Jo finds a new self in the Valley

Before I begin, I must say that right now I am positively swooning over the reading I am doing! Little Women is (sadly) winding down but surely going out with a bang. At the same time, Gone with the Wind is ramping up! It’s so cool reading two books about the Civil War era (my favorite part of history), one from the North and the other from the South. It amazes me how different it was for women in the South.  But that’s for another post. As Scarlett would say, “Tomorrow is another day!” :-)

(And I intend to write about Amy and Laurie soon, I’m combining the chapters about their relationship into one big post).

Chapter 40, “The Valley of the Shadow,” is the one chapter from Little Women that I remember when I tried to read it in school as a child. The whole saga of Beth always fascinated me for some reason. This chapter was so utterly poetic and beautiful and tragic. I could deeply relate to Jo as caregiver, for my sister and I did the same for our mother for a long time. It consumes your whole being; your life is literally on hold. Louisa, as always so accurately (since she experienced it herself being caregiver for younger sister Lizzie), describes Jo’s time as a caregiver and how her life went on hold.

I remember having to give up my music and all outside activities for at least a year while we cared for my mother. There was no time or energy even for creative thoughts. As Jo threw herself into Beth’s care, so my sister and I did for our mother.

I have seen one person actually pass away (my father) and have witnessed both parents going through the Valley and I wish I could say it was peaceful, but they both fought it. When reading about Beth’s passing, I found myself getting a little angry, feeling cheated that my parents hadn’t experienced a peaceful death and wondering if it actually existed, or if it was just a romantic way of saying someone went into a coma and passed away.

Louisa’s weaving of spirituality into Beth’s passing reminded me again why I seem to be attracted to such things -I believe this is when people are the most real. All masks fall away and you see the soul of the person who is dying, and of the people who are saying goodbye. It’s bitter sweet.

I used to sing a lot at weddings and funerals at my church, along with other musicians (we have a very musical parish). We all agreed that we actually prefer doing funerals because that is when the music we bring truly ministers to people who are in need of comfort. Singing at a wedding is lovely and fun, but often it’s just window dressing. At funerals, people are raw and vulnerable. I can actually do more than just make pretty music: I can apply a little balm to the wound.

Many people have lost loved ones and can attest to the life-changing nature of that loss. I certainly can which was why Chapter 42, “All Alone,” felt like my story.

There are contemporary commentators who rail on Louisa for allowing Jo to ‘take on’ Beth, basically absorbing her personality (most especially in Little Women, The Norton Critical Edition and the essay, “Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women” by Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant), but it made me wonder if they had actually ever experienced what Jo went through. I have, and I can tell you that the spirit of the dear one who has passed does linger and does become a part of you, even if you don’t will it to happen. Jo’s evolution into a calmer self that accepted the sacrifice of her hopes, that took on duty and obligation, is a natural consequence of the trauma she went through. In essence, Jo grew up.

In the process of growing up, Jo found a new voice. I found it quite amusing that she couldn’t understand why her ‘little story’ was so well received. I’m guessing that in finding her voice (and in having a heart still so raw and vulnerable), she was able to speak for many because of the authenticity she put into her writing. I know for myself, there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a book and saying, “I’ve felt that!”

Reading Jo’s journey as a writer got me very excited, for I feel like I’m on the same journey. My mother’s passing has changed me in wonderful ways and I too am beginning to find my voice. I haven’t enjoy writing this much since I was a kid (and the same is true for reading). I so look forward to writing both this blog and my spiritual one because as I write, I work out what I’m sensing and feeling, and learning new things. And I love to learn!

Louisa’s writing touches me in the deepest parts of myself and it’s hard to explain. Her characters are so alive for me and I shall miss them dearly when this book is done.

I can hardly wait to write the post about Amy and Laurie. What a story that was!

Motherhood, Marriage, and Keen Observations

Chapter 38 of Little Women, “On the Shelf” again showed me what a keen observer Louisa was.  She never married nor bore any children yet her description of Meg and John’s adjustment to parenthood was dead on. I listened to the audio book with my mouth open just about the whole time, in awe at how real, and familiar, this chapter was.

This line brought back vivid memories: “As she was a womanly little woman, the maternal instinct was very strong, and she was entirely absorbed in her children, to the utter exclusion of everything and everybody else.” When our son was born nearly 25 years ago, I fell head over heels in love. I often say that the first six weeks of his life were the happiest and most peaceful in mine. For the first time in my life, I had only one thing that I thought about and that was Stephen. I was blessed with an easy baby – no colic, sunny disposition, good sleeper – but even if he had been difficult, I still would have been like Meg. My poor husband patiently waited until I emerged from my bubble and realized he was there again.

It’s no wonder John sought comfort from his neighbors and Meg was fortunate his solution was so benign. She was also fortunate to have a mother who loved her enough to tell her the truth, pointing out Meg’s neglect of John. Marmee’s advice was perfect, as always.

The ending of the chapter was priceless. I winced and smiled as I listened to the chapter and heard of Demi’s naughtiness just as Meg and John were having their first bit of quality time together. It was so real and again, so familiar. I loved how John handled the problem, gently but firmly showing Meg where she was going wrong in catering to Demi.

As I listened, I kept thinking, “How did Louisa know such detail?” It was like she was a fly on the wall. Obviously she observed her older sister Anna and husband John Pratt with their two children but I still was amazed at her powers of observation. Louisa must have been an intensely curious person!

One of our ‘regulars,’  Meg North, has a wonderful blog about balancing writing and business, and is conducting a month long creative writing class. Her class on characters addresses these very issues of curiosity and the observation of people, and how important these elements are in the creation of memorable characters, which Meg says is vital to a book being good. Louisa certainly was a master craftsman in those areas, which makes reading Little Women such a joy.

The beginning of the end for Beth

As I continue to read Little Women, I have really come to appreciate Louisa’s ability with the written word. The phrases she strings together as she builds each character, carefully, layer by layer, is such a joy to experience. By far though, her most meaningful writing for me is whenever she deals with the subject of impending death.

Having lost my mother last April, death and grief are prominent right now in my life. My mother is constantly on my mind and in my heart; in some ways I feel closer to her now than I ever did before. She permeates everything. Rather than making me sad, rather than desperately missing her, I feel like she is with me all the time.

Beth is a trigger for my grief. When I picked up my copy of Little Women at the bookstore a few months ago, the first chapter I turned to was The Valley of the Shadow; I read just a few lines and knew I would weep openly (which I didn’t appreciate doing in such a public place!).

You may know that I’ve been both reading Little Women and listening to the audio book. I experienced the chapter of Beth’s Secret through the audio book and I wept deeply throughout the entire chapter. I found it to be a tremendous relief because I knew I was weeping for my mother and it felt really good to do that since I haven’t been able to do it all that much. It’s just too deeply embedded inside.

Death today is not so familiar an experience in today’s world. Because of advances in medical science, the deaths of younger people are less common. Many people don’t even attend their first funeral until well into adulthood. Many people don’t know what it’s like to be with a person while they are dying. I am actually very grateful to my husband’s family for their openness about life and death, and I have experienced these things several times. It helped a great deal when it came time to to bid farewell to my father in 2003 and my mother this year.

Death in Louisa’s time was par for the course. Whether it was otherwise healthy women dying in childbirth or children and young people catching typhoid or scarlet fever, death was something no family could avoid. While it didn’t diminish the tragedy of it, it did make the average person face up to it and look at it square in the face.

Having experienced the death of younger sister Lizzie (whom Beth is based upon), Louisa keenly felt the whole experience. As Jo devoted herself to Beth wholeheartedly, Louisa did the same with Lizzie. Beth’s death later on in the story was rather sanitized and romanticized, while Lizzie’s death was drawn out and gruesome. But rather than allow that experience to harden her or make her bitter, she instead waxed poetically and eloquently about it (there is a scene in her account of her nursing experience during the Civil War, Hospital Sketches, that is incredibly poignant). Chapter 36 is the prelude for what is to come.

I, for my part, am extremely grateful that I have found a writer who can be my guide through my grief. The tears I shed over Beth in this chapter, and will shed later on, will lead me towards healing.  I know that my mother loved Louisa’s books (and I am fortunate to have some of her copies in my library) and that makes it all the more special.

Thank you, Louisa, thank you.

p.s. I wrote a tribute to my mother on the Feast of All  Souls (2 days after Halloween on the Roman Catholic calendar) which include pictures when she was a teenager and looked especially pretty. If you want to read it, go here.

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.