Chapter XLIII. Surprises

Take Two

By Paige Gray

Not far into the Little Women chapter “Surprises,” Jo awakens to find her long-absent best friend not in Europe, but very present in the March home. Astonished and bewildered, Jo wonders how “Laurie’s ghost seemed to stand before her” (343). Indeed, Jo then determines, this is some spectral version of her Teddy, a “substantial, lifelike ghost leaning over her, with the very look he used to wear when he felt a good deal, and didn’t like to show it” (343).

“Surprises” pivots around the idea of ghosts and how they haunt us—not a haunting through terror, but a haunting through the heartache of memory, of past lives and paths not chosen. However, the chapter also makes us confront what and who become ghosts. Is the ghost this married man, this dignified, self-assured Laurie who now deeply loves Amy, or is the ghost the memory that Jo holds with her—the awkward Teddy who worships, adores, and loves only her?

Rather than definitively answering such an impossible question, Jo and Little Women instead focus on how to navigate a life populated with such ghosts, those ghosts of our former selves, with all their triumphs and our tragedies, and those ghosts of our present, like this Laurie, who seemingly defy the existential truths upon which our identities have been built.

With the arrival of newlyweds Amy and Laurie to the March home, and with the recent loss of Beth, Jo must find a way to live with these hauntings. Because “Beth still seemed among them—a peaceful presence—invisible, but dearer than ever” (352), Jo can use this “presence” as a source of strength and affirmation. Beth’s ghost ostensibly comforts Jo, instilling her with a sense of determination to move on. The memory of her meek sister suffuses the March house in a way that makes Beth more present in death than she was, perhaps, in life. In death, she uncharacteristically commands Jo, telling her to “[b]e happy!” (352).

The ghosts that surround the marriage of Amy and Laurie—this ghostly new man who challenges Jo’s former idea of Laurie, the ghost of the boy-dreamer Teddy, and the ghost of their childhood friendship and infatuation—lead Jo to a different ghost. When Professor Bhaer shows up at the March house, Jo thinks “another ghost had come to surprise her” (350). Bhaer is “another ghost,” a figure that challenges and unsettles—he haunts her, but haunts her in the sense that he accompanies her into a new way of understanding and constructing her future life.

“Surprises” underscores the power of those ghosts that haunt us, and ultimately suggests that ghosts do not surprise us through their presence—they surprise us through their considerable influence.

Paige Gray is a professor of liberal arts and writing at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her book, Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age, will be published by SUNY Press in August 2019. 

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Illustration by Tasha Tudor (1969)

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 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 XXXIV. A Friend

By Daniel Shealy

The chapter “A Friend” presents readers with two important topics: a glimpse into America’s mass-market publishing world of the 19th century and the nascent romance between Jo and Professor Bhaer. While these two topics initially appear at odds with each other, they instead blend together by the chapter’s end to give us a better understanding of both the Professor and Jo.

When Jo, in her best attire, climbs the stairs to the “Weekly Volcano” office, she stands in stark contrast to the male world she enters—a world Alcott herself knew well since she was still penning thrillers for Frank Leslie, even as she was composing this chapter. (From the late 1850s until 1870, Alcott published over 30 sensational stories.) In this portrait of a shabby room engulfed in cigar smoke, the author paints an unflattering image of a slightly seedy male-dominated publishing world. As Mr. Dashwood edits Jo’s story, striking out all of her “moral reflections,” he advises her, “Morals don’t sell nowadays.” However, readers often overlook the narrator’s ironic comment immediately following his remark: “[This] was not quite a correct statement, by the way.” With winking self-regard, the author ridicules one genre while embracing another. Part 1 of Little Women was already successful when Alcott wrote these words. The qualifying “not quite a correct statement” whispers to the reader: consider the volume in your hand.

As Jo conjures up heroes “with every perfection under the sun” for her sensation stories, she discovers, in Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house, “a live hero”: Professor Bhaer. After he condemns the writing of thrillers in general, she takes his message to heart because she values Bhaer’s “goodness” and “intellect.” Examining her own work, she realizes that her stories “are trash” and abandons them. Her attempts at didactic fiction and children’s stories prove unsuccessful, so she gives up writing and begins to spend more evenings with Bhaer, a good use of her time as our narrator hints of Jo’s future: “she was learning other lessons besides German, and laying a foundation for the sensation story of her own life.”

As the chapter closes with Jo’s preparation to return home, readers get the first glimpse that Bhaer is romantically interested in Jo. When she asks him to come and visit, Bhaer questions, with a look of “eager expression, which she did not see,” if her request is genuine. But after Jo quickly invites him to come the following month for Laurie’s graduation, he immediately thinks that she is in love with Laurie and speaks to her in “an altered tone.” As he sits in his room alone later that night, we see him hoping for a future that he does not think possible. But Alcott, in the final lines of the chapter, gives her readers a hint as to how it may all turn out. When Jo says goodbye to Bhaer the next morning, she notes that she has made a good friend and thinks to herself: “I’ll try to keep him all my life.”

Daniel Shealy is Professor of English at UNC-Charlotte.  He is co-editor of Alcott’s Selected Letters and Journals and most recently edited Little Women: An Annotated Edition.  In the late 1980s, he discovered “new” Alcott thrillers, which were later published in Freaks of Genius.

Merrill.Volcano
Image by Frank T. Merrill (1880)
Byrne.A
Image from the 1994 feature film of Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong