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.

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6 Replies to “The beginning of the end for Beth”

  1. I think the ‘death’ chapter rises high above everything else in the book. (Not that the rest isn’t good.) But it takes it from charming to beautiful.

    Louisa would have seen a lot of death in the war, yes? I think it would have been hard for her to paint it in mute colors. It’s as though the novel circles that chapter within the book, as Louisa must have, in a way, circled the death of her sister.

    As I circle the death of my father, and all of us, eventually, circle something. It’s the pivotal moment; the jump between before and all that comes after.

  2. I am very sorry for your loss and I hope you can find peace as you work it out.

    Your comments are really true. My mother’s death is proving to be a watershed moment in my life. As much as I miss her, I also feel like a part of myself that was sleeping is coming alive. Despite the sorrow of her passing, I feel more alive now than I have in years and call 2010 a banner year for growth and discovery.

    Jillian, if you haven’t read Hospital Sketches, check it out, especially Chapter IV called A Night. You can read it online at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/alcott/sketches/sketches.html. Louisa’s description of a soldier named John is just amazing, again, written with the same poetic elegance and stark truth with which she described Beth’s passing, although a little less romanticised.

  3. I’m so sorry, dear for your dear mother. I received devastating news of my own yesterday – my best friend from highschool took his own life. I think you, out of many, might understand our relationship when I say that he was my Teddy. His name was Chris Norman, but I always called him Normie. He was amazing – smart, funny, such a great laugh and heart. We were two weeks apart in age. He always made me light up inside. I am in my own Valley of the Shadow now. Everyone has been so kind to me, since we were so close and like siblings. He was going for his doctorate in Nebraska and I’m in Maine, but at least I got to see him one last time last summer. He was happy then. Louisa’s story has touched my life in more ways than one … her power as an author is so deep, so heartfelt. Thank you for creating this blog and running it. I’m ever so grateful to read it.

  4. Meg, Jill, Susan, I symphatize with all of you for your losses. I can’t say that I know what are you going through, because we all going through our Valley of the Shadow in our own individual ways.
    I understand what you mean Jill when you say that death of someone close is a pivotal moment, that you start looking at everything as before and after, and I understand you Susan, saying that in spite your grief you feel more alive now than you felt in years.

    I was 16 when I experienced my first great sorrow. It was in 1993, when there was the war in my country. I lost my cousin, who was like a sister to me. My father and her mother are a brother and sister and they each got married within a year and started their families at the same time. Their mother, my late Grandma, was babysitting all of us, me and my brother and sister and Mirela(that’s her name) and her two brothers, so we were growing up as real siblings.
    Then, one Tuesday, beginning of August 1993, there was a shell that hit her house and killed her. It was four days after her fourteenth birthday. Her parents were devastated.

    She was one of thousands civilians that were killed by shells in their own homes. In times like that people stick together and get closer to each other, take comfort in each other. But I didn’t know how to deal with it. When she died, I lost the only person with whom I was truly close at that time. I learned that people grieve each in their own way and I didn’t find anyone to guide me through my own. I got depressed and offended when my Dad pushed me to see psychiatrist for my depression.

    I was going through my grief my own way feeling strongly that nothing would ever be the same again. And it really wasn’t. I took comfort and the exit from my depression in thinking that I should live life for both of us, for I was given a chance. She stayed 14 forever, she wasn’t given a chance. I learned to see the life volatile as it is and to love it and appreciate it and be not afraid of new beginnings and not be afraid of living. One thing I learned from my loss is that never is too late for anything, as long as you live – it can’t be too late. Another thing I learned is to sense other people’s pain and sympathize.

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