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)

 

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Chapter XXV. The First Wedding

By Elizabeth Schroll

As a recent bride, I am familiar with the numerous preparations involved in planning the day Alcott describes as “the sweetest chapter in the romance of womanhood,” not to mention the many emotions this major life change elicits for the happy couple and their loved ones. However, I found the prospect of examining the chapter devoted to Meg’s wedding day daunting. With her love of frills and the boring (to my younger self) John Brooke, Meg never interested me. I have more of a Beth personality—shy but passionate about family and cats—with (I hope) a dash of Jo’s flair and (I pretend) Amy’s elegance. Rereading Alcott’s novel gave me new perspective on Meg. She still isn’t my favorite, but she deserves her fair share of attention. Judging by the narrator’s approving descriptions, I’m not alone in this assessment.

When readers are introduced to Meg, she is complaining about being “poor.” This impression is colored by the narrator’s explanation that Meg is “rather vain” about her pretty hands (ch. 1) but that “in spite of her small vanities, Margaret had a sweet and pious nature” (ch. 2). As the narrative unfolds, we see Meg moving beyond her little vanities and learning life lessons essential to a successful marriage—putting others before self, working toward common goals, and valuing what truly matters, to name a few.

When Meg and Jo attend a New Year’s Eve party, Meg unwisely wears shoes that are lovely but too small. The narrator notes this vanity and judges Meg for it: “Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it . . . which was not exactly comfortable; but, dear me, let us be elegant or die!” (ch. 3). Lovingly scolding Meg for letting vanity trump prudence, the narrator also reveals that enjoying life depends on your state of mind rather than your bank account. Meg is not destined to a life devoid of fun, if she can learn to be content with what she has.

Spending two weeks with her rich friend Annie Moffat is a litmus test of Meg’s character. Ironically, the empty feeling this experience gives Meg makes her more content with her life, splendid though it is not. She learns, too, that dressing up as someone she isn’t does no one any favors, least of all herself.

When asked to describe her dearest castle in the air, Meg identifies the wealthy lifestyle she viewed at Annie Moffat’s: “a lovely house” with “luxurious things” and “plenty of servants” (ch. 13). By the time John offers Meg a much different vision of happiness—a small home filled with love and the happiness borne of earning a living—Meg has changed her tune. When their wedding day dawns, Meg has learned to value this life so unlike her youthful daydreams. That the narrator approves is evident in her description of Meg: “all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty.” Rather than wearing shoes that are too small or a dress that doesn’t suit her, Meg declares: “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.” Furthermore, she is “too happy to care what anyone says or thinks” about her wedding decisions. Oho! Is this the same Meg who once loved finery and cared so much for others’ opinions that she’d risk spraining an ankle to achieve approbation?

If so, she deserves credit. Having just planned a wedding, I am well aware of the expectations placed on the bride to do things a certain way on that special day, and I admire those who ignore such expectations (well-intentioned as they may have been) to honor their own values. The narrator reveals similar pride in Meg’s wedding decisions: she describes guests as “enjoying the sunshine without and within” and admits, “It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, ‘The first kiss for Marmee!’ and, turning, gave it with her heart on her lips.” Rather than conforming to societal pressures, Meg manages to do what feels natural on her wedding day, honoring those she loves and demonstrating that her hard-won lessons about happiness were more fulfilling than the fleeting niceties she’d once aspired to attain.

Elizabeth Schroll has an M.A. in English from Kansas State University. She resides in Colorado with her husband—and soon, much to her excitement, a cat—and copy-edits books for NavPress. When she isn’t working, Elizabeth can usually be found reading, singing, hiking, or engaged in sundry other activities that involve experiencing the beautiful Colorado sunshine and scenery firsthand.

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Still from Little Women (1994), directed by Gillian Armstrong.

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

 

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).

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.

XV. A Telegram

By Ashley Cook

In the fall of 2006, I enrolled in an American survey course; one of the selections on our course list was Little Women. I had no idea when I picked up that used Norton Critical Edition in the campus bookstore what a place Alcott’s writing would have in my life. Her words provided inspiration for a Maid of Honor toast during a friend’s wedding—thankfully my friend married before she became a “haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty”—while Eight Cousins became the foundation for my Master’s Project. Some might view Alcott’s work as moral guidance for the young, but I see in it resistance and a desire to change the status quo—a bit of “sticking it to the man,” if you will.

Within the pages of “A Telegram” is a scene that remains etched in my mind even years after my first reading of Little Women. When Jo reveals to her family that she has cut off and sold her hair so that Marmee will have money to support her rush to Mr. March’s bedside, some members of her family are first shocked—perhaps even appalled—that she would cut her “beautiful hair…[her] one beauty.” While the others focus only on how Jo looks with her cropped hair, Marmee alone understands the magnitude of Jo’s sacrifice and the resolve Jo must have had to follow through with her decision to sell her hair. Marmee knows the gift of the lone lock of chestnut hair is more than just a bit of hair—it is a piece of Jo herself that she sacrificed for her family.

As an adult, I see younger Jo as someone who struggles to find her identity in a world that tells her she isn’t pretty enough or feminine enough or, simply, enough. I’ve always thought Jo’s decision to cut her hair served two purposes. First, she was able to give a bit of herself to help her family. Second, what better way to thumb her nose at a society that tells her she MUST present a certain way than to cut her long hair? Jo is sure of her decision to sell her hair and shed conformity until her family’s negative reaction gets in her head. Only then does she lament the loss of her “vanity” as she describes it.

Why is long hair so associated with womanhood and femininity? Is Jo’s only motivation to provide money for her family? Jo’s haircut leads me to think of other women who have shorn their long hair in response to something traumatic in their lives. Frida Kahlo cut her long hair off shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Carrie Bradshaw flaunts a cute, short haircut after her second break-up with Aidan. Mulan cuts her hair to pass as a man so she can take her father’s place in battle. These are just a few examples.

I do believe that the chief motivation behind Jo’s decision to cut her hair is to provide for her family, but I also see it as an act of defiance. In a time when her options are limited, Jo’s haircut is a rebellion against societal norms.

A former Kansas State University student, Ashley Cook spends her time riding bicycles, fostering cats, and reading books.

Merrill.haircut

Chapter XI. Experiments

Take Two

By Mark Gallagher

Louisa May Alcott was deeply affected by the Fruitlands experiment. While she eventually wrote a satirical history of it, her first published commentary on her father’s failed utopia appears in Chapter 11 of Little Women, “Experiments,” where the March sisters indulge in the “all play, and no work” lifestyle that led to Fruitlands’ failure and the near ruin of Alcott’s family.

The chapter begins on June 1st, the same day Fruitlands was founded in 1843. Meg is relieved of her governess duties for the summer, while Jo is reprieved by a vacationing Aunt March. Deciding that lounging is the preferred course of inaction, all four sisters abandon their domestic duties for a week of personal freedom. Mrs. March consents, “You may try your experiment for a week, and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play, and no work, is as bad as all work, and no play.”

Neglecting their domestic work, the girls are not unlike the carefree, aspiring-vegetable-eating idealists who lived with the Alcotts at their new Eden in Harvard, Massachusetts. As Alcott noted in “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873),

Slowly things got into order, and rapidly rumors of the new experiment went abroad, causing many strange spirits to flock thither, for in those days communities were the fashion and transcendentalism raged wildly. Some came to look on and laugh, some to be supported in poetic idleness, a few to believe sincerely and work heartily. Each member was allowed to mount his favorite hobby and ride it to his heart’s content.

Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s utopia failed in spectacularly foolish ways, particularly because the men failed to assume an equitable share in domestic responsibilities—or any responsibilities at all, for that matter. In her journal for Friday, November 2nd, 1843, eleven-year-old Louisa writes:

Anna and I did the work. In the evening Mr. Lane asked us, “What is man?” These were our answers: A human being; an animal with a mind; a creature; a body; a soul and a mind. After a long talk we went to bed very tired.

Years later, Alcott commented, “No wonder, after doing the work and worrying their little wits with such lessons” (Journals 46-47). The contrast between Alcott’s work ethic and Lane’s attitude is striking. Sharing his vision of the “consociate family,” Lane writes, “Of all the traffic in which civilized society is involved, that of human labour is perhaps the most detrimental” (The New Age [November 1, 1843] pp. 116-120). Lane subsequently left Fruitlands for a Shaker community, where “he soon found the order of things was reversed, and it was all work and no play” (“Transcendental Wild Oats”).

The “Experiments” story is similar to one Alcott remembers Lane reading at Fruitlands. She recounts the story of “The Judicious Father” in which a “rich girl” is punished for being cruel to a “poor girl” who only wanted to “look over the fence at the flowers” in her yard. The girl’s father makes her exchange clothes with the other girl, forcing her to wear the old rags for a week. The moral lesson was not lost on young Louisa: “I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people” (Journals, 45). Such kindness is evident in the charity the March sisters give to the less fortunate Hummels. In “Experiments,” however, we hear the story from the perspective of the “shabby girls” who escape the drudgery of their housework to enjoy a week in their own flowerbeds. Luckily, they have a judicious mother to give them a lesson in the vice of idleness and the virtue of work.

The girls soon tire of the experiment and wish it were over. They are ready to take up their responsibilities again but not before one vulnerable friend suffers, as Daniel Shealy notes, the “consequences of neglected work” (Annotated Little Women, 168). Pip’s death is a melodramatic reminder to those children for whom Isaac Watts’ warning against the evils of “idle hands” is not enough of a moral. When Jo promises, “We’ll work like bees, and love it too, see if we don’t,” it is an imperative as well as a prediction. For while it was common for children to work with their families—on farms, in the family business, or doing housework—too often families suffered from failed entrepreneurial schemes and other risky endeavors that made child labor an economic necessity. Alcott’s experience at Fruitlands taught her that.

Mark Gallagher (@MarkRussellG) is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at UCLA. His primary teaching and research interest is American Transcendentalism.

The burial of a bird
“Here lies Pip March, / Who died the 7th of June; / Loved and lamented sore, / And not forgotten soon.” — Jo [Image courtesy of J. Alden Weir, “Children Burying a Bird” (1878), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.]