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/.

FM.Amy in Plaster

Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880).

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Chapter XXIV. Gossip

By Elaine Showalter

Chapter 24, “Gossip,” is the first chapter of a sequel that Alcott didn’t intend to write. After the huge success of Little Women, Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles asked her to go on with the story. She grumbled in her journal, “Girls write to ask who the little women will marry, as if that was the only end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” (167). But on November 1 she buckled down to write a chapter a day, and Part II came out in April 1869. In the U.S., the two parts were combined in 1881 into a single volume, but in Great Britain, Part II was published separately under titles Alcott would not have liked, including Little Women Wedded (Sampson Low, 1872), Little Women Married (Sampson Low, 1873), Nice Wives (Weldon & Co., 1875), and finally, Good Wives (Nisbet, 1895).

Part II begins in June 1865, after the end of the Civil War, and the day before Meg’s wedding to John Brooke. Alcott has to bring readers up to date “with a little gossip about the Marches,” implying that the anonymous omniscient narrator is a woman. But while Chapter 1 begins with Jo grumbling, Chapter 24 begins with five and half pages of sentimental, pious, and didactic narrative. Mr. March is back home, and the narrator devotes three paragraphs to praising him as the sage in the study, “the head of the family,” and the “household conscience, anchor, and comforter.”

Has patriarchy returned to tame and repress the spirited March women? Marmee is planning Meg’s wedding. John Brooke, “manfully” wounded in the war, has turned down generous offers of good jobs from rich Mr. Lawrence, and insists on taking up the humble office of “under book-keeper,” and earning an “honest well-earned salary.” Meg is preparing to be to become his humble, womanly wife, and their marital home, the Dovecote, is described in Dickensian diminutives: tiny, little, small, narrow, cosy; indeed a “baby-house,” not just a nursery to come, but a doll’s house. At this point, the narrator seems to be making the March women ominously small. But Alcott’s humor breaks through, thankfully, when she describes the would-be fountain Meg dreams of having represented in the present “by a weather-beaten urn, very like a dilapidated slop-bowl.”

It’s a relief when Laurie, nicknamed “Toodles” by Jo, for a character in a popular play who loves to shop at auction, gets back from college laden with ridiculous wedding gifts. His argument with Jo about his clothes and behavior breaks the preachy narrative tone and re-opens the question of whether Jo will marry, and if so, whether she will marry him. In the last sentence, Laurie whistles, and ominously predicts, “Mark my words, Jo, you’ll go next.” That’s a cliff-hanger, but Laurie is always the last one to figure Jo out.

Work Cited

The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, U of Georgia P, 1997.

Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University. She is the editor of Alternative Alcott (1988), and the Library of America edition of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

WeddedGood Wives.Purple

 

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 XXI. Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace

By Jan Alberghene

I was nine when I first read Little Women, but I still remember pausing over Hannah’s calling Laurie the “‘interferingest chap,’” not because I disagreed with her opinion, but because it took me a few minutes to decode the unfamiliar word “interferingest.” I had to agree with Hannah. Laurie popped up in places where he had no business being: at a meeting of the Pickwick Club (where Jo was, to be fair, a co-conspirator), and later when the sisters climbed a nearby hill on a pleasant afternoon to “play pilgrims” in private as they sewed and talked. “Yes,” I thought, “Laurie was the ‘interferingest,’” and I hadn’t even reached the chapter titled “Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace.”

After I finished reading chapter 21, the Laurie I liked no longer existed. Although Laurie is barely sixteen, he feels superior to his tutor Mr. Brooke, a good and conscientious man eleven years his senior. Laurie actually feels entitled to the role of confidant regarding Brooke’s feelings toward Meg March. Peeved that Brooke firmly shuts him out, Laurie seizes the opportunity to take revenge when his tutor is out of town. Posing as Mr. Brooke, Laurie sends and rescinds love letters to Meg March.

Six decades and many re-readings later, I still enjoy reading Little Women. What has changed is the depth of my admiration for the novel, which has steadily increased, despite—or perhaps largely due—to my ever-diminishing regard for Theodore, a.k.a. “Laurie” and “Teddy,” Laurence. He doesn’t age well in terms of his becoming more mature during the year that passes in Part I of Little Women. Neither has he aged well outside the novel, in the 150 years since its initial publication.

I write this conscious of the critical misinterpretations that can result from reading a novel in isolation from the milieu in which it was written. I’m even more conscious of the mistakes that can arise from interpreting a chapter in isolation from the rest of the novel’s text. Interpreting Laurie’s “mischief” in chapter 21 as egregiously callous is only reinforced, however, by close reading of the chapters that precede his “mischief.” And it isn’t ahistorical to assume that a contemporary seventeen-year-old young woman would feel pain and mortification akin to what Meg experiences.

Laurie’s comportment in chapter 21 is particularly striking because intrusive behavior aside, he’s a good friend to all the March women and downright heroic when he saves Amy from drowning (ch. 8). Laurie’s a complex character, no mere foil, a constant presence reminding readers just who holds power in 19th century America: men, all men, especially rich men.

The space devoted to Meg, Marmee, and Jo in chapter 21 can obscure the fact that Laurie’s “mischief” is directed toward his tutor, a poor man who has to earn his living by teaching a rich entitled brat who charms gentlewomen but throws tantrums at other men, his tutor and his grandfather. Laurie isn’t trying to hurt Meg, but he does something far worse: ignore her very existence in his plot to show Mr. Brooke who is boss. Meg is just collateral damage in a skirmish fought by a boy against a man who is not even aware this particular war is on.

The three women participate in the cover-up of Laurie’s emotional violence. Jo quickly realizes that Laurie, not his tutor, wrote the notes attributed to Brooke and has violated Meg’s privacy by reading and keeping his replies. Jo and Marmee quickly turn their attention to damage control.

Marmee spends a half hour with Laurie that ensures the incident is contained; Meg must not suffer further embarrassment by Laurie’s telling anyone what he did. Jo smooths over Mr. Laurence’s anger at Laurie’s consequent refusal to confess. Most tellingly, Jo also calms Laurie’s outrage at being shaken by his grandfather. The very mild physical reprimand isn’t what angers Laurie. His fury stems from a man’s (regardless of who and how old the man) shaking him. No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”

Jan Alberghene is Professor Emerita of English Studies at Fitchburg State University and the co-editor, with Beverly Lyon Clark, of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999).

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Christian Bale as Laurie, Little Women (1994).

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.

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)