Chapter 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).

Chapter 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)

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
Lime | Amy March
“I lime Amy March” Pro-Amy propaganda

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