Autobiographical Elements in Alcott’s Novel

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That Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women is heavily autobiographical is well known among literary scholars. Perhaps because she wrote the book merely for money, she found it economical to lift people and events out of her own life to create the story. Part one was written in 1868 and was intended to be the only story about the March family. Readers, however, were captivated by the girls and demanded to know more about their lives. The following year, Alcott wrote Good Wives, which now appears as part two in Little Women. Readers were thrilled with the continuing story of the Marches, although Alcott's intentions were not merely to appease her readers by writing a naive and romantic story. In part two, fiction overshadows fact, which leaves readers and scholars to wonder how Alcott made decisions about the fates of the sisters. While it is clear that certain aspects of part two are designed to satisfy her readership, others clearly are not. Was Alcott compromising with her readers (between what she knew they would want and what she thought was realistic), or was she exercising a bit of wish fulfillment in her novel?

Part one of Little Women is brimming with autobiographical elements, from important plot developments to minor details. Some scholars suggest that Alcott's initial reluctance to write the book, her quick completion of the manuscript in six weeks, and her minimal editing all indicate that she undertook writing the novel as a task to finish as quickly as possible. Using her life as a template allowed her to make shortcuts without sacrificing realism, characterization, or interesting story developments.

Each of the four sisters was modeled after one of Alcott's own sisters. Meg is the literary counterpart to Anna, Jo is Alcott's alter ego, Beth is the book's version of Elizabeth, and the letters of Amy's name can be rearranged to spell out her real-life inspiration, May. Most of the events in part one are based on actual events in Alcott's life, such as Meg's marriage and Jo's profound disappointment at having the family separated. Also, the Alcott girls donated their Christmas breakfast to a needy family one year, Alcott won a hundred dollars in a writing contest, and the girls often performed plays for neighborhood girls. Growing up, Alcott loved spending time with her sisters as much as Jo does, and she resolved early in life to be responsible for taking care of the family. After the failure of Fruit-lands (Alcott's father's attempt to establish a utopian society), Alcott realized that her father could not be relied upon to support his wife and daughters. Alcott's mother realized this, too, and, like Marmee, worked diligently to be sure the family's needs were met. Mr. March is physically or emotionally absent throughout Little Women, and Alcott's father was not a reliable breadwinner or confidant.

Part one is more character driven than part two, presumably because Alcott is simply telling about the people in her life. It is unsatisfying as a self-contained story, as it only introduces the girls, describes some of their scrapes, and tells how Meg comes to be engaged. Many scholars regard it as plotless, concluding that its success came from its detailed setting, quick pace, and delightful characters with whom young readers could readily identify. Because most characters in children's books at the time were too perfect, readers were less interested in what eventually became of them. In Little Women, however, readers saw themselves in the pages of the story and longed to know how things turned out for the March girls. Thus, being character driven is part one's strength.

In addition, part one reveals a great deal about Alcott's perceptions of her family life. Mr. March's absence reflects Alcott's inability to create a believable, involved father in an autobiographical work. Because her father was not an ideal paternal figure, she would have had difficulty imagining the familiar setting with a wonderful, warm, and connected father. Alcott's solution is to have Mr. March away at war, and then busy with his own affairs when he returns. Unlike the father, the sisters are all drawn with loving detail. Each sister has a unique personality, rather than a generic childlike temperament. Alcott's presentation of young girls who are flawed and struggling with growing up was revolutionary at the time. Her multidimensional characters reveal her closeness to her sisters and perhaps her belief that readers would love them even with their flaws, as she did.

In the character of Jo, Alcott reveals much about her perception of herself. Jo, like Alcott, is more interested in writing and in seeing her family happy than in finding a husband or in being proper. Jo is a coltish young woman who has far to go before she matures into her own brand of womanhood. Alcott never quite fit into the social circles around her, and she was never much interested in making friends or marrying. In fact, by the time Little Women was released, Alcott had become rather private and withdrawn. While her adoring readers wanted to know all about the woman who wrote such a lovely book, she preferred to keep to herself. Neither Jo nor Alcott can be described as a misfit, but their priorities are themselves and their families. The novel's Laurie does not have a direct counterpart in real life, as Alcott never had such a friend as Laurie. He is a composite of many young men Alcott knew, and her inclusion of him in Jo's small circle indicates that Alcott felt more at ease with young men her age than with young women. The things Jo and Laurie have in common are the things that interested Alcott, and things she did not observe as being important to women in her peer group.

Not having planned a part two, Alcott had a difficult task before her as she set about writing it. In part one, she relied on her own immediate surroundings for material and inspiration, but with part two, she created characters and events. Alcott had important decisions to make about the paths her characters' lives would take. She was writing in response to her readership, so she made some effort to appease them, but some of the plot developments are unexpected and disappointing to readers. Despite her desire for luxurious things, Meg marries a poor clerk and learns to be happy with a simple lifestyle. (Alcott's sister Anna also hoped for wealth yet married a poor man, so, here again, the author draws from her own life for material.) Most readers want Jo and Laurie to marry, but Jo rejects Laurie's proposal, only to marry an unlikely husband. Students of Alcott are curious about her reasons for these plot developments.

While it is tempting to imagine that Alcott wrote for Jo a fate she had hoped for herself, the author's correspondence proves otherwise. She knew that readers desperately wanted to see Jo marry, but Alcott was unwilling to make the obvious choice of Laurie as a husband. Alcott understands Jo so completely that she cannot allow her to marry Laurie, even though it disappoints most readers. Jo loves Laurie as a brother, not as a husband, and she knows that he does not fully appreciate how important her writing is to her. As his wife, she would be expected to socialize in high society and behave like a lady. Knowing herself well enough to know that the marriage would not be fulfilling, Jo refuses his proposal. When Laurie eventually meets up with Amy in Europe and they fall in love, Jo is truly happy for them both. She understands that her sister will love Laurie as he deserves to be loved and that she will be able to enjoy the wealthy life she so desires. Amy will let Laurie take care of her, something with which Jo would never be comfortable, even though it makes Laurie feel manly and needed. For Laurie, the union is ideal because he can be loved and he has someone interested in fashion, society, and entertaining. In other words, Amy thrives in the lifestyle that Laurie loves. (The union between Amy and Laurie is completely the product of Alcott's imagination, as May never married in real life.)

To provide a fitting husband for Jo, Alcott created Professor Bhaer, not because he is the type of man Alcott herself dreamed of meeting, but because he is almost comical as a romantic figure. While unusual, he is a good match for Jo, but Alcott's decision to direct Jo's life in this way was, in a sense, her way of snubbing her nose at traditional, predictable, sentimental romance. Professor Bhaer, then, seems to be a literary compromise between readers' desires and writer's attitudes. It is reasonable to believe that Alcott hoped to demonstrate to her readers the importance of keeping one's mind open in matters of love. After all, other passages in the book advise against marrying for any other reason than true love and happiness, a view that was not widespread at the time.

Professor Bhaer is not the dashing romantic figure Laurie is. Like Laurie, Bhaer is also a composite, but seems to be largely modeled after the Alcotts' friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom the author admired very much. Jo respects Bhaer because he is poor but happy, thoughtful, self-sufficient, and good-hearted. Further, he takes her writing seriously, encouraging her to give up working on the sensational stories she is accustomed to writing and instead to concentrate on writing quality fiction. He supports her talent and admires her lively independence. Jo's marriage to him allows her to be herself and to have both a career and love.

Alcott never married, but instead fulfilled her commitment to care for her family. She lived at home her entire life, writing and earning a considerable income for the household. Scholars speculate that in the novel, if Beth had not died, Jo would probably never have married. Beth's passing, however, left Jo free of family obligations. Yet in Alcott's life, Elizabeth died and the author still stayed home. Perhaps this was because her father did not contribute to the family's finances much, or perhaps it was because Alcott never met her unusual-but-fitting match, as Jo did. She once commented that writing seemed to be her destined lifelong companion.

Perhaps the most disappointing event in the book is Beth's passing. Alcott's sister Elizabeth died at the age of twenty-three, so writing about Beth's death in the novel was undoubtedly very painful for Alcott. Here there is neither compromise nor wish fulfillment. Like Jo, Alcott was upset by the loss of her older sister to marriage and then devastated by the loss of her younger sister to illness. In Alcott's characterization of Beth as a saintly and frail child, the reader has a sense of Alcott's feelings about her own sister. It is common for people to exalt those who have died, especially those who have died young. Throughout the novel, Beth is regarded as a dear and selfless child whose example the sisters try to follow.

Undoubtedly, the life of Alcott's fictional counterpart Jo turned out happier than the author's did. Jo's life with Professor Bhaer was one Alcott did not want for herself, but one that did please her readers. While Jo had a devoted husband and a school for boys, and maintained her zest for life, Alcott had only her writing. She did not even particularly care for the children's books that brought her such fame and success; she preferred her adult thrillers, which garnered little attention. Unfortunately, Alcott could not foresee that, regardless of her own opinions of her work and her solitary life, she would be remembered fondly for generations and regarded as an American literary treasure.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Little Women, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women

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Twenty years of scholarship about Louisa May Alcott's most famous and enduring work, Little Women, testifies to the complicated process of re-examining a novel widely recognized as a classic in American children's literature. This critical reevaluation of Alcott has been complicated by the publication of her previously uncollected and largely unavailable gothic thrillers, which reveal a new dimension to the familiar author, both enriching our reactions to Little Women (especially to the silencing of Jo March's own anxious authorship of pseudonymous thrillers) and confirming our sense of the subversion in that sentimental text.

Biographies exploring the darker side of Alcott and reinterpreting her complicated family, as well as ongoing feminist work retrieving, recuperating, and reenvisioning American literature and cultural history, have all contributed to the scholarship on Alcott during the past two decades. Yet the text of Little Women remains something of a tarbaby, a sticky, sentimental, entrapping experience or place rather than a knowable object—and thus a fitting emblem of its own subversive content, which resists women's objectification and seeks a new vision of women's subjectivity and space. Some critics begin by directly recognizing the extraordinary power this work had for them and others in childhood. Others approach the novel with more apparent detachment, focusing on its repressive domesticity. For most of us, however, Little Women is a troubling text, a childhood icon that still resonates with images of positive female community, ideal and loving motherhood, and girlhood dreams of artistic achievement. Our reactions to the incarceration of Meg in claustrophobic domesticity, the mysterious, sacrificial death of good little Beth, the trivialization of Amy in objectifying narcissism, and the foreclosure of Jo's erotic and literary expression, are inextricably connected to our memories of our own struggles against these fates.

Not surprisingly, then, there is remarkable disunity in the contemporary reappraisals of the meaning and significance of Alcott's novel. Indeed, the disagreement is so pervasive and individual opinions so frequently contradictory, within and between essays, as to suggest both the abiding and seductive power of this text for many female readers, and the rich plenitude of its still unexplored critical possibilities Is Little Women adolescent, sentimental, and repressive, an instrument for teaching girls how to become "little," domesticated, and silent? Is the novel subversive, matriarchal, and implicitly revolutionary, fostering discontent with the very model of female domesticity it purports to admire?

The novel does not permit rigid answers to these questions. To account for its enduring power, Little Women must instead be seen as a multifac-eted novel, a children's book regarded (or at least defined) as "moral pap" by its author. It preaches domestic containment and Bunyanesque self-denial while it explores the infinity of inward female space and suggests unending rage against the cultural limitations imposed on female development. Like the patchwork quilts of her predecessors and contemporaries, Alcott's novel assembles "fragments into an intricate and ingenious design" containing both messages of "female patience, perseverance, good nature and industry" and "an alternative model of female power and creativity." Its power derives from its contradictions rather than prevailing despite them. At the same time, the terms of critical debate over Little Women are themselves instructive because they point obsessively to crucial episodes and characters, and to the book's uneasy closure. Thus Carolyn Heilbrun finds in Jo March "the single female model continuously available after 1868 to girls dreaming beyond the confines of a constricted family destiny to the possibility of autonomy and experience initiated by one's self," but she concludes that "Alcott betrayed Jo" and suggests that Jo is a positive model only if we overlook her marriage. Patricia Spacks places the emphasis differently, finding that Little Women enforces repressive lessons in female docility, passivity, and silence, while its "glorification of altruism as feminine activity . . . reaches extraordinary heights." For Spacks, Jo's marriage is not ambiguous but punitive, not a betrayal but the logical culmination of the novel's didactic and regressive intent.

By contrast, Nina Auerbach concludes that the novel's portrayal of female materiality and self-sufficiency subverts ideals of domesticated womanhood, and that the matriarch, Mrs. March, allows her daughters "the freedom to remain children and, for a woman, the more precious freedom not to fall in love." Including the entire March trilogy in her appraisal, rather than the single novel, Auerbach claims that by the end Jo "has attained the position of Marmee, but her title is more formidable than that comfortable, clinging name." Rather than a betrayal or punishment, then, Alcott's treatment of Jo, and the implications of her marriage, are eventually affirmative, even triumphant.

Elizabeth Langland and Madelon Bedell both incorporate these tensions within their analyses, positing a multilayered text with ambivalent, even contradictory messages. "The narrative surface of Little Women asserts that marriage is woman's fulfillment. Underneath this principal narrative, however, lies a possibility closer to Alcott's experience," Langland claims, finding that covert text primarily embodied in Jo, who resists the book's lessons in "disengagement from the active world and its strife and a retreat from self-assertion into marriage." Similarly, Bedell finds that beneath the surface narrative lies "the legend, which the story masks. The theme of the legend is also concerned with the sisters' struggles against the inevitability of growing up, of leaving the delightful state of childhood for the restricted, narrow, and burdened condition of womanhood."

Again and again, as this brief review suggests, feminist critics collide against the sticky, protean implications of this ostensibly childish text: the absent, passive, feminized father who yet ruthlessly diminishes his "little" women; the radically present, loving, self-sacrificing—and perpetually angry—mother who makes girlhood so literally seductive and adulthood so utterly deadly; the erotic, rich, musical, half-Italian brother-lover, Laurie, whom Jo eventually rejects for the elderly, patriarchal German professor; and above all Jo March, with whom we all so passionately identified: gawky, loving, intense, funny, furious, creative, and incredibly active. It is through Jo that we are compelled to question the painfully limited choices available to women artists. It is through Jo that we are forced to acknowledge acute discontent with Bunyan's model of Pilgrim's Progress—and the nineteenth-century model of active girls dwindling into docile little women. It is through Jo that we experience the complicated intersections and over-lappings of eroticism, anger, and creativity—and mourn the apparent effacing of all three by the novel's end, without truly believing they are indeed gone.

Whether we see Little Women as "a perfectly disgusting, banal, and craven service to male supremacy" or "a gratifying taste of [Alcott's] simple, stable vision of feminine completeness," we cannot evade the textured ambiguity and quiltlike complexity of its image of female development, the deep uncertainty with which Alcott struggles to portray female loss of freedom through acculturation and adolescence as somehow enhancing and morally sustaining. In fact, these tensions and ambivalences contribute to the power of Little Women, focusing attention on the insidious as well as sustaining elements of the myth of female moral superiority and on the disjunctions between male and female stories of maturation. . . .

An initial focus on caring for the self in order to ensure survival is followed by a transitional phase in which this judgment is criticized as selfish. The criticism signals a new understanding of the connection between self and others . . . the concept of responsibility. . . . This concept. . . and its fusion with a maternal morality . . . characterizes the second perspective. . . . However . . . the exclusion of herself gives rise to problems in relationships, creating a disequilibrium that initiates the second transition ... a reconsideration of relationships ... to sort out the confusion between self-sacrifice and care. . . . The third perspective focuses on the dynamics of relationships and dissipates the tension between selfishness and responsibility through a new understanding of the interconnection between other and self.

While the surface narrative or pattern of Little Women may well be the standard sentimental "moral pap" produced in the nineteenth century to show girls their proper sphere, at least one of its many subtexts or pieces follows quite closely the outline of female ethical development suggested by Carol Gilligan. It does so, too, with the clearly subversive suggestion that such an alternative model of maturation is morally superior to (warring, money-hungry) male development. The novel opens on Christmas Eve, and the first words we hear are complaints about a lack of presents—of material presence. Quickly, however, the March sisters come to see their complaints as selfish: "I am a selfish girl!" Amy exclaims, "but I'll truly try to be better." During the course of book 1, the sisters struggle heroically against such selfishness, moving toward understanding themselves in relation to others.

During these pilgrimages, Meg learns about the venality of high society, and by implication American capitalism, accepting in its place the alternate model of female adulthood Marmee offers: "I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives." Amy, the least likeable and most narcissistic and ambitious of the four, learns—with Marmee's help—that "there is not much danger that real talent or goodness will be overlooked long; even if it is, the consciousness of possessing and using it well should satisfy one." Beth, whose selfishness is less immediately obvious, learns—without help from Marmee—that her debilitating shyness may in fact be an unkindness to others. Jo, of course, battles the ferocity of her selfish anger. In the process of her arduous journey, Jo learns "not only the bitterness of remorse and despair, but the sweetness of self-denial and self-control"—again instructed by Marmee.

By the end of book 1, these struggles produce significant changes that are named and approved by their father upon his return. The initial sacrifice of material goods—Christmas breakfast—has been so internalized that Meg abandons her vanity and materialism and becomes submissive to her comparatively impoverished future husband. Amy makes a will renouncing all her worldly goods. Beth nearly dies in sacrificial service to others, and Jo renounces not only her beautiful hair but her beloved sister, Meg, and the illusions of safety and childhood as well.

Book 2 marks their more painful attempts to negotiate a reconciliation between a notion of goodness equated with extreme self-sacrifice and the needs of their own authentic characters. Meg struggles to be both a nurturing mother and a fully sexual adult woman in her marriage, and she seems to achieve some kind of balance, moving beyond her initial self-immersion in the nursery and learning to share child care responsibilities with her husband. Amy devises a socially appropriate balance between narcissism and selfishness, becoming her own most triumphant art object: "Everything about her mutely suggested love and sorrow—the blotted letters in her lap, the black ribbon that tied up her hair, the womanly pain and patience in her face; even the little ebony cross at her throat seemed pathetic to Laurie."

Beth, of course, dies from a mysterious disease arising from terminal goodness—from her inability to distinguish between nurturing others and the radical self-denial expected of femininity. Jo, after rejecting erotic love and renouncing a literary career, acknowledges her own vulnerability and need: "A sudden sense of loneliness came over her so strongly that she looked about her with dim eyes, as if to find something to lean upon." Her marriage to Professor Bhaer offers her a way to balance personal need and cultural expectations: "I may be strong-minded, but no one can say I'm out of my sphere now," she tells her fiance, "for woman's special mission is supposed to be drying tears and bearing burdens. I'm to carry my share, Friedrich, and help to earn the home. Make up your mind to that."

Yet while this heroic pattern certainly exists and provides some of the book's insidious power— a message of consolation to young girls for the loss of childhood freedom—it is mitigated and contradicted by its own terms, as well as by other, seriously conflicting, messages. Most notably, the journeys toward selflessness in book 1 and interconnection in book 2 are undercut both by an obsessive diminution of their context and by the incessant imagery of patriarchal observation that renders nearly every ethical achievement artificial, theatrical—an objectivized scene. Meg's domestic battles in book 2, for example, take place in a home so minuscule it is hard to imagine adult human beings living in it: "The little brown house . . . was a tiny house, with a little garden behind and a lawn about as big as a pocket handkerchief." The last vision we have of Meg, before she disappears completely from sight in the text, describes her as "on the shelf”: "Safe from the restless fret and fever of the world . . . learning . . . that a woman's happiest kingdom is her home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother."

More ambiguously, Amy's artistic efforts are consistently described as comical or insignificant, their only permanent memorial being a suggestively oedipal gouged foot. Her work is either trivial (mudpies) or dangerous (burning, cutting, immobilizing). Although she apparently continues her lethal artistic activity after her marriage—turning her frail daughter into yet another aesthetic object—she decides after only one trip to Rome that "talent isn't genius" and gives up all her "foolish hopes," as if possessing the genius of Michelangelo were a woman's only excuse for pursuing artistic activity, as if she had no responsibility to nurture mere talent. Beth, of course, is rendered literally angelic and eventually nonexistent rather than simply tiny: like Meg she is safely removed from the trials of life, and her death is the clearest message in the novel about the ominous dangers of selflessness.

Still, it is Jo's struggle that most directly reveals Alcott's ambivalence about female morality and betrays the rage beneath the obsessive diminution. When Amy burns Jo's much-cherished manuscript, Jo is quite naturally furious—and thus guilty of being quick-tempered. Yet even Jo refers to the manuscript as her "little book," while the narrator explains that "it was only half a dozen little fairy tales . . . [and] it seemed a small loss to others." Later, Meg advises Amy on how to make up with Jo, telling her "You were very naughty, and it is hard to forgive the loss of her precious little book," suggesting by her emphasis that Amy was not very naughty and that the little book was not so precious. While the cause of Jo's impermissable anger is ruthlessly minimized, the consequences are nonetheless enormous—and deadly: Amy falls through the ice and nearly drowns.

The narrative emphasis on the triviality of these tribulations (especially in bk. 1), so ominously shadowed by images of death, suggests Al-cott's own ambivalence about the cult of feminine altruism and its domestic context. Furthermore, she portrays the entire pilgrimage itself as an act, a game; the progression of the girls' roles is objec-tivized, viewed, and judged by a benevolent, absent patriarch. The sisters are learning not simply to be selfless, but to be objects, viewed by patriarchal subjects. Amy's original sense of selfishness, for example, originates in a desire to be seen differently by her father, while Marmee's image of ideal womanhood is explicitly of an Other, a third-person object: "beautiful, accomplished, good, admired, loved, respected." Her sermon on anger reinforces this objectification, for she conveys her own laborious process of learning to control her anger specifically as an experience of being watched, observed, and judged by her passionless husband.

Alcott's penchant for the theatrical is well known, and numerous critics have noticed the degree to which the role of the little woman is a (painfully) learned one: "Indeed, discovering the real self of the woman playing the little woman is an impossible task, in part because the essence of the role is that it appears to be the 'real' self." The March sisters' pilgrimage is a game in a way that Huck's river voyage most emphatically is not. Yet the game is as life-threatening and dangerous as anything Huck experiences, precisely because it excludes as hostile the entire outside world (defined by distant, deadly warfare, diseased and demanding poor families, and venal, trivial society) while imposing an ostensibly empowering role of female altruism which offers moral superiority as compensation for domestic bondage, gouged artistic aspirations, deadly self-sacrifice, and the immolation of voice.

The terms in which Alcott depicts this voyage of female ethical development suggest the impossibility of either freely choosing or fully rendering in fiction a new understanding of the woman-self in relation to others, if that understanding must be achieved within a culture that defines women as powerless and marginal, and confines all new understandings to the old, safe, and imprisoning domestic sphere. Yet the female pilgrimage Alcott traces is strikingly close to the shape of female ethical development Gilligan has described, and however impossible Alcott found it to move this pilgrimage fully beyond the confines of her own culture, the radically assertive image of female self-worth, struggle, and heroism she portrays in Little Women surely accounts for some of the book's insidious hold over its readers.

Carol Gilligan's theories of female ethical development begin to explain the power of Little Women by suggesting an underlying shape and direction for a reading of its characters' pilgrimage and an interpretation of its narrative failure, as located in its collapse against the borders of patriarchal culture. The feminist psychoanalytical theories of Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin, and Jane Flax—among many others—offer insights in their explorations of the site of collapse, the precise place where female narrative collides against patriarchal boundaries—the problem of desire. Indeed, the pattern of the female infant's differentiation, as traced by these theorists, strikingly prefigures the pattern of conflict, and apparent impossibility of resolution, that the adult female experiences and that Alcott's novel so vividly demonstrates in Jo's struggle for love and voice.

Feminist theorists have begun to deconstruct and problematize the classical Freudian model of infant development, with its patriarchal assumptions about the nature of individuality, eroticism, and female otherness, and to reveal its implicit contradictions, while suggesting an alternative, less oppressive model of subjectivity, according to which "differentiation happens in relation to the mother. . . . Separateness is defined relationally; . . . adequate separation, or differentiation, involves not merely perceiving the separateness, or otherness, of the other. It involves perceiving the person's subjectivity and selfhood as well." Central to much feminist theory is the return of the mother, not as scapegoat or savior, but as the primary, if inadvertent, enforcer of patriarchal values as well as their victim, and thus as fulcrum of the private and public. Such a perspective leads to a radically new understanding of the way a child's development is culturally determined, especially by the effect on the individuation of female—and male—infants. The institution of motherhood in a patriarchal culture achieves not only the reproduction of mothering but the perpetuation of patriarchy. . . .

Much of Little Women's power derives from its exploration of the previously repressed, complex mother-daughter relationship, without portraying that bond as either idealized perfection or pernicious destruction. Marmee loves and socializes, nurtures and stifles her daughters, offering them a vision of perfect love and oneness that het-erosexuality cannot hope to duplicate, and an alternate model of identity through community, domesticity, and altruism that their culture can only tolerate by subsuming it in the archetype of female goodness that kills Beth. Thus the dream of reconciliation—of expressing subjectivity in/through community—is, like the quest for ethical development, subverted by the limitations of a patriarchal culture that consistently trivializes the female's narrative and objectivizes her subjectivity. The vision of community, altruism, and caring for others that Marmee expresses is either ambiguous (as in her request that they give their Christmas breakfast for the poor), or destructive (as in the painful, diseased effect of Beth's extreme selflessness), or trivialized (as in the girls' foolish, domesticated experiences spending one week pleasing only themselves).

Even more profoundly, however, Marmee's active presence in this text raises the dangerous possibility of nonphallic eroticism, a different focus of desire. Once again, the contrast with Huck Finn is instructive. Huck's journey downriver, away from the Widow Brown and civilization, conforms with remarkable precision to the young boy's patriarchally enforced and approved development:

"The salient feature of male individuality is that it grows out of the repudiation of the primary identification with and dependency on the mother . . . [leading] to an individuality that stresses . . . difference as denial of commonality, separation as denial of connection; . . . where independence seems to exclude all dependency rather than be characterized by a balance of separation and connection." In moving downriver, Huck moves consistently away from dependency and connection, separating completely from the trappings of civilization in his quest for absolute independence. Jo March, of course, neither seeks nor achieves such a selfhood. Rather, her intensely loving connection with her mother has fostered "a balance of separation and connectedness, of the capacities for agency and relatedness." Her crisis occurs not so much from a need to resist dependency or assert autonomy as from a need to express desire. However, this quest is deeply complicated by the same powerful maternal figure who offers hope of a more balanced vision of identity.

For Marmee's seductive, loving presence, which creates a profound and inescapable homo-erotic undercurrent throughout the novel, eventually subverts the appeal of heterosexual eroticism entirely, while the text utterly refuses to imagine or tolerate any other kind of desire. Thus while ho-moeroticism is never permitted direct expression, it dominates the actions and feelings of the female characters. Even Meg's first thought, after being married, is of her mother: "The minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, 'The first kiss for Marmee!' and turning, gave it with her heart on her lips." More significantly, when Jo confesses her loneliness and desire for love after Beth's death, she rejects her mother's characterization of heterosexual love as "the best love of all," claiming "Mothers are the best lovers in the world, but I don't mind whispering to Marmee that I'd like to try all kinds."

Yet the distorting compromises enforced by patriarchal culture require that a girl repress her primal, homoerotic love for her mother, shifting instead to a learned, differentiating heteroerotic love for her father. Just as the patriarchal context of their pilgrimage prevents the sisters from fully exploring the potential of a new understanding of the self in relation to others, or a new vision of separate-ness defined relationally, the imperatives of phal-locentric culture demand that women resist "our earliest carnal interaction" with mothers, thus producing "women [who] are encouraged to behave narcissistically as sex objects or masochistically as mothers, either position being a defense against the female body's resonance with primitive fears and needs." Both reactions are distinctly evident in Little Women, from Amy's narcissistic objectification of herself to Meg's domestic retreat into invisibility and Beth's deadly masochism.

Jo most vividly acts out the painful implications of this culturally distorted psychic and erotic development. Jo is the most passionate in her resistance to adulthood, and especially to heterosex-uality, wanting to marry Meg herself to keep the childhood family intact and wishing that "wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up." Jo is also the most tormented about her own gender, presenting herself constantly in masculine images. Her cross-dressing language and behavior reflect very real conflict: as a boy, Jo would be socially independent, able to go off to war with her father, or to "run away [with Laurie] and have a capital time." More importantly, she would also be compensated for the price of that independence— the loss of her pre-oedipal oneness with Marmee— by the "promise of another mommy as a reward for the renunciation" of her maternally directed desires. Thus her desire to be a boy reveals her erotic attachment toward her mother, while her culture denies Jo both the possibility of independence and the promise of sexual gratification that patriarchy offers boys. At the same time, the nurturing female community of her family, rather than providing an alternative world, is eroded by death and marriage and shadowed by suggestions of triviality and patriarchal observation and objectification.

Jo's terror of heterosexuality is the most obvious result of her passionate attachment to Marmee, while her sense of her own "sexuality is muted by the fact that the woman she must identify with, her mother, is so profoundly desexualized." Numerous critics have noted, for example, how foolish and unconvincing are the stated terms of her rejection of Laurie. "Our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable. ... I'm homely and awkward and odd and old, and you'd be ashamed of me ... and I shouldn't like elegant society and you would, and you'd hate my scribbling." Jo and Laurie get along so well precisely because of their passions (quick tempers and strong wills), while Laurie has always been the most devoted advocate of Jo's literary endeavors (unlike her eventual husband, Professor Bhaer, who oversees the burning of all her writing). Furthermore, our initial image of Laurie is of a moody, passionate Italian musician, and hence of someone equally bored by the triviality of elegant society, the Romantic ideal brother-lover, not the wealthy Indian tea merchant he somewhat implausibly becomes.

Beneath the superficial absurdity of these claims is Jo's bitterly negative self-image, a wounded self-esteem entirely consistent with her vehement maternal identification in a patriarchal culture. However, Jo's refusal of Laurie is essentially and explicitly an absolute rejection of heterosexual passion: "I don't see why I can't love you as you want me to. I've tried, but I can't change the feeling, and it would be a lie to say I do when I don't." Her most intense attachment is to Marmee; she wants to mother Laurie, not marry him. The ambiguity of Jo's rejection of him derives not from her repudiation of romantic love and the conventional "happy ending" but from the fact that she cannot, within the confines of this text and of heterosexuality, find any way to act out her own desires.

When Jo does finally marry, she turns to the elderly and impoverished scholar, Professor Bhaer, and she does so not in passion but in need, com-panionability, and loss. Moreover, she turns finally to a man identical to her own father, a weak yet punitive figure who reinforces that cruelly negative self-image which Laurie so consistently challenged. Jo's husband is both suggestively feminine (poor, alien, and powerless) and explicitly patriarchal (scholarly, repressive, and authoritarian). Her marriage suggests a capitulation to the conventional Freudian narrative of female development in which a woman marries her father. If she cannot marry Marmee, or love another woman erotically, she can follow the dictates of her culture by becoming her mother and marrying her father. In doing so, she confirms the elusive authority of Mr. March, who, despite his physical absence from the text, is the primary agent of trivialization and objectification. Moreover, Jo confirms the inadvertent authority of her mother as a socializing force, a woman who produces daughters adept in sacrifice and suffering but unequipped to express desire of any kind.

In portraying the maternal figure as radically present and vocal, Alcott reveals the enormous difficulties daughters experience in finding their own identity under such a powerful shadow—especially in a patriarchal context that refuses to tolerate a vision of active, communal subjectivity and that cannot tolerate any challenge to phallocentric eroticism. Yet Marmee's subversive presence also violates the usual narrative of female development. Jo remains inescapably the subject of her own story, and her eventual marriage is enormously complicated, rejecting conventional heterosexual romantic models of erotic love, while reconciling her with her father (or with patriarchy) and offering her a place of her own. As comrade, teacher, and mother in the school she inherits from her aunt and manages with her husband, she creates a life that combines intimacy and community with agency and independence. The conclusion of her oedipal narrative moves tentatively, ambiguously, toward a new statement of desire, "a relationship to desire in the freedom to: freedom to be both with and distinct from the other."

The power of Little Women derives in large measure from the contradictions and tensions it exposes and from the pattern it establishes of subversive, feminist exploration colliding repeatedly against patriarchal repression. Like the log cabin quilt pattern Elaine Showalter uses to explore the underlying structure of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little Women, too, is constructed on a "compositional principle . . . [of] contrast between light and dark," between exploration and entrapment, desire and denial, expression and repression. What Showalter terms the "symbolic relationship to boundaries" in the quilting pattern perfectly expresses the narrative pattern in Little Women, which consistently moves us to the outer boundaries of representational fiction in its effort to depict a resolution beyond the either/or constraints of the author's culture.

The text is constructed of contrasting pieces that depict both the female narrative of ethical development and its dark, insidious alternative of static female saintliness; both the passionate quest for a reconciliation of desire with separation and its darker suggestions about maternal eroticism, coercion, and socialization, both the artist's search for authentic female voice and its painful shadowing image of the failure of existing forms to express that voice. In each voyage or pilgrimage—each pattern of female quest—Alcott moves the narrative simultaneously to the borders of possibility in patriarchal culture and to the deep core of yearning for maternal oneness. This book is passionately memorable for young girls because it warns of the dangers that lie ahead—domestic incarceration, narcissistic objectification, sacrificial goodness, and the enforced silencing of voice, eroticism, and anger—and partly because it offers an alternative vision of adulthood-in-community, of female subjectivity, and above all of female oedipal narrative, restoring the lost, maternal presence in our lives.

The sites where Alcott's narrative flounders, where the shape of her textual pattern crashes against the absolute nature of her culture's borders, are the sites we are still exploring today. If her novel fails fully to sustain an image of resolution that transcends either/or choices, her failure suggests much that remains real and enduring in our own experience.

Source: Ann B. Murphy, "The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in Little Women," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 562-85.

Reading Little Women

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I may be strong minded, but no one can say I'm out of my sphere now, for woman's special mission is supposed to be drying tears and bearing burdens. I'm to carry my share, Friedrich, and help to earn the home. Make up your mind to that, or I'll never go.

"Jo March," Little Women, Chapter 46

The title of Louisa May Alcott's most famous book is taken from a commonplace nineteenth-century term. In the opening chapter, Marmee reads a Christmas letter from her absent husband to his daughters, which tenderly admonishes them to "conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder of my little women." This sentimental diminutive is puzzling in a feminist who was concerned with augmenting, rather than diminishing, woman's status. Such belittlement was part of the woman problem, as Alcott knew. The title appears even more puzzling when we consider that Little Women deals with the problems common to girls growing into womanhood.

Alcott had no intention of sentimentalizing the struggles of young women, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of the title. We find one in the works of Charles Dickens which Alcott read and took with her to the Union Hotel during the Civil War. For several decades Dickens had moved English and American readers to tears with his tender depictions, imitated but never equalled, of childhood woe. Dickens cared most deeply for the misery of exploited children, abused strangers in a venal adult world, but often remarkably capable of fending for themselves. Dickensian girls are particularly self-reliant, able to care for their siblings by the time they are "over thirteen, sir," as the girl "Charley" says to Mr. Jarndyce in Bleak House. In Bleak House, in fact, the term "little women" makes a prominent appearance. Esther, ward of the generous, sweethearted Mr. Jarndyce, has the distinction of becoming the first well-known "little woman" in literature. Her guardian says to her, "You have wrought changes in me, little woman," indicating that she has widened and deepened his sensibilities and hence his philanthropy.

Esther saves many people during the course of the novel, including the girl "Charley" whom she takes in and nurses through a bout of smallpox. Charley herself had contracted the disease from Jo, another pathetic Dickensian orphan. Inevitably, Esther comes down with smallpox, which leaves her face scarred and sets her musing about the meaning of "little woman."

Although only twenty-one years old, Esther has been close to death and realizes how short time is for "little women." No longer a child, yet not an adult, she finds life fleeting and precious. Dreadfully confused, she talks about the stages of her life, feeling herself at once "a child, an elder girl, and the little woman I had been so happy as." The problem, she thinks, is that the stages are not so distinct as she had once innocently supposed. Rather, they seem joined together and weighted down by similar "cares and difficulties," which are hard to reconcile or understand.

When Louisa May Alcott employed the term "little women," she infused it with this Dickensian meaning. Little Women portrays just such a complex overlapping of stages from childhood to elder child, little woman to young woman, that appears in Bleak House. Like Esther in that novel, each of Alcott's heroines has a scarring experience that jars her into painful awareness of vanished childhood innocence and the woman problem.

Esther's job as part-time narrator in Bleak House is given to Jo in Little Women, but there the resemblance between the two characters ends. Jo comes close to bounding off the pages of her book; an American heroine, she has fits of exuberance alternating with sighs of half-chastened humility. Unlike Esther, and very much like her creator, Jo writes a story that succeeds miraculously even though she "never knew how it happened." "Something," Jo declares, "got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it." She put "humor and pathos into it," says saintly Mr. March, sure that his daughter had "no thought of fame or money in writing" her story.

In fact, of course, Louisa May Alcott, unlike Jo, produced the story of Little Women in record time for money. As she reviewed the first page proofs, she found that "it reads better than I expected; we really lived most of it and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it." Five succeeding generations have laughed and cried over Little Women. It may well be that each generation has its own favorite incidents and lessons. What remains indisputable is that every generation's critics and fans love Jo. What appeals to readers across time may therefore be Alcott's depiction of the woman problem, the conflict between domesticity and individuality that first presents itself at just the moment when little women move from girlhood to womanhood.

Themes in Little Women: Domesticity

The novel develops three major themes: domesticity, the achievement of individual identity through work, and true love. The same motifs appear in Little Men, Jo's Boys, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and An Old Fashioned Girl. None has been out of print since first written. Together they comprise a fictional record of liberal feminist ideology, process, and programs from 1867 through 1886 in America.

From the outset Alcott established the central-ity of household democracy, underscoring the importance of "natural" cooperation and mutual self-sacrifice within family life. The March cottage shelters the four sisters and their parents, all of whom love and depend upon one another. Even the family poverty, so reminiscent of Louisa's own, serves to reinforce democratic practice in the family. With the help of Hannah, who worked as a maid for Mrs. March in better days and now considers herself a "member of the family," all the women work together to accomplish household chores, making the most of meager means by sharing everything.

The virtues of mutual self-sacrifice and domestic cooperation, however, must be proven to the March girls before they can recognize how important such virtues are to their self-realization. Independent-minded and childishly selfish, the girls must learn how to shape their individualities in harmony with the interests of the family. In an important episode Alcott describes the tactics used by Mrs. March to win her daughters to a higher social standard.

After listening to Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy pine for the "vacations" enjoyed by wealthier friends, Marmee agrees to release them from domestic duties for one week. She allows them to structure their time in any way they please. On the first morning, the neat inviting cottage is suddenly a different place. Meg, coming down to a solitary breakfast, finds the parlor "lonely and untidy," because "Jo had not filled the vases, Beth had not dusted, and Amy's books lay about scattered." Before long, selfishness produces more domestic disasters, which increase alarmingly as the week progresses. Jo gets sunburnt boating too long with Laurie, and headachy from spending hours devouring her cherished novels. "Giving out" her ordinary sewing chores, Meg falls to "snipping and spoiling" her clothes in an attempt to be fashionable. Amy sketches lazily under a hedge and getting drenched by a summer rain, ruins her best white frock. Beth makes a mess out of her doll's closet, leaves the mess, and goes off to practice some new music. By the end of the day, she is left with "the confusion of her closet" and, "the difficulty of learning three of four songs at once." All these small troubles make the girls grumpy and ill-tempered.

The experiment, however, is far from over. Excessive attention to self-pleasure produces a scarcity of necessities, including food. Emulating the little red hen, Mrs. March decides that those who do not work shall not eat. She gives Hannah a holiday, and the maid leaves with these parting words: "Housekeeping ain't no joke." Unable to rely on the experience and counsel of Hannah and their mother, the girls produce a breakfast featuring "boiled tea, very bitter, scorched omelette, and biscuits speckled with saleratus." Jo caters a luncheon for friends, only to discover that she can't make anything "fit to eat" except "gingerbread and molasses candy." So she sails off to purchase "a very young lobster, some very old asparagus, and two boxes of acid strawberries." She boils the asparagus for an hour until the heads are "cooked off and the stalks "harder than ever." She undercooks the lobster and the potatoes, and sprinkles salt instead of sugar on the strawberries. . . .

Returning home to find her daughters miserable over the death of Pip and their failures as homekeepers, Mrs. March easily persuades them to admit that "it is better to have a few duties, and live for others." This experiment, she says, was designed to show you "what happens when everyone thinks only for herself. Now you know that in order to make a home comfortable and happy," everyone in it must contribute to the family welfare. Marmee has also proven to the girls that domestic work is real work, giving women a "sense of power and independence better than money or fashion." She has shown them that home life becomes a "beautiful success" only if work alternates with leisure, independence with cooperation and mutual concern.

Although this episode deals almost exclusively with girls, Alcott integrated men into her vision of cooperative family life. Men too should benefit from and participate in this family experience, but only on the grounds that they respect the independence and equal authority of women within the home.

Accepting, even glorifying the importance of women's domestic work, Alcott emphasizes that men are homeless without women. Since the ability to create a home and sustain a family supercedes fame and money as evidence of success and civilization, it follows that women have already proved themselves in the world; thus their ability to extend their sphere is unquestioned in Little Women. Homeless men, despite wealth, wages and worldly experience, are motherless children. Meg's suitor, John Brooke, is attracted to the March cottage in large part because he is a lonely young man who has recently lost his mother. Laurie is motherless, which excuses most of his faults, and Mr. Laurence, his grandfather, has neither wife, daughter, or granddaughter. Mr. March alone has a proper home and knows his place in it, returning from the war to augment, but not supercede, Marmee's authority. He wholly accepts the female abundance around him, tending the flock of his tiny parish and leaving domestic arrangements to his womenfolk. . . .

Alcott advances ideas about the place of men in the family that emerged out of her domestic experiences with her parents, despite her belief in universal laws of progress and democracy. On the whole, she does not paint a compelling picture of marital equality in Little Women. Instead she presents the possibility of educating and parenting a new generation of little men and little women. In the second part of Little Women Alcott describes the married life of John and Meg Brooke. Theirs is no ideal egalitarian marriage, but then John Brooke was not raised by Marmee. The single wage-earner for his family, John provides a domestic servant but does not share domestic chores himself, except for disciplining his son in the evening. Meg is totally dependent upon his income both for household and personal expenses. Careful of her household accounting, she nevertheless often behaves like an impulsive child. On one occasion, she is tempted by a length of lovely violet silk while shopping with an old friend, Sallie Moffet. The silk costs fifty dollars, an enormous sum to the young couple. When Meg tells John that she has bought the silk, he responds only that "twenty-five yards of silk seems a good deal to cover one small woman, but I've no doubt my wife will look as fine as Ned Moffet's when she gets it on." Meg is overwhelmed with remorse at her own selfishness. Sallie generously buys the silk, whereupon Meg uses the fifty dollars to buy a new overcoat for her husband.

In a chapter called "On the Shelf," Meg's docility appears as her greatest virtue and her most serious domestic flaw. Docility is a fine quality in a daughter, even a sister, Alcott admits, but dangerous in a wife. Meg becomes dowdy and dependent, isolated in her little cottage with two small children. John spends more time away from home, provoking Marmee to confront Meg, but not her son-in-law, reminding her that "it's mother who blames as well as mother who sympathizes."

Mother shares her domestic secret: a good marriage is based on mutuality of interests and responsibilities. Marmee herself learned this as a young wife, when after a hard time caring for her children, she welcomed father's help. Now, she says, he does not let business distract him from domestic details, and she remembers to interest herself in his pursuits. "We each do our part alone in many things, but at home we work together, always." Marmee's advice is heeded; Meg pays more attention to the niceties of her dress, tries to talk about current affairs, and cedes to her husband some measure of child management.

According to Alcott, the reform of domestic life required restoration of a mutuality that had vanished with the separation of home and work. Yet of all the domestic advice presented in Little Women, this lesson carries the least conviction. Mr. March is the minister of a small parish and presumably home a great deal. John Brooke, on the other hand, is a clerk, far removed from his home and children. As we shall see, Alcott can only offer model domesticity in utopian settings where cooperative communities reappear in feminist forms.

Flying Up: Little Women Grow Up to Be Themselves

When Louisa finished writing part two of Little Women, she suggested "Wedding marches" as a possible title. She changed it, however go "Birds Leaving the Nest," or "Little Women Grow Up," because she did not wish to suggest that marriage should be the focal event for growing girls. Instead she argues that girls who take trial flights from secure homes will find their own paths to domestic happiness. They might choose independent spin-sterhood or some form of marital bonds that range from partial to complete "household democracy." For Alcott, sisterhood and marriage, though often contradictory, are equally valuable possibilities for women. Fully realized sisterhood becomes a model for marriage, not simply an alternative to it. Together, marriage and sisterhood guarantee that individual identity and domesticity will be harmonious.

Meg, the eldest and most "docile daughter," does not attain Alcott's ideal womanhood. Democratic domesticity requires maturity, strength, and above all a secure identity that Meg lacks. Her identity consists of being Marmee's daughter and then John's wife. Yet she and John are well matched. Neither really wants sexual equality in the dovecote. When Meg leaves home to work as a governess she accepts a three-year engagement period, dreaming that she will have much to learn while she waits. But John says, "You have only to wait; I am to do the work." Alcott accepts the limitations of temperament and circumstance in Meg, as she does in all her characters. In Little Men, however, Meg's widowhood grants her the circumstances to develop a stronger side of her character.

Fashion provides a counterpoint to feminism in Little Women. Jo's strong sense of self is established in part by her rejection of fashion, which she perceives as a sign of dependency and sexual stereotyping. Amy, on the other hand, struggles against her burden of vanity, which has its positive side in her "nice manners and refined way of speaking." Amy must learn that appearances can be deceiving, whereas Jo must learn that appearances do count in the larger world. Meg's vanity may be one reason she is linked to Amy in the game of "playing mother," wherein Meg and Jo watch over their sisters "in the places of discarded dolls." Jo obviously rejects Amy early in their lives. Amy's flat nose, her chief "trial," as she says, is supposedly the result of careless Jo's dropping her baby sister onto a coal-hod.

Jo's lack of vanity about clothes at first conceals her pride both in her writing talent and in her exclusive relationship to Laurie. Laurie enjoys Jo's vivid imagination; it gives color and vivacity to his own lonely childhood. Keeping Amy out of pleasurable excursions with Laurie is one of Jo's main "faults." Left at home once too often, Amy burns a collection of Jo's painstakingly written fairy tales as revenge. Furious, Jo leaves her behind again when she and Laurie go skating. Amy follows behind and is almost killed by falling through the thin ice. Penitent, Jo vows to curb her temper and cherish Amy. Accepting the fact that she is not the only independent and talented member of the family is part of Jo's growing up.

Her notion that she is "the man of the family" is a more serious problem in the story. In a strange way this too plays itself out around fashion. Jo has her first serious encounter with Laurie at a neighborhood dance, where she is uncomfortably dressed up to accompany Meg on their first "grown up" social expedition. Meg's woes arise from her desire for fashionable frippery; she dances in overly tight high-heeled slippers that cripple her before the dance is over. Jo wears sensible shoes, but cannot dance because "in maroon, with a stiff gentlemanly linen collar and a white chrysanthemeum or two for her only ornament," she is pledged to hide the scorched back of her "poplin" gown. Therefore she must stand quietly or hide in a corner in penance for her habit of standing too near the fire. The Laurence boy is shy, a stranger to the neighborhood who has spent much of his childhood in a Swiss boarding school. He wears two "nice pearl colored gloves" and dances well, volunteering to polka with Jo in the privacy of a hall. Jo is suddenly aware that the gentility she rejects as too "lady-like" can be quite acceptable when it is "gentlemanly," or in other words, gender-free. Her regret at having only one good glove (the other is stained with lemonade) signals her growth from tomboyhood to womanhood in the feminist sense of the term. Jo is somewhat confused, having made a cause celebré out of being a sloppy, rough boy who clumps about in unlaced boots. Now she finds herself attracted by Laurie' s "curly black hair, brown skin, big black eyes, handsome nose, fine teeth, small hands and feet." She observes her new model closely: "Taller than I am," says Jo, and "very polite for a boy, altogether jolly." Finding her sartorial model in the opposite sex, Jo decides she can grow up to be a splendid woman with neatly laced boots and clean linen. She does not want Laurie as a sweetheart; she wants to adopt both him and his air of freedom and elegant comfort.

Meg can easily sympathize with Amy. Both love pretty things and are well regarded by wealthy relatives who appreciate their social graces and attention to niceties of dress. Mr. Laurence buys Meg her first silvery silk dress, a seemingly harmless and generous act. But because she is always dependent upon someone else's generosity, poor Meg must forego her next silk gown five years later. Meg elicits the reader's sympathy, however, while Amy's tastes seem symptoms of a selfish, superficial character.

First of all, Amy is too young to care about jewelry or fashionable frocks in the first half of Little Women. Nevertheless, she cares a great deal for them; she covets a schoolmate's carnelian ring, and preens and postures in front of her friends while exaggerating her family's lost wealth and status. Amy's pretensions lead her into trouble in the famous incident of the "Pickled limes." Fashionable little school-girls have allowances, but Amy has none. As a result she has gone in debt to chums who treat her to the current delicacy—pickled limes. Meg then gives Amy a quarter, and the delighted girl purchases a bag of limes.

Mr. Davis, the school master, has forbidden treats in his classroom. Discovering that Amy has hidden limes in her desk, he calls her to the front of the room and humiliates her with "several tingling blows on her little palm." The author suggests that this incident might mark the beginning of Amy's maturation. Instead, Marmee and Jo rescue Amy by giving her a vacation from school. A small lecture by Marmee on the "power of modesty" does not alter the fact that Amy has had her burden lightened.

Later, at a charity fair, Amy is unfairly treated by rich and envious girls. This time she tries to "love her neighbor" and modestly allows her trinkets to be sold by a rival. Once again, this time augmented by Laurie and his friends (who have been commandeered by Jo) the family sails to Amy's rescue. They buy back Amy's trinkets and all the bouquets (provided by the Laurences' gardener) on sale at Amy's unfashionable booth. If this were not enough, Amy's Aunt Carrol, hearing of her niece's delicate manners, talented fancy work, and Christian forbearance at the charity fair, rewards her with a trip to Europe as her companion. Poor Jo, who engineered the rescue, is left behind, too unfashionable and forth-right to be patronized. On one occasion Jo tells Amy, "Its easier for me to risk my life for a person than to be pleasant to him when I don't feel like it." Amy replies that "women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying kindnesses they receive. If you'd remember that, and practice it, you'd be better liked than I am because there is more of you." It is precisely because Jo is indeed more substantial that the author grants Amy a free holiday in Europe and eventually a wealthy indulgent husband.

Amy and Laurie grow up together in Europe. Both are fashionable, inclined to indolence and coquetry. Both have talent, Amy for painting and Laurie for music, but only enough to please friends in polite salons. Neither is put to the test of earning a living. Both are also inclined toward "illusion" in dressing themselves and appreciating each other's refined taste. Their growing up, however, does require a degree of honesty: they admit that "talent isn't genius and you can't make it so."

Despite the sniping and competition for parental love, social approval, and material rewards, Amy and Jo share one great loss that matures them both. The central tragedy of Little Women, one that generations of readers remember, is Beth's death in the final part of the book. Loving home the best, gentle Beth never wants to leave it; perhaps she would never have done so. She grows more fragile each year, and in her last months confides to Jo feeling that she was never intended to live long. Her short speech is also her longest in the novel:

'I'm not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I'd do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn't seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there. I never wanted to go away and the hard part now is the leaving you all. I'm not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven.'

Jo's maturation is sealed by her grief over Beth's decline. The chapter entitled "Valley of the Shadow" sketches a household that revolves around Beth's room for one year. Everyone, including Beth, knows she is dying. Jo writes a long poem to her sister in which she acknowledges that true sisterhood is born in shared domestic experiences, and that such loving ties cannot be severed:

Henceforth, safe across the river,

I shall see forevermore

Waiting for me on the shore.

Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,

Guardian angels shall become,

And the sister gone before me

By their hands shall lead me home.

Wasted away, suffering with "pathetic patience," Beth's death releases her parents and sisters to "thank God that Beth was well at last." Beth's self-sacrifice is ultimately the greatest in the novel. She gives up her life knowing that it has had only private, domestic meaning. Only the March family knows and loves her sweet "household spirit."

Nobody mourns Beth more than Jo, her opposite in temperament as well as her partner in the bonds of sisterhood. Beth is shy and Jo is as frank and fearless as her fictional heroes. Beth never has any plans, and Jo is full of plots and dreams. Their commonality lies in the simple fact that both of them value their sororal relationship above any other unions.

When Meg becomes engaged and Jo feels she is about to lose her "best friend," Laurie declares that he will stand by Jo forever. Jo gratefully shakes his hand, saying "I know you will, and I'm ever so much obliged; you are always a great comfort to me, Teddy." But Laurie turns out to be a boy, not Jo's sister after all. Jo's rejection of Laurie's suit is her first grown-up act, and her trip to New York to become a writer is her first flight into the world. Beth's death, through which she escapes the awful problem of growing up, triggers Jo's maturation. She does leave home to go "across the river." Jo's journey is the only fully complete one in Little Women and it revolves her learning to tell true love from romantic fancy. She must do so in order to reproduce her lost sisterhood in a new, feminist domestic union.

True Love Found

The ability to distinguish true love from romantic fancy is a prerequisite for a woman's growing up in Little Women. True love involves mutual self-sacrifice and self-control, and requires the kind of man who can make the household the center of his life and work. Romance, on the other hand, is inherently selfish, passionate, and unequal. Ultimately all the surviving heroines are paired off in true love. Jo, however, proves closest to Al-cott's ideal because she rejects Laurie Laurence. At one point Jo tells Laurie that they are unsuited to one another because both have strong wills and quick tempers. Unpersuaded and unreasonable, the spoiled young man presses his suit, forcing her to tell him a harder truth: she does not love him as a woman loves a man, and never did, but simply feels motherly toward him.

Jo does not want to be an adoring adornment to a fashionable man's home. Nor will she give up her "scribbling" to satisfy Laurie. She knows he would hate her writing, and that she "couldn't get on without it." Laurie shared the secret of Jo's pseudononymous stories in the past, but he really views her writing as just another glorious lark. Laurie's proposal reveals just how much "scribbling" really means to Jo. If merely saving her "pathetic family" from poverty were her only motivation, she might marry Laurie and enrich them all. She might even produce leisured, graceful literature under his partronage. But she won't be patronized and she won't concede. "I don't believe I shall every marry," she declares. "I am happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man."

Laurie stubbornly refuses to believe her, even though she has made perfectly clear that, like Louisa Alcott, she prefers "paddling her own canoe." Laurie insists that Jo has some unknown romantic rival in mind who will induce her to give up her foolish notions of independence and "live and die for him." Exasperated, her limited patience turns to defiance. "Yes, I will live and die for him," she declared, "if he ever comes and makes me love him in spite of myself, and you must do the best you can." We do not know if Jo really means that she would yield to a "great romance," or is merely angry enough to tell Laurie that his worst "envious" fantasy is what he deserves. Possibly, Jo also recognizes passions in herself, however hard she struggles to keep them under control. She certainly experiences more than "moods;" she has genuine emotional depth and active fantasies, which she usually transforms into tragi-comic family operas or melodramatic stories.

In the nineteenth-century world of Little Women, there are only two alternatives following the sexual equality of childhood: romantic love or rational affection. With considerable regret Jo chooses the latter, because she must forego forever the equality she once knew with Laurie, her exuberant companion in childhood. Jo's decision, as Alcott knew, presents the reader with a bitter pill, for nearly everyone wants Laurie to win Jo. Yet the author has her heroine firmly reject any "silliness" from the start. She enjoys being Laurie's chum, plays at being his mother, but is never tempted to be his domestic companion.

It is precisely because Alcott makes Laurie such an irresistable boy-man that the reader must take Jo's refusal seriously. The youthful sweet surrogate sister develops into a handsome, passionate suitor. Moreover, Jo is physically attracted to Laurie, and frequently observes his handsome face, curly hair, and fine eyes. She hates it when he briefly ruins his romantic looks with a collegiate pose. The reader as well as Jo feels the power of Laurie's sexuality and the power he tries to exert over her. Yet if he calls her "my girl," meaning his sweetheart, she calls him "my boy," meaning her son.

Jo's refusal is not prompted by love for a rival suitor. In New York she works as a governess to children in her boardinghouse and scribbles away for the penny-dreadful newspapers. Soon she encounters Friedrick Bhaer helping a serving maid. Bhaer's life, unlike Laurie's, is not the stuff of romance. Forty-years old, "learned and good," he is domestic by nature and darns his own socks. He loves flowers and children and reads good literature. Moreover, he insists that Jo give up writing blood-and-thunder tales and learn to write good fiction. He gives her his own copy of Shakespeare as a Christmas present. "A regular German," Jo says,

rather stout with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one's ears good, after our rusty, or slipshod American gabble. His clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn't a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth; yet I liked him, for he had a fine head, his linen was very nice, and he looked like a gentleman, though two buttons were off his coat, and there was a patch on one shoe.

Bhaer is a man Jo can love and marry.

A mature adult capable of raising his two orphaned nephews, he does not need Jo to mother him, although she is drawn to do so. Bhaer is more attracted to her youth and independent spirit. Nevertheless, he bestows his affection upon her by appreciating both her Old World "gemutlichkeit" and her American self-reliance. In a way he is Santa Claus, giving gifts despite his poverty to friends and servants alike. In one scene Bhaer buys oranges and figs for small children while holding a dilapidated blue umbrella aloft for Jo in the rain. Unlike Father March, who is a fragile invalid, Father Bhaer is a strapping, generous man.

There is no end to his domesticity or his capacity for cooperative self-sacrifice. Matching his paternal benevolence to Jo's maternal abundance, Bhaer does the shopping for both himself and Jo. As Alcott describes him, he "finished the marketing by buying several pounds of grapes, a pot of rosy daisies, and a pretty jar of honey, to be regarded in the light of a demijohn. Then, distorting his pockets with the knobby bundles, and giving her the flowers to hold, he put up the old umbrella and they travelled on again." Contrast this fulgent account of a man who understands the "household spirit" with Laurie, who cannot even direct the maids to plump his pillows properly, or with John Brooke, who magisterially sends the meat and vegetables home to Meg (no knobby bundles in his pockets!).

Meanwhile, Laurie has returned from Europe with Amy, and they tell the story of their Swiss romance. Laurie has found a perfect mate in Amy, who will be very good at giving orders to their servants, having practised in her imagination for years. Theirs will also be an equal marital partnership, though somewhat different from that of Jo and Fritz, and very different from the frugal conventions of Meg and John.

Jo, the last sister to leave home, might never have accepted Professor Bhaer's proposal were it not for Beth' s death. Fritz has found a poem of Jo's expressing the deep love and devotion she feels for Meg, Amy, and Beth. We are "parted only for an hour, none lost," she writes, "one only gone before." Tenderly Bhaer declares: "I read that, and I think to myself, she has a sorrow, she is lonely, she would find comfort in true love. I haf a heart full for her."

Bhaer has all the qualities Bronson Alcott lacked: warmth, intimacy, and a tender capacity for expressing his affection—the feminine attributes Louisa admired and hoped men could acquire in a rational, feminist world. As Marmee says, he is "a dear man." He touches everyone, hugs and carries children about on his back. Bronson, despite all his genuine idealism and devotion to humanity, was emotionally reserved and distant. Fritz Bhaer loves material reality, is eminently approachable, and values all the things that Bronson Alcott rejects, such as good food, warm rooms, and appealing domestic disorder, even though he is a "bacheldore" when Jo meets him. Bhaer's love for Jo gives him courage to conquer the barriers between them, including his poverty and age, his foreignness and his babbling, unromantic self. They decide to share life's burdens just as they shared the load of bundles on their shopping expedition. Jo hopes to fulfill "woman's special mission" of which is "drying tears and bearing burdens," so that nobody will ever again call her unwomanly. She resolutely adds the feminist postscript: "I'm to carry my share Friedrich and help to earn the home. Make up your mind to that, or I'll never go." She has her family duty and her work to keep her busy, while Fritz goes west to support his nephews before he can marry. The marriage contract they arrange is very different from that of Meg and John at the end of Little Women, part one.

Source: Sarah Elbert, "Reading Little Women," in A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women," Temple University Press, 1984, pp. 151-65.

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