Chapter XLVII. Harvest Time

By John Matteson

Although I am certain to slight someone’s favorite book and thereby incur some wrath by saying so, it seems to me that three American fictions of coming of age stand above all others: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; and Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women, of course, differs from the other two in that its protagonists are female, but this for me is not the most important distinction. What has always intrigued me more is that, unlike Twain and Salinger, Alcott is optimistic about the passage from youth to adulthood. Huck Finn lights out to the territory because the brutal hypocrisies of the “sivilized” world are too much for him to bear. Holden Caulfield winds up in a mental institution, pouring out his frustrations with the world’s phonies to a psychoanalyst. Among the three, only Alcott dares to imagine a happy ending for American adolescence, though the nature of that happy ending is, in itself, fascinating.

The first twelve chapters of Little Women are an engaging set of sketches about the March girls’ struggles to achieve virtue. Yet in one sense the book is not yet a novel. Apart from the taming of their various moral failings, the sisters have yet to find larger motivations. Chapter Thirteen, “Castles in the Air,” supplies them, even if in a somewhat unrealistic way, as each of the minister’s daughters declares her lifelong ambition. A suggestion by Jo initiates the book’s essential novelistic tension: she plans for the four sisters to reunite in ten years’ time to see whether their dreams have come true.

The remarkable fact is that, when we arrive at the last chapter of Part Two, “Harvest Time,” none of the sisters finds that she has reaped the crop that she intended to sow. Instead of a grand estate and “heaps of money,” Meg has only her poor but devoted husband and two sweet but not especially promising children. Jo, failing at her dream of winning fame as a writer, has become the mistress of a school.  Amy’s ambition to become a renowned artist has similarly died on the vine. Even Beth, who has wished only to stay home and care for the family, has had her modest hope snuffed out by death. And yet, memorably, Marmee has the last line of the novel: “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!” The reader is likely to object that there are plenty of greater happinesses to be wished, and that Alcott has grievously shortchanged her heroines. Some extra salt in the wound is the fact that, after all of Jo’s struggles to achieve female independence and self-realization, her school is open only to “little lads.”

Is “Harvest Time,” then, a betrayal of both the March sisters and the reader? One is welcome to say that it is, but it does not seem so to me. The stronger and more satisfying view, it seems to me, is that Alcott is pointing to a truth about how happiness really works. Live long enough in the world, and you are likely to discover that your greatest joys have not come from conceiving a self-centered goal and achieving it; that kind of happiness is a more sophisticated version of having an itch and scratching it. The greater pleasures tend to reside in becoming the best thing one can be in the lives of others, even when that thing is less grand and bedecked with glitter and tinsel than one has imagined. There is a kind of sacrifice that makes us greater, not lesser, and this is what the March sisters have learned.

It is positively essential to observe that the sacrifices imposed by Alcott in “Harvest Time” do not fall solely onto her female characters. Laurie has become a full partner in Amy’s philanthropic enterprises, and of course Professor Bhaer is Jo’s co-equal at Plumfield, an institution that takes the nuclear family and, with the addition of scores of boys, renders it thermonuclear. Finally, if one pursues Alcott’s trilogy to its end in Jo’s Boys (1886), one discovers that Jo’s sacrifice of literary fame has been only temporary; she has written a novel that has brought her both fortune and undesired fame. At the same time, the all-male Plumfield has given way to a coeducational college, where young women become doctors and gleefully drub the boys on the tennis courts.

“Harvest Time” ends by observing a trinity of values that have little to do with self-aggrandizing achievement. We hear them in Marmee’s voice, a “voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility.” It’s a rather pleasant trio, and perhaps not such a bad one to shoot for, even 150 years later.

John Matteson is a  distinguished professor at John Jay College in the City University of New York. His first book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The editor of W. W. Norton’s Annotated Little Women,  John is finishing a book on the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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Image by Frank Merrill (1880).

 

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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 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 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 https://www.marianlipschutz.com/.

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Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880).

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.

beth_march_playing_the_piano_by_lalaadanwenb-dbufdob

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” (https://www.deviantart.com/lalaadanwenb/art/Beth-March-playing-the-piano-716233979).

XX. Confidential

By Jeanne Birdsall

Louisa settled at her desk, preparing to slog through another chapter of Little Women, this book she was writing only for the money. It was meant to be read by girls, which meant she needed to stay away from high drama and thunder, her usual ways to advance a story. She rubbed her temples—a headache threatened—unwittingly mussing her hair. Who was she to write for girls? A woman who’d never been a conventional girl, who barely knew what such girls talked about and wished for.

Stop fussing, she told herself, and get to work. Where was she in the story? The mother of the March family, Marmee, had just rushed home from Washington, where she’d been nursing the girls’ father, to find that Beth had miraculously escaped death from scarlet fever. The chapter needed to begin with quiet joy and gratitude. Louisa picked up her pen and wrote: Chapter 20, Confidential. I don’t think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters . . . Oh, blast! What a pitiable beginning. She didn’t think she had the words? She’d better find them. She’d put too much labor into this book to abandon it now.

It took a while, but the words did come, as they always did for disciplined, hard-working Louisa. As she went, she found bits she could be proud of. Meg and Jo feeding Marmee like dutiful young storks. Amy, in exile at Aunt Josephine’s to keep her safe from scarlet fever, generously letting Laurie sleep off his exhaustion. But it was later in the chapter, when Jo talks to Marmee about John Brooke’s wooing of Meg, and what need be done about it, that Louisa’s words flew across the pages. Jo was always easiest for her to write, with all that stomping around and telling of blunt truths–as when she tells Marmee, “I don’t know anything about love, and such nonsense!” and “I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up.” Who wouldn’t like writing about Jo?

Soon Meg is innocently proving to Marmee that she’s not in love with John (but soon will be), and Louisa could bring Chapter 20 to a close. She stood up to stretch, unfolding herself like an animated puzzle. After her initial reluctance, she was pleased with the day’s work. Despite Jo and flat-irons, she’d been able to subtly pivot the March sisters away from girlhood and toward incipient womanhood. Who knew what the readers—the girls—would think about that? Louisa didn’t care. It was her story.

She sat down again, picked up her pen, and wrote: Chapter 21.

Jeanne Birdsall shares Louisa May Alcott’s birthplace – Germantown, Pennsylvania – and used this as an excuse to borrow lavishly from Little Women for her own New York Times- bestselling Penderwick series. The National Book Award Jeanne won for the first of the Penderwick books is held jointly with Alcott, whether she knows it or not.

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Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Little Women (1933), directed by George Cukor.