Setting the stage for a major disappointment

Louisa knew she was about to inflict a major blow on her fans. Countless girls had implored and demanded that Jo and Laurie be married, but the stubborn author refused to give in. She never wanted Jo to marry in the first place but figured she’d create a “funny match for her” instead (see my post on “Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?“). I went along for the ride and felt pretty good about Professor Bhaer as her impending spouse, and felt he was a good match for her.

So it caught me by surprise as I read chapter 35, Heartache, and found myself weeping as Laurie desperately declared his love for Jo since I knew it would lead to nowhere happy nor good. I didn’t realize how vested I was in the character of Laurie and his love of Jo. Although I still feel Professor Bhaer is the best match for her, I couldn’t help but think that Jo worked a little too hard to push him away as if she had to convince herself that loving him in that way wasn’t right for her.

This is the one place in Little Women where the logic of the story fails. In the author’s real life, there were many good reasons why she feared marriage and fiercely remained a spinster. Louisa had witnessed her mother’s suffering over the years being married to her immensely impractical and self-absorbed father (and no, I don’t hate Bronson Alcott, he had many stellar qualities along with as many fatal flaws). She nursed feelings of betrayal when her father nearly abandoned her mother and family after the Fruitlands debacle. This was after the family suffered incredible poverty, nearly starving and freezing to death because her father and other members of the community wouldn’t or couldn’t do the labor required to make Fruitlands work. Louisa suffered real trauma as a result of Fruitlands, and that was only one of many incidents that shaped her view of marriage. To Louisa, marriage was slavery – the end of her independence, which meant more to her than love.

She infuses this aversion of marriage into Jo but without the experiences of life that shaped that aversion. Jo, for all intents and purposes, grew up in a very happy home where the marriage of her mother and father was sound and good. There’s no reason offered for Jo’s aversion to marriage except that she was “odd” – a rebellious, passionate and fiercely independent girl. There’s no premise for the thought that marriage to Laurie (or any man) would entail loss of freedom. For example, I always found her reaction to Meg’s engagement and marriage as unnatural.  At one point she even wished she could “marry” Meg to keep her in the family! Quite a strong, and odd, reaction in my view.

So it’s no wonder that her contemporary readers cried “foul” at the pairing of Jo and Professor Bhaer even though Louisa laid out a good case for it in chapters 33 and 34. But the logic of her lawyer-like argument could not blunt the blow. After all, everyone loved Laurie. He also seemed perfect for Jo – dear trusted friend, handsome, charming, intelligent and good, yet high spirited like her. It was the dearest wish to see the two of them married and living happily ever after.

I guess through my tears I was crying “foul” too, despite myself. But I must admit, it makes the story a lot more compelling in the long run.

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

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Jo’s choice

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.

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

At least that’s my take on Professor Bhaer. And what a sweetheart she’s created! Kind, gentle, a lover of children . . . an intellectual who can challenge her mind and create stimulating conversation . . . a confidant . . . someone with the courage to be virtuous and defend it . . .  someone who can let his hair down and play with children on the floor . . . someone who brings out Jo’s best side.

Louisa needed to lay out a strong case for Jo choosing Professor Bhaer over Laurie and she presented it like a lawyer. I found the argument logical, convincing and keeping in character with Jo  (although I thought she overdid Professor Bhaer’s virtues a bit, perhaps trying too hard to convince her readers who had pressured her to marry Jo to Laurie). Jo was decidedly different and preferred odd people; she stated emphatically in chapter 33 from her journal, “I hate ordinary people!” It makes sense to me that she was paired with Bhaer.  Louisa has methodically revealed Jo’s personality and character throughout the book; Jo has opened slowly before me like a beautiful flower. Louisa needed to do the same with Bhaer but far more quickly. By the end of chapter 34 (The Friend), I was convinced, and comfortable with the idea.

Chapter 32 (Tender Troubles) actually presents the opening argument in this exchange between Jo and Marmee when Jo confides that Laurie has designs on her:

Jo looked up and Jo looked down, then said slowly, with sudden color in her cheeks. “It may be vain and wrong to say it, but–I’m afraid–Laurie is getting too fond of me.”

“Then you don’t care for him in the way it is evident he begins to care for you?” and Mrs. March looked anxious as she put the question.

“Mercy, no! I love the dear boy, as I always have, and am immensely proud of him, but as for anything more, it’s out of the question.”

“I’m glad of that, Jo.”

“Why, please?”

“Because, dear, I don’t think you suited to one another. 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.”

“That’s just the feeling I had, though I couldn’t express it.

It is well known among Alcott enthusiasts that Louisa never wanted to have Jo marry in the first place but caved  in to pressure from her readers. In a letter to one Elizabeth Powell, she writes:

” ‘Jo’ should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didnt dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.” (from Little Women A Norton Critical Edition, page 421)

Louisa said that Bhaer was a “funny match” but I actually found it to be the perfect match and a very logical choice. And I had to smile as I read because it seemed to me that Louisa, had she met a Professor Bhaer at the right time in her life, might have considered marrying him. Some have speculated that Bhaer was based on her father’s lifelong friend and family benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s no secret that Louisa had a girlhood crush on Emerson (writing love letters to him a la Goethe’s Correspondence With a Child) and if Bhaer is based on him, then her affection for Emerson was deep and authentic.

Only Louisa’s skill as a writer (and the heart she put into her writing) could have pulled this off. It creates a far more interesting and dramatic story in the long run even if readers were disappointed with the outcome.

And this is just the beginning, as I began to realize upon reading chapter 35 . . . I was amazed at how my tears flowed as I read it . . . but more on that in my next post. I have so much more I want to write about, just from chapter 34, let alone chapter 35. And then there’s chapter 36 . . . yikes! But that will have to wait until tomorrow.

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.

A view of marriage from a decided spinster

Louisa May Alcott was an astute observer of life. Her description of Meg and John’s first year of marriage in Chapter 28 of Little Women, Domestic Experiences, amazed me with its accuracy. She obviously studied her sister Anna and brother-in-law John Pratt’s marriage carefully, probably without even realizing it. Her keen mind picked up on so many subtle details, from the way Meg managed her household, and her trials and tribulations as a new wife, to how the couple managed their money and the impact it had on them. She dealt so beautifully with many issues so vital to a good marriage: sacrificial love, trust, and conflict.

When I began the chapter, I thought I would be bored but right away it captured my interest. The last portion was especially gripping, watching the dance between a husband and wife dealing with conflicts over finances, guilt and trust. I was very touched by Meg’s sacrifice of her silk dress so her husband could have the coat he needed. It wasn’t a sacrifice just to assuage guilt, but a sacrifice of love.

Louisa remained a spinster out of choice, to retain her freedom. The observations she made of her parents’ marriage coupled with her own independent spirit of unconventionality (and the trauma that was Fruitlands, where her parents nearly split up) formed her choice. She could have presented a very bitter, negative view of marriage (and may have been tempted to do so) but she didn’t. Instead she presented a very realistic view of a marriage that would be not only successful, but fulfilling to both husband and wife.

It amazes me more and more how Little Women, written strictly out of obligation, has so much heart. The characters are unfolding like beautiful flowers, layers and layers with such subtlety. These girls are so real and timeless, and this book, pure genius. The author was eminently pragmatic yet utterly inspired as well (whether she knew it or not).

While I loved Part One, Part Two captivates me even more. There is so much more to explore with young adults; the moral issues are much deeper. It saddens me that different religious institutions back in the day banned this book from their Sunday School shelves. Louisa’s spirituality was very deep and perhaps too subtle for rigid  and narrow minded religious thinkers. I find the moral lessons in Little Women to be compelling and multi-layered.

I can hardly wait to blog on Chapter 30, Consquences. That chapter really blew me away. But that post will have to wait until tomorrow. :-)

Three years later . . .

The first three chapters of Little Women, Part Two (aka Good Wives) certainly didn’t disappoint! I loved how the first chapter (Chapter 24, Gossip) brought me up to date on all the major characters – it was like hanging around the water cooler at work finding out what happened on my favorite TV show last night. All the details were fascinating. I particularly liked the first formal description of Mr. March, based on Bronson Alcott. It was pretty romanticized, of course, but having immersed myself in Alcott lore for so many years, it all sounded so familiar.

Meg’s wedding in Chapter 25 was based fairly closely on Anna Alcott’s wedding to John Pratt. I’ve read accounts of Anna’s wedding many times and had to smile when Laurie suggested they all form a circle and dance around Meg and John “like the Germans do,” just like what I had read about Anna and John. It was such a sweet account. I loved the description of their Dove cottage – I was dying to see it (I always liked looking at other people’s houses :-)). It bothers me though that critics call John Brooke ‘boring’ because he is a good and steady man who dearly loves Meg and only wants to make her happy. Goodness, I guess, isn’t all that interesting.

By far my favorite chapter so far though was Chapter 26, Artistic  Attempts. Watching Amy emerge as a young lady was so cool. Reading this on the heels of Caroline Ticknor’s May Alcott A Memoir made May Alcott come alive for me in an exciting new way. Again, it was all so familiar – the frenzied attempts at different forms of artistic expression (especially the poker-sketching, and Amy plaster casting her foot!). I’ve visited Orchard House several times and seen May’s pencil drawings on her bedroom walls and poker-sketchings in other parts of the homestead, so it was very cool to read about Amy doing these very things. Louisa’s description of Amy’s appearance and personality  gave me wonderful insight into how she saw her youngest sister.

All the reading I’ve done over the years about the Alcotts is really paying off, adding such richness to my reading of Little Women. I can’t imagine reading the story without knowing all these things.

I finally get it!

Now that I’ve finished part one of Little Women, I finally get it. I know, I’m late, I always seem to be behind the curve. For so many years I have heard people rave about Little Women but I never understood what the attraction was. On the surface, Little Women appears simplistic, way too sentimental, and preachy. The writing is old-fashioned and hard to relate to. But now, I finally understand. It’s the same reason why I swooned over the Harry Potter series, and it’s what I love best about good books and good movies: thorough, realistic, delicious character development.

Louisa was a master at character development, I’ve decided. As the book covers the course of one year, there is much growth in Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and in Laurie too. I never once, however, thought that any of that change and growth was out of character. Louisa  patiently and gradually built on each character, brick by brick,  so that every change made perfect sense. Even Amy’s spiritual awakening made perfect sense to me. I found myself reading each chapter and suddenly realizing, “wow, ‘such-and-such’ has really changed,” and it was immensely satisfying. It happened again and again. And I fell in love with each character, became vested in them, and really wanted to know what would happen to them. That’s what rich character development does.

I had read that readers in Louisa’s time loved Little Women because of its realistic portrayal of family life, and in the development of girls into women. Because Louisa based it so much on family members that she knew so well and had documented so carefully in her journals, it’s no wonder that realism shown through. It must have been refreshing, perhaps even radically so. It certainly was different.

I particularly enjoyed the evolution of Meg and John’s love for each other. It was introduced simply and subtly and grew at a natural pace. The fun of it was watching it grow, even if the characters themselves were unaware of it. It was like I, the reader, knew a secret that they didn’t know and that’s cool.

I could go on and on about why this book is now right up there with Harry Potter (my all time favorite series) but suffice it to say, I’m SO glad there is a part two, and I cannot wait to begin reading it!

Beth’s influence is revealed; Jo and Laurie’s friendship grows; Amy shows some mettle

Just finished chapters 18 and 19, describing Beth’s bout with scarlet fever, and Amy’s ‘exile’ with Aunt March.

Scarlet fever sounds like a pretty frightening illness, and we all know it inevitably led to Beth’s death later on in the book. It’s interesting how she really came to the forefront as a result of the illness. She was no longer invisible. Everyone in the family and beyond started remembering all she had done for them. Much as she tried to do good behind the scenes, it came out in the open. Goodness cannot be hidden for long.

Beth was pretty influential for someone who had a hard time asserting herself. Jo called Beth “her conscience” and couldn’t bear the thought of being parted from her. It makes me wonder if Beth was one of the reasons why Jo was strong.  To be able to influence someone that profoundly shows the power that Beth wielded even if she was unaware of it. But something tells me she wasn’t so unaware of that power.

Laurie was a true hero during the dark days of Beth’s illness. His care of Jo and Amy especially was very touching. The scene between Jo and Laurie when he became her strength was so beautiful. I am really enjoying how carefully Louisa is building this relationship.

Amy came to realize her sister’s value and vowed to be more like her. She showed the first signs of maturity during her time with Aunt March, particularly under the influence of Aunt March’s long time live-in maid, Esther. Her authentic spirituality had a profound affect on Amy, teaching her how to be introspective for the first time and helping her to look beyond herself. As a Catholic, I appreciated the fair and thoughtful treatment that Louisa gave through Esther even though I had read that she had issues with Catholicism as many did during that era.

Amy’s will was very interesting; it seemed to act as a primer to help Amy learn to give of herself. Although she very much wanted Aunt March’s turquoise ring after she learned she might earn it through her good behavior, in the end she realized her sister Beth’s recovery was far more important. This was Amy’s first step towards maturity and it was good to see.

As an aside, I sure wish my late mother had been here while reading about Aunt March’s parrot, Polly! My mother had a voice that any bird would have loved. She couldn’t keep a tune but she’d sing to birds and they loved it! I remember she once sang “Ode to Joy” to my cousin’s parrot and he went nuts! He was absolutely enamored with my mom and I swear, she could have taught that bird to talk in no time. Polly sounded so much like a parrot in my mother’s childhood, Walter. Louisa’s sharp sense of humor really shown in her descriptions of Polly – I was laughing out loud every time she described him, and I would have loved to have shared that with my mom. Those descriptions left me with very pleasant memories.

Giving Beth her due – chapter 17 “Little Faithful”

I never seem to gravitate towards the mainstream. True to form, my favorite character in Little Women is not Jo (though she’s my second favorite character). It is, instead, Beth. When I attempted to read Little Women as a young girl, Beth was always the one who caught my imagination. The attraction back then was that Beth was my favorite name. As an adult, Beth attracts me because of her goodness and selfless nature. I do admit that I find it hard to believe that anyone could be that passive but she is based on Louisa’s younger sister Lizzie (also known as the “shadow sister”) who died tragically in her early twenties.

I also had a difficult time, both as a child, and now as an adult, accepting Beth’s eventual death. She was too good to die. I still tear up when I read about her passing in “The Valley of the Shadow.”

Beth, I think, gets a bad rap. Since she never thinks of herself, gives of herself totally, and is so passive, critics think she is a poor example for modern women. In an essay in the Norton Critical Edition of Little Women entitled “The Horror of Little Women“*, Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant theorize that Beth was, in essence, the Perfect Woman for her time in the mid 19th century:  “Beth, who has not even sufficient self-reliant impulses to stay alive, becomes for Jo – and by extension for Alcott – the example of what all women are required by custom to be, the completely perfect woman – passive, acquiescent, dead.”

There may be some truth to that. But in chapter 17, I saw great courage in Beth. She was able to go beyond her own wants when her sisters could not, to help a family in great need. Meg was “too tired” and Jo was wrapped up in her writing. Beth was afraid to go because the baby was getting sicker by the day and she didn’t know how to care for it. Yet her perfect love gave her the courage to go. She went each day for a week as the situation grew more and more dire. Her one fault was that she was not assertive enough in taking care of herself. She obviously wasn’t feeling well when she asked Meg and Jo to help, but she never mentioned it to them nor pressed her case. Ultimately she was to pay a great price for not taking care of her own needs.

The part, though, that struck me was that she took the dying baby into her lap and tried to comfort it as it died. Then she held the dead baby in her lap until the mother came back with the doctor. She even stayed to grieve with the family. It took great courage and compassion to do these things; courage and compassion are signs of great strength. She did not fear death and was willing to cradle the dead baby. Her love was that perfect.

Beth was self-giving in the extreme such that, in the end, she sacrificed herself. Balance was needed. And this is why she probably gets the bad rap. But she was far more than a “shadow sister” who was too shy to talk to boys or strike out on her own. She had a unique strength and courage built on her perfect love. In the Bible, 1 John 14:18 says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear . . .”

We know that Jo aligned herself with Beth because she saw in Beth qualities she needed to develop within herself. Some might say that these qualities were not desirable because they were signs of weakness. But Jo, a strong and assertive girl, perhaps sensed that she needed balance in her life too – balance that Beth could help provide by her example. It’s just unfortunate that Beth could not learn by Jo’s example as well. Polar opposites, they were attracted to each other and learned from each other. Unfortunately, Beth did not learn enough.

Beth may have exemplified the Perfect Woman of the 19th century but she had many admirable qualities and should not be so easily dismissed. Strength comes in many forms.

p.s. I hope to revisit the essay, “The Horror of Little Women” after I finish the book. This was one fascinating essay!

My favorite chapter so far in Little Women – “Secrets”

Just a quick post today because I’m on the run but I had to comment on Chapter 14, “Secrets.” What a fabulous read chapter 14 was! I had an inkling that Jo was taking her stories to be reviewed by an editor but I was still on the edge of my seat, waiting for the results. I laughed out loud when she said that the name of the story that was eventually printed in the paper was “The Rival Painters” – I knew about that story! I didn’t realize Louisa was quite so overt in her autobiographical references.

Louisa does such a wonderful job of building and deepening the relationship between Jo and Laurie. The way that they both shared in her triumph over being published in the newspaper was very sweet.

I found the last line of the chapter very poignant – “Jo’s breath gave out here, and wrapping her head in the paper, she bedewed her little story with a few natural tears, for to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.”

This book just gets better and better!