What are the characteristics of transcendentalism in Little Women?
Transcendentalists held progressive views of women, and they believed that people should consult their own consciences in making moral decisions. Both of those aspects of transcendental thought appear in Little Women.
Part of Little Women 's enduring popularity comes from the way the March sisters, especially Jo, earn their own living and pursue their own paths. Their father, away as an army chaplain in the Civil War, doesn't earn much money, so Marmee, Meg, and Jo go out to work. Jo might complain about her hours as a companion to the grouchy Aunt March, but she is contributing to the family...
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There are numerous references to Transcendentalism throughout Little Women (e.g. chapter titles such as “Castles in the Air”—an evocation of the famous excerpt from Thoreau’s Walden). However, most significantly, Transcendentalism is expressed through the March family’s moral constitution.
Set during the Civil War, Little Women depicts national unrest, and consequently, the need for moral and spiritual fiber. In the novel, Christianity is the predominant faith of Americans. However, for the March family, though they practice Christian acts (such as celebrating Christmas and giving food to the poor), they are not explicitly labeled as Christians. For many Transcendentalists, Christianity proposed limitations and contradictions. How could Christians practice their faith and simultaneously support slavery and the carnage of war? These inconsistencies are one of the reasons why the March family is never explicitly referred to as Christian. On Christmas, the March girls receive nondescript, crimson cloth bound books from Marmee. The book is never explicitly identified, and the content is only vaguely described. Upon Jo’s receipt of the gift, the narrator offers:
“She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey” (Chapter 2).
Whether the book is the Old Testament or Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is unclear. However, the ambiguity of Christianity in this scene suggests that the March family does not embrace all aspects of orthodoxy. This is further evidenced by the fact that there aren’t any church scenes in the novel. As opposed to a church, Meg gets married at home. The domestic setting of the Brooke wedding infers God (or Divinity) exists outside of the church, and for Transcendentalists, Divinity dwells in the natural world.
Furthermore, the reverence for the natural world is depicted in poignant scenes, which occur outside: Jo attempts to heal Beth by taking her to the coast; Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal in a grove; Jo forgives Amy when she falls through the ice; Jo runs for leisure. The outdoor setting fosters enlightenment because it is a vessel for Divinity. Being outdoors is a spiritual practice of Transcendentalism. Nature is a place to connect to the Divine and develop a deeper understanding of one’s self.
This understanding of the self is foundational to another characteristic of Transcendentalism: self-reliance (the title of a widely circulated essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson). Jo March exemplifies self-reliance and cultivates her individuality amidst public dissent. She defies gender norms and polite society. She is described as looking like a ”colt” (Chapter 1). Her “restless spirit” guides her actions (Chapter 4). She earns her own money as a writer and is unconcerned with her masculine and disheveled appearance. Unlike her female counterparts, Jo is unable to entertain frivolities such as gossip and stylish wardrobe. Instead, she is a voracious reader and writer. Her ferocious devotion to writing prompts her sisters to ask, “Does genius burn, Jo?” (Chapter 27). The solitary act of reading and writing reinforces Jo’s independence. When the March Family is in desperate need of money, she does not ask someone for a loan, but takes the duty upon herself. Her chopped mane is a rejection of gender conventions and her determination to rely on herself.
Finally, another important characteristic of Transcendentalism in the novel is the reverence of friendship. Jo rejects Laurie’s romantic advance in favor of friendship. In Transcendentalism, friendship is the ability to foster a relationship without the sacrifice of independence (and thereby self-reliance). Conversely, in the novel, marriage is depicted as turbulent: Meg and John Brooke experience financial penury (the ultimate sacrifice for luxury-loving Meg); Mr. March serves in the war (for most of the novel), and Marmee is expected to care for the family on her own. She admits her anger and resentment when she says to Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life” (Chapter 8). Aunt March willfully remains a widow, and threatens to disinherit Meg if she marries the impoverished John Brooke; she advises Meg to “be a sensible girl” and marry for money before love (Chapter 23). These negative depictions of marriage infer that friendship is a privileged union. Therefore, in rejecting Laurie’s advance, Jo preserves and elevates their relationship, while also maintaining her independence.