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 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 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)