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).

 

 

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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 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.

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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 http://rachelsmithillustration.blogspot.com/2013/03/little-women-reviews-beginning.html

 

Chapter XVIIII. Amy’s Will

By Monika Elbert

I am interested in Catholicism and the rosary’s presence within this very New England novel. In “Amy’s Will,” the Gothic momentarily intrudes in Aunt March’s household, where poor Amy is a captive slave in her role as attendant to the old woman. Aunt March’s maid, Esther, the “French woman” who is forced to change her name from the more Frenchified “Estelle”—“on condition that she was never asked to change her religion”—brings a sense of exoticism with “odd stories of her life in France” (192) and with her Catholic customs. Amy goes through Aunt March’s treasure trove of jewelry and chances upon a rosary, which she mistakes for a fine piece of jewelry. Indeed, it is the piece she most desires: she looks “with great admiration at a string of gold and ebony beads, from which hung a heavy cross of the same” (193). Esther concedes that she “covets” it as well, but “not as a necklace”: “to me it is a rosary, and as such I would use it like a good Catholic” (193). Amy wistfully admires Esther’s sense of devotion and the peace that she derives from the rosary, and in response Esther recommends that Amy indulge in some Catholic practices: “If Mademoiselle was a Catholic, she would find true comfort; but, as that is not to be, it would be well if you went apart each day to meditate and pray” (194) as she herself had done in the private chapel of her former mistress.  This subtle attack on Aunt March’s Protestant household results in Amy’s momentary conversion. Esther arranges “the little dressing room” as Amy’s place of worship and advises her to retreat to this altar, composed of a little table and a footstool, when her aunt is fast asleep, and to pray for the health of her convalescent sister, Beth.

But Amy’s sacred space is an interesting combination of sensory delights and sacred images. Esther lends a painting of the Madonna, an image which Amy worships, though the divine and the earthly mother merge, as they did for Gladys in Alcott’s A Modern Mephistopheles:  “Amy’s beauty-loving eyes were never tired of looking up at the sweet face of the divine mother, while tender thoughts of her own were busy at her heart” (195). Next to her New Testament and hymnal, Amy keeps a sentimental remembrance of Laurie’s affection: “a vase full of the best flowers Laurie brought her” (195), so that images of the sacred and the profane coalesce.  Giving up her desire for baubles (in the shape of  “a million turquoise rings” [198]), she prays for Beth’s recovery. She does not give in to the whole ritual of Catholic worship though, as she hangs the rosary but does not actively use it, “feeling doubtful as to its fitness for Protestant prayers” (195). Thus, Amy has an excursion into the exotic rituals of Catholicism in the Protestant household, even before her adventure to Europe, where she is introduced to more sensual aesthetics, in her quest to become an artist.

Christine Doyle, who also focuses on this scene in her study of Alcott and Brontë, makes Alcott more receptive than Brontë to the liberating possibilities of Catholicism.

Alcott, Louisa May.  Little Women, edited by Elaine Showalter, Penguin, 1989.

Doyle, Christine.  Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations. U of Tennessee P, 2000.

Elbert, Monika. “The Paradox of Catholicism in New England Women’s Gothic.”  Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Monika Elbert and Bridget Marshall, Ashgate, 2013, 113-138.

Monika Elbert is Professor of English at Montclair State University and has published widely on Alcott, Hawthorne, and the Gothic, including Hawthorne in Context (2018) and, with co-editor Wendy Ryden, Haunting Realities: Naturalist Gothic and American Realism (2017).

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Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880)

Chapter VII. Amy’s Valley of Humiliation

By Alicia Mischa Renfroe

I became an Alcott “scholar” at age six when I found an old copy of Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston by Jean Brown Wagoner in a box of books that my grandfather had rescued from a one-room school slated for demolition. I read it so many times that my concerned mother (unaware that I had found my career) eventually hid it and substituted Little Women. Part of the Childhoods of Famous Americans series, this biography reveals how little Louisa learns to be a “good girl.” Drawing on a memorable anecdote from Alcott’s life, Wagoner describes three-year-old Louisa’s birthday party where she must forgo her own piece of cake for another child, and such moments appear throughout Little Women as well as Alcott’s other work.

One of four consecutive chapters drawing on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation” focuses on the youngest March—the artistic, sometimes selfish, and often irrepressible Amy. Like Bunyan’s Christian, Amy learns a lesson about the consequences of her actions, though an impulsive decision in the next chapter will bring out the dragon “Apollyon” in Jo. Amy is “suffering” for a lime, so Meg contributes her hard-earned rag money so that Amy can repay her “debts of honor” and enjoy a few of the pickled treats herself–Amy likes her limes.

Alcott uses this humorous vignette to introduce several concerns about education that run throughout the novel. Unlike the breakfast freely given to the Hummels, the limes are part of a schoolyard economy of exchange, generating an obligation to repay in kind and teaching the lesson that some “gifts” are not gifts at all. When Amy’s teacher discovers her “contraband,” he uses corporal punishment in direct contrast to Bronson Alcott’s progressive ideas about education. Emphasizing pedagogy grounded in mutual respect and hands-on learning, Bronson occasionally used the ruler “as a last resort” and once punished some unruly students by asking them to strike his hand, illustrating “his belief that it was far more terrible to inflict pain than to receive it” (Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts 58-59). Following this approach, Marmee supports Amy’s self-development and agrees to “a vacation from school,” at least in part due to the negative influence of the teacher and the other girls. As the chapter concludes, Amy realizes that the issue isn’t the limes but the economy they represent: “it’s nice to have accomplishments…but not to show off.”

I regularly teach Alcott and continue to be amazed by how her fiction speaks to students today: “Are you a Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy?” sparked many a class discussion well before the creation of internet quizzes devoted to the question. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an “Amy.” I did identify with Jo—I loved to write and play with the boys—but I was always a little disconcerted by how much Jo (and Alcott herself) must give up. From the opening chapter, Amy questions this expectation and the justice of their situation: “I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all” (Chapter 1). Though focused on “pretty things,” she makes an important point about economic inequality and tempers the emphasis on self-sacrifice that runs throughout the novel.

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Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston by Jean Brown Wagoner
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“I lime Amy March” Pro-Amy propaganda

Alicia Mischa Renfroe is Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.