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. 🙂

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4 Replies to “A view of marriage from a decided spinster”

  1. I love the part about Meg and John’s first significant conflict, when they both firmly believed the other one should be the one to be taught a lesson of their duty and each one resolved to be “calm and kind, but firm.” They were both ready to forgive, but none wanted to be the one to ask forgiveness.

    “Neither spoke; both looked quite ‘calm and firm’, and both felt desperately uncomfortable.”

    Doesn’t this happen in every relationship? When a couple learns to overcome this “feeling that (his or her) dignity demanded the first apology” when people made effort to put themselves in the other one’s shoes and not just love one another but do their best to understand each other, only then their relationship becomes truly fulfilling.

    I agree with you that there is so much heart in this book. Louisa must have used her journals to recall those episodes of Meg and John’s life and transcribe them with such insight.

    I have more thins to say about this chapter, regarding Meg and Fruitlands, but I too will leave that for tomorrow. 🙂

  2. I was thinking of Fruitlands and how it affected the oldest March girls.

    Louisa made resolution to become breadwinner of the family and make sure that they don’t starve again. Like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. 🙂 I watched it last time years and years ago and the best thing I remember is when she stands on her burnt and devastated Tara and raising her hand towards sky says: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk.” I can imagine Louisa doing the same thing on troubled Fruitlands. 🙂

    When their father almost broke the family to leave with William Lane, Anna and Louisa were crying in bed and praying to God to keep them all together. Bronson didn’t have that parental instinct to protect and shelter his daughters. He didn’t have adult conversation to Abba first, and only later explained the girls that he and their mother are separating. No, he placed the burden on making a such decision on his children, asking them what they think of separation. As Nina Auerbach says in her Afterwards to Little Women (Bantam,1983), in conventional terms, Bronson was a disaster as a father.

    Louisa was sick and tired of all that transcendental anti-materialism, vegetarianism and idealism, that brought nothing but hardships to her mother and her sisters. And she vowed to give them comfort they deserved. Also, she was sick of depending on generosity of others. She wanted to prove that although an Alcott she could support herself and her family.

    Anna, was always more docile than Louisa and her mild behaviour earned her parental, especially her father’s approval. So, she didn’t have that desire as Louisa did ” to show them all, to prove them wrong.” I think that she was equally sick and tired of being exposed instead of sheltered, and her answer to all unconventional poverty she was surrounded by, was to get herself a very conventional husband and home, preferably not too spiritual and intelectual. Her “dull and boring” John Pratt as some critics call him, gave her just what she needed. I often read that children of hippies tend to turn into very conservative people – that’s their reaction to their parents rejection of tradition and formalities. In a way, I think Anna did the same. It was as if she said, “Hey, what about being normal and just live for a change?” 🙂

    1. Fruitlands certainly was a major turning point for the family. It’s interesting how both sisters behaved in their respective rebellions. I never thought of that regarding Anna, how fascinating! I thought she was able to deflect the trauma of Fruitlands but what you say makes perfect sense. Her ‘solution’ of marriage to steady John Pratt put all the chaos behind her (as much as she could for she was still very tied to her family).

      Although Louisa hotly rebelled against her chaotic upbringing, still, the inner life that it nurtured flourished in her and poured out in her writing. I think though that she had a large inferiority complex which, along witht the rebellion, fueled her need to take acre of the “pathetic family.” In particular, she had a real need to please her father and make him proud, which she ultimately did. He was always the one to point out her faults and remind her of her volatile temperament.

  3. Louisa certainly did have need to please her father and it makes perfect sense that because of his scrutinizing of her human imperfections, she saw herself as inferior unable to live up to her father’s high expectations. Look what Louisa wrote in her journal in May, 1850:

    “In looking over our journals, Father says, ‘Anna’s is about other people, Louisa’s about herself.’ That is true, for I don’t talk about myself; yet must always think of the wilful, moody girl I try to manage, and in my journal I write of her to see how she gets on. Anna is so good she need not take care of herself, and can enjoy other people. (…) My quick tongue is always getting me into trouble, and my moodiness makes it hard to be cheerful when I think how poor we are, how much worry it is to live, and how many things I long to do I never can. So every day is a battle, and I’m so tired I don’t want to live; only it’s cowardly to die till you have done something.”

    I can imagine how Bronson was constantly comparing Louisa to Anna, suggesting Loui to look up to her older sister who was good without effort and to Louisa it was a constant battle to conquer her temper and her sharp tongue. I can see how that built up insecurity, so she needed to do something magificent to prove that she was good.

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