Chapter XLVI. Under the Umbrella

By Krissie West

Jo’s poem, “In the Garrett,” is discovered by Friedrich Bhaer and returned to her on the occasion of their engagement “under the umbrella” in Chapter 46 of Little Women. In what Jo calls her “very bad poetry” and which she subsequently rips up to let “the fragments fly away on the wind,” Jo has written of four chests that revisit the characters of the sisters first established in the fireside scene of Chapter 1.

Meg’s shows the “record of a peaceful life,” with her own children taking away the toys that once lay there now that she is “a happy mother.” Beth’s is that of a “saint,” canonised by death but always “less human than divine,” and now a bittersweet memory for her grieving sister. Amy’s chest bears testament to a more fashionable life than her sisters—no toys, but slippers and snoods—yet it is still a record of a childhood completed and a heart “now learning fairer, truer spells.” Jo’s own chest is sadder even than Beth’s. While the younger sister is lamented in her early death, the older seems stalled: “memories of a past still sweet” are giving way to “hints of a woman early old.” But in the poem’s return to Jo by Friedrich Bhaer, readers already know that the poem’s promise, “Be worthy, love, and love will come,” has been fulfilled.

Yet the concept of Jo’s writing in Little Women is always, of course, that it was Alcott’s writing first. And in this case, the poem had a life prior to the text: “In the Garrett” was first published in The Flag of Our Union (18 March 1865) but with a number of differences. It discussed the chests of Nan, Lu, Bess, and May, rather than Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Many of the other differences are minor—a word omitted or added, the line order sometimes swapped—but the final four lines are significantly different. The Little Women version, from the 1869 text, reads:

A woman in a lonely home,
Hearing like a sad refrain,—
“Be worthy, love, and love will come,”
In the falling summer rain.

The earlier version (as read from a manuscript in the Houghton Library, Harvard University) reads:

A woman musing here alone,
Hearing ever her life’s refrain —
“Labor and love, but make no moan”—
In the drip of the summer rain.

Alcott troubles the divide between author and narrator to claim herself, if problematically, as character, as the “Lu” to whom she has given a version of her own name in this earlier rendering of the poem. And this woman’s fate differs from that of Jo: no love waits for her except the love that she must give, second only to labor; neither of which, it seems, can make her happy.

But Jo is granted a reprieve in the fulfillment of romantic love with her professor, one which may have upset both generations of fans who were eager for her to marry Laurie and feminist critics who felt that she should not have sacrificed her career for any man. For Jo, though, Bhaer means the most important thing of all: a turn “from the night and storm and loneliness to the household light and warmth and peace.” For Jo, Bhaer means home.

Krissie West is a British scholar working on American literature, particularly New England Transcendentalism and representations of childhood. Her first monograph, Louisa May Alcott and the Textual Child, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan later this year, considers the portrayal of childhood in Alcott’s works for children beyond Little Women. She is currently researching her second book, Reading Childhood in the Salem Witch Narratives, forthcoming from Palgrave next year.

Tudor.Umbrella
Image by Tasha Tudor (1969).

 

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 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.

 

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Frank Merrill, illustration from Little Women (1880)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXII. Tender Troubles

By Susan Bailey

Marmee was worried about Beth and for good reason. Her daughter was quieter than usual, even withdrawing from her father. She would cry when visiting with Meg’s babies. Her music was tinged with sadness. Unable to draw Beth out, Marmee asked Jo to find out what was wrong.

Jo thought she had the answer: Beth was in love with Laurie. But in her lack of experience with matters of the heart, she misread the signs. Does a girl in love stare out of a window with a tear sliding down her cheek? Does she cry over her little niece and nephew because she is longing for Laurie? Why would she withdraw from her family?

Jo tried to look at the bright side when it came to her favorite sister even if the signs were pointing in the opposite direction. Hoping that Beth had moved beyond her lingering illness, Jo anticipated a future for her sister that was not to be. Beth would never realize womanhood; never know of marriage, motherhood and the building of her own home apart from her family.  Instead, she would die. In crying over Demi and Daisy, Beth knew she would not live to see them grow up. She would never have a child of her own.

Jo had noticed Beth’s face brighten when she saw Laurie but failed to grasp the true meaning of her sister’s remarks about his health and vitality. Instead, Jo deceived herself into believing that Beth loved Laurie. It was all a fantasy, like one of her stories.

Jo lived through her characters just as Beth lived through her dolls and imaginary friends. This is one of the many interesting parallels between these polar opposite sisters. Drawn to each other because they complemented each other, Jo longed for Beth’s moral strength and courage in the face of adversity while Beth yearned for Jo’s vitality and audacity. But they also shared a common wish: that their family would not change; that they would never have to grow up.

Jo dreaded the restrictions and obligations of womanhood. Her aversion to Laurie’s advances signaled her conflict regarding marriage and children (the very essence of womanhood) clashing with her dreams of independence and literary success (a male ambition). Her solution was to run away to New York.

Beth harbored no ambition. She never imagining herself as a grown woman, leaving home and creating her own family. Her unexplained sense of worthlessness coupled with her poor health made such a life impossible to realize.

To escape growing up, both lived in imaginary worlds. Beth had her dolls, kittens and make-believe friends while Jo lost herself in her fictional characters, first writing about them, and then often embodying them on the stage.

Life and death however, began to press in on all sides. Beth could not run away from her fate so she had to learn to accept it. Ever self-sufficient, she worked through this trial on her own, willing to share only after she had conquered her demon. Unable to perceive the truth, Jo could only hold her sister close, offering hugs and sympathy.

Beth could no longer draw upon Jo’s vitality. But Jo could always rely upon Beth’s example of courage, of meeting life head on even if it meant great sacrifice.

Jo would take off for New York, but her sojourn only delayed the inevitable: a confrontation with Laurie and an eventual coming to terms with her life. It would take all the courage she had to face what was to come.

Susan Bailey is the author of Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message. Her blog — Louisa May Alcott is My Passion — offers analysis and reflection on the life, works and legacy of Alcott and her family. Susan is an active member and supporter of the Louisa May Alcott Society, the Fruitlands Museum, and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

jo and beth
Jesse Wilcox Smith, “Jo and Beth” (1915)

 

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).

XVIII. Dark Days

By Marlowe Daly-Galeano

As an adult reader, I think the most important relationship in the “Dark Days” chapter is Jo and Beth’s. The anguish that Jo experiences during Beth’s illness stems from her awareness that she may lose the companionship of her dear sister. When Beth finally pulls through the threatening fever, Jo and Meg “[rejoice] with hearts too full for words.” Yet, when I was a young reader, the sisters’ relationship in this chapter mattered far less to me than the relationship between Jo and Laurie. In fact, if you had asked my junior-high self what was significant about “Dark Days,” I would have rolled my eyes and answered, “The most important part is the kissing.

For years, I thought of this as the chapter that revealed the chemistry between Jo and Laurie, the proof (in those few kisses) that they belong together. And, yes, I know you may be rolling your eyes now, because you recognize something I didn’t: Jo wants the comfort of a friend; she doesn’t want to be kissed by Laurie.

In defense of my younger self, I’ll explain that I learned all of my lessons about sexuality from novels. Consent was not taught in sex ed classes in the 1980s in the Great Lakes Midwest where I grew up, but it figured prominently, if problematically, in the literature I loved. I fully understood that when Anne Shirley rejected Gilbert Blythe for calling her “Carrots,” she would have another chance to say yes to him later on. After Elizabeth Bennet declined Mr. Darcy’s insulting first offer of marriage, she would enthusiastically accept his improved second proposal. And when Jane Eyre left Rochester because he already had a wife, of course I knew that she would go back to him.

And so I internalized some unfortunate lessons about consent. From these novels that shaped my vision of romantic love, I took away the misguided idea that women should say no to the first advance. How they feel is irrelevant; they should always say no. Next, I learned that saying no opens the door (and the expectation or demand) to say yes later on.

I now understand that these are bad lessons.

But the lesson Alcott teaches in “Dark Days” is much better. Jo appreciates the compassion that Laurie offers her as she bears the stress of her sister’s illness and her parents’ absence. However, after “flying at” Laurie and being kissed by him, Jo clarifies that she does not want anything other than friendship. She will maintain this stance throughout the novel, and, later, when Laurie proposes, Jo will reiterate her position. She does not consent. I missed the message the first time I encountered it in Little Women, because I was saturated with romantic myths that obscure the value of consent. I now see how clearly Alcott negates the pervasive and pernicious idea that “no means yes.” Jo says no to Laurie once, and she says no again, and again. And that’s okay. No, actually, it’s awesome.

Marlowe Daly-Galeano is associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College, where she teaches courses in American literature, writing, and humanities.

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Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915

XVII. Little Faithful

By Anindita Bhattacharya

Louisa May Alcott has immortalized American girlhood in her nineteenth century novel Little Women. The narrative reflects Louisa’s own very ambivalent views on womanhood with a curious juxtaposition of didacticism, sentimentalism, and feminism. Whether it is Jack and Jill: A Village Story or Behind a Mask, her ‘women’ are always struggling to strike a balance between fulfilling their womanly duties and nurturing their ambitions, and also being sufficiently punished for such predilections.

The seventeenth chapter of Little Women represents this conflict through the episode with Beth. It begins with the girls giving themselves a little ‘holiday’ from all the household chores and responsibilities in the absence of Marmee. Meg promises to watch over her sisters, Jo agrees to help everyone and refrain from her brash manners, Beth avows complete faithfulness to the little duties at home, and Amy pledges obedience in Chapter Sixteen when Marmee leaves for Washington to tend to their ailing father. Of the three, it is only Beth who chooses to stay true to her asseveration, an act of ‘faithfulness’ that culminates in her undoing. The name of the chapter, “Little Faithful,” has a dual significance here. This chapter not only focuses on the consequences of faithfulness/unfaithfulness but also can be seen as a continuation of the Pilgrim’s Progress allegory. Beth, in the novel, is the least confrontational, most vulnerable, and unequivocally angelic in her intentions and actions. She is akin to Faithful from Bunyan’s novel–someone who has already established a powerful bond with God and shows faith in Him, a faith that Christian is initially reluctant to accept but gradually acquires in the course of his journey. He also, therefore, has the easiest passage to the Celestial City, although he has to suffer before he can unite with Him. He is like Elijah from the Old Testament, a symbol of unwavering faith in the Lord. So is Beth: she must suffer and accept an ill fate as a consequence of her ‘faithfulness,’ as the ‘little’ faithful woman of Louisa’s family drama and also due to the lack (little amount) of faithfulness of Meg and Jo, who forget to perform their womanly duties and promised chores and therefore must pay the price of such wanton neglect.

Marmee had asked the sisters to call on the poor Hummels from time to time while she is away. The Hummels’ baby has scarlet fever and Beth has been regularly visiting them and taking care of the afflicted child. This particular day, a sickly Beth entreats one of her sisters to take on this duty. But they make silly excuses to stay home and finally the faithful Beth, seeing no alternative, sets out to the Hummels’ with “a heavy head and a grieved look in her patient eyes.” Beth witnesses the passing of the Hummel baby in her own lap, and it completely shatters her spirit. She then contracts the fever from the child. Had Meg or Jo volunteered, both of whom had had scarlet fever before, Beth could have been spared her misery. Beth is never quite able to recover completely.

In “Chasing Amy: Mephistopheles, the Laurence Boy, and Louisa May Alcott’s Punishment of Female Ambition,” Holly Blackford points out the following:

Alcott repeatedly features plots in which warm-blooded womanhood expels the demon of artistic creation and passion, whether the demon is within the woman or embodied by a Mephistopheles figure chasing her about.

This is also alluded to in this chapter. Jo refuses to go to the Hummels’ because she has to finish her ‘writing.’ Her ambition comes in the way of her duties towards her home and family and therefore, she must live forever with a guilt-ridden conscience.

Anindita Bhattacharya @zooiebeard is a doctoral candidate at Dublin City University. Her research interests include children’s literature, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies.

beth-and-her-dollsMillicent E. [Etheldreda] Gray, “Beth Dresses One of Her Dolls” (1912)