In Chapter 34, “A Friend,” Jo makes not one but two choices. One is exceedingly difficult, the other flows from the first. The choice most commented upon is her decision to give up writing sensational thrillers. Modern feminist critics look to this chapter as a death of sort, of Jo’s independent self (see Little Women The Norton Critical Edition and the essay by Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant entitled “The Horror of Little Women.”). I believe this is a narrow interpretation of what transpired, and it points out to me anyway, yet again, why the modern feminist movement makes me uncomfortable.
I do not reject feminism outright; if I did, I wouldn’t be so fascinated with Louisa May Alcott, who devoted many of her writings and much energy to feminist causes. In Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen notes that Louisa followed in her mother’s footsteps, embracing the issue of woman suffrage (pg. 265). To advance the cause of a woman’s right to vote (moving towards equality), women in the 1870s strove first to secure the vote in local town elections. Reisen writes that, “Louisa proudly wrote in her journal, ‘was the first woman to register my name as a voter.’ ” (pg. 266). Louisa found, however, that women were not anxious to vote, citing such excuses as “jelly-making, sewing, sickness or company” (pg. 266). Reisen continues, “Louisa ‘gave them a good scolding & offered to drive the timid sheet (in a van) to the fatal spot where they seem[ed] to expect some awful doom.’ ” (pg. 266). In the end it would take forty years until the nineteenth amendment, guaranteeing the vote for women, would be passed (pg. 267). The biggest obstacle that women had to overcome was none other than themselves.
I applaud what Louisa and many other brave women did to assure all women of right to vote, which in turn, opened many doors to women over the years. What I object to with modern feminism is what I perceive to be the idea that power trumps all. Nothing should stand in the way of a woman obtaining power (aka independence) – not love, not family, not religion, not even morality. Power is not a means to an end, it is the end.
To me, power as the end is pretty empty. And lonely. I just don’t get it.
I also object to modern feminist critics laying latter 20th century perceptions and ideas on a 19th century woman. Estes and Lant maintain that Louisa, in essence, murdered Jo because Jo subdued much of her rebellious, independent spirit and became a ‘little woman’ (the jury is out on that for me as I haven’t finished Little Women yet). What did they expect of Louisa? She was, in the end, an eminently practical woman who knew that her labors supported her “pathetic” family. In the business world, compromises must be made. It may seem that Louisa compromised her ideals by taming and marrying Jo, but to me, I believe Louisa made a choice. Choices are not often black and white but agonizingly gray.
But back to Jo and her choice – to give up writing sensational thrillers. Here again, Louisa lays out her case like a lawyer with a persuasive opening argument (and I couldn’t help thinking that she was explaining, and then exonerating. herself for writing such “rubbish,” as she put it). She describes the process that Jo went through to write these stories, eventually immersing herself into the “rubbish” by devouring lurid stories in books and newspapers, and observing people in the streets. She feared that she was internalizing her research, calling it a”morbid amusement.” Did Jo sense that she could be losing her soul to her work?
Jo had a very strong sense of self. I do not believe that Professor Bhaer would have been able to influence her the way he did had she not be ready for it in the first place. He proved that he was worthy of her respect and admiration, especially after she witnessed him standing up for his faith in God in front of a group of admired intellects:
“. . . Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him.
She did neither; but she remembered this scene, and gave the Professor her heartiest respect, for she knew it cost him an effort to speak out then and there, because his conscience would not let him be silent. She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty; and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, –’truth, reverence and good-will,*”–then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.”
(*Interesting coincidence that the statement, “truth, reverence and good-will” is credited to a lecture given by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson whom Louisa held in such high esteem.)
It sounds to me as if Jo was already prepared to make the difficult choice but needed someone she deemed worthy to give her a push. After all, didn’t she hide her work from her own family and friends? She refused to have her name associated with her stories, what does that tell you?
Estes and Lant would have you believe that Professor Bhaer told her outright to give up her writing:
“Professor Bhaer, therefore–the upholder of social proprieties and agent of Alcott’s surface narrative–disapproves of Jo’s writing, insists that she stop writing sensation stories, and thereby takes away Jo’s power, ensuring there will be no ‘happy end’ to her story . . .” (then they quote what he said in Chapter 34 about the newspapers that come into the house with these thrillers, and how inappropriate they are for children) (pg 580 from Little Women the Norton Critical Edition, “The Horror of Little Women“).
I did not read his comments that way at all. In fact, he saw what I saw: a woman conflicted, and I believe he reached out in kindness to her:
“He knew that Jo wrote, and had met her down among the newspaper offices more than once: but as she never spoke of it, he asked no questions, in spite of a strong desire to see her work. Now it occurred to him that she was doing what she was ashamed to own, and it troubled him.”
I maintain the following: Professor Bhaer did not, in fact, take power from Jo, but instead, empowered her to do what her better self desired. He never demanded, never intruded, but simply observed her conflict and gently offered a way out of it.
Jo sensed long before she agreed to marry the Professor that she wanted more than just power and independence (although at the time she was not aware of it, as we will see in the next chapter, Heartache). She also wanted love and companionship, and she wanted to be at peace with her conscience. She understood that it took hard work, sacrifice and compromise to make these things happen. This was her second choice, the one that flowed from the sacrifice of her writing. This to some is seen as weakness, but I see it as strength, a healthy journey towards wholeness and fulfillment.
I believe Louisa was working out her own life issues in Jo (whether she would admit it not, and this is why the story to me is so compelling). I’m not sure she ever succeeded in totally subduing her demons and finding a resting place, but she was going to make sure Jo did. But I’ll have to finish Little Women before I can say that with surety.