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.”

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Illustration by Frank T. Merrill (1880).

 

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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 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.

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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).

LaurieBeard

Christian Bale as Laurie, Little Women (1994).

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.

littlewomen4

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915

Chapter XIV. Secrets

By Jacinta Mioni

It was just another sweltering June afternoon in Kansas, the summer between my fifth and sixth grades, when I happened upon a shelf in my local public library dedicated to the works of Louisa May Alcott. The rest of that summer vacation was spent in the air conditioning, immersed in the lives of Alcott’s characters. Thirteen years later, you can imagine how my breathe quite literally caught in my throat when I saw the course listing for English 720 at K-State, a class dedicated solely to the creator of my childhood heroes and heroines, of whom I was particularly fond of the March sisters. Of course, I enrolled in the class immediately and I want to give you a little peek into our classroom and its many lively discussions.

A theme that has resurfaced several times in our consideration of Little Women, and one that fascinates me, is the change that necessarily accompanies growing up, and the various ways that Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy react to it. I don’t  know about you, but for teenager me, the thought of growing up was a dismal one. When my older sister got married, I cried for days because I realized that my seven siblings and I were not going to stay together forever. I wanted to stay in high school for the rest of my life because if I did, my best friend and I would get to share every moment with each other forever.

I think that is why I connect so much with Jo in the “Secrets” chapter of Little Women, as she experiences similar “growing pains.” In this chapter, Laurie discloses to Jo that John Brooke stole Meg’s glove and has been carrying it around in his pocket, cherishing it with romantic hope. Far from being delighted by news of her sister’s potential suitor, Jo is horrified by the revelation. Realizing that her sister and best friend will eventually get married and move on without her, Jo declares—in typical Jo fashion—that she wants to stay young for as long as she can and advises Meg to wish for the same.

Blinded by the painful thought of losing her sister, Jo overlooks the fact that her own life is beginning to change right alongside Meg’s. At the beginning of the chapter, she submits some of her stories for publication at the local newspaper. Although it takes her several attempts before she summons the courage to enter the publishing house, this moment marks Jo’s blossoming independence and maturity.

At the end of the chapter, Jo no longer cries tears of sadness over growing up, but tears of joy over her story that is chosen for publication. She is thrilled by the possibilities that adulthood holds for her as a writer and as an independent woman. Over the course of this chapter, Jo learns something that most children realize as they make the transition into adulthood: that growing up is not so bad after all.

Jacinta Mioni is a senior pursuing her B.A. in English literature and French at Kansas State University. After graduation, she plans to travel a great deal and then pursue further studies in children’s literature.

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Illustration by Boopliette, http://boopliette.tumblr.com/archive, December 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XIII. Castles in the Air

By Angela Hubler

“Wouldn’t it be fun if all castles in the air which we could make could come true and we could live in them?” says Jo, in chapter 13, “Castles in the Air.” Jo thus encourages utopian dreaming, not only by Laurie and her sisters but by generations of readers, revealing why this text has been a touchstone for artistic and ambitious women for 150 years. Laurie and the March girls express their hearts’ desires, and as the novel progresses each sister achieves—at least to some degree– what she has pined and labored for: Meg is mistress of the “lovely house, full of…pleasant people”; Jo writes books “out of a magic inkstand”; Beth remains “at home safe with father and mother” until she flies in at “that splendid gate”; and Amy goes to Rome and develops her talents as an artist.

Of course, generations of critics have argued about the degree to which the trajectory of the girls’ lives, especially Jo’s, diminishes and tames their dreams, and the power of these arguments must be acknowledged. However, Alcott’s depiction of the force of traditional constructions of gender upon girls’ lives may be liberating rather than limiting. As Judy Simons and Shirley Foster argue, classic girls’ literature, including Little Women, “conveys the difficulties and anxieties of girlhood, and . . . suggests that becoming a ‘little woman’ is a learned and often fraught process, not an instinctual or natural condition of female development” (What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of Classic Stories for Girls, 93). Thus, Alcott’s depiction may allow readers to understand the insidious ways that patriarchy shapes girls and boys, and enable their resistance.

The dreams in this chapter are liberatory in yet another way: the March sisters dream of improving not their appearance but their character and accomplishments. As Joan Jacobs Brumberg shows in her fascinating analysis of girls’ diaries from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, the resolutions that girls made historically pertained to being better people. Indeed, a journal entry made by thirteen year-old Louisa exemplifies Brumberg’s claim:

I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens, and no more a child. I am old for my age, and don’t care much for girl’s things. People think I’m wild and queer; but Mother understands and helps me. I have not told anyone about my plans but I am going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins, and it doesn’t seem to do any good! Now I’m going to work really, for I feel a true desire to improve, and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow to my dear mother. (Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney, 48)

By contrast, twentieth century girls’ diaries, says Brumberg, focus on “good looks” rather than “good works” (The Body Project xx). The body, not the mind and character, is seen as central to “strategies for self-improvement or struggles for personal identity” (xxi). Such an argument resonates with my students, who share stories of “boob jobs” as graduation gifts. Seen in this light, the venerable Little Women offers a progressive challenge to contemporary cultural attitudes about femininity.

Angela Hubler is an Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Kansas State University where she has the pleasure of discussing Alcott and Little Women with students in many of her classes.

Cecilia Latella. cabepfir

Illustration by Cecilia Latella.