louisa may have seen herself from her sister May in negotiating this balance, the two sisters were actually more similar than not. Both held self-expression as the primary objective.

Leslie Perrin Wilson is Curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library and a writer on local literary and historical topics.  Louisa May Alcott and her family have formed a major emphasis in collection development and interpretation at the library since the start of Leslie’s tenure in 1996, and a focus of significant scholarly attention, as well.  Leslie plans to retire at the end of July 2019.

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1877 portrait of May Alcott by Rose Peckham.

                                                    

XXIX. Calls

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. 

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Image by Frank Merrill (1880)

Chapter XXVIII. Domestic Experiences

By Elise Barker

In “Domestic Experiences,” Alcott assures us, “Meg began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper,” attempting numerous household experiments in her idyllic “Dove-cote.” The domestic experience that stays with me, even after years have passed between readings, is when Meg’s jelly wouldn’t jell–which is why I always refused to try to make my own preserves. I’ve learned to bake my own bread, sew my own clothing, and garden my own produce, but preserves? No. If Meg couldn’t do it, how could I?

For the 150th anniversary of Little Women, I decided to try. First I attempted to acquire currants (the fruit from Meg’s garden), but none could be had in Idaho in the middle of October. So, I bought eight pounds of persimmons, all the while imagining “nice little jars [that] would look so well on the top shelf.” The persimmons sat on my countertop until after I submitted my students’ final grades, did the laundry, wrapped some Christmas gifts, and slept a solid ten hours.

When I finally pulled the first persimmon out of the bowl, the top popped off, revealing a wriggling maggot. The persimmons had dissolved into sludge.

Determined not to fail, the next day I decided to make simple apple butter, having done it before. The apple butter itself was easy. But I stared down the barrel of the canning task, trembling.

As I prepared to submerge my jars into boiling water, my husband, Chris, stopped me. “Are you sure you are supposed to screw those lids on?” he asked. “I thought the hot air needed to escape, to make a vacuum.”

Chris is an engineer, so I doubted myself, despite having examined the instructions carefully. “Ok, I’ll loosen the lids,” I said, ready to finish this project so long held in expectation.

When I checked the jars, apple butter had seeped from the lids. Close to tears, I pictured “Mrs. Brooke, with her apron over her head, sobbing dismally.”

Chris came and looked over my shoulder. “Hmm… I guess I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

At first, all I noticed was his flippancy. Then I remembered that although the jelly that never jelled caused Meg and John’s first major marital dispute, it also helped them learn to forgive one another by overcoming their childish pride. Thinking of this, I noticed Chris’s quick apology. I was able to shake my mounting anger.

“It’s ok. I can try again tomorrow.”

“Why do you want to do this so badly?” he asked.

“To understand Meg a little better. To understand Alcott better. We’ll see tomorrow. For now, I need to get out of the kitchen.”

“Domestic Experiences” is one of three chapters that show Amy, Jo, and Meg’s progress within their respective callings to art, literature, and domesticity. Growing up in a feminist household, I couldn’t understand why Meg’s domestic ambitions would be elevated to the same level as Amy’s art and Jo’s literature, never mind that my own mother was a model stay-at-home mom by calling. Now a wife and mother myself, struggling to create a cozy and enriching home for my family while also trying to build a career outside the home, I see this chapter as an artistic choice on Alcott’s part, not just lip-service to the expectations of Victorian womanhood.

The next day, as I checked the tight seals on my nice little jars, I smiled. The challenges of 1868 often seem remote from the realities of today, but my experiment proved the continued relevance of Little Women. The chapter on Meg’s calling to domesticity asserts that marriage is indeed an art form every bit as difficult as Jo and Amy’s. It requires practice, failure, humility, and creativity.

Elise Barker is an Adjunct Instructor of English at Idaho State University. She is currently planning the third year of an intensive hands-on Hogwarts Summer Camp of Witchcraft and Wizardry for kids ages eleven to seventeen. This January, her children are featured on the cover of IDAHO Magazine for an article she wrote titled, “Just Breathe: Zen and the Art of Hiking with Kids.” She hosts a blog, Taking My Own Freshman Composition Class, about her experiences writing all assignments alongside her composition students: 

https://takingmyownfreshmancompositionclass.wordpress.com/

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