Chapter XLVII. Harvest Time

By John Matteson

Although I am certain to slight someone’s favorite book and thereby incur some wrath by saying so, it seems to me that three American fictions of coming of age stand above all others: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; and Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women, of course, differs from the other two in that its protagonists are female, but this for me is not the most important distinction. What has always intrigued me more is that, unlike Twain and Salinger, Alcott is optimistic about the passage from youth to adulthood. Huck Finn lights out to the territory because the brutal hypocrisies of the “sivilized” world are too much for him to bear. Holden Caulfield winds up in a mental institution, pouring out his frustrations with the world’s phonies to a psychoanalyst. Among the three, only Alcott dares to imagine a happy ending for American adolescence, though the nature of that happy ending is, in itself, fascinating.

The first twelve chapters of Little Women are an engaging set of sketches about the March girls’ struggles to achieve virtue. Yet in one sense the book is not yet a novel. Apart from the taming of their various moral failings, the sisters have yet to find larger motivations. Chapter Thirteen, “Castles in the Air,” supplies them, even if in a somewhat unrealistic way, as each of the minister’s daughters declares her lifelong ambition. A suggestion by Jo initiates the book’s essential novelistic tension: she plans for the four sisters to reunite in ten years’ time to see whether their dreams have come true.

The remarkable fact is that, when we arrive at the last chapter of Part Two, “Harvest Time,” none of the sisters finds that she has reaped the crop that she intended to sow. Instead of a grand estate and “heaps of money,” Meg has only her poor but devoted husband and two sweet but not especially promising children. Jo, failing at her dream of winning fame as a writer, has become the mistress of a school.  Amy’s ambition to become a renowned artist has similarly died on the vine. Even Beth, who has wished only to stay home and care for the family, has had her modest hope snuffed out by death. And yet, memorably, Marmee has the last line of the novel: “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!” The reader is likely to object that there are plenty of greater happinesses to be wished, and that Alcott has grievously shortchanged her heroines. Some extra salt in the wound is the fact that, after all of Jo’s struggles to achieve female independence and self-realization, her school is open only to “little lads.”

Is “Harvest Time,” then, a betrayal of both the March sisters and the reader? One is welcome to say that it is, but it does not seem so to me. The stronger and more satisfying view, it seems to me, is that Alcott is pointing to a truth about how happiness really works. Live long enough in the world, and you are likely to discover that your greatest joys have not come from conceiving a self-centered goal and achieving it; that kind of happiness is a more sophisticated version of having an itch and scratching it. The greater pleasures tend to reside in becoming the best thing one can be in the lives of others, even when that thing is less grand and bedecked with glitter and tinsel than one has imagined. There is a kind of sacrifice that makes us greater, not lesser, and this is what the March sisters have learned.

It is positively essential to observe that the sacrifices imposed by Alcott in “Harvest Time” do not fall solely onto her female characters. Laurie has become a full partner in Amy’s philanthropic enterprises, and of course Professor Bhaer is Jo’s co-equal at Plumfield, an institution that takes the nuclear family and, with the addition of scores of boys, renders it thermonuclear. Finally, if one pursues Alcott’s trilogy to its end in Jo’s Boys (1886), one discovers that Jo’s sacrifice of literary fame has been only temporary; she has written a novel that has brought her both fortune and undesired fame. At the same time, the all-male Plumfield has given way to a coeducational college, where young women become doctors and gleefully drub the boys on the tennis courts.

“Harvest Time” ends by observing a trinity of values that have little to do with self-aggrandizing achievement. We hear them in Marmee’s voice, a “voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility.” It’s a rather pleasant trio, and perhaps not such a bad one to shoot for, even 150 years later.

John Matteson is a  distinguished professor at John Jay College in the City University of New York. His first book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The editor of W. W. Norton’s Annotated Little Women,  John is finishing a book on the Battle of Fredericksburg.

20190327 Little Women - Book Illustration - 002
Image by Frank Merrill (1880).

 

Chapter XLV. Daisy and Demi

By Anne Longmuir

As the Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia remind us, Charles Dickens was one of Alcott’s “early literary idols” (81). His novels have a pervasive influence on Little Women—from the allusions that pepper chapter after chapter to the March sisters’ “Pickwick Club.” Chapter XLV, “Daisy and Demi,” is no exception, bearing Dickens’s imprint not just in its literary references, but in its presentation of childhood itself.

As its title suggests, this chapter is almost entirely given over to Meg and John Brooke’s young twins, Daisy and Demi. Besides cataloguing the twins’ delightful precocity, this chapter also marks a crucial progression in Jo and Mr. Bhaer’s romance, thanks to the innocent question Demi poses to “the bear-man,” “Do great boys like great girls too, ‘Fessor?” (362).

The allusions to Dickens are immediately apparent. The narrator suggests, for example, that the children’s “tranquil audacity” reveals them to be “accomplished Artful Dodgers,” a reference, of course, to the bold young man who recruits Oliver Twist to Fagin’s gang of pickpockets in Dickens’s novel.

Similarly, Jo invokes another of Dickens’s characters when she declares that her nephew “is a born Weller” (361). Though perhaps now one of Dickens’s less familiar characters, Sam Weller of The Pickwick Papers was enormously popular during the nineteenth century, known best for his humorous sayings or “Wellerisms”—much like the young Demi.

Weller riddle
Excerpted from True Briton, Vol. 1, 1851, p. 72.

But beyond these direct allusions to Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers, what makes this chapter closer to Dickens than, say, Charlotte Brontë is the depiction of the children themselves. Children in Brontë’s works are rarely charming or presented sentimentally: in Jane Eyre, the Reed cousins are violent and selfish, Adele’s precocity is not delightful but disturbing; in Villette, the young Paulina Home is positively eerie.

In contrast, both humour and pathos mark Alcott’s and Dickens’s portraits of children. Not only does Alcott’s treatment of Daisy and Demi evoke Dickens’s comic vignettes of family life (the Bagnets of Bleak House or the Pocket family of Great Expectations, for example), but as in so many of Dickens’s novels, Alcott reminds us that childhood is a precarious time. Much as childhood mortality preoccupies Dickens (we think of Paul Dombey or Little Nell), so Beth’s death haunts Daisy’s early care, prompting Meg “to pray that she might be spared a loss like that which had lately taught them how long they had entertained an angel unawares” (359).

But perhaps the closest analogue to Meg’s twins in Dickens’s work is Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. Like Daisy and Demi, Tim is a sweet child, sentimentally observed, whose childish sayings, like Demi’s, help the adults around him see their world differently—and potentially make it a better place. No wonder, then, that Aunt Dodo rewards her young nephew at the end of this chapter with “a big slice of bread and jelly” (362).

Works Cited

Eiselein, Gregory and Anne K. Phillips. The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 2001.

Anne Longmuir teaches English at Kansas State University. She co-edited Victorian Literature: Criticism and Debates (Routledge 2016) with Lee Behlman (Montclair State University) and has published articles and book chapters on Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, John Ruskin, and Wilkie Collins, among others. To her shame, she didn’t read Little Women until she was fully grown up.

Bagnet Family
Illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) of the Bagnet Family in Bleak House, 1853.

 

Chapter XLIII. Surprises

Take One

By Mary Lamb Shelden

The chapter “Surprises” should be understood as a turning point in Little Women, for it begins with Jo as “a literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse,” and closes with Jo and Professor Bhaer singing to one another as “my beloved,” for all to hear. It bears some thinking through how Alcott gets from one point to the other.

In paragraphs 3-4 of the chapter, we receive what the narrator refers to self-effacingly as a “little homily” on spinsterhood – two stout paragraphs that strike me as Alcott’s bargain with her readers: for you, I have done my best to imagine Jo happily married to a man; as compensation, you must learn to understand and treat spinsters like me with respect. While our narrator acknowledges that “many silent sacrifices” may be “hidden away in the hearts” of some spinsters, still spinsterhood is “not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in oneself to fall back on.” To be sure, Alcott had that something in herself, and this should help us to consider what she’s doing here.

I so appreciate that in Roberta Trites’s exploration of Jo’s sexuality as important to our understanding of her romantic choices, she acknowledges that Alcott’s sense of her own identity may ultimately have been “influenced by the sexologists’ notion of inversion” (36). It’s important to understand, also, that Havelock Ellis’s idea of inversion did not encompass sexuality merely, but rather understood sexual attraction to be bound up with what we would now call gender identity – and that it’s possible Ellis himself could well have been influenced by Little Women and its internationally popular protagonist. This understanding helps us see differently Alcott’s assertion that she “went and made a funny match” for Jo “out of perversity” (125). So long as we are trying on ahistorical categories for Jo, we should consider her as a transgender man. Indeed, much of the textual evidence offered by critics for Jo’s lesbian identity is actually about her gender non-conformity, which Jo wrestles with on nearly every page of the novel where we find her name. What if, in imagining a mate for Jo (and by extension, for herself), Alcott tried to imagine into being the man she yearned to become? Strong and free, paddling his own canoe – caring and working for his family, but by finding his way in the world, rather than stuck at home. Free to proceed as his heart directs, Bhaer chooses an independent woman – an authoress he calls “professorin,” who will carry her share and help him to earn the home (ch 46) – and takes her mind and talent seriously, helping her indirectly (with Marmee’s more direct urging) to find her own way to the better writing that will bring him to her. And once his heart has chosen Jo, Bhaer works and waits for Jo to know her own heart and choose him, too. If Jo – if Alcott herself – could have transitioned to become the man she yearned to be, he would have made a fine mate for the woman she was constrained to be. Though she acquiesced to marrying Jo to a man, perhaps Alcott’s transcendent resolution, conscious or not, was that she would marry Jo to herself – that is, to a male version of herself – thus in a way staying true to Alcott’s own life as a spinster into the bargain.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeline Stern. Little Brown, 1987.

Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature, edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd, U of Michigan P, 2011, pp. 33-58.

Dr. Mary Lamb Shelden (she/her) is Director of Lifespan Religious Education at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, where one of the big meeting rooms for lifespan learners is named for Unitarian Louisa May Alcott. Her 2003 dissertation, “Novel Habits for a New World,” considers cross-dressing as a literary device in American novels throughout the Nineteenth Century and finds Alcott’s Jo March to be the first example of a “true transgender” character – for example, more comfortable in the clothes associated with the “opposite” sex than in those associated with what others understand to be “her own” sex.

jo and bhaer PBS
Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer, from Little Women (BBC, 2017)

Chapter XLI. Learning to Forget

By Claudia Mills

Beth has just passed through the valley of the shadow and been given up to God, following the chapter in which Amy unmercifully lectures Lazy Laurence. But it’s Laurie who is now trying to forget a different sister, the one he loved first and longest: Jo.

It’s strange that the chapter in which Laurie proposes to Amy has such a backward-gazing title, for here Laurie and Amy are not so much learning to forget, but starting to remember: who they both most truly are. And this will lead them to realize that their future lies together.

Few lovers come to each other with fewer illusions. Their previous encounter destroyed those illusions forever. Amy tells Laurie, truthfully, that she “despises” him for his indolent and self-indulgent ways. When Amy coolly confesses to Laurie that she plans to marry Fred Vaughn for his money and social position, Laurie observes that this “sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.” So: Amy knows that Laurie can be spoiled and entitled; Laurie knows that Amy can be mercenary and shrewd. These are serious flaws, indeed.

Both Amy and Laurie have also given up any illusion of artistic genius. Laurie abandons his efforts at composing a requiem (mourning Jo) and opera (starring Jo) after hearing one of Mozart’s “grand operas”: Mozart’s music “takes the vanity” out of Laurie just as the great artworks of Rome took the vanity out of Amy. Both must now accept the limits of their lesser gifts.

And as Laurie tries to forget Jo – succeeding far more easily than he had expected – he himself expresses the prospect of marrying Amy as a second-best outcome: when Mozart “couldn’t have one sister he took the other, and was happy.”

Alcott has made abundantly clear her intention to strip all romance away from the Laurie-Amy mating, taking care that Laurie’s proposal to Amy does not transpire, as Laurie had imagined it would, “in the chateau garden by moonlight, and in the most graceful and decorous manner,” but “exactly the reverse”: “the matter was settled” (what businesslike terminology!) “on the lake, at noonday, in a few blunt words.” While Laurie falls short of saying, “So, Ames, ol’ gal, should we go and get hitched?” his wish that they might “always pull in the same boat” has a similarly pragmatic ring to it.

And yet . . . and yet . . . when Laurie hastens to Amy after hearing of Beth’s death, and she hurls herself into his arms, crying, “Oh, Laurie, Laurie! I knew you’d come to me!” it’s hard not to feel one’s eyes growing misty. (And there are many less romantic spots to become engaged than Lake Geneva on the shores of picturesque Vevey!) Maybe, in the end, there is something to be said for love grounded in clear-eyed reality rather than “delusive fancies,” a deeper tenderness to sadder-but-wiser affection, and a happier ever-after when fairy tales are forgotten.

Claudia Mills is Associate Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a faculty member in the graduate programs in children’s literature at Hollins University. The author of almost sixty books for young readers and editor of Ethics and Children’s Literature (Ashgate, 2014), she has published articles on Alcott’s Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom and on Alcott’s childhood experiences at Fruitlands.

Images by Frank Merrill (1880).

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.

 

Merrill_Valleyoftheshadow.jpg
Frank Merrill, illustration from Little Women (1880)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXXV. Heartache

Take One

By Kristen Proehl

From L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2012), young adult literature is replete with representations of friendship that trouble the boundaries of romantic and platonic love; indeed, these relationships often exemplify what might be termed “queer friendships.” Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women reflects and might even be said to set the stage for these representations. For this reason, among others, it has served as an ideal framing text for my young adult literature courses. Our class discussions have tended to devote considerable attention to Chapter 35, “Heartache.” This chapter is widely known because it depicts Jo March’s romantic rejection of her adoring friend and neighbor, Laurie Laurence. Alcott’s girl readers were famously displeased with Jo’s rejection of Laurie, whom they believed to be her perfect match. Since then, “Heartache” has elicited an array of critical readings among Alcott scholars and continues to evoke a diversity of responses among my students.

In this chapter, Laurie has returned home from college, where he has labored to conform to what he perceives as Jo’s expectations for him. To his great disappointment, however, he learns that his efforts to transform himself for Jo’s sake have been in vain. Against Jo’s protestations, he confesses that he has loved her ever since the day they first met and implies that they should marry one another. In response, Jo insists that she has only ever loved him as a friend and explains that she never plans to marry. Laurie disagrees vehemently with her assessment, storms off to his grandfather’s house, and pounds out melancholy music. Jo attempts to intervene by talking to Laurie’s grandfather, who ultimately convinces Laurie to cope with his grief by traveling abroad.

For Jo and Laurie, the experience of coming of age also entails a coming to terms with the socially-constructed binary of romantic and platonic love. As their friendship transitions from one of childhood to adolescence, it becomes fraught with romantic tensions and frustrations. Her dilemma is one that appears throughout YA fiction because of its capacity to appeal to young, female readers. Perhaps counter-intuitively, her refusal to marry Laurie in order to simply advance her social position situates Jo within a position of power.

In her foundational essay, “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women,” Roberta Seelinger Trites notes that Laurie’s “girlishness” and Jo’s “boyishness provide the text with multiple layers of possibility” (48). She outlines her own and other scholars’ critical responses to this scene, including those of Martha Saxton, Sarah Elbert, and others (48-9). Building upon the diversity of critical responses to this chapter, I ask students to consider the following questions: is Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal a “strong affirmation of lesbian politics” (33), as Trites suggests? If, as Elbert notes, Laurie is both a “surrogate sister” and “son” to Jo, might her decision be interpreted as a rejection of an incestuous relationship? Finally, we also consider the extent to which Jo’s rejection of Laurie might set the stage for her marriage to Professor Bhaer—a more traditional relationship, to be sure, but one that is more closely aligned with her own spiritual and intellectual development. The capacity of “Heartache” to yield such a diversity of critical responses not only speaks to the complexity of Alcott’s writing but also illuminates many of our historically-constituted understandings of human relationships.

Works Cited

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger For Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Temple UP, 1984.

Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd. U. of Michigan P, 2011. 33-58.

Kristen Proehl is an assistant professor of English at SUNY-The College at Brockport, where she teaches courses in children’s, young adult, and American literature. She has recently published Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Social Justice, and the Tomboy Figure in American Literature (Routledge) and is at work on a second project, “Queer Friendship in Young Adult Literature.”

Merrill.Heartache
Illustration by Frank T. Merrill (1880).

 

Chapter XXXIII. Jo’s Journal

By Suzanne Rahn

They need to get away from home and “find themselves.” Today they’d be in college—bright young women in their late teens and early twenties, majors in Art and Creative Writing, measuring their talents and discovering (by trial and error) their core values.

The difference between Amy’s “college” year in Europe and Jo’s in New York City is obvious. Even the chapter titles are comically contrasted—the dignified, impressive “Our Foreign Correspondent” versus the home-grown, unassuming “Jo’s Journal.” Amy has beauty and luxury for her share, and Jo only penny-pinching drudgery and low social status in uninspiring surroundings. Yet there are parallels. Both girls, yearning to escape poverty, will realize that money should not be their primary objective. And while Amy re-discovers Laurie, Jo discovers—Professor Bhaer.

The delay between the first volume of Little Women and the second allowed ample time for reader input, and Alcott knew that “everyone” wanted Jo to marry Laurie. Vowing, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody!” she created a mate for Jo who would be virtually Laurie’s opposite—neither young, handsome, nor rich, but middle-aged, homely, and poor, with a bushy beard and a funny German accent. “Jo’s Journal” takes on a daunting challenge—to introduce an entirely new character, late in the story, who will nonetheless be of crucial importance, and to lay bare his un-Laurieish characteristics while still making him attractive.

Her strategy is to present Professor Bhaer as a mystery for Jo to solve, a man who piques her curiosity from the first. Newly arrived at Mrs. Kirke’s boarding-house, Jo sees “a gentleman” carry a heavy load of coal up three flights of stairs for “a little servant girl.” She is impressed by this unusual act of kindness—in the nineteenth century, virtually no one (including, clearly, Mrs. Kirke) found this backbreaking daily chore too much to ask of little servant girls.

“That must have been Professor Bhaer; he’s always doing things of that sort,” Mrs. Kirke tells her later. So Jo learns what the Professor is even before she knows who he is, and he has already aroused her respect—and curiosity.

By a fortunate happenstance, there is only a curtained glass door between the nursery where Jo sews and teaches Mrs. Kirke’s daughters and the parlor where the Professor gives German lessons. She tells her correspondents (Marmee and Beth), “I mean to peep at him, and then I’ll tell you how he looks.” Admitting it was “dreadfully improper. . . but I couldn’t resist the temptation,” she notes (and passes on) every detail of his face and clothes, witnesses a visit from little Tina (wondering if she is his child), listens while he gives a lesson to two dense young ladies, and takes another sympathetic peep “to see if he survived it.” Later, at the communal dinner table, she is not at all put off by the ways he “shovels in” his food, reasoning that “the poor man must have needed a deal of food after teaching idiots all day.” She is already on his side.

Thus Alcott enables us, too, to spy on the Professor and learn intimate and endearing details of his appearance and behavior, a not-quite-forbidden pleasure that continues even after he and Jo have been introduced. Jo (“by accident,” she insists) knocks open his bedroom door and sees him in his dressing gown, darning his own sock.   Next day, with Mrs. Kirke, she takes a thorough look around Bhaer’s “den” while he is out, and decides to secretly darn his socks herself. It is not long after this that the Professor—no fool—notices the darned socks, catches Jo in the act of trying to pick up some German on her own, and insists on teaching her in payment. If Jo’s spying has made her (and us) feel slightly guilty, his kindly “you peep at me, I peep at you, and that is not bad” lets us all off the hook.

The seal on their growing friendship comes at Christmas, when the Professor—aware by now of Jo’s ambitions—gives her his treasured one-volume Shakespeare. The gift makes her feel “rich.”

Jo will continue pondering the Professor. But in the fifteen pages of this “total immersion” introduction, she (and we) have already gotten to know and like him quite well.

Whether Alcott succeeds in winning the reader’s assent to Jo’s marrying him is another question. The Laurie-versus-Bhaer controversy rages to this day. But the depth of Jo’s love for her Professor by the story’s end seems to me entirely convincing.

Suzanne Rahn is the author of Rediscoveries in Children’s Literature and co-editor of “St. Nicholas” and Mary Mapes Dodge. She founded the Children’s Literature Program at Pacific Lutheran University. 

Brundage.Friedrich
Image by Frances Brundage (1929).

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)

 

Chapter XXX. Consequences

By Leslie Perrin Wilson

I appreciate Louisa May Alcott’s emphasis on family as a major focus of Little Women, but the struggle of each March girl to navigate between personal desires and ethical and social standards beyond themselves is at least as important to the story of their development toward maturity. The chapter “Consequences” explores what it takes to advance in the world.

Amy deals with hurt and anger over being demoted from the art table at the Chesters’ fund-raising fair to the less desirable flower table. Mrs. Chester, her daughter May, and May’s friends are swayed by jealousy (Amy attracts a lot of male attention and is talented, to boot), damaged pride (Jo has made fun of May while paying calls with Amy prior to the fair), and an underlying sense of class superiority.

Amy behaves well, conciliating the Chesters and making a success of her table with the help of Laurie and his friends. She learns that pushing back her inner feelings and impulses and conforming in some measure to expectations—which she genuinely acknowledges as necessary guides—will be rewarded by a trip to Europe with Aunt Carrol. She is aware of the connection between her actions and their outcome, and matter-of-factly embraces the consequences as her due, despite Jo’s disappointment at having been passed over for the trip.   From Amy’s perspective, virtue may be its own reward, but there’s nothing wrong with the personal benefits that may follow from it.

Working some years ago on an exhibition showcasing May Alcott as an artist, I explored Louisa May Alcott’s ambivalence about her youngest sister’s natural ability to get what she wanted from life. May’s inborn talent for fulfilling her aspirations by making others like her and securing their assistance by accommodating to accepted paradigms of womanly behavior ran counter to Louisa’s independence and drive for success entirely on her own terms. Louisa worked like a demon and often felt as if she were swimming upstream, while things seemed to come easier for May. That May was able to get what she wanted without the struggle and self-doubt that plagued her older sister did not escape Louisa’s notice, and seemed unfair. “Consequences” highlights Louisa May Alcott’s consciousness, learned first-hand, of the complicated relationship between self-fulfillment and the ability to push ourselves back and make compromises.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each balance the relative importance of external models of behavior and the voice within in their own way, as did Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May Alcott. However differently Louisa may have seen herself from her sister May in negotiating this balance, the two sisters were actually more similar than not. Both held self-expression as the primary objective.

Leslie Perrin Wilson is Curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library and a writer on local literary and historical topics.  Louisa May Alcott and her family have formed a major emphasis in collection development and interpretation at the library since the start of Leslie’s tenure in 1996, and a focus of significant scholarly attention, as well.  Leslie plans to retire at the end of July 2019.

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1877 portrait of May Alcott by Rose Peckham.

                                                    

Chapter XXIX. Calls

By Anne Boyd Rioux

This overlooked chapter is, to me, one of the most important in the book. It clearly shows how the differences between Jo and Amy, the most interesting pairing in the book, manifest themselves in adulthood. When the sisters were younger, it was Jo who had the upper hand, by virtue of being older, but now the scales have tipped. Amy is prepared to win the prizes that charming, agreeable young women have open to them, while Jo represents a very different, less appreciated, idea of adult womanhood.

As the chapter begins, Amy cajoles Jo into going on a round of social calls, or visits, to their neighbors. In preparation, Amy dresses up Jo to “look aristocratic” and instructs her to be on her best “lady-like” behavior. Instead, Jo exaggeratedly plays “the part of a prim young lady” and “charming girl,” essentially mocking the roles that Amy admires. Their confrontation comes to a head when Amy admonishes Jo for refusing to be polite to the snobbish Mr. Tudor, who is distantly related to the English nobility, and instead bestowing her attention on the poor young Tommy, however good and clever he may be.

In the chapter’s final pages, Jo criticizes Amy’s “morality,” for which Amy makes no apologies. It’s simply “the way of the world,” and she can’t stand the idea of going against the world and getting laughed at. Jo, in contrast, proudly announces her allegiance with the “reformers,” the “new set,” while Amy belongs to the “old.” Jo doesn’t mind being laughed at, for she knows the world needs those who look ahead and can imagine a future where character trumps nobility and social manners. History, she seems to suggest, is on the side of the Jos and the Tommies.

Those looking for evidence of Jo’s rebelliousness tend to focus on her not wanting to be a girl, wishing she could go to war, becoming the breadwinner of the family and starting a writing career. Yet these are all things, one could argue, that she eventually grows out of. Here in the “Calls” chapter, however, Jo articulates a philosophy of progressive reform that Louisa herself shared and never grew out of. She was fond of signing her letters, “Yours for Reform of All Kinds.”

At this point we are likely to side with Jo, but the chapter doesn’t end there. Jo herself foreshadows that it will be Amy who “get[s] on the best” because she has the demeanor and charm that society appreciates in women. The day of the Jos had not yet come, Alcott seems to be saying. This had something to do with Louisa’s feelings about the real-life Amy, her youngest sister, May, who, she once said, “always had the cream of things.” This was ten years after the publication of Little Women, when, she also concluded, “My time is yet to come” (Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine Stern, eds., The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, p. 209).

Anne Boyd Rioux is the author of  Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, published by W. W. Norton in 2018. She also edited a 150th anniversary of Little Women for Penguin Classics, and is a professor at the University of New Orleans. 

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Image by Frank Merrill (1880)