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).

 

Advertisements

Chapter XXXVIII. On the Shelf

By Christine Doyle

In Chapter 38, Alcott returns to Meg’s story after a ten-chapter hiatus. The last time we saw Meg, she had survived a difficult adjustment to being a poor man’s wife and had just given birth to twins Daisy and Demi. Three immediately preceding hyper-dramatic chapters (Jo refusing Laurie, Beth acknowledging her impending death, Laurie and Amy reuniting) provide extra emphasis to Meg’s exhaustion and despondency after a year of being overwhelmed with child care. After an astute cultural observation about how European women are less free while single but more so once they marry, while for American women it is just the opposite, the chapter turns to Meg’s feelings of seclusion and separation from all but the most mundane affairs of house and baby care. Husband John, meanwhile, feels ignored and starts spending more and more time away from home with his good friends the Scotts, who are childless.

This chapter about boredom is striking to me for several reasons. First, when I re-read Little Women for the first time in many years as a 35-year-old graduate student, I had no memory of its being part of the novel. I even pulled out my childhood copy (a gift when I was 12) to see if perhaps mine was an abridged version, or maybe only Part I. It wasn’t. The chapter was always there; I just hadn’t noticed it. I also wondered: how did the unmarried Louisa know about the profound changes to a marriage that children engender? Of course, a writer needn’t personally experience everything she writes about, and her sister Anna did have two children close in age. Still, what remarkable insights!

What is most remarkable to me, though, is Marmee’s advice in this chapter. (In the earlier chapter, Meg was able to figure things out and patch up her relationship with John by just remembering things Marmee had told her; this time Marmee actually gets involved.) Marmee observes, “This is just the time. . . when young married people are apt to grow apart, and the very time when they ought to be most together,” and urges Meg, “don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours.” In 1869, she makes a pitch for co-parenting! She tells Meg to accept help at home, get more exercise and go out and enjoy herself! She further encourages her to nurture her marital relationship, and when Meg begins to (reluctantly) take an interest in the politics that occupy John, it gets results; he (awkwardly) reciprocates by taking an interest in the bonnet she’s making. The “division of labor” that ensues, though in many ways still traditional, helps to re-constitute their loving relationship and make their home “a cheerful place, full of happiness,” once again. As is true of many aspects of Little Women, this movement toward egalitarian marriage seems a century ahead of its time!

Christine Doyle is a Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University and author of Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations (University of Tennessee Press, 2000) – and a mother of three who now knows what Alcott was talking about in this chapter.

 

images-2
Image: Dan Russell

 

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

 

XXIII. Aunt March Settles the Question

By Elizabeth Lennox Keyser

Like Dee Anne Anderson, who blogged about the “Vanity Fair” chapter, I as a pre-teen identified with Meg, not Jo. As the eldest of three sisters I saw myself, like Meg, as the “grown-up in the room,” above the squabbles of my younger siblings. And, growing up in the 1950s, I could not envision for myself a career other than marriage and motherhood. Thus the “Vanity Fair” chapter, this one, and, in Part II, “Domestic Experiences” were among my favorites. Even Meg’s later discovery that “marriage is very trying” (part II, chapter iv) did nothing to dissuade me from constructing a “castle in the air” similar to hers.

In my teens I “graduated” from Alcott to Austen, from Little Women to Pride and Prejudice, another novel about a family of daughters. And on reading chapter 23 this time I made a fresh connection between Alcott and Austen. Although Meg has just assured Jo that she will reject John Brooke’s proposal with dignity, she is on the verge of succumbing until she detects that, despite his “beseeching” tone, he is sure of his success. While Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (the possessor, like John, of a pair of fine dark eyes) has other reasons for rejecting Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, his complacency offends her: “she could see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer” (II, xi). Thus both Meg and Elizabeth shock their suitors by initially refusing them. Months elapse before Darcy tries again as opposed to moments in John’s case, but both are encouraged to renew their suits by the interference of aunts—in John’s case Aunt March, who feels Meg will be marrying beneath herself, and in Darcy’s his own aunt, Lady Catherine, who believes Darcy will. Both aunts threaten the girls: Aunt March threatens to disinherit Meg and predicts she will be miserable living in a cottage; Lady Catherine threatens that Darcy’s aristocratic family will shun Elizabeth. Both young women respond indignantly, refusing to promise not to enter into an engagement and asserting that the prohibited marriage would be a happy one despite any loss of economic or social standing. As a result Darcy a few days later renews his suit, admitting that his aunt’s unsuccessful interference “taught him to hope” (III, xvi). John, who overhears Meg defend him to Aunt March, proposes again immediately.

Austen wrote no sequels to Pride and Prejudice, leaving that task to innumerable modern authors, but Alcott at the end of Part I suggests that she might raise the curtain on a second act of Little Women. And in this second act Aunt March settles more questions. Her preference for the amenable Amy as opposed to the intractable Jo helps persuade Aunt Carrol to take Amy, not Jo, abroad, thus enabling the eventual courtships of Laurie and Professor Bhaer. And of course her willing of Plumfield to Jo enables the Bhaers to found their school, the site of two further sequels.

The final scene in Part I diverges from the group scenes so often depicted by illustrators of Little Women. Instead of the sisters gathered around Marmee or Beth at the piano, the characters appear in pairs: Marmee and Mr. March, Beth and old Mr. Laurence, Meg and John, Jo and Laurie. Only Amy is alone, “drawing the lovers.” Interestingly, Part II ends fifteen years later with the familiar, much loved tableau featuring Marmee and her daughters, each of whom has realized or improved upon her castle in the air.

Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, professor emerita of Hollins University, is the author of Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott (1993), Little Women: A Family Romance (1999), and the editor of The Portable Louisa May Alcott (2000).

Jambor

Illustration by Louis Jambor (1947).

XXII. Pleasant Meadows

By Wendy Matlock

Growing up a bookworm and a reprobate, I loved Little Women despite its morality. I wanted to be Jo with her shorn hair, literary ambitions, and adventurous spirit, and I skipped over all allusions to the girls’ Christmas gifts from Marmee, personalized, color-coded copies of “that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived” (ch. 2). My dislike for didacticism may have led me to become a medievalist, because I relish Geoffrey Chaucer’s play with sentence (moral seriousness) and solaas (entertainment) in the Canterbury Tales. The Nun’s Priest, for example, tells a beast fable starring the handsome rooster Chauntecleer. The tale concludes with four different morals: one for the cock, one for the fox antagonist, one for readers, and one for the organizer of the storytelling competition. Imagine my surprise rereading Little Women as an adult and recognizing Alcott’s equally complex handling of sentence and solaas. Indeed, in volume 1, chapters 6-9, Alcott derives four different lessons for four vividly realized characters from a single allegorical narrative, the story of Christian from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Allegorical narratives, it turns out despite my youthful disdain, can be quite sophisticated. Margaret Atwood highlights their complexity when she connects Pilgrim’s Progress to speculative fiction as stories that “can speak of what is past and passing, but especially of what’s to come” (“The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake in Context,” PMLA 119.3, 515). Little Women does more than just allude to Bunyan’s work. Alcott uses it to structure the first volume. Marmee’s night-before-Christmas plan in Chapter 1 invites her daughters to recreate their childish playacting of Pilgrim’s Progress, “not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home.” That arc culminates in Chapter 22, “Pleasant Meadows.” Jo even reminds us of its perfect symmetry, asking, “Just a year ago we were groaning over the dismal Christmas we expected to have. Do you remember?” The chapter welcomes home Mr. March and recounts his assessment of the girls’ journeys so far: he praises Meg’s industriousness, Jo’s gentleness, Beth’s increasing outgoingness, and Amy’s generosity, the very qualities they strove for during their earnest peregrinations.

We see in “Pleasant Meadows” how thoroughly Alcott incorporates the art of allegory, which, Augustine of Hippo explains, “causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses” (On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr., 43). In other words, allegory requires a deep grounding in the literal to invite readers into symbolic interpretations. Chapter 22 begins in sensory detail—the snowman and Beth’s gifts, the pratfalls that greet Mr. March—and ends with symbolism and song, Beth’s performance of her original piano accompaniment to a hymn from Pilgrim’s Progress:

Fulness to them a burden is,

     That go on Pilgrimage;

Here little, and hereafter bliss,

     Is best from age to age.

“Here” in this song, this moment, this chapter, the reunited family enjoys a little bliss, but too much pleasure becomes a burden. Anne Phillips explicates Beth’s “most serious sin” as “her failure to love God more than she loves her family” (“The Prophets and the Martyrs: Pilgrims and Missionaries in Little Women and Jack and Jill,” Little Women and the Feminist Imagination, edited by Janice M. Alberghene and Beverly Lyon Clark, 224). Her music at the end of “Pleasant Meadows” acknowledges Beth’s struggle and embeds us in it. We appreciate the solaas of the domestic story but risk ignoring the sentence it contains. “Pleasant Meadows” enfolds us in the family’s warm embrace even as it acknowledges the moment’s transience (whether caused by an excess of love for the world or not). The final chapter in the volume, “Aunt March Settles the Question,” sets in motion the household’s dissolution. This penultimate chapter pauses that inevitability, gazing instead into a speculative future, “hereafter bliss.”

Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University, Wendy Matlock teaches medieval literature and specializes in using old pop culture to sell even older pop culture.

beth_march_playing_the_piano_by_lalaadanwenb-dbufdob

Illustration by LalaAdanwenB, who writes, “Beth is my favourite March sister and one of my most important heroines, I identify so much with her… I tried drawing her lost in her own world here” (https://www.deviantart.com/lalaadanwenb/art/Beth-March-playing-the-piano-716233979).

Chapter XXI. Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace

By Jan Alberghene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Katharine_hepburn_little_women

Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Little Women (1933), directed by George Cukor.