Chapter XLIII. Surprises

Take Two

By Paige Gray

Not far into the Little Women chapter “Surprises,” Jo awakens to find her long-absent best friend not in Europe, but very present in the March home. Astonished and bewildered, Jo wonders how “Laurie’s ghost seemed to stand before her” (343). Indeed, Jo then determines, this is some spectral version of her Teddy, a “substantial, lifelike ghost leaning over her, with the very look he used to wear when he felt a good deal, and didn’t like to show it” (343).

“Surprises” pivots around the idea of ghosts and how they haunt us—not a haunting through terror, but a haunting through the heartache of memory, of past lives and paths not chosen. However, the chapter also makes us confront what and who become ghosts. Is the ghost this married man, this dignified, self-assured Laurie who now deeply loves Amy, or is the ghost the memory that Jo holds with her—the awkward Teddy who worships, adores, and loves only her?

Rather than definitively answering such an impossible question, Jo and Little Women instead focus on how to navigate a life populated with such ghosts, those ghosts of our former selves, with all their triumphs and our tragedies, and those ghosts of our present, like this Laurie, who seemingly defy the existential truths upon which our identities have been built.

With the arrival of newlyweds Amy and Laurie to the March home, and with the recent loss of Beth, Jo must find a way to live with these hauntings. Because “Beth still seemed among them—a peaceful presence—invisible, but dearer than ever” (352), Jo can use this “presence” as a source of strength and affirmation. Beth’s ghost ostensibly comforts Jo, instilling her with a sense of determination to move on. The memory of her meek sister suffuses the March house in a way that makes Beth more present in death than she was, perhaps, in life. In death, she uncharacteristically commands Jo, telling her to “[b]e happy!” (352).

The ghosts that surround the marriage of Amy and Laurie—this ghostly new man who challenges Jo’s former idea of Laurie, the ghost of the boy-dreamer Teddy, and the ghost of their childhood friendship and infatuation—lead Jo to a different ghost. When Professor Bhaer shows up at the March house, Jo thinks “another ghost had come to surprise her” (350). Bhaer is “another ghost,” a figure that challenges and unsettles—he haunts her, but haunts her in the sense that he accompanies her into a new way of understanding and constructing her future life.

“Surprises” underscores the power of those ghosts that haunt us, and ultimately suggests that ghosts do not surprise us through their presence—they surprise us through their considerable influence.

Paige Gray is a professor of liberal arts and writing at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her book, Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age, will be published by SUNY Press in August 2019. 

Tudor.Surprises
Illustration by Tasha Tudor (1969)

Chapter XXXVI. Beth’s Secret

By Jessica Anderson Stroope

“…for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very hard to overcome.”

In the company of many who are reading this blog, I found myself drawn to Jo as a young reader of Little Women. As I traipsed the woods and ravines behind the electric substation that bordered my childhood backyard, I felt a comfortable companionship, a fellowship with Jo March. I explored alone and created worlds and got into (often imaginary) scrapes. But when I considered the future, I fancied myself to be like Beth—destined to have a glorious childhood and an early demise. Myself-as-Beth could evade well-meaning adults pestering about the future. I never admitted my Beth tendencies, but assuming death by age 19 encouraged me not to dwell on a future that seemed impossibly remote.

This dual Jo/Beth perception of self provided a freedom to be unhurried in childhood. Now, as a mother of two elementary-aged daughters, I want to protect their leisure, their time to create and play. I mourn that their outdoor adventures are not as intrepid as mine.

There are certain stories I cannot read without tears. My children smirk as I read aloud The Gardener or The Old Woman Who Named Things and cry for the fiftieth time. Chapter 36 evokes these tears every time, even as I sifted through this chapter multiple times while writing this post.

In Chapter 36, Jo uses savings from her foray into sensational writing to fund a seaside holiday for Beth and herself. The time together confirms the fears Jo has tried to brush away. Jo waits for Beth to initiate sharing as “there seemed something sacred in the silence.” After Beth sees Jo’s tears, she is able to unburden herself of what she has long known—that she is fading. Alcott invites us into Beth’s isolation and preparation. Beth values acceptance of death, a perspective which shaped my understanding of end-of-life decisions. Beth knows misplaced hope is a wearying way to fight a lost battle, and asks Jo to let go, and to enjoy the time they have left together. Jo chooses what is best for Beth. Instead of clinging to the fight, she clings to Beth.

The chapter ends with their return home, with Marmee and Father March understanding Beth’s secret without needing to be told. Jo matures into a force of stability, a daughter who provides comfort.

Beth is Jo’s favorite. With apologies to my husband and brother, my sister is mine.

Jessica Anderson Stroope lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with her husband, two daughters, and emotionally-needy dog. By day, she works for Louisiana 4-H as the state healthy living program coordinator. By night, she reads, cooks, and wins board games. 

Merrill.Seashore
Image by Frank T. Merrill (1880).

 

Chapter X. The P. C. and P. O.

By Lorinda B. Cohoon

“The P. C. and P. O.” chapter recounts a deepening of the friendship between the March family and the Laurence family through Laurie’s admission to the secret society of the Pickwick Club. Both Meg and Amy have reservations about admitting a boy to the club–Mr. Winkle reminds the club members that “[t]his is a ladies’ club, and we wish to be private and proper” (90). Despite these objections, Laurie is voted in as “Sam Weller” once Jo, as Mr. Snodgrass, draws attention to all the ways the members of the Pickwick Club have benefited from the Laurences’ wealth and position: “We can do so little for him, and he does so much for us, I think the best we can do is to offer him a place here, and make him welcome, if he comes” (90). The martin house post office Laurie provides becomes the site of material exchanges and gifts that further cement the connection between the two families, and the chapter concludes with a list of some of the items and letters that are subsequently sent through the post office between the two houses.

Although I re-read Little Women regularly as a child, and as an adult, this chapter is not one that inspired me to pursue its literary references. While I avidly read The Castle of Otranto and The Wide, Wide World to find out more about what Jo was reading, I confess to never having completed reading The Pickwick Papers, despite having kept a copy beside my bed for many years. I meant to read it before making this contribution, but as Mr. Winkle acknowledges in his apologetic article in the Portfolio, I have had trouble taking “time by the fetlock” (88). I still mean to finish reading it, and I wonder how many Dickens scholars and readers as well as Alcott scholars and readers were inspired to read The Pickwick Papers after reading this chapter.

Alcott tells her readers that the sample paper she includes comes from a real version that she wrote with her sisters, and it seems to me that the model paper must have inspired other readers to try to make a newspaper for themselves. Have other readers of Little Women created their own portfolios or made Tracy Tupman’s recipe for baked squash? I am surprised on re-reading the Portfolio by how many of Beth’s activities and pursuits are acknowledged in the articles about “Public Bereavement,” the “Lament for S. B. Pat Paw,” and the advertisement for Mrs. Beth Bouncer’s Doll Millinery. I frequently skim quickly past the Portfolio when I re-read this text, but I have been surprised by the rich details it includes about the sisters’ lives and their endeavors and interests. The list of items delivered through the private post office also warrants further study. What became of the puppies? Were they as well-loved as Beth’s cats?

Lorinda B. Cohoon is an associate professor of English at the University of Memphis, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in children’s literature. She is a second daughter with three sisters (as well as four brothers), and she grew up with a father who was an impractical genius. She loves to read more than anything else and sometimes experiences (far-too infrequently) a Jo-like writing vortex.

March sisters still from Little Women (1994).
March sisters still from Little Women (1994).

 

Illustration from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers.
Illustration from Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.