Chapter XLIII. Surprises

Take One

By Mary Lamb Shelden

The chapter “Surprises” should be understood as a turning point in Little Women, for it begins with Jo as “a literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse,” and closes with Jo and Professor Bhaer singing to one another as “my beloved,” for all to hear. It bears some thinking through how Alcott gets from one point to the other.

In paragraphs 3-4 of the chapter, we receive what the narrator refers to self-effacingly as a “little homily” on spinsterhood – two stout paragraphs that strike me as Alcott’s bargain with her readers: for you, I have done my best to imagine Jo happily married to a man; as compensation, you must learn to understand and treat spinsters like me with respect. While our narrator acknowledges that “many silent sacrifices” may be “hidden away in the hearts” of some spinsters, still spinsterhood is “not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in oneself to fall back on.” To be sure, Alcott had that something in herself, and this should help us to consider what she’s doing here.

I so appreciate that in Roberta Trites’s exploration of Jo’s sexuality as important to our understanding of her romantic choices, she acknowledges that Alcott’s sense of her own identity may ultimately have been “influenced by the sexologists’ notion of inversion” (36). It’s important to understand, also, that Havelock Ellis’s idea of inversion did not encompass sexuality merely, but rather understood sexual attraction to be bound up with what we would now call gender identity – and that it’s possible Ellis himself could well have been influenced by Little Women and its internationally popular protagonist. This understanding helps us see differently Alcott’s assertion that she “went and made a funny match” for Jo “out of perversity” (125). So long as we are trying on ahistorical categories for Jo, we should consider her as a transgender man. Indeed, much of the textual evidence offered by critics for Jo’s lesbian identity is actually about her gender non-conformity, which Jo wrestles with on nearly every page of the novel where we find her name. What if, in imagining a mate for Jo (and by extension, for herself), Alcott tried to imagine into being the man she yearned to become? Strong and free, paddling his own canoe – caring and working for his family, but by finding his way in the world, rather than stuck at home. Free to proceed as his heart directs, Bhaer chooses an independent woman – an authoress he calls “professorin,” who will carry her share and help him to earn the home (ch 46) – and takes her mind and talent seriously, helping her indirectly (with Marmee’s more direct urging) to find her own way to the better writing that will bring him to her. And once his heart has chosen Jo, Bhaer works and waits for Jo to know her own heart and choose him, too. If Jo – if Alcott herself – could have transitioned to become the man she yearned to be, he would have made a fine mate for the woman she was constrained to be. Though she acquiesced to marrying Jo to a man, perhaps Alcott’s transcendent resolution, conscious or not, was that she would marry Jo to herself – that is, to a male version of herself – thus in a way staying true to Alcott’s own life as a spinster into the bargain.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeline Stern. Little Brown, 1987.

Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd, U of Michigan P, 2011, pp. 33-58.

Dr. Mary Lamb Shelden (she/her) is Director of Lifespan Religious Education at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, where one of the big meeting rooms for lifespan learners is named for Unitarian Louisa May Alcott. Her 2003 dissertation, “Novel Habits for a New World,” considers cross-dressing as a literary device in American novels throughout the Nineteenth Century and finds Alcott’s Jo March to be the first example of a “true transgender” character – for example, more comfortable in the clothes associated with the “opposite” sex than in those associated with what others understand to be “her own” sex.

jo and bhaer PBS
Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer, from Little Women (BBC, 2017)
Advertisements

Chapter XLII. All Alone

By Karyn Valerius

Despite its autobiographical roots, Jo’s story diverges from Alcott’s by the end of Little Women. Alcott embraced her literary vocation as a welcome alternative to marriage for herself, but she conceded to pressure from her publisher and readers to “marry off” the surviving March sisters in Book 2 “as if that were the only end and aim of a woman’s life” (Letters 122, Journal 167). Alcott registered her discontent with this turn of events by denying readers the match they desired between Laurie and Jo, and more subtly, by sowing doubt about Jo’s motives for reconsidering marriage as an acceptable option in Chapter 42, “All Alone.”

The chapter opens with a description of Jo’s distress after Beth’s death. Overwhelmed by grief and loneliness, Jo cannot imagine a tolerable future for herself: “for something like despair came over her when she thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and the duty that never seemed to grow any easier.” Jo finds solace in her parents’ sympathy and wise advice, in Meg’s good company, and in cheerfully performing Beth’s household chores. She reimagines her promise to devote herself to her parents in Beth’s absence as a “splendid” and difficult achievement worthy of her effort. At Marmee’s suggestion, Jo also immerses herself in her writing, achieving literary success precisely when she wasn’t seeking fame and fortune. The renewed sense of purpose Jo discovers in her family and professional ambitions suggests one satisfying resolution to her crisis.

And yet, the chapter closes with Jo crying in the garret and wistfully thinking about Professor Bhaer. The example of Meg’s contentment with her husband and children makes Jo susceptible to the idea that “[m]arriage is an excellent thing, after all,” and news of Amy and Laurie’s engagement stirs Jo’s “natural craving for affection.” In a frank conversation with Marmee, Jo generously refuses to be jealous of Amy’s happiness, and she affirms that it would be wrong to marry Laurie herself both because she does not love him and because they are temperamentally incompatible. However, Jo admits that if Laurie had proposed to her a second time, she might have consented out of loneliness. This conversation reveals Jo’s vulnerability. Given the “hungry look” Marmee observes in Jo’s eyes, her wish to see Professor Bhaer again seems suspect since, like Laurie, Bhaer is more friend than lover. The chapter ends ambiguously with a series of questions about Jo’s feelings for Bhaer: “Was it all self-pity, loneliness, or low spirits? or was it the waking up of a sentiment which had bided its time as patiently as its inspirer? Who shall say?”

Karyn Valerius is associate professor of English and director of the Disability Studies Program at Hofstra University. Her chapter “’Is the young lady mad?’: Psychiatric Disability in Louisa May Alcott’s Fiction” appears in the volume Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) edited by Elizabeth J. Donaldson.

Merrill.All Alone

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).

Chapter XL. The Valley of the Shadow

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.

Work Cited

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.

 

Merrill_Valleyoftheshadow.jpg
Frank Merrill, illustration from Little Women (1880)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXIX. Lazy Laurence

By Beverly Lyon Clark

“Valrosa! The romance of romances in our girlhood’s literature,” exclaims Anna Steese Richardson in the Woman’s Home Companion in June 1912 (qtd. in Clark 219n91). She is responding to what would become the first Broadway production of Little Women, noting that upon hearing the word Valrosa, “every woman and girl in the audience sits up in startled interest.” When Alcott was in Nice on the French Riviera in 1866, she’d visited Valrosa (or Valrose) and called it “a lovely villa buried in roses” (Journals 150). In the romantic, rose-bowered Chapter 39, we’re told that “roses blossomed everywhere,” in “every shady nook,” near “every cool grotto” and “every fountain.” Here in this “honey-moon Paradise,” as Amy calls it, Laurie lounges and Amy sketches, and she scolds him for his indolence.

Why is this chapter memorable for many readers, perhaps especially for early-twentieth-century women? (It wasn’t for me.) Maybe Valrosa resonates particularly for those who celebrate romance and sentiment in the book? Certainly Amy and Laurie engage in banter that, while bracing, verges on the romantic; she also tucks small roses in his buttonhole, and he sticks daisies in the ribbons of her hat. And she tells Laurie that her “talent isn’t genius,” so the chapter likewise marks an end to a strand of independent female ambition. But Amy still lauds hard work, even if the kind of work that she here pursues—sketching—can also be simply a decorative pastime for proper young ladies. Amy herself talks of channeling her art by becoming “an ornament to society.”

One sign of the chapter’s resonance is that at least seventeen illustrators have depicted Amy and/or Laurie at Valrosa, from Hammatt Billings in 1869 to Shreya Gupta in 2018. Artists’ preferences for illustrating Valrosa over the later Vevey suggests a predilection for the visually romantic over (spoiler alert!) the more mundane eventual proposal. Certainly the Valrosa illustrations generally give prominence to romance, yet they often hint at Amy’s independence as well. Whether Amy is portrayed as scold or artist—usually the latter—she has a measure of power over Laurie. Occasionally he dominates in the images, maybe towering over a seated Amy or seemingly putting her on display, as if she too is a spray of roses. Yet often she’s seated and he’s lounging on the ground, and thus she has visual dominance by being higher on the page—especially in the images that imitate Billings’ or else Jessie Willcox Smith’s (1915) renditions. In one intriguing Valrosa illustration, Reisie Lonette (1950) may dress Amy in frills and furbelows but she omits the ambience of romantic roses, except for a token in the bonnet, and fully subordinates Laurie by making him visible only in Amy’s sketch. Amy subjects Laurie to her gaze and her pencil. The chapter is not just romantic.

But let me give the last word to Holly Blackford. In The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature (2011), she notes that a modification of a passage from Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase appears in this chapter to underscore not a woman’s sexual awakening as in the sensation story but a mutual awakening of romantic possibilities. The echoes of the erotic point to the dangers of art and the ways in which Amy has fashioned herself as an object of the artistic gaze. Blackford emphasizes Amy’s self-fashioning; Europe provides “a sensationalist backdrop for the exotic creation of Amy Laurence” (105).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, assoc. ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Little Brown, 1989.

Blackford, Holly. The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature. Routledge, 2011.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. The Afterlife of Little Women. Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.

Beverly Lyon Clark teaches English and Women’s & Gender Studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She is the author of The Afterlife of “Little Women,” the editor of Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews, and the coeditor of “Little Women” and the Feminist Imagination.

Billings.png
Hammatt Billings, 1869.
Smith
Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915.
Lonette.Amy.Lazy.J
Reisie Lonette, 1950
file-37
Albert de Mee Jousset, 1950.
English
Mark English, 1967.

 

Chapter XXXVIII. On the Shelf

By Christine Doyle

In Chapter 38, Alcott returns to Meg’s story after a ten-chapter hiatus. The last time we saw Meg, she had survived a difficult adjustment to being a poor man’s wife and had just given birth to twins Daisy and Demi. Three immediately preceding hyper-dramatic chapters (Jo refusing Laurie, Beth acknowledging her impending death, Laurie and Amy reuniting) provide extra emphasis to Meg’s exhaustion and despondency after a year of being overwhelmed with child care. After an astute cultural observation about how European women are less free while single but more so once they marry, while for American women it is just the opposite, the chapter turns to Meg’s feelings of seclusion and separation from all but the most mundane affairs of house and baby care. Husband John, meanwhile, feels ignored and starts spending more and more time away from home with his good friends the Scotts, who are childless.

This chapter about boredom is striking to me for several reasons. First, when I re-read Little Women for the first time in many years as a 35-year-old graduate student, I had no memory of its being part of the novel. I even pulled out my childhood copy (a gift when I was 12) to see if perhaps mine was an abridged version, or maybe only Part I. It wasn’t. The chapter was always there; I just hadn’t noticed it. I also wondered: how did the unmarried Louisa know about the profound changes to a marriage that children engender? Of course, a writer needn’t personally experience everything she writes about, and her sister Anna did have two children close in age. Still, what remarkable insights!

What is most remarkable to me, though, is Marmee’s advice in this chapter. (In the earlier chapter, Meg was able to figure things out and patch up her relationship with John by just remembering things Marmee had told her; this time Marmee actually gets involved.) Marmee observes, “This is just the time. . . when young married people are apt to grow apart, and the very time when they ought to be most together,” and urges Meg, “don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours.” In 1869, she makes a pitch for co-parenting! She tells Meg to accept help at home, get more exercise and go out and enjoy herself! She further encourages her to nurture her marital relationship, and when Meg begins to (reluctantly) take an interest in the politics that occupy John, it gets results; he (awkwardly) reciprocates by taking an interest in the bonnet she’s making. The “division of labor” that ensues, though in many ways still traditional, helps to re-constitute their loving relationship and make their home “a cheerful place, full of happiness,” once again. As is true of many aspects of Little Women, this movement toward egalitarian marriage seems a century ahead of its time!

Christine Doyle is a Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University and author of Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations (University of Tennessee Press, 2000) – and a mother of three who now knows what Alcott was talking about in this chapter.

 

images-2
Image: Dan Russell

 

Chapter XXXVII. New Impressions

By Lauren Rizzuto

Though it may seem to gesture toward Amy and Laurie’s eventual marriage, the title of the chapter “New Impressions” is misleading. Au contraire, it is the old impressions, indelibly made upon each other in childhood (he, the teasing older brother, and she, the ebullient younger sister yearning to be included) that now serve as prelude to their romance. A quick sketch of events illustrates the curious sense of déjà vu that pervades the chapter.

It’s Christmas again, this time in Nice, and once more the Laurence boy will make things merry for a March girl. In a variation of Jo’s memorable opening grumble, Amy exclaims, “‘This will be a regularly merry Christmas to me, with presents in the morning, you and letters in the afternoon, and a party at night.’” Their holiday rendezvous begins with a carriage ride, though admittedly it is now Amy who drives Laurie. News of Beth’s decline may temporarily wilt their spirits, just as Mr. March’s battlefront ruminations once gently rebuked his daughters’ misbehavior, but the two soldier on to attend a Yuletide ball together with some other American expats (and a potpourri of European types). Amy, perhaps having learned from Meg’s mistakes, prepares herself to look, if fashionable, still “sensible.” She may “prink,” but only insofar that she continues to impress the boy-next-door. Laurie, for his part, looks “unusually débonnaire,” but true to form he at first shyly refrains from dancing (at least he does not hide behind a curtain) until, so overcome by his female companion’s charms, he dances with gusto. Yes, by the end of the evening, everything old is “new” again.

And yet Alcott is no one-trick poney! True, from these examples Amy appears not merely to “change places” with Jo in Laurie’s heart but assume the role of nearly all of the “little women,” the quintessential, built-to-order “good wife.” But this interpretation denies Amy the very irrepressible qualities that Laurie (and the reader) finds so attractive: unlike other eligible mesdemoiselles, “her old petulance now and then showed itself, her strong will still held its own, and her native frankness was unspoiled by foreign polish.”

The pejorative “foreign polish” occurs more than once in this chapter, as does the phrase “a good effect.” It’s as if Alcott wants to remind readers that, although their Amy will always be susceptible to “little affectations of speech and manner,” her time abroad has taught her the difference between art and artifice. Ironically, Amy acquires this knowledge without self-awareness; possibly, Alcott wishes to assure the (dismayed) reader that Amy and Laurie’s romance is happening naturally as they are “unconsciously giving and receiving” these old new impressions. For instance, when Laurie greets Amy before the dance with flowers, just as he did with Marmee their first Christmas as neighbors, she cringes when—nostalgia be damned!—her date cloaks his gift in cliché:

“Thank you; it isn’t what it should be, but you have improved it,” he added, as she snapped the silver bracelet on her wrist.

“Please don’t!”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing!”

Sacre bleu! Poor Laurie has misjudged the French Amie for one who appears to (but really doesn’t) value “that sort of thing.” This March sister values authenticity. “My rouge won’t come off,” she says pointedly when, after a particularly vigorous dance, Laurie notices her red cheeks. She’s not interested in performing, how do you say, je ne sais quoi, but in exposing sprezzatura for what it is: a learned art. ‘“I study as well as play,’” she informs him, ‘“and as for this’—with a little gesture toward her dress—‘why, tulle is cheap; posies to be had for nothing, and I am used to making the most of my poor little things.’” Junoesque beauty requires diligent effort.

C’est la vie.

Lauren Rizzuto is a Senior Lecturer in the graduate programs in Children’s Literature at Simmons University and a PhD candidate in English at Tufts University. She visited France for the first time in January but, like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone, remains “what the French call ‘les incompétents.'” 

Lux
      Peter Lawford (Laurie) and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy) from the 1949 MGM feature film version of Little Women as they appeared in a Lux soap ad in the Woman’s Home Companion.