"I don't see how you can write and act such splendid things, Jo. You're a regular Shakespeare!" exclaimed Beth, who firmly believed that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in all things. (1.58)
Beth's faith in Jo's writing tells us more about her love for her sister than it does about Jo's ability. In fact, Beth's over-the-top praise makes us think that, just maybe, Jo might not be that good a writer yet…
The storm cleared up below, for Mrs. March came home, and, having heard the story, soon brought Amy to a sense of the wrong she had done her sister. Jo's book was the pride of her heart, and was regarded by her family as a literary sprout of great promise. It was only half a dozen little fairy tales, but Jo had worked over them patiently, putting her whole heart into her work, hoping to make something good enough to print. She had just copied them with great care, and had destroyed the old manuscript, so that Amy's bonfire had consumed the loving work of several years. It seemed a small loss to others, but to Jo it was a dreadful calamity, and she felt that it never could be made up to her. Beth mourned as for a departed kitten, and Meg refused to defend her pet. Mrs. March looked grave and grieved, and Amy felt that no one would love her till she had asked pardon for the act which she now regretted more than any of them. (8.36)
This scene recalls a famous anecdote from earlier in the century that Louisa May Alcott may have known: Thomas Carlyle, after writing the first volume of his history The French Revolution, sent the only copy to his friend John Stuart Mill – and Mill's maid accidentally burned it. In Alcott's novel, this story is transformed into a domestic conflict between sisters. Jo is forced to put her love for her little sister ahead of her love for her writing.
Gardening, walks, rows on the river, and flower hunts employed the fine days, and for rainy ones, they had house diversions, some old, some new, all more or less original. One of these was the 'P.C.,' for as secret societies were the fashion, it was thought proper to have one, and as all of the girls admired Dickens, they called themselves the Pickwick Club. (10.2)
Jo – and her sisters – hone their appreciation for literature by imitating Dickens' style and acting out the plot of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.
"I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream." (13.52)
At this point, it's not clear whether Jo actually has a gift for writing or just views it as a way to get rich quick. She's clever enough to make money from her writing and make a name for herself, but whether it is her true calling remains to be seen.
"Well, I've left two stories with a newspaperman, and he's to give his answer next week," whispered Jo, in her confidant's ear.
"Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!" cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again, to the great delight of two ducks, four cats, five hens, and half a dozen Irish children, for they were out of the city now.
"Hush! It won't come to anything, I dare say, but I couldn't rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it because I didn't want anyone else to be disappointed."
"It won't fail. Why, Jo, your stories are works of Shakespeare compared to half the rubbish that is published every day. Won't it be fun to see them in print, and shan't we feel proud of our authoress?" (14.56-59)
For Jo, trying to get her stories published is a serious matter – it will help her know whether or not writing really is her gift, and it might bring in some much-needed money for her family. For her friend Laurie, however, publication is just a game. He thinks it would be exciting for Jo to have her name in print, but he doesn't think much about it beyond that.
Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and 'fall into a vortex,' as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her 'scribbling suit' consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, "Does genius burn, Jo?" (27.2)
Jo's fits of inspiration are comical – she wears a bizarre outfit designed for practicality rather than appearance and behaves antisocially while the writing fit is upon her. Her creative periods are less stylish than her sister Amy's, but more substantial.
"You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it's so contradictory that I don't know whether I've written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?" cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. "This man says, 'An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness.' 'All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'" continued the perplexed authoress. "The next, 'The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.' Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don't believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don't see how this critic can be right. Another says, 'It's one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.' (I know better than that), and the next asserts that 'Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.' 'Tisn't! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I'd printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged." (27.39)
The reception of Jo's novel is realistic – her reviews are mixed, and she regrets some of the editorial choices that she let herself be convinced to make.
"You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money." (27.19)
Alcott's narrator has mixed feelings about Jo's success as an author of sensational stories. Although she has mastered the form, perhaps, as Mr. March suggests, there is another dimension to literary success beyond popularity and a paycheck.
She thought it would do her no harm, for she sincerely meant to write nothing of which she would be ashamed, and quieted all pricks of conscience by anticipations of the happy minute when she should show her earnings and laugh over her well-kept secret.
But Mr. Dashwood rejected any but thrilling tales, and as thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums, had to be ransacked for the purpose. Jo soon found that her innocent experience had given her but few glimpses of the tragic world which underlies society, so regarding it in a business light, she set about supplying her deficiencies with characteristic energy. Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons. She studied faces in the street, and characters, good, bad, and indifferent, all about her. She delved in the dust of ancient times for facts or fictions so old that they were as good as new, and introduced herself to folly, sin, and misery, as well as her limited opportunities allowed. She thought she was prospering finely, but unconsciously she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character. She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us. (34.33-34)
Alcott depicts Jo as becoming gradually corrupted by writing the sensational stories that the newspapers demand. It was a common nineteenth-century belief that sensation fiction and thrillers were dangerous for women to read because of their immorality, and a natural extension of that belief is the suggestion that it would be even more dangerous for women to write such stories.
Jo wrote no more sensational stories, deciding that the money did not pay for her share of the sensation, but going to the other extreme, as is the way with people of her stamp, she took a course of Mrs. Sherwood, Miss Edgeworth, and Hannah More, and then produced a tale which might have been more properly called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it. She had her doubts about it from the beginning, for her lively fancy and girlish romance felt as ill at ease in the new style as she would have done masquerading in the stiff and cumbrous costume of the last century. She sent this didactic gem to several markets, but it found no purchaser, and she was inclined to agree with Mr. Dashwood that morals didn't sell. (34.71)
At first, Jo thinks that her stories will be better as long as they are "didactic" – that is, as long as they teach lessons to the readers, like Aesop's fables. Mary Martha Sherwood, Maria Edgeworth, and Hannah More were very well-known female authors from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who wrote didactic stories for children. But as Jo realizes, stories of this kind are, well, boring. Nobody wants to read them anymore. She'll have to find a different kind of truth to put into her stories if she wants them to sell and to be morally upright.
I don't know whether the study of Shakespeare helped her to read character, or the natural instinct of a woman for what was honest, brave, and strong, but while endowing her imaginary heroes with every perfection under the sun, Jo was discovering a live hero, who interested her in spite of many human imperfections. Mr. Bhaer, in one of their conversations, had advised her to study simple, true, and lovely characters, wherever she found them, as good training for a writer. Jo took him at his word, for she coolly turned round and studied him – a proceeding which would have much surprised him, had he known it, for the worthy Professor was very humble in his own conceit. (34.36)
In this novel, the insights that you can get from reading great literature are the same kind of insights that come from "the natural instinct of a woman." While this doesn't necessarily hold true because of the stereotype involved, it's interesting to think about the fact that Alcott sees literacy and femininity as connected, or similar.
"I don't understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?" she said, quite bewildered.
"There is truth in it, Jo, that's the secret. Humor and pathos make it alive, and you have found your style at last. You wrote with no thoughts of fame and money, and put your heart into it, my daughter. You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best, and grow as happy as we are in your success." (42.21-22)
At last, Jo is able to come to the right mixture of morality and sensation. It's called realism.
"A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women." (1.75)
Mr. March's letter home describes the principles that will structure most of Alcott's novel: hard work, filial loyalty, and selflessness.
"We are never too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far you can get before Father comes home." (1.85)
Mrs. March – and Louisa May Alcott – use the structure of John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress to describe the spiritual journeys of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. For the March family, pilgrimage isn't just an allegory; it's real life that is just a stand-in for their gradual journey toward God.
Then she remembered her mother's promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going the long journey. (2.1)
The "little crimson-covered book" is the Bible, which is going to be Jo's refuge and solace in times of trouble. It's interesting that Alcott shows us scenes in which the members of the March family read the Bible and think about religion, but we rarely hear them talk about it, and the Bible is almost never quoted directly in the novel.
"Tell another story, Mother, one with a moral to it, like this. I like to think about them afterward, if they are real and not too preachy," said Jo, after a minute's silence. (4.58)
The kind of story Jo likes to hear is also the kind that Alcott is trying to write – something that has a moral center, but is also realistic and down-to-earth.
The little girl was very sincere in all this, for being left alone outside the safe home nest, she felt the need of some kind hand to hold by so sorely that she instinctively turned to the strong and tender Friend, whose fatherly love most closely surrounds His little children. She missed her mother's help to understand and rule herself, but having been taught where to look, she did her best to find the way and walk in it confidingly. But, Amy was a young pilgrim, and just now her burden seemed very heavy. She tried to forget herself, to keep cheerful, and be satisfied with doing right, though no one saw or praised her for it. (19.21)
The safe, comforting quality that Amy associates with home and her mother is something that she is able to re-create for herself with the religious principles she's been taught.
"In spite of the curly crop, I don't see the 'son Jo' whom I left a year ago," said Mr. March. "I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety, but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower. She doesn't bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl, but if I get a strong, helpful, tenderhearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied." (22.29)
The March family's values require Jo to subordinate her tomboyish qualities and become both stronger and more feminine than she was inclined to be as a child.
"I think I haven't done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time," she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, "I almost wish I hadn't any conscience, it's so inconvenient. If I didn't care about doing right, and didn't feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can't help wishing sometimes, that Mother and Father hadn't been so particular about such things."
Ah, Jo, instead of wishing that, thank God that "Father and Mother were particular," and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood. (34.69-70)
Jo confronts the problem that is at the center of the March family's poverty – an unwillingness to compromise strict and idealistic ethical principles in order to make money and get on in the world. Alcott suggests that holding to your ethics is ultimately more important than being prosperous or successful, but she's realistic about the fact that it might be uncomfortable sometimes.
He bore it as long as he could, but when he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth – an eloquence which made his broken English musical and his plain face beautiful. He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well, but he didn't know when he was beaten and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo. The old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new. God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again, and when Mr. Bhaer paused, outtalked but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him. (34.46)
It's interesting that Jo's first real attraction to Professor Bhaer begins when he defends religion – especially the existence of God and the nature of the afterlife. It's also interesting that Alcott allows Mr. Bhaer to be "beaten" during the discussion – he is "outtalked" by the intellectuals around him, but, she suggests, he still isn't wrong. After all, not everything that sounds convincing is true.
The conversations were miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms, and the only thing "evolved from her inner consciousness" was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before, that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God. (34.43)
Both Louisa May Alcott and her heroine Jo are skeptical of the progressive ideas circulating in nineteenth-century intellectual circles. The extremes of German philosophy and its tendency to atheism are fascinating, but, according to Alcott, ultimately wrong because they reject traditional Christianity.
Now, if she had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn't a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested. It's highly virtuous to say we'll be good, but we can't do it all at once, and it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way. Jo had got so far, she was learning to do her duty, and to feel unhappy if she did not, but to do it cheerfully, ah, that was another thing! (42.14)
One of the things that makes Jo such an attractive heroine for readers of every generation is that she's far from perfect. First she has to learn what's right and wrong, then she has to gear herself up to do the right thing, but even then she's not necessarily happy about it.
"I'll try and be what he loves to call me, 'a little woman,' and not be rough and wild, but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else," said Jo, thinking that keeping her temper at home was a much harder task than facing a rebel or two down South. (1.77)
We're not sure how much of a joke this little narrative aside really is. Obviously, going to war is much more physically dangerous, but at least battle, while difficult and requiring great heroism, is straightforward. Jo has to battle herself and her own inclinations.
"You are old enough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better, Josephine. It didn't matter so much when you were a little girl; but now you are so tall, and turn up your hair, you should remember that you are a young lady."
"I'm not! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I'll wear it in two tails till I'm twenty," cried Jo, pulling off her net, and shaking down a chestnut mane. "I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!" (1.26-27)
One of the first things we know about Jo March is that she's a tomboy – she'd rather go out into the world and boldly make her own way than stay at home and be a housewife or a spinster. Unfortunately, she's about a hundred years too early for most other options!
Mr. Brooke looked up and said quickly, "Young ladies in America love independence as much as their ancestors did, and are admired and respected for supporting themselves."
"Oh, yes, of course it's very nice and proper in them to do so. We have many most respectable and worthy young women who do the same and are employed by the nobility, because, being the daughters of gentlemen, they are both well bred and accomplished, you know," said Miss Kate in a patronizing tone that hurt Meg's pride, and made her work seem not only more distasteful, but degrading. (12.125-126)
Alcott likes to remind us that her novel and her characters are particularly American. While Laurie's aristocratic British friends may sneer at Meg because she has to work for a living, John Brooke insists that work and femininity are not incompatible. In fact, he suggests, there's something especially American about a working woman.
Annie Moffat's foolish lessons in coquetry came into her mind, and the love of power, which sleeps in the bosoms of the best of little women, woke up all of a sudden and took possession of her. (23.34)
Sometimes Alcott's novel reinforces negative stereotypes and chauvinistic attitudes – such as that women are especially jealous, or that they say "no" when they mean "yes." These passages can be frustrating for contemporary readers, especially since we still combat these stereotypes in our culture today.
On her left were two matrons, with massive foreheads and bonnets to match, discussing Women's Rights and making tatting. (27.5)
In this passage, Alcott develops a contrast between the progressive discussion about women's rights and the more traditional female activity of needlework ("tatting" is a kind of lace). This contrast is emblematic of the novel as a whole, which includes both liberal and conservative approaches to woman's place in the world and in the home.
"You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentlewoman in mind and manners, and I try to do it as far as I know how. I can't explain exactly, but I want to be above the little meannesses and follies and faults that spoil so many women." (30.62)
Amy associates moral goodness with aristocracy – being a "lady" or a "true gentlewoman." Her sisters, by contrast, tend to associate goodness with hard work – rolling up your sleeves and diving in.
Very likely some Mrs. Grundy will observe, "I don't believe it, boys will be boys, young men must sow their wild oats, and women must not expect miracles." I dare say you don't, Mrs. Grundy, but it's true nevertheless. Women work a good many miracles, and I have a persuasion that they may perform even that of raising the standard of manhood by refusing to echo such sayings. Let the boys be boys, the longer the better, and let the young men sow their wild oats if they must. But mothers, sisters, and friends may help to make the crop a small one, and keep many tares from spoiling the harvest, by believing, and showing that they believe, in the possibility of loyalty to the virtues which make men manliest in good women's eyes. If it is a feminine delusion, leave us to enjoy it while we may, for without it half the beauty and the romance of life is lost, and sorrowful forebodings would embitter all our hopes of the brave, tenderhearted little lads, who still love their mothers better than themselves and are not ashamed to own it. (41.9)
In this long digression, Alcott is responding to a nineteenth-century belief that men can't fully control their sexual desires – they have to "sow their wild oats," seducing women when they're young and randy. In other words, they get to be exceptions from regular moral rules, although women have to remain proper. Alcott finds this idea frustrating and counters by supporting another common nineteenth-century perspective – that women can influence the men in their families to behave more ethically.
Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live. The bright-eyed girls are quick to see such traits, and will like you all the better for them, and if death, almost the only power that can part mother and son, should rob you of yours, you will be sure to find a tender welcome and maternal cherishing from some Aunt Priscilla, who has kept the warmest corner of her lonely old heart for 'the best nevvy in the world'. (43.4)
Alcott, who was an old maid herself, writes with particular feeling when defending the rights of spinster to a respected and respectable place in society.
Mr. Bhaer could read several languages, but he had not learned to read women yet. He flattered himself that he knew Jo pretty well, and was, therefore, much amazed by the contradictions of voice, face, and manner, which she showed him in rapid succession that day, for she was in half a dozen different moods in the course of half an hour. (46.38)
Although Jo is an unusual woman in many ways, Alcott also depicts her behaving like a stereotypical moody, fickle girl.
"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." (46.99)
The novel concludes by reconciling Jo's unusual character with the nineteenth century's idea of woman's proper sphere. Jo isn't turned into a typical housewife, but she also doesn't get to go out into the world and become a celebrated author or playwright. Instead of entering the public world, she remains in the domestic one, even though she changes it significantly.
While making these maternal inquiries Mrs. March got her wet things off, her warm slippers on, and sitting down in the easy chair, drew Amy to her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hour of her busy day. The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table, Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping overturning, and clattering everything she touched, Beth trotted to and fro between parlor and kitchen, quiet and busy, while Amy gave directions to everyone, as she sat with her hands folded. (1.63)
Each of the March girls takes on the domestic tasks suited to her character and talents. When they work together in this way, they make the house more home-like for their mother. Bustle is almost as important a characteristic of this house as love.
It was a comfortable old room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture very plain; for a good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home peace pervaded it. (1.32)
Our first "view" of the March family home clues us in to the things that Alcott values: comfort, literature, and the beauty of the natural world. Together, these things turn a house into a home – a distinction that is especially important in a novel full of snug cottages and lonely mansions.
"Leave these things to time; make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not." (9.145)
For the March girls, the family home is like a laboratory where they experiment with and practice domestic science. If they get good enough at it and are lucky, they'll get to put their experiments into practice in homes of their own as wives and mothers.
"Don't you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, and to bear and forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?" (11.74)
The lesson Mrs. March teaches her daughters is an old-fashioned one – that labor is better than idleness, and that people are actually happier when they have something to do than when they just sit around all day. We're a bit skeptical that a group of four people would actually come to this conclusion after only two days, but it's a nice idea.
She smiled, said nothing, and with Hannah's help did their neglected work, keeping home pleasant and the domestic machinery running smoothly. (11.18)
Mrs. March, or "Marmee" as her daughters call her, often does this invisible behind-the-scenes labor to keep her family's home all but perfect.
Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room, with that suffering little sister always before her eyes and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth's nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth's unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by that exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty. (18.3)
Beth's illness teaches Jo to see the home – and the homemaker – as more important than any worldly or ambitious concerns.
"I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in this seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt offering has been made to vanity, this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters, and I'm sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time, so much good will went into the stitches. Meg, my dear, I value the womanly skill which keeps home happy more than white hands or fashionable accomplishments. I'm proud to shake this good, industrious little hand, and hope I shall not soon be asked to give it away." (22.25)
Mr. March praises Meg for putting her attention to the home ahead of attention to herself – even her own body. On one level, it makes sense for him to commend her for being less vain. But there's a slightly extreme feel to his praise. The reference to a "burnt offering" makes her seem like more of a martyr than is really necessary.
It was a tiny house, with a little garden behind and a lawn about as big as a pocket handkerchief in the front. Here Meg meant to have a fountain, shrubbery, and a profusion of lovely flowers, though just at present the fountain was represented by a weather-beaten urn, very like a dilapidated slopbowl, the shrubbery consisted of several young larches, undecided whether to live or die, and the profusion of flowers was merely hinted by regiments of sticks to show where seeds were planted. But inside, it was altogether charming, and the happy bride saw no fault from garret to cellar. To be sure, the hall was so narrow it was fortunate that they had no piano, for one never could have been got in whole, the dining room was so small that six people were a tight fit, and the kitchen stairs seemed built for the express purpose of precipitating both servants and china pell-mell into the coalbin. But once get used to these slight blemishes and nothing could be more complete, for good sense and good taste had presided over the furnishing, and the result was highly satisfactory. There were no marble-topped tables, long mirrors, or lace curtains in the little parlor, but simple furniture, plenty of books, a fine picture or two, a stand of flowers in the bay window, and, scattered all about, the pretty gifts which came from friendly hands and were the fairer for the loving messages they brought. (24.14)
Alcott emphasizes that the size of Meg's first home with her husband doesn't matter – it's cozy, and they love each other, and that makes it better than a palace. But she also makes gentle fun of how tiny the place is, and how it contrasts with Meg's grandiose aspirations.
They were very happy, even after they discovered that they couldn't live on love alone. John did not find Meg's beauty diminished, though she beamed at him from behind the familiar coffee pot. Nor did Meg miss any of the romance from the daily parting, when her husband followed up his kiss with the tender inquiry, "Shall I send some veal or mutton for dinner, darling?" The little house ceased to be a glorified bower, but it became a home, and the young couple soon felt that it was a change for the better. At first they played keep-house, and frolicked over it like children. Then John took steadily to business, feeling the cares of the head of a family upon his shoulders, and Meg laid by her cambric wrappers, put on a big apron, and fell to work, as before said, with more energy than discretion. (28.2)
Meg's energy turns the Brooke family house into a home – but Alcott suggests that she can't and shouldn't go overboard and try to create a "bower."
"That is the secret of our home happiness. He does not let business wean him from the little cares and duties that affect us all, and I try not to let domestic worries destroy my interest in his pursuits. Each do our part alone in many things, but at home we work together, always." (38.29)
Mrs. March suggests that the domestic sphere is a joint effort – husband and wife work together to create a home, instead of every aspect of it being the wife's responsibility.
It never was a fashionable school, and the Professor did not lay up a fortune, but it was just what Jo intended it to be – "a happy, homelike place for boys, who needed teaching, care, and kindness." Every room in the big house was soon full. Every little plot in the garden soon had its owner. A regular menagerie appeared in barn and shed, for pet animals were allowed. And three times a day, Jo smiled at her Fritz from the head of a long table lined on either side with rows of happy young faces, which all turned to her with affectionate eyes, confiding words, and grateful hearts, full of love for "Mother Bhaer." (47.31)
Unlike her sister Meg, Jo never turns a home into a domestic paradise for her husband. Instead, she creates a "homelike place," a cross between a home and a boarding school, where she is able to mingle her tomboyish personality with a more motherly spirit.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, "You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don't." And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted. (1.6)
Sacrifices in this novel can be very small things – choosing not to buy little luxuries, for example, like Christmas presents. The March girls have learned how to sacrifice, but not how to do it cheerfully.
"Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?" (2.23)
At first the March family seems poor, but when they're contrasted with the Hummels, who don't even have wood for a fire in the middle of winter, we realize that they're actually pretty well off. The existence of poor families like the Hummels gives the Marches a way to practice charity at home, sacrificing some of their comfort to preserve the lives of the unhappy children who live nearby.
"'Have you sons in the army?' I asked, for the note he brought was not to me.
"Yes, ma'am. I had four, but two were killed, one is a prisoner, and I'm going to the other, who is very sick in a Washington hospital.' he answered quietly.
"'You have done a great deal for your country, sir,' I said, feeling respect now, instead of pity.
"'Not a mite more than I ought, ma'am. I'd go myself, if I was any use. As I ain't, I give my boys, and give 'em free.'" (4.53-56)
There are many ways to sacrifice. Early in the novel, we see the March girls sacrificing possessions, money, and food. But, as Mrs. March's story illustrates, it's also possible to sacrifice your love for someone else, such as a family member. Perhaps the girls will be called on to experience that kind of sacrifice later in the novel!
There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind. (4.32)
Beth's manner of sacrificing is subtle – so subtle that Alcott doesn't even describe it in specific terms. We can imagine Beth going to extra lengths to do little kindnesses for her sisters, giving up things that she wants in order to give them to others, and generally not taking much time for herself. Is Beth over-sacrificing? Does her neglect of herself lead to anything negative?
"My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven't done anything rash?"
"No, it's mine honestly. I didn't beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don't think you'll blame me, for I only sold what was my own."
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.
"Your hair! Your beautiful hair!" "Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty." "My dear girl, there was no need of this." "She doesn't look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!" (15.41-44)
When Jo cuts off her hair and sells it to a wig-maker to get money for Marmee's travel expenses, she's not just changing her hairstyle. Young women – especially young women almost old enough to get married – simply did not have short hair in the mid-nineteenth century. It was, as they used to say, not done. But Jo does it – she sacrifices both her sex appeal and her respectability for her family.
When we make little sacrifices we like to have them appreciated, at least, and for a minute Amy was sorry she had done it, feeling that virtue was not always its own reward. But it is, as she presently discovered, for her spirits began to rise, and her table to blossom under her skillful hands, the girls were very kind, and that one little act seemed to have cleared the atmosphere amazingly. (30.28)
Amy has to learn to sacrifice something simple but very precious to her – her pride.
"Oh, Jo, can't you?"
"Teddy, dear, I wish I could!"
That was all, except a little pause. Then Laurie straightened himself up, said, "It's all right, never mind," and went away without another word. Ah, but it wasn't all right, and Jo did mind, for while the curly head lay on her arm a minute after her hard answer, she felt as if she had stabbed her dearest friend, and when he left her without a look behind him, she knew that the boy Laurie never would come again. (35.93-95)
Unfortunately, Jo can't choose between being Laurie's friend and being his wife. When she rejects his proposal of marriage, things change between them forever, and she sacrifices the relationship they did have on the altar of truth.
Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father and Mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and they only, could teach and strengthen heart and spirit for this life and the life to come. She did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches, only loved her better for her passionate affection, and clung more closely to the dear human love, from which our Father never means us to be weaned, but through which He draws us closer to Himself. She could not say, "I'm glad to go," for life was very sweet for her. She could only sob out, "I try to be willing," while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together. (36.19)
One of the greatest sacrifices Jo must make is letting go of Beth. She's able to withstand the loss because she thinks of it, not as losing Beth forever, but as letting her go to God.
She had often said she wanted to do something splendid, no matter how hard, and now she had her wish, for what could be more beautiful than to devote her life to Father and Mother, trying to make home as happy to them as they had to her? And if difficulties were necessary to increase the splendor of the effort, what could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans, and desires, and cheerfully live for others? (42.14)
If Little Women were a traditional novel of growth and development, Jo would go out into the world and make her way as a great writer, or become an actress, or make a fortune, or travel the world. Instead, her greatest challenge is to be a dutiful daughter and homemaker. In the wake of Beth's death, she must sacrifice her ambition for the sake of her family's relationships.
"I'll believe it, with all my heart, but, Teddy, we never can be boy and girl again. The happy old times can't come back, and we mustn't expect it. We are man and woman now, with sober work to do, for playtime is over, and we must give up frolicking. I'm sure you feel this. I see the change in you, and you'll find it in me. I shall miss my boy, but I shall love the man as much, and admire him more, because he means to be what I hoped he would. We can't be little playmates any longer, but we will be brother and sister, to love and help one another all our lives, won't we, Laurie?" (43.48)
Jo has learned something that Laurie has yet to understand – that adulthood means sacrificing the playful spirit of their childhood relationship. Things are going to be Very Serious from here on out…OK, not all that serious actually, but you get the idea.
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls to have nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got Father and Mother and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner. (1.1-4)
The first thing we learn about the March girls is that they are poor – they can't afford presents at Christmas, their clothes are old, and they envy the other girls that they know. Only Beth seems to realize that they are rich in another, more intangible way.
A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm. (2.30)
Just when you thought the March girls were poor and pathetic, we meet the Hummel children. This is true poverty: starvation, cold, and misery. By contrast, the Marches are snug, happy, and comfortable.
"I don't believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove apiece, and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them." (3.124)
Early in life, Jo and Meg, along with their sisters, begin to realize that possessions can't make you happy, even when they're really nice.
"One discovered that money couldn't keep shame and sorrow out of rich people's houses, another that, though she was poor, she was a great deal happier, with her youth, health, and good spirits, than a certain fretful, feeble old lady who couldn't enjoy her comforts, a third that, disagreeable as it was to help get dinner, it was harder still to go begging for it and the fourth, that even carnelian rings were not so valuable as good behavior." (4.61)
Everywhere we turn, the March girls are learning Deep Moral Lessons about money! You know, that money can't buy happiness, that there are much worse fates than being poor, and all that sort of thing,
"We can't give up our girls for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another." (4.26)
Mr. and Mrs. March are described in the novel as "unworldly" – they don't have plans or schemes for getting rich, or even for coming up in the world. They're more interested in their family than in their bank account...if they even have one.
Margaret found a place as nursery governess and felt rich with her small salary. As she said, she was 'fond of luxury,' and her chief trouble was poverty. She found it harder to bear than the others because she could remember a time when home was beautiful, life full of ease and pleasure, and want of any kind unknown. She tried not to be envious or discontented, but it was very natural that the young girl should long for pretty things, gay friends, accomplishments, and a happy life. At the Kings' she daily saw all she wanted, for the children's older sisters were just out, and Meg caught frequent glimpses of dainty ball dresses and bouquets, heard lively gossip about theaters, concerts, sleighing parties, and merrymakings of all kinds, and saw money lavished on trifles which would have been so precious to her. Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy. (4.24)
The reason Meg has more trouble adjusting to poverty is that she has something to contrast it with. Both her childhood memories of a time that her family had more money and her present experience as a governess remind her just how easy life can be if you've got the cash to make it that way. Her sisters don't have the same experience, but Meg knows exactly what she's missing.
"Poor girls don't stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward," sighed Meg.
"Then we'll be old maids," said Jo stoutly.
"Right, Jo. Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," said Mrs. March decidedly. "Don't be troubled, Meg, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time." (9.143-145)
Mrs. March advises Meg not to scheme and self-promote in order to marry well. It's more important to Marmee that her daughter be classy and well-bred than that she find a rich husband.
"Now, Laurie, don't be too fastidious and worldly-minded. If they love one another it doesn't matter a particle how old they are nor how poor. Women never should marry for money . . ." Amy caught herself up short as the words escaped her, and looked at her husband, who replied, with malicious gravity . . .
"Certainly not, though you do hear charming girls say that they intend to do it sometimes. If my memory serves me, you once thought it your duty to make a rich match. That accounts, perhaps, for your marrying a good-for-nothing like me."
"Oh, my dearest boy, don't, don't say that! I forgot you were rich when I said 'Yes.' I'd have married you if you hadn't a penny, and I sometimes wish you were poor that I might show how much I love you." And Amy, who was very dignified in public and very fond in private, gave convincing proofs of the truth of her words. (44.20-22)
Amy says she'd have married Laurie even if he was poor, and who are we to doubt her? Still, it is just a little too convenient that she gets to marry for love and get rich at the same time. Or maybe we're just jealous!
"I'm glad you are poor. I couldn't bear a rich husband," said Jo decidedly, adding in a softer tone, "Don't fear poverty. I've known it long enough to lose my dread and be happy working for those I love. . . ." (46.97)
Poverty suits Jo better than wealth would; if she married a rich man, she might have to learn how to behave properly and go around in Society and boring stuff like that.
For a year Jo and her Professor worked and waited, hoped and loved, met occasionally, and wrote such voluminous letters that the rise in the price of paper was accounted for, Laurie said. The second year began rather soberly, for their prospects did not brighten, and Aunt March died suddenly. But when their first sorrow was over – for they loved the old lady in spite of her sharp tongue – they found they had cause for rejoicing, for she had left Plumfield to Jo, which made all sorts of joyful things possible. (47.1)
In the end, for all its morality and realism, Little Women is a romantic novel with a typical romantic novel ending. Jo's poverty is alleviated by a convenient inheritance from a rich relative, and she can have all the advantages of money along with the satisfaction of holding on to her principles.
Jo's ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her, and meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn't read, run, and ride as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic. (4.29)
Later in her life, Jo will fixate on writing as her passion, but as a child she doesn't care what she does as long as it's totally awesome.
"My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting." (9.142)
Marmee tries to be clear with her girls: she has ambitious hopes for them, but her ambitions aren't the same as those of other mamas who are trying to find rich husbands and fancy homes for their daughters. Her ambitions as a mother are moral and emotional, rather than worldly.
"We're an ambitious set, aren't we? Every one of us, but Beth, wants to be rich and famous, and gorgeous in every respect. I do wonder if any of us will ever get our wishes," said Laurie, chewing grass like a meditative calf. (13.57)
The ambitions and desires that the March girls and Laurie describe actually seem to be pulling them apart from one another. As they pursue their various desires, they will leave home, some of them traveling as far as Europe, others finding homes and relationships of their own. Intriguingly, however, Alcott suggests that Beth's lack of ambition and love for home is more praiseworthy than everyone else's restlessness.
I'm not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I should accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune, but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures. (20.36)
Mrs. March's emphasis on hard work and domesticity, and her dislike of wealth and status, mark her as having a strongly Protestant worldview.
Earnest young men found the gray-headed scholar as young at heart as they; thoughtful or troubled women instinctively brought their doubts to him, sure of finding the gentlest sympathy, the wisest counsel. Sinners told their sins to the pure-hearted old man and were both rebuked and saved. Gifted men found a companion in him. Ambitious men caught glimpses of nobler ambitions than their own, and even worldlings confessed that his beliefs were beautiful and true, although 'they wouldn't pay.' (24.3)
In a way, Mr. March is even more ambitious than people who are seeking money or power. He's trying to turn his ideals into actual practice in reality. Little Women leaves these ideals largely vague, but Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's real-life father, was committed to things like communal living, raw foods, and equality of the sexes.
It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women. Amy was learning this distinction through much tribulation, for mistaking enthusiasm for inspiration, she attempted every branch of art with youthful audacity. (26.1)
The novel suggests that being too ambitious can blind you to your own nature. Because Amy wants to be a great artist, she can't see her talents – or her limitations.
"Rome took all the vanity out of me, for after seeing the wonders there, I felt too insignificant to live and gave up all my foolish hopes in despair."
"Why should you, with so much energy and talent?"
"That's just why, because talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won't be a common-place dauber, so I don't intend to try any more." (39.49-51)
Do you agree with Amy's suggestion that, if you can't do something with perfect mastery and genuine inspiration, you shouldn't do it at all? What other benefits can people get from art or writing besides creating a magnificent object in the end?
"You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to Father and Mother when I'm gone. They will turn to you, don't fail them, and if it's hard to work alone, remember that I don't forget you, and that you'll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing all the world, for love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy."
"I'll try, Beth." And then and there Jo renounced her old ambition, pledged herself to a new and better one, acknowledging the poverty of other desires, and feeling the blessed solace of a belief in the immortality of love. (40.16-17)
Alcott doesn't allow Jo to balance her personal ambition as a writer with her desire to serve her family. Ironically, or maybe just strangely, Alcott herself balanced a public persona with a private one all her life, and did it really well.
Whatever it was, it simmered to some purpose, for he grew more and more discontented with his desultory life, began to long for some real and earnest work to go at, soul and body, and finally came to the wise conclusion that everyone who loved music was not a composer. Returning from one of Mozart's grand operas, splendidly performed at the Royal Theatre, he looked over his own, played a few of the best parts, sat staring at the busts of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bach, who stared benignly back again. Then suddenly he tore up his music sheets, one by one, and as the last fluttered out of his hand, he said soberly to himself . . .
"She is right! Talent isn't genius, and you can't make it so. That music has taken the vanity out of me as Rome took it out of her, and I won't be a humbug any longer. Now what shall I do?" (41.6-7)
Once Laurie realizes that he's only good, not great, at composing music, he turns his attention to a different ambition – marrying a March sister, no matter which one!
"Thank you, I'm afraid I don't deserve that pretty compliment. But I was going to say that while I was dawdling about abroad, I saw a good many talented young fellows making all sorts of sacrifices, and enduring real hardships, that they might realize their dreams. Splendid fellows, some of them, working like heroes, poor and friendless, but so full of courage, patience, and ambition that I was ashamed of myself, and longed to give them a right good lift. Those are people whom it's a satisfaction to help, for if they've got genius, it's an honor to be allowed to serve them, and not let it be lost or delayed for want of fuel to keep the pot boiling. If they haven't, it's a pleasure to comfort the poor souls, and keep them from despair when they find it out."
"Yes, indeed, and there's another class who can't ask, and who suffer in silence. I know something of it, for I belonged to it before you made a princess of me, as the king does the beggarmaid in the old story. Ambitious girls have a hard time, Laurie, and often have to see youth, health, and precious opportunities go by, just for want of a little help at the right minute. People have been very kind to me, and whenever I see girls struggling along, as we used to do, I want to put out my hand and help them, as I was helped." (44.37-38)
Amy and Laurie decide to do charitable work supporting budding artists, both male and female. Instead of creating art and music themselves, they will use their fortune to enable others to realize their ambitions. To them, this is a more viable project than simply giving money away to people who beg for it. Do you agree?
"Once upon a time, there were four girls, who had enough to eat and drink and wear, a good many comforts and pleasures, kind friends and parents who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented." (4.60)
Love is an essential part of the family life of the March girls, but it's also not enough – at least, the love of parents and friends alone is not enough!
To others it might seem a ludicrous or trivial affair, but to her it was a hard experience, for during the twelve years of her life she had been governed by love alone, and a blow of that sort had never touched her before. (7.40)
Love is not just a fluffy feeling in the March household; it's also the center of morality. Amy has been "governed by love" instead of by the fear of physical punishment. Marmee (and, as we'll see later in the novel, Mr. March) uses love as a disciplinary tool.
"I gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till he was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end? If I don't seem to need help, it is because I have a better friend, even than Father, to comfort and sustain me. My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning and may be many, but you can overcome and outlive them all if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one. The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom. His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness, and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother." (8.88)
As Marmee explains to her daughters, she believes that one's love of God is the most important kind of love to feel, but that it has practical relationships to the love of one's country and one's family. By loving God more strongly than anything else, Marmee is able to sacrifice her love for her husband in order to further their loyalty to their country.
Then it was that Margaret, sitting alone with tears dropping often on her work, felt how rich she had been in things more precious than any luxuries money could buy—in love, protection, peace, and health, the real blessings of life. (18.3)
Many passages in Little Women are devoted to reminding us that love, even in the simplest and most unimpressive, everyday forms, is more important than worldly success or wealth.
"He was perfectly open and honorable about Meg, for he told us he loved her, but would earn a comfortable home before he asked her to marry him. He only wanted our leave to love her and work for her, and the right to make her love him if he could. He is a truly excellent young man, and we could not refuse to listen to him, but I will not consent to Meg's engaging herself so young." (20.28)
John Brooke actually asks for Mr. and Mrs. March's permission, not just to court their daughter Meg, but even to have feelings about her! It's interesting to think about what he means by a "right" to make Meg love him if he can. Do you think you have a right to try and make someone that you're interested in fall in love with you in return?
"She'll see those handsome eyes that she talks about, and then it will be all up with her. She's got such a soft heart, it will melt like butter in the sun if anyone looks sentimentally at her. She read the short reports he sent more than she did your letters, and pinched me when I spoke of it, and likes brown eyes, and doesn't think John an ugly name, and she'll go and fall in love, and there's an end of peace and fun, and cozy times together. I see it all! They'll go lovering around the house, and we shall have to dodge. Meg will be absorbed and no good to me any more. Brooke will scratch up a fortune somehow, carry her off, and make a hole in the family, and I shall break my heart, and everything will be abominably uncomfortable. Oh, dear me! Why weren't we all boys, then there wouldn't be any bother." (20.31)
For Jo, falling in love is dangerous because it will split her sisters apart. As each of them finds a love interest, she will be drawn away from the March family and into a new partnership that creates a different home.
"Mercy me! I don't know anything about love and such nonsense!" cried Jo, with a funny mixture of interest and contempt. "In novels, the girls show it by starting and blushing, fainting away, growing thin, and acting like fools. Now Meg does not do anything of the sort. She eats and drinks and sleeps like a sensible creature, she looks straight in my face when I talk about that man, and only blushes a little bit when Teddy jokes about lovers." (20.23)
Jo admits that she really doesn't understand what love is like in a practical, everyday sense. She knows that the heroines in novels act silly when they fall in love, and that her sister doesn't act silly, so she assumes that Meg isn't in love. She's in for quite a surprise!
"Mercy on me, Beth loves Laurie!" she said, sitting down in her own room, pale with the shock of the discovery which she believed she had just made. "I never dreamed of such a thing. What will Mother say? I wonder if her . . ." there Jo stopped and turned scarlet with a sudden thought. "If he shouldn't love back again, how dreadful it would be. He must. I'll make him!" and she shook her head threateningly at the picture of the mischievous-looking boy laughing at her from the wall. "Oh dear, we are growing up with a vengeance. Here's Meg married and a mamma, Amy flourishing away at Paris, and Beth in love. I'm the only one that has sense enough to keep out of mischief." (32.20)
Although Jo doesn't love Laurie, she seems to consider it her prerogative to match him up with her sisters. When her initial plan of marrying Meg to Laurie falls through, she develops a new plot involving Beth, and even convinces herself that Beth is already in love. Clearly, Jo hasn't really fallen in love with anyone herself yet, or she wouldn't think of it as a mechanical, controllable thing.
I think everything was said and settled then, for as they stood together quite silent for a moment, with the dark head bent down protectingly over the light one, Amy felt that no one could comfort and sustain her so well as Laurie, and Laurie decided that Amy was the only woman in the world who could fill Jo's place and make him happy. He did not tell her so, but she was not disappointed, for both felt the truth, were satisfied, and gladly left the rest to silence. (41.28)
Alcott has to employ every rhetorical trick in the book to convince us that Laurie and Amy really are in love. It just seems a bit creepy to have someone love one sister for two-thirds of the novel and then make a quick change and transfer his affections to another sister! Whether or not we believe in this new romance will depend on how convincing the narrator can be.
"Jo, dear, I want to say one thing, and then we'll put it by forever. As I told you in my letter when I wrote that Amy had been so kind to me, I never shall stop loving you, but the love is altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is. Amy and you changed places in my heart, that's all. I think it was meant to be so, and would have come about naturally, if I had waited, as you tried to make me, but I never could be patient, and so I got a heartache. I was a boy then, headstrong and violent, and it took a hard lesson to show me my mistake. For it was one, Jo, as you said, and I found it out, after making a fool of myself. Upon my word, I was so tumbled up in my mind, at one time, that I didn't know which I loved best, you or Amy, and tried to love you both alike. But I couldn't, and when I saw her in Switzerland, everything seemed to clear up all at once. You both got into your right places, and I felt sure that it was well off with the old love before it was on with the new, that I could honestly share my heart between sister Jo and wife Amy, and love them dearly." (43.47)
Laurie's explanation of how he came to fall in love with Amy and feel a more platonic, brotherly love for Jo is, well, convoluted. Do you buy it? Do you think that two people can "change places in...[your] heart" in that way? Well, maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge. The only thing more complicated than romance is…OK, we can't think of anything. Maybe the United Nations. Or instructions from Ikea. What we're trying to say is, love isn't always what it seems to be at first.
"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, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy." (9.142)
Don't kid yourself: this is a nineteenth-century novel about four sisters, and getting married was considered the most important thing for a woman to do at that time period. Even Mrs. March, who is liberal and even radical for the time in many of her views, still thinks that marriage is the ideal for which women should strive.
"I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family." (20.29)
Jo's wish is intriguingly taboo, suggesting same-sex desire and an almost-too-intimate bond between sisters. It's also a reminder that marriage will divide the March girls; as each girl marries and becomes a wife, she will become the center of a new family, separate from her siblings.
I may be mercenary, but I hate poverty, and don't mean to bear it a minute longer than I can help. One of us must marry well. Meg didn't, Jo won't, Beth can't yet, so I shall, and make everything okay all round. (31.30)
Amy approaches marriage pragmatically: she's going to marry for money. Don't judge her too harshly until we see whether she can force herself to do something so mercenary or not!
"As friends you are very happy, and your frequent quarrels soon blow over, but I fear you would both rebel if you were mated for life. You are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love." (32.91)
As Marmee's critique suggests, Jo and Laurie make good friends, but they would make a terrible married couple. What do you think – should you look for the same qualities in a spouse that you do in a friend?
"I can't say 'yes' truly, so I won't say it at all." (35.48)
Many of Louisa May Alcott's nineteenth-century fans – and, let's be honest, lots of fans from later centuries, too! – were disappointed that Jo doesn't marry Laurie. After all, the first half of the book leads the reader to believe that they're a natural couple. But part of what Alcott tries to show us is that they're not suited. Even if they were, Jo just doesn't feel that way about him. Don't get us wrong, he's a perfectly nice guy and everything, but she simply doesn't love him in a romantic way. You can't make yourself love somebody, and it's best not to pretend.
"I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. 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." (36.24)
Beth's early death is strangely connected to the fact that she was never able to envision herself as a wife. For nineteenth-century women, marriage and adulthood are practically the same thing!
In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when 'Vive la liberte!' becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into a seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day, "I'm as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because I'm married." (38.1)
Alcott's narrator insists that marriage doesn't change a woman's beauty or appeal. A matron, in her opinion, can be just as lovely and have just as much right to enjoy herself in society as a maiden. It seems unfair to her that only unmarried women are celebrated at balls and parties.
This household happiness did not come all at once, but John and Meg had found the key to it, and each year of married life taught them how to use it, unlocking the treasuries of real home love and mutual helpfulness, which the poorest may possess, and the richest cannot buy. This is the sort of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent to be laid, safe from the restless fret and fever of the world, finding loyal lovers in the little sons and daughters who cling to them, undaunted by sorrow, poverty, or age, walking side by side, through fair and stormy weather, with a faithful friend, who is, in the true sense of the good old Saxon word, the 'house-band,' and learning, as Meg learned, that a woman's happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother. (38.91)
Alcott suggests that, under ideal circumstances, being stay-at-home wife and mother can be extremely fulfilling for a woman. However, this vision exists side-by-side with her ideas about women as artists and the important place of old maids in society.
"Don't neglect husband for children, don't shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours, and the children need him. Let him feel that he has a part to do, and he will do it gladly and faithfully, and it will be better for you all." (38.27)
Mrs. March teaches Meg to view her marriage to John Brooke as a partnership. Even though the children are part of the domestic sphere and therefore primarily Meg's responsibility, John also has a definite role to play in their upbringing. Of course, their roles are stereotypical as well as complementary – Meg gives love and affection, while John is the disciplinarian.
At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason. And looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time. That rosy cheeks don't last forever, that silver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by-and-by, kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now. (43.3)
Alcott was herself a "spinster" or "old maid" – a woman who never married. She lived to be 51, raised her niece, cared for her aging father, wrote many bestselling books, and moved in fascinating intellectual circles. She wrote in her diary that "liberty is a better husband than love" for many women. It's interesting to contrast her life with the pity that her narrator feels for old maids in this passage.
It was certainly proposing under difficulties, for even if he had desired to do so, Mr. Bhaer could not go down upon his knees, on account of the mud. Neither could he offer Jo his hand, except figuratively, for both were full. Much less could he indulge in tender remonstrations in the open street, though he was near it. So the only way in which he could express his rapture was to look at her, with an expression which glorified his face to such a degree that there actually seemed to be little rainbows in the drops that sparkled on his beard. If he had not loved Jo very much, I don't think he could have done it then, for she looked far from lovely, with her skirts in a deplorable state, her rubber boots splashed to the ankle, and her bonnet a ruin. Fortunately, Mr. Bhaer considered her the most beautiful woman living, and she found him more "Jove-like" than ever, though his hatbrim was quite limp with the little rills trickling thence upon his shoulders (for he held the umbrella all over Jo), and every finger of his gloves needed mending. (46.70)
Alcott deliberately makes both Jo and Professor Bhaer completely unromantic in this scene. In fact, they're almost comical in their shabbiness. Their love, however, is no less real because it lacks little details – like him going down on one knee, or her looking radiantly beautiful.