Moods: Sylvia’s Choice

I enjoy how Louisa describes Geoffrey Moor and Adam Warwick, the two love interests of heroine Sylvia Yule through comparing and contrasting how they respond to similar situations.

Here’s one scenario: Sylvia lost her mother at an early age and she has grieved throughout her young life over that loss. She first meets Adam Warwick (the Thoreau character) while expressing some of that grief; the scene finds her wading in the ocean when thoughts of her mother and that lost relationship come to mind (this scene is not in the earlier 1865 version):

“Tears dropped fast, and hiding her head, she sobbed like a broken-hearted child driving for its mother. She never let Prue know the want she felt, never told her father how powerless his indulgent affection was to feed this natural craving, not found elsewhere the fostering care she pined for. Only in hours like these the longing vented itself in bitter tears, that left the eyes dim, the heart heavy for days afterward.

A voice called her from the cliff above, a step sounded on the rocky path behind, but Sylvia did not hear them, nor see a figure hurrying through the deepending water toward her, till a great wave rolled up and broke over her feet, startling her with its chill.

Then she sprung up and looked about her with a sudden thrill of fear, for the green billows tumbled everywhere, the path was gone, and the treacherous tide was in.

A moment she stood dismayed, then flung away her cloak, and was about to plunge into the sea when a commanding voice called, “Stop, I am coming!” And before she could turn a strong arm caught her up, flung the cloak around her, and she felt herself carried high above the hungry waves that leaped up as if disappointed of their prey.” (Chapter 2 – Warwick)

This scene, appearing early in the book, very much characterizes the kind of feeling Sylvia had for Adam: feelings of passion, strength, power, turmoil. Feelings that thrilled her to the bone. She goes on to describe Warwick as the “manliest of men.”

Geoffrey Moor comes across very differently, as cerebral, peaceful, not at all physical. Note how he handles Sylvia’s grief in a discussion that they have in a later chapter (she has just described to him her sorrow at never knowing her mother, and how she needed to have her mother take her in her arms and show her God:

” ‘Dear Sylvia, I understand your trouble and long to cure it as wisely and tenderly as I ought, I can only tell you where I have found a cure for doubt, despondency, and grief. God and Nature are the true helper and comforter for all of us. Do not tire yourself with books, creeds, and speculations; let them wait, and believe that simply wishing and trying to be good is piety, for faith and endeavor are the wings that carry souls to her already; you will find her always just and genial, patient and wise. With the harmonious laws that rule her, imitate her industry, her sweet sanity; and soon I think you will find that benignant mother will take you into her arms and show you God.’

Without another word, Moor rose, laid his hand an instant on the girl’s bent head in the first caress he had ever dared to give her, and went away leaving her to the soothing ministrations of the comforter he had suggested.” (Chapter 8 Sermons)

It’s as if Moor was a minister and Warwick a savior. It lays out an interesting diachotomy for Sylvia which, to me, reveals the same for Louisa – embracing the thrilling, and frightening, physical life (Warwick) or living the transcendental, peaceful life that was preached to her by her father and his friends since childhood (Moor). This, of course, is so plainly evidenced in Louisa’s body of work, from Little Women‘s glorification of wholesome (nearly spiritual) domestic life to such “blood and thunder tales” as “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” Sarah Elbert, in her introduction to Moods, writes, “Consequently modern scholars have identified a correspondence between Louisa May Alcott’s canny separation of her literary markets and the nineteenth-century concept of “separate spheres” which divided home from workplace, sharpened the social boundaries separating genteel ladies from working women, and gradually turned childhood and youth in all classes into a protected stage of life.” A 21st century word for that might be “compartmentalization,” usually a more male trait. Louisa certainly displayed that in her life, and illustrated it in an interesting way with Moor and Warwick.

Now the question is, which life did Sylvia wish to choose and which one did she ultimately choose?

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3 thoughts on “Moods: Sylvia’s Choice

  1. A terrific reading of the text and exactly right about Thoreau and Emerson. I’d only shade the minister aspect of Emerson. Moor tells Sylvia “do not tire yourself with books, creeds, and speculations.” Emerson quit the Unitarian ministry because he was uncomfortable with public forms of worship. Thoreau is a savior to Sylvia, but he is not Christ in that sense: Unitarians do not believe in the divinity of Christ, but see him as a great prophet and inspiration.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Thanks! I should have clarified that I saw Warwick as a physical rather than a spiritual savior – not unlike Superman, flying in to save the day. You’re right about Emerson but while he wasn’t a minister in the formal sense, he must never have lost that habit of ministering anyway, much like Moor. Louisa was such a terrific observer of people and she obviously picked up on this.

      I had known that Unitarians do not believe that Christ is divine as my mom was Unitarian, but I had wondered why Transcendentalists rejected the Unitarian Church in favor of their own philosophy. From my limited reading, I am guessing because Unitarianism was not mystical enough – Transcendentalism seems to flirt if not downright embrace mysticism and Unitarianism is more focused on humanity.

  2. ps. love your post’s title, “Sylvia’s Choice.”

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