Amy wins the day, and Jo pays the price

In Chapter 30 of Little Women, “Consequences,” Amy for the first time became a fleshed out character for me and I liked her very much. Having May Alcott A Memoir so fresh on my mind, I could see for the first time what May Alcott was really like. No memoir could describe her quite the way her own sister did. It confirmed some things about Louisa that I had suspected for a long time as well.

The morality play here was so interesting. Amy really had learned virtue, showing extraordinary character through the ordinary events of this chapter. It’s true that being slighted by her friend May Chester wasn’t an earth shattering event, but it was important to Amy and it hurt her just the same. I envied her self control and strength as she fought off retaliation and emotional outbursts in favor of kindness.

Part of the fun of reading Little Women for me is learning more about what made Louisa May Alcott tick. I’m gaining great insight about her spirituality and morality and it’s deep and well thought out. This particular passage really struck me as true:

Many wise and true sermons are preached us every day by unconscious ministers in street, school, office, or home. Even a fair table may become a pulpit, if it can offer the good and helpful words which are never out of season. Amy’s conscience preached her a little sermon from that text, then and there, and she did what many of us do not always do, took the sermon to heart, and straightway put it in practice.

That, to me, belays an understanding of spirituality that runs pretty deep. Louisa may not have been a church goer, but she apparently understood well what it really takes to be a good Christian.  It’s these mundane little daily dramas and how we live them out that is the real mettle of spirituality.

I’ve noticed in the last few chapters that Jo’s “independent streak” is not so attractive to me as it was when she was a girl. Now emerging into adulthood, I see someone who goes out of her way to make her point that she will not conform to conventionality. I have to wonder if Louisa is being hard on herself, portraying Jo in this way. Was she really this awkward, decidedly stubborn and curmudgeonly? Jo approaches life in a very black and white fashion, not yet understanding the nuances. Principles trump all and while living a principled life is a good and noble thing, if it taken to extremes can cost a great deal. And Jo certainly paid the price in this chapter!

I always suspected that Louisa harbored some resentment and jealously towards younger sister May (though she fought hard against it) because things came so easily to May. A line from Chapter 30 certainly made that clear:

“It’s always so. Amy has all the fun and I have all the work. It isn’t fair, oh, it isn’t fair!” cried Jo passionately.

May Alcott A Memoir did not shine any light on this but only kept referring to May as being “lucky.” May was indeed lucky but she created her own luck because she mastered the art of graciousness. Amy earned her good fortune of a trip to Europe with her aunt because she was gracious and solicitous towards her aunt (and without expecting anything in return). I loved how she described what it meant to her to be a true woman:

“Why, girls, you needn’t praise me so. I only did as I’d be done by. 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. I’m far from it now, but I do my best, and hope in time to be what Mother is.”

Someone who is gracious creates their own luck. And those like Jo unfortunately reap the consequences. I felt awful for Jo but Amy deserved to be chosen.

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9 thoughts on “Amy wins the day, and Jo pays the price

  1. Mia Ninera says:

    I believe that Louisa had very complex personality. She was not conventional and she didn’t have that gift “to please without effort” which both Meg and Amy had.

    In Chapter 28 (“Calls”), I feel very sympathetic towards Jo, being dragged to pay formal visits. Jo is someone who would nurse a sick person with ultimate self-sacrifice, I think she would spend sleepless nights over Aunt March if that was needed. I can’t imagine Amy doing such a thing. Not even Meg. When Beth was sick, she wanted Jo to take care of her and that came as a relief to Meg.

    Jo, and therefore Louisa herself, recognized and admired many “feminine” qualities in her sisters that she knew she was lacking herself. When Amy insists that they finish the day of formal calls by visiting Aunt March, because “Aunt March likes us to pay her the compliment of coming in style, and making a formal call. It’s a little thing to do, but it gives her pleasure,” Jo honestly says to her youngest sister:
    “What a good girl you are, Amy! I wish it was as easy for me to do little things to please people as it is for you. I think of them, but it takes too much time to do them, so I wait for a chance to confer a great favor, and let the small ones slip, but they tell the best in the end, I fancy.”

    It’s that quality of being agreeable or disagreeable, in the eyes of society, I guess. Amy masters that social skill, Jo has no natural apptitude towards it. I believe that Louisa truly was that “akward” as you say.

    Amy shares her wisdom, giving a valuable piece of advice to Jo:

    “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones. for they have no other way of repaying the kindness they receive. If you’d remember that, and practice it, you’d be better liked than I am, because there is more of you.”

    However, Jo doesn’t really learn it, and pays the price of losing a free trip to Europe.

  2. Gina says:

    I look at my mother and my aunt when comparing Jo/Amy Lou/May. My mother toiled and worked hard. My aunt was the baby with the pretty blond hair. My mother had nothing handed to her, but my aunt with a pretty smile and batting of the eyelashes could conquer armies.

    I can see how Louisa would be a little annoyed. In Louisa’s journals we can read how May seems to get out of doing all the work. And while May knew poverty, Louisa’s wealth gave her a huge boost, that I’m unsure May could have lived without.

    I also think that Louisa, even after her fame, was a little bitter. Her health was failing, people would seek her out(when she wanted to be left alone) and here May was bouncing around with great health, nice clothes and could do everything Louisa couldn’t.

    But I do agree that Louisa would nurse anyone, and sacrifice herself for it. I don’t see the same in May.

    • susanwbailey says:

      It’s interesting how we compare these characters to people in our lives because I think of my 24 year old son when I read about Jo. He also takes a very black and white approach to life and seems to enjoy creating conflict to defend his principals. All good traits (except for the creation of conflict) but being uncompromising all the time has its consequences.

      I agree that Louisa was way more self-sacrificing than May but I also think May had a more balanced view of life. I’ve often thought that Louisa had a martyr complex; she seemed insecure, was acutely aware that she was sometimes difficult to get along with, and may have been self-sacrificing, in part, to assured that she would be loved.

      Oh wouldn’t Louisa cringe at all this analysis! But it is fun.

  3. Mia Ninera says:

    Ladies, I love your comments today! :)

    Magic of Little Women is that it’s so real that you can relate to so many things, people and relations in it.

    Do you relate to Jo (Louisa) and Amy (May) yourself?

    I can relate to Jo, for I was nursing my late Grandma and spent many sleepless nights making her company till the morning, ’cause she was always afraid to die alone during the night while everyone else is sleeping. She had a very quick temper, which I took after :(, and we were fighting and were not really pleasant to each other.

    She always liked my brother and my cousin (her first grandson) the best, it was for two of them that she kept candies and money to give and wanted to cook the food they liked. She certainly didn’t pet me at all. But when she didn’t feel well, she felt good only when she would have me around.

    It might have been selfish of her, and she was selfish, may she rest in peace, as many old people inevitably become, but I didn’t really feel as a martyr. For it was only with her that I could fight and say anything, and knew that it would be forgiven and forgotten and that she wouldn’t hold grudge. We didn’t have to be nice and pleasant to each other, but we felt comfortable without holding our sharp tongues. And I miss that. For with everyone else I have to guard my tongue.

    Gina, I like your point that May wouldn’t be able to do without Louisa’s fame and money. Though, I think that Louisa was geuinely proud of her youngest sister and that she actually enjoyed that May could do everything she couldn’t. People have different needs, they give and take different things to and from different people. Generally, I think that we all feel good when we are able to give something to others and to help them. Do you like TV show Friends? Remember the episode where Phoebe wants to find a good deed which is not selfish? For Joey said that each good deed it’s selfish itself, ’cause it makes you feel good about yourself. :) Well, that is the true, it does make you feel good about yourself when you do something good for others.

    There are people like Amy who know how to receive help with such graciousness, that truly makes you feel good to do something for them. They are not calculated, they are not pleasant and nice because they expect something in return. They just have that gift. I truly think it’s a gift, it’s something a person has or has not. And it’s a blessing for a woman to have it. Jo doesn’t have it, that’s why she’s not a conventional woman.

    Susan, it’s no wonder that reading of Jo reminds you of your son. Truly, Jo’s traits are more common in men. :) It’s well known that takes much longer for men to get mature and learn to compromise and it usually takes a woman that makes them willing to learn to compromise. I speak out of experience with my fiance. :)

  4. I’m so enjoying all your comments and the way you take lma to heart; I think that’s her strength as a writer.

    You’d be interested in Louisa’s essay “Happy Women.” All the women are real and you’ll easily see which is Louisa and which May.

    “The Sisters’ Trial” is an 1856 story (Louisa was mid-twenties when she wrote it) that shows lma and her sister struggling with her limited options.

    I can’t find either on the internet but they are each included in a number of anthologies.

    I’m just back from SUNY Albany where Nancy Porter and I did a two-day event. It focussed on filmmaking and the use of scholarship …. I enjoyed it, but it would be great to do something with Alcott readers.

    Can’t resist a plug – my book comes out in paperback in a couple of days. It talks about both the above stories. I would love to know what you all think of them and what thoughts they bring up.

    Harriet

    • susanwbailey says:

      I’ll have to look those up. I plan on making another trip to the Orchard House bookstore as it is the only place where I can actually see these things. It’s too bad Borders and Barnes & Noble don’t carry these kinds of books anymore.

      My dream? I’d love to gather a bunch of Alcott enthusiasts to take a field trip to the Houghton Library at Harvard and look at the original papers. Hmm, when I go back to Orchard House, I’ll have to stop by the Concord Public Library – they have papers too.

  5. [...] is that Amy was into the details. Chapter 30 was the beginning of my conversion, so to speak (see Amy wins the day, and Jo pays the price). She reminded me of one of my favorite saints, St. Therese of Lisieux. Known as “The Little [...]

  6. [...] I read Little Women , I was very taken by the spirituality of the mundane that Louisa preached (see my post on Amy) – that spirituality being that it was all in the details: how a smile, a gesture, a small [...]

  7. Josephineteddy says:

    Ohhhh pleasseee don’t say it like that !!!!!!!!
    I always shipped jo and teddy sooooo harrdddd,,,!!!! Nd I cried all nyt when I skipped to the end to find that Amy ends with Laurie ……
    Not FaIR! I shall never forgive anybody to seperate the joLAwRiE<3<3<3
    I think that jowls much better thn Amy …u knw not flirting with anybody…..just as puree………..lawrie nd jo …I love them soooo much nod will ship them fr d rest of my lyf!

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