Chapter XXVI. Artistic Attempts

By Chris Fahy

Take Two

Alcott’s essentially comic examination of Amy’s artistic apprenticeship, a mania replete with examples of singed wood, a foot embedded in plaster, and distorted human forms, is consistent with her depiction of fledgling female artists in the short story “Psyche’s Art.” Here the love of art is depicted as a form of communicable disease: its victims “besieged potteries for clay, drove Italian plaster-workers out of their wits with unexecutable orders, got neuralgia and rheumatism sketching perched on fences and trees like artistic hens” (“Psyche” 207). There can be something absurd about a woman desiring to be a genius, who mistakes “enthusiasm for inspiration” (LW 328). Such mockery is not extended to the male Laurie who unrealistically desires to be a composer only to find he has limited talent.

For all her satire, Alcott affirms that Amy does possess talent: her pen and ink drawings show “taste and skill (328); her crayon sketches were “wonderfully fine” (331). Through trial and error she may even come to possess a type of feminine genius. To be sure, Amy renounces her ambition in despair when she views (male) artistic mastery in Rome. But her rendering of her frail daughter at the end of Little Women is her best work, inspired by love not some powerful, impersonal afflatus. Here again she resembles the eponymous heroine of “Psyche’s Art”—in dedicating herself to unselfish household duties Psyche makes possible the affection that will guide her hand to create a perfect likeness of her deceased sister. So, too, this resembles the end of Diana and Persis when Persis renounces the inspired state that led her to create the painting of the lark ascending [listen to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Lark Ascending” to get a sense for the spirit of this painting] for the more personal, domestic stance that will lead to a rendering of her infant child as Cupid.

Alcott respects Amy’s perseverance. She quotes Michelangelo’s dictum that “genius is eternal patience” (LW 331) to characterize Amy’s stance. As this is also quoted in “Psyche’s Art” it appears that the saying was an important one for Alcott. It may well summarize her feelings toward her own work.

Having said that, the question of genius is a fraught one. The inspiration for Amy, Psyche, and Persis was Alcott’s sister May. But May achieved her greatest recognition as a copyist of Turner. In the character of Hilda in The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the copyist as a person who renounced her own (limited) genius to become a handmaiden for the Old Masters. She is inspired not by a female muse but by the spirits of the male painters. May Alcott certainly does not go to the extreme of Hilda but it is clear, through the person of Amy, that she ceases to compete with the Old Masters. Instead her inspiration will be the heart rather than a towering imagination.

A powerful imagination is seen in the male sculptors Paul Gage of “Psyche’s Art” and Stafford in Diana and Persis. The eponymous female sculptor Diana also achieves power in her work. It is not the sole domain of men, but it comes with a chill, because its force is achieved at the cost of her personal relationships. The sculpture of Puck, co-created with Stafford as a tribute to his son, is seen as a more appropriate feminine expression of genius.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson. W.W. Norton, 2016.

—. “Psyche’s Art.” Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter. Rutgers UP, 1988, pp. 207-226.

Chris Fahy is a Senior Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies where he teaches a two-semester sequence on literature and art from the ancient Greeks to the present time.


Image by Ashley Yazdani, who, according to blogger Rachel Smith, “is one of the few people who has ever painted Amy with any sensitivity…” Read more at



Chapter XXVI. Artistic Attempts

By Marian Lipschutz

Take One

Chapter 26 of Little Women directs our attention to art of the highest order: “It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius…” Alcott then lowers her tone, making Amy, youngest of the March sisters, the learner in question. Most of Amy’s varied artistic attempts are shown to be ludicrous trials, her plan to entertain friends from her painting class an unmitigated disaster, in which Amy is let down by her family and friends, Hannah, the weather, and a scarcity of local lobsters.

Why does Alcott belittle Amy in such hyperbolic terms? My immediate answer is sibling rivalry. Although Marmee seemed to succeed in persuading Jo to abandon her anger at Amy for throwing her precious book into the fire earlier in the novel, what we have here is Jo’s gleeful revenge, almost as though Jo, not Alcott, were writing the chapter. Although Jo rushes to break up the plaster which has hardened too quickly around Amy’s foot in a sculpture experiment, she is laughing so hard she cuts the poor foot in the process, leaving a lasting scar. Moreover, Jo’s preoccupation with the tragic ending of a work in progress of her own, and her instinctive disapproval of Amy’s luncheon altogether, make it impossible for her to help wholeheartedly; indeed, Jo’s clumsiness becomes an impediment. Jo and Amy may at bottom be loving sisters, but they are also rival artists.

A deeper answer suggests that the attempt of any American woman to be an artist is ridiculous. Jo often demeans her writing, calling it scribbling or rubbish, her overworked novel “a ruin.” Jo and Amy have “fits,” attacks of creativity to be endured, to be got over by the artists themselves and others within range. Amy’s models are European men. Her determined vision, itself a work of art in its scrupulous attention to detail, of a sophisticated afternoon of eating, exchanging ideas, and plein air painting becomes a family amusement for the ages: the time Amy spilled salad dressing on her best dress and got caught with a vulgar lobster by a young man of breeding. Alcott’s anger and fear that women can’t write or paint rumble below the surface.

While Amy goes underground, laughs with her sisters, and calls herself a fool, Chapter 26 looks forward to the novel’s end where she sketches in the midst of a family reunion, declaring her steadfast ambition to be an artist, whose best effort is a recent sculpture of her sickly baby daughter. Amy has every perk: a wealthy musician husband, who admires and supports her work, youth, patience, leisure, a willingness to make use of her own and her child’s body. She is the most modern of the four sisters, traveling further than the others, a networker who cultivates fellow artists, cadges painting supplies from wealthier girls without giving up her decorous identity. Amy is the shaper of her own world. Her drive to express herself comes from within, unrelated to helping her family or a paycheck. And yet I have never been able to forgive her for the calculated cruelty behind the burning of Jo’s book, for taking Jo’s dream of Europe as her due, nor Marmee for imagining her daughters as wives and mothers rather than developing artists, learners of humility and self- sacrifice on their way to the Celestial City.

The March sisters and their mother are so real they seem to us autonomous. We judge their behavior, unable perhaps to resolve conflicts among them, but passionately allowing one or another a permanent place in our hearts. It is Alcott’s genius that burns.

Marian Shaw Lipschutz, the author of the novel Land of Hunchbacks, served for decades as a teacher in and around Los Angeles. For more of her perspectives on Little Women and other topics, visit

FM.Amy in Plaster

Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880).

Chapter XXV. The First Wedding

By Elizabeth Schroll

As a recent bride, I am familiar with the numerous preparations involved in planning the day Alcott describes as “the sweetest chapter in the romance of womanhood,” not to mention the many emotions this major life change elicits for the happy couple and their loved ones. However, I found the prospect of examining the chapter devoted to Meg’s wedding day daunting. With her love of frills and the boring (to my younger self) John Brooke, Meg never interested me. I have more of a Beth personality—shy but passionate about family and cats—with (I hope) a dash of Jo’s flair and (I pretend) Amy’s elegance. Rereading Alcott’s novel gave me new perspective on Meg. She still isn’t my favorite, but she deserves her fair share of attention. Judging by the narrator’s approving descriptions, I’m not alone in this assessment.

When readers are introduced to Meg, she is complaining about being “poor.” This impression is colored by the narrator’s explanation that Meg is “rather vain” about her pretty hands (ch. 1) but that “in spite of her small vanities, Margaret had a sweet and pious nature” (ch. 2). As the narrative unfolds, we see Meg moving beyond her little vanities and learning life lessons essential to a successful marriage—putting others before self, working toward common goals, and valuing what truly matters, to name a few.

When Meg and Jo attend a New Year’s Eve party, Meg unwisely wears shoes that are lovely but too small. The narrator notes this vanity and judges Meg for it: “Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it . . . which was not exactly comfortable; but, dear me, let us be elegant or die!” (ch. 3). Lovingly scolding Meg for letting vanity trump prudence, the narrator also reveals that enjoying life depends on your state of mind rather than your bank account. Meg is not destined to a life devoid of fun, if she can learn to be content with what she has.

Spending two weeks with her rich friend Annie Moffat is a litmus test of Meg’s character. Ironically, the empty feeling this experience gives Meg makes her more content with her life, splendid though it is not. She learns, too, that dressing up as someone she isn’t does no one any favors, least of all herself.

When asked to describe her dearest castle in the air, Meg identifies the wealthy lifestyle she viewed at Annie Moffat’s: “a lovely house” with “luxurious things” and “plenty of servants” (ch. 13). By the time John offers Meg a much different vision of happiness—a small home filled with love and the happiness borne of earning a living—Meg has changed her tune. When their wedding day dawns, Meg has learned to value this life so unlike her youthful daydreams. That the narrator approves is evident in her description of Meg: “all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty.” Rather than wearing shoes that are too small or a dress that doesn’t suit her, Meg declares: “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.” Furthermore, she is “too happy to care what anyone says or thinks” about her wedding decisions. Oho! Is this the same Meg who once loved finery and cared so much for others’ opinions that she’d risk spraining an ankle to achieve approbation?

If so, she deserves credit. Having just planned a wedding, I am well aware of the expectations placed on the bride to do things a certain way on that special day, and I admire those who ignore such expectations (well-intentioned as they may have been) to honor their own values. The narrator reveals similar pride in Meg’s wedding decisions: she describes guests as “enjoying the sunshine without and within” and admits, “It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, ‘The first kiss for Marmee!’ and, turning, gave it with her heart on her lips.” Rather than conforming to societal pressures, Meg manages to do what feels natural on her wedding day, honoring those she loves and demonstrating that her hard-won lessons about happiness were more fulfilling than the fleeting niceties she’d once aspired to attain.

Elizabeth Schroll has an M.A. in English from Kansas State University. She resides in Colorado with her husband—and soon, much to her excitement, a cat—and copy-edits books for NavPress. When she isn’t working, Elizabeth can usually be found reading, singing, hiking, or engaged in sundry other activities that involve experiencing the beautiful Colorado sunshine and scenery firsthand.


Still from Little Women (1994), directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Chapter XXIV. Gossip

By Elaine Showalter

Chapter 24, “Gossip,” is the first chapter of a sequel that Alcott didn’t intend to write. After the huge success of Little Women, Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles asked her to go on with the story. She grumbled in her journal, “Girls write to ask who the little women will marry, as if that was the only end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” (167). But on November 1 she buckled down to write a chapter a day, and Part II came out in April 1869. In the U.S., the two parts were combined in 1881 into a single volume, but in Great Britain, Part II was published separately under titles Alcott would not have liked, including Little Women Wedded (Sampson Low, 1872), Little Women Married (Sampson Low, 1873), Nice Wives (Weldon & Co., 1875), and finally, Good Wives (Nisbet, 1895).

Part II begins in June 1865, after the end of the Civil War, and the day before Meg’s wedding to John Brooke. Alcott has to bring readers up to date “with a little gossip about the Marches,” implying that the anonymous omniscient narrator is a woman. But while Chapter 1 begins with Jo grumbling, Chapter 24 begins with five and half pages of sentimental, pious, and didactic narrative. Mr. March is back home, and the narrator devotes three paragraphs to praising him as the sage in the study, “the head of the family,” and the “household conscience, anchor, and comforter.”

Has patriarchy returned to tame and repress the spirited March women? Marmee is planning Meg’s wedding. John Brooke, “manfully” wounded in the war, has turned down generous offers of good jobs from rich Mr. Lawrence, and insists on taking up the humble office of “under book-keeper,” and earning an “honest well-earned salary.” Meg is preparing to be to become his humble, womanly wife, and their marital home, the Dovecote, is described in Dickensian diminutives: tiny, little, small, narrow, cosy; indeed a “baby-house,” not just a nursery to come, but a doll’s house. At this point, the narrator seems to be making the March women ominously small. But Alcott’s humor breaks through, thankfully, when she describes the would-be fountain Meg dreams of having represented in the present “by a weather-beaten urn, very like a dilapidated slop-bowl.”

It’s a relief when Laurie, nicknamed “Toodles” by Jo, for a character in a popular play who loves to shop at auction, gets back from college laden with ridiculous wedding gifts. His argument with Jo about his clothes and behavior breaks the preachy narrative tone and re-opens the question of whether Jo will marry, and if so, whether she will marry him. In the last sentence, Laurie whistles, and ominously predicts, “Mark my words, Jo, you’ll go next.” That’s a cliff-hanger, but Laurie is always the last one to figure Jo out.

Work Cited

The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, U of Georgia P, 1997.

Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University. She is the editor of Alternative Alcott (1988), and the Library of America edition of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

WeddedGood Wives.Purple


XXIII. Aunt March Settles the Question

By Elizabeth Lennox Keyser

Like Dee Anne Anderson, who blogged about the “Vanity Fair” chapter, I as a pre-teen identified with Meg, not Jo. As the eldest of three sisters I saw myself, like Meg, as the “grown-up in the room,” above the squabbles of my younger siblings. And, growing up in the 1950s, I could not envision for myself a career other than marriage and motherhood. Thus the “Vanity Fair” chapter, this one, and, in Part II, “Domestic Experiences” were among my favorites. Even Meg’s later discovery that “marriage is very trying” (part II, chapter iv) did nothing to dissuade me from constructing a “castle in the air” similar to hers.

In my teens I “graduated” from Alcott to Austen, from Little Women to Pride and Prejudice, another novel about a family of daughters. And on reading chapter 23 this time I made a fresh connection between Alcott and Austen. Although Meg has just assured Jo that she will reject John Brooke’s proposal with dignity, she is on the verge of succumbing until she detects that, despite his “beseeching” tone, he is sure of his success. While Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (the possessor, like John, of a pair of fine dark eyes) has other reasons for rejecting Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, his complacency offends her: “she could see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer” (II, xi). Thus both Meg and Elizabeth shock their suitors by initially refusing them. Months elapse before Darcy tries again as opposed to moments in John’s case, but both are encouraged to renew their suits by the interference of aunts—in John’s case Aunt March, who feels Meg will be marrying beneath herself, and in Darcy’s his own aunt, Lady Catherine, who believes Darcy will. Both aunts threaten the girls: Aunt March threatens to disinherit Meg and predicts she will be miserable living in a cottage; Lady Catherine threatens that Darcy’s aristocratic family will shun Elizabeth. Both young women respond indignantly, refusing to promise not to enter into an engagement and asserting that the prohibited marriage would be a happy one despite any loss of economic or social standing. As a result Darcy a few days later renews his suit, admitting that his aunt’s unsuccessful interference “taught him to hope” (III, xvi). John, who overhears Meg defend him to Aunt March, proposes again immediately.

Austen wrote no sequels to Pride and Prejudice, leaving that task to innumerable modern authors, but Alcott at the end of Part I suggests that she might raise the curtain on a second act of Little Women. And in this second act Aunt March settles more questions. Her preference for the amenable Amy as opposed to the intractable Jo helps persuade Aunt Carrol to take Amy, not Jo, abroad, thus enabling the eventual courtships of Laurie and Professor Bhaer. And of course her willing of Plumfield to Jo enables the Bhaers to found their school, the site of two further sequels.

The final scene in Part I diverges from the group scenes so often depicted by illustrators of Little Women. Instead of the sisters gathered around Marmee or Beth at the piano, the characters appear in pairs: Marmee and Mr. March, Beth and old Mr. Laurence, Meg and John, Jo and Laurie. Only Amy is alone, “drawing the lovers.” Interestingly, Part II ends fifteen years later with the familiar, much loved tableau featuring Marmee and her daughters, each of whom has realized or improved upon her castle in the air.

Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, professor emerita of Hollins University, is the author of Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott (1993), Little Women: A Family Romance (1999), and the editor of The Portable Louisa May Alcott (2000).


Illustration by Louis Jambor (1947).

XXII. Pleasant Meadows

By Wendy Matlock

Growing up a bookworm and a reprobate, I loved Little Women despite its morality. I wanted to be Jo with her shorn hair, literary ambitions, and adventurous spirit, and I skipped over all allusions to the girls’ Christmas gifts from Marmee, personalized, color-coded copies of “that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived” (ch. 2). My dislike for didacticism may have led me to become a medievalist, because I relish Geoffrey Chaucer’s play with sentence (moral seriousness) and solaas (entertainment) in the Canterbury Tales. The Nun’s Priest, for example, tells a beast fable starring the handsome rooster Chauntecleer. The tale concludes with four different morals: one for the cock, one for the fox antagonist, one for readers, and one for the organizer of the storytelling competition. Imagine my surprise rereading Little Women as an adult and recognizing Alcott’s equally complex handling of sentence and solaas. Indeed, in volume 1, chapters 6-9, Alcott derives four different lessons for four vividly realized characters from a single allegorical narrative, the story of Christian from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Allegorical narratives, it turns out despite my youthful disdain, can be quite sophisticated. Margaret Atwood highlights their complexity when she connects Pilgrim’s Progress to speculative fiction as stories that “can speak of what is past and passing, but especially of what’s to come” (“The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context,” PMLA 119.3, 515). Little Women does more than just allude to Bunyan’s work. Alcott uses it to structure the first volume. Marmee’s night-before-Christmas plan in Chapter 1 invites her daughters to recreate their childish playacting of Pilgrim’s Progress, “not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home.” That arc culminates in Chapter 22, “Pleasant Meadows.” Jo even reminds us of its perfect symmetry, asking, “Just a year ago we were groaning over the dismal Christmas we expected to have. Do you remember?” The chapter welcomes home Mr. March and recounts his assessment of the girls’ journeys so far: he praises Meg’s industriousness, Jo’s gentleness, Beth’s increasing outgoingness, and Amy’s generosity, the very qualities they strove for during their earnest peregrinations.

We see in “Pleasant Meadows” how thoroughly Alcott incorporates the art of allegory, which, Augustine of Hippo explains, “causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses” (On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr., 43). In other words, allegory requires a deep grounding in the literal to invite readers into symbolic interpretations. Chapter 22 begins in sensory detail—the snowman and Beth’s gifts, the pratfalls that greet Mr. March—and ends with symbolism and song, Beth’s performance of her original piano accompaniment to a hymn from Pilgrim’s Progress:

Fulness to them a burden is,

     That go on Pilgrimage;

Here little, and hereafter bliss,

     Is best from age to age.

“Here” in this song, this moment, this chapter, the reunited family enjoys a little bliss, but too much pleasure becomes a burden. Anne Phillips explicates Beth’s “most serious sin” as “her failure to love God more than she loves her family” (“The Prophets and the Martyrs: Pilgrims and Missionaries in Little Women and Jack and Jill,” Little Women and the Feminist Imagination, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, 224). Her music at the end of “Pleasant Meadows” acknowledges Beth’s struggle and embeds us in it. We appreciate the solaas of the domestic story but risk ignoring the sentence it contains. “Pleasant Meadows” enfolds us in the family’s warm embrace even as it acknowledges the moment’s transience (whether caused by an excess of love for the world or not). The final chapter in the volume, “Aunt March Settles the Question,” sets in motion the household’s dissolution. This penultimate chapter pauses that inevitability, gazing instead into a speculative future, “hereafter bliss.”

Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University, Wendy Matlock teaches medieval literature and specializes in using old pop culture to sell even older pop culture.


Illustration by LalaAdanwenB, who writes, “Beth is my favourite March sister and one of my most important heroines, I identify so much with her… I tried drawing her lost in her own world here” (

Chapter XXI. Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace

By Jan Alberghene

I was nine when I first read Little Women, but I still remember pausing over Hannah’s calling Laurie the “‘interferingest chap,’” not because I disagreed with her opinion, but because it took me a few minutes to decode the unfamiliar word “interferingest.” I had to agree with Hannah. Laurie popped up in places where he had no business being: at a meeting of the Pickwick Club (where Jo was, to be fair, a co-conspirator), and later when the sisters climbed a nearby hill on a pleasant afternoon to “play pilgrims” in private as they sewed and talked. “Yes,” I thought, “Laurie was the ‘interferingest,’” and I hadn’t even reached the chapter titled “Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace.”

After I finished reading chapter 21, the Laurie I liked no longer existed. Although Laurie is barely sixteen, he feels superior to his tutor Mr. Brooke, a good and conscientious man eleven years his senior. Laurie actually feels entitled to the role of confidant regarding Brooke’s feelings toward Meg March. Peeved that Brooke firmly shuts him out, Laurie seizes the opportunity to take revenge when his tutor is out of town. Posing as Mr. Brooke, Laurie sends and rescinds love letters to Meg March.

Six decades and many re-readings later, I still enjoy reading Little Women. What has changed is the depth of my admiration for the novel, which has steadily increased, despite—or perhaps largely due—to my ever-diminishing regard for Theodore, a.k.a. “Laurie” and “Teddy,” Laurence. He doesn’t age well in terms of his becoming more mature during the year that passes in Part I of Little Women. Neither has he aged well outside the novel, in the 150 years since its initial publication.

I write this conscious of the critical misinterpretations that can result from reading a novel in isolation from the milieu in which it was written. I’m even more conscious of the mistakes that can arise from interpreting a chapter in isolation from the rest of the novel’s text. Interpreting Laurie’s “mischief” in chapter 21 as egregiously callous is only reinforced, however, by close reading of the chapters that precede his “mischief.” And it isn’t ahistorical to assume that a contemporary seventeen-year-old young woman would feel pain and mortification akin to what Meg experiences.

Laurie’s comportment in chapter 21 is particularly striking because intrusive behavior aside, he’s a good friend to all the March women and downright heroic when he saves Amy from drowning (ch. 8). Laurie’s a complex character, no mere foil, a constant presence reminding readers just who holds power in 19th century America: men, all men, especially rich men.

The space devoted to Meg, Marmee, and Jo in chapter 21 can obscure the fact that Laurie’s “mischief” is directed toward his tutor, a poor man who has to earn his living by teaching a rich entitled brat who charms gentlewomen but throws tantrums at other men, his tutor and his grandfather. Laurie isn’t trying to hurt Meg, but he does something far worse: ignore her very existence in his plot to show Mr. Brooke who is boss. Meg is just collateral damage in a skirmish fought by a boy against a man who is not even aware this particular war is on.

The three women participate in the cover-up of Laurie’s emotional violence. Jo quickly realizes that Laurie, not his tutor, wrote the notes attributed to Brooke and has violated Meg’s privacy by reading and keeping his replies. Jo and Marmee quickly turn their attention to damage control.

Marmee spends a half hour with Laurie that ensures the incident is contained; Meg must not suffer further embarrassment by Laurie’s telling anyone what he did. Jo smooths over Mr. Laurence’s anger at Laurie’s consequent refusal to confess. Most tellingly, Jo also calms Laurie’s outrage at being shaken by his grandfather. The very mild physical reprimand isn’t what angers Laurie. His fury stems from a man’s (regardless of who and how old the man) shaking him. No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”

Jan Alberghene is Professor Emerita of English Studies at Fitchburg State University and the co-editor, with Beverly Lyon Clark, of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999).


Christian Bale as Laurie, Little Women (1994).