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.

17 Replies to “Jo’s choice”

  1. Jo was, in part, shaped by the readers. I think Louisa would have kept her single, if she could.

    What we see instead, isn’t the ultimate end Louisa wanted to give Jo, but the best one she could give her, according to the audience’s demands. I think Professor Bhaer is Louisa’s ideal husband: a man who allows her to see herself as a ‘domestic’ woman and maintain her independence. A man who shows her that that side of her is NOT a loss of power, but an independent place. A personal place.

    It must be a choice. What Alcott gave Jo was not death of independence, but a choice. She was not shoved into domesticity, nor was she regulated to taking a ‘stand’ for female independence lest she die a married woman. She was offered what few in those days had: the option. Choosing domesticity, I think, shows a beauty that many modern-day feminists overlook: a wife and mother who chose her position and maintains a strong sense of self. She doesn’t BECOME a wife and mother and lose herself to it; she invites the role into a life already in progress. She remains Jo.

    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.


  2. I like your analysis quite a bit! I don’t think the popularity of the story would have lasted so long without there being some truth to it … even the most independent woman I think still longs for deep and fulfilling relationships. You can see it today in our ‘super-women’ balancing career, home, and family, and starting to feel lost because of their own choices. A woman’s life is never a straight-forward line, for we move in cycles with our relationships.

    I agree with you about overly-feminist readings of “Little Women” and that her choosing Bhaer was not the end of her ‘independence.’ What state of independence is glorious enough when you’re struggling for money and not writing what you wish? Louisa’s world, and through her, Jo’s world, is a world of career compromise. Yet, she did not want to give her character a marriage that would have been worse than compromising her career.

    Bhaer proves through both speech and action that he wants the best for Jo. He wants her to write what is in her heart, and she sees that his character actually offers her all the ‘wealth’ she’ll need!

  3. Louisa didn’t want to marry Jo off. The readers demanded Laurie, but she held firm. Little girls can only think of marriage and happy endings although Louisa saw first hand what a marriage could do to a woman. She watched her mother suffer and I’m sure that played a role in her taking on the spinster mantel.

    Louisa had to do something for her audience so she found Jo a marriage partner. An nontraditional one at that, but one that fit awkward Jo.

    Bottom line is Louisa was a smart business woman and that’s how people should look at it. The public demanded a wedding, so she said “OK, fine, but it’s not what you think.” This way of thinking is totally Louisa. Plus, if you read her other books you see that there were some spinsters and also some women who married but did things that were not traditional. Rose comes to mind from Eight Cousins.

    So yeah, Louisa gave her audience a wedding, but she did it her way. And she enjoyed the money, which I think was her bottom line. She hated writing kids stories, but she did, for the cash.

  4. One has to consider the time and the audience Louisa was writing for. How could she advocate for Jo to continue writing thrillers when it was the “moral pap” that earned her bread? She secretly enjoyed writing thrillers. It wasn’t a practical choice at that time given prevailing beliefs in New England. I don’t think Jo’s independent spirit was squelched. The same can be said for Anne Shirley in the Anne of Avonlea movie (which seems to be patterned after Good Wives). Gilbert says to Anne: write a real story about real people you care about right here in Avonlea. If Jo and Anne kept on writing pot-boiliers, they couldn’t become independent because it just wasn’t proper for women to write such things.

  5. Yep, all evidence suggests Louisa didn’t like writing children’s books, including Little Women, and was quite shocked by its success. Thus I disagree with the analysis about Jo having a choice (both her choice to stop writing and her choice to get married to Bhaer).

    I think its all as simple as Louisa wanted to sell books. Louisa thought her adult novels were superior and couldn’t understand why they didn’t sell as well. But society wasn’t ready to accept her adult thrillers full of violence, and passion, and so she in writing a moral children’s book had to basically denigrate her own preferred style she of writing.

    Same thing with Jo marrying Bhaer. We all know based on her own comments that she would have preferred that Jo remain a spinster and said that marriage wasn’t the only goal in life that a girl should have. She married Jo off because that’s what would sell books.

    The question of what Louisa herself thought about Jo giving up her writing and marrying Bhaer is an interesting one. I myself think Louisa stopped identifying as Jo towards the end of LW Part II – So she simply saw Jo as a character and not herself. Though I personally think she wouldn’t have favored either decision and would have written it all quite differently if she didn’t have to worry about selling books.

    1. Now you’ve got me wondering what Little Women would have been like had Louisa been able to write the book she envisioned! But then again she didn’t feel a lot of attachment to the book (as opposed to Moods which was her baby).

      Another reader commented about how it doesn’t matter whether Louisa enjoyed writing the book or not because she was a professional. I agree, too much is made of her not liking it. I think because so many revere the book it seems sacrilegious of the author not to feel the same.

  6. Yes, I was shocked the first time I discovered that Louisa thought her children’s books (including LW) were silly! How could that be so!? But then learning more about her, it all began to make sense…

    1. Oh I don’t think she thought them silly, she did feel a responsibility towards children to write literature that would teach moral lessons. Madeleine Stern especially seems to make that case. The thing to remember that writing for her became a job and she fulfilled her job responsibilities with her best efforts. At one time she wrote for art (with Moods) but the desire to make money for the family took over. The long and short of it? She was a pro.

  7. Actually, Jo doesn’t give up her writing, as evidenced in the books ‘Little Men’ and ‘Jo’s boys’. If you’ve not read them, they’re worth a read. 🙂

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