Chapter XL. The Valley of the Shadow

By Joy Smith

The deaths of Louisa May Alcott’s close family and friends profoundly impacted her in part because she played nurse to them just as she had been a nurse during the Civil War. We know she wrote many of her elegies following the deaths of close family and friends. She was especially affected by the deaths of her sisters Elizabeth and May, her mother, and her close friend Henry David Thoreau. Here, we will look at Beth, inspired by “Lizzie,” whose death Alcott represents in Chapter XL, “The Valley of the Shadow.” In her journal entry for March 14, 1858, Alcott describes her “dear Beth[’s] death” (Journals, 88). She explains how Beth called them together and held their hands a few days before she passed away. She recounts how as Beth died she “saw a light mist rise from the body, and float up and vanish in the air” and how her “[m]other’s eyes followed” hers, which the doctor said was “the life departing visibly” (89). In her journal entry the next month, Alcott states of Beth’s death that “I don’t miss her as I expected to do, for she seems nearer and dearer than before; and I am glad to know she is safe from pain and age in some world where her innocent soul must be happy” (89). She adds, “Death never seemed terrible to me, and now is beautiful, so I cannot fear it, but find it friendly and wonderful” (89). In these journal entries, Alcott incorporates sentimentalism.

In examining the chapter, we see these same sentiments from Alcott’s life echoed in the novel. Just as in nineteenth-century elegies, the narrator reflects on Beth’s last days. We see this through the family placing Beth in the “pleasantest room in the house” and providing her with “everything that she most loved.” She is the nineteenth-century angel of the house and “like a household saint in its shrine” who exclaims “[h]ow beautiful this is.” Beth’s statement in this chapter reflects the nineteenth-century fixation on “the beautiful death.” She again is the “Angel of the house” as the narrator describes her as “benignant angel–not a phantom full of dread” after she passes.  The narrator echoes the nineteenth-century custom of depicting death as sleep as “mother and sisters made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again.” The hope of eternal rest and happiness comes through the bird whose song made “those who loved it best” smile “through their tears, and thank . . . God that Beth was well at last.” These words echo the nineteenth-century hope of eternal rest, peace, and wholeness.

The poem, “My Beth,” though written prior to Beth’s death, also incorporates nineteenth-century elegiac conventions and echoes nineteenth-century mourning custom conventions. An elegy, a poem written upon the death of a loved one, contains the conventions of lament, complaint, commemoration of the deceased’s last days, and consolation. In the opening stanza, the speaker expresses the elegiac convention of lament: “Earthly joys, and hopes, and sorrows, / Break like ripples on the strand / Of the deep and solemn river / Where her willing feet now stand.”  The sorrow echoes both Jo’s grief and Alcott’s own experience of losing her sister. The complaint is seen as the speaker calls out, “Oh, my sister passing from me, / Out of human care and strife.” The speaker complains of being left alone while acknowledging that her sister gets to leave all care and struggles behind. Nevertheless, just as Alcott finds solace in knowing that her sister no longer suffers, Jo finds consolation in knowing that her sister leaves behind lessons to learn from and makes her calmer, more focused, and more trusting.

The elegy and chapter resound with the sentiments Alcott expresses in her journals and letters upon her sister’s death, commemorating their bond. They also enshrine within Little Women central components of nineteenth-century American mourning customs.

Work Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealy, and Madeleine B. Stern. Little Brown, 1989.

Joy Smith is an Instructor of English at Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, LA where she teaches English and Reading courses. She earned her PhD from Middle Tennessee State University where her dissertation focused on the elegies of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Stephen Crane.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XVII. Little Faithful

By Anindita Bhattacharya

Louisa May Alcott has immortalized American girlhood in her nineteenth century novel Little Women. The narrative reflects Louisa’s own very ambivalent views on womanhood with a curious juxtaposition of didacticism, sentimentalism, and feminism. Whether it is Jack and Jill: A Village Story or Behind a Mask, her ‘women’ are always struggling to strike a balance between fulfilling their womanly duties and nurturing their ambitions, and also being sufficiently punished for such predilections.

The seventeenth chapter of Little Women represents this conflict through the episode with Beth. It begins with the girls giving themselves a little ‘holiday’ from all the household chores and responsibilities in the absence of Marmee. Meg promises to watch over her sisters, Jo agrees to help everyone and refrain from her brash manners, Beth avows complete faithfulness to the little duties at home, and Amy pledges obedience in Chapter Sixteen when Marmee leaves for Washington to tend to their ailing father. Of the three, it is only Beth who chooses to stay true to her asseveration, an act of ‘faithfulness’ that culminates in her undoing. The name of the chapter, “Little Faithful,” has a dual significance here. This chapter not only focuses on the consequences of faithfulness/unfaithfulness but also can be seen as a continuation of the Pilgrim’s Progress allegory. Beth, in the novel, is the least confrontational, most vulnerable, and unequivocally angelic in her intentions and actions. She is akin to Faithful from Bunyan’s novel–someone who has already established a powerful bond with God and shows faith in Him, a faith that Christian is initially reluctant to accept but gradually acquires in the course of his journey. He also, therefore, has the easiest passage to the Celestial City, although he has to suffer before he can unite with Him. He is like Elijah from the Old Testament, a symbol of unwavering faith in the Lord. So is Beth: she must suffer and accept an ill fate as a consequence of her ‘faithfulness,’ as the ‘little’ faithful woman of Louisa’s family drama and also due to the lack (little amount) of faithfulness of Meg and Jo, who forget to perform their womanly duties and promised chores and therefore must pay the price of such wanton neglect.

Marmee had asked the sisters to call on the poor Hummels from time to time while she is away. The Hummels’ baby has scarlet fever and Beth has been regularly visiting them and taking care of the afflicted child. This particular day, a sickly Beth entreats one of her sisters to take on this duty. But they make silly excuses to stay home and finally the faithful Beth, seeing no alternative, sets out to the Hummels’ with “a heavy head and a grieved look in her patient eyes.” Beth witnesses the passing of the Hummel baby in her own lap, and it completely shatters her spirit. She then contracts the fever from the child. Had Meg or Jo volunteered, both of whom had had scarlet fever before, Beth could have been spared her misery. Beth is never quite able to recover completely.

In “Chasing Amy: Mephistopheles, the Laurence Boy, and Louisa May Alcott’s Punishment of Female Ambition,” Holly Blackford points out the following:

Alcott repeatedly features plots in which warm-blooded womanhood expels the demon of artistic creation and passion, whether the demon is within the woman or embodied by a Mephistopheles figure chasing her about.

This is also alluded to in this chapter. Jo refuses to go to the Hummels’ because she has to finish her ‘writing.’ Her ambition comes in the way of her duties towards her home and family and therefore, she must live forever with a guilt-ridden conscience.

Anindita Bhattacharya @zooiebeard is a doctoral candidate at Dublin City University. Her research interests include children’s literature, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies.

beth-and-her-dollsMillicent E. [Etheldreda] Gray, “Beth Dresses One of Her Dolls” (1912)