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!