Summer Conversational Series 2018: Cathlin Davis “Learning to Be Herself: Alcott’s Lessons in Peer Pressure”

Note: This is a long post of over 3000 words. It’s also a core topic of Little Women’s relevancy for teenagers especially when it comes to conformity versus non-conformity, and peer pressure. It’s well worth the read for those of us who wish to pass down Little Women to our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews.

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Origin Story

Cathlin began by relaying her own “origin story,” having read an abridged version of Little Women at age 11. She had a hard time getting through it finding the rhythm of the language ‘off’ because of the abridgement. By the time she finally finished it a year later she loved it. Her mother then gave her Louisa’s books – WWII volumes with cheap war paper; she also gave her The Best of Louisa May Alcott. Cathin became hooked on Louisa’s books, especially her juvenile works, some of which are hard to find. She began to collect Little Women volumes and possesses 120 copies.

Is Little Women dated?

Cathlin opened her presentation with a quote from New York Times critic Elizabeth Janeway in 1968, the centennial year of Little Women; Janeway called it “dated and sentimental and full of preaching and moralizing.”. Fifty years later, how much more dated is Little Women? Or is it? Cathlin then gave an example of its relevance by describing a “cat fishing” episode.

“Cat fishing” in Little Women

Cathlin described “Cat fishing” as when one person goes online and pretends to be someone else and tries to involve a third person in a romantic relationship – they are pretending in order to bring embarrassment to that person. It is a form of cyber bullying popular in high schools. It happened in Little Women where Laurie, posing as John Brooke, writes a letter to Meg professing his undying love as a way of getting back at Jo. Meg responds to the letter but then hides it; she is exposed with when the second letter arrives with Marmee and Jo in the room and is subsequently humiliated. Cathlin likened the scene to today’s cyber bullying explaining how, like Meg, teens are embarrassed because they were tricked but don’t seek help when they should.

Little Women is firmly planted in the world of the teenage girl. The world may have changed but teenagers act pretty much the same as they did 150 years ago. The methods may have changed but the underlying human emotions have not.

Still reaching her target audience

Louisa depicts the 4 teenage March girls with realism, humor and understanding. Cathlin’s witness of a teenage girl doing a happy dance after she got her ticket for the tour at Orchard House beautifully demonstrates how Louisa’s targeted audience still reacts today.

 

Peer pressure and conformity

In determining why Little Women still resonates with readers today, Cathlin turned to the topics of peer pressure and conformity: how it is possible to fight the pressure to conform, to be oneself, and still be accepted.

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy all struggle with pressure from peers to conform to societal expectations. Jo fights those expectations while Amy works hard to meet them. In the end the three surviving sisters find a way to live in society while being true to themselves. Little Women thus becomes a story of non-conformity for all of the girls. What keeps Little Women relevant is that many of those expectations have not changed. Teens still worry about what they will wear and how they will fit in at school. Teenage girls can still be very mean. Little Women thus becomes a guidebook on how to navigate within their own peer groups.

Beth

Beth is shy, too bashful to go to school. Her shyness is described as an “infirmity.” What does it mean to be shy? It does not mean equating it with social anxiety or loneliness. It is a trait rather than a debilitating psychological issue like social anxiety. Cathlin provided examples showing the difference in degrees between shyness and social anxiety, concluding that Beth was merely shy. Beth does go by herself to the market and has developed relationships with the delivery people who come to the house. She takes small parts in the theatricals and does not appear to be lonely.

The classroom experience

Shyness however is still a problem as our society both then and today expects a certain amount of outgoing behavior; shyness creates problems for peer acceptance. According to current studies, shy teenagers are fearful of being laughed at or not being accepted which makes them more susceptible to bullying, especially in a school setting. Thus it was fortunate that Beth’s parents took her out of public school before she was scarred forever by the experience.  Cathlin asked us to consider the classroom setting in Amy’s case . Amy’s teacher, Mr. Davis, was a learned man but he was not trained in considering the emotional and social needs of his students. There were 50 girls in the room whom he had to manage. He would expect all of his students to stand up in front of the other 49 and recite and if she doesn’t talk loudly enough, she would be reprimanded. So imagine Beth in that environment – her parents did her a favor.

The Palace Beautiful

The piano loaned to the Alcotts and played by Lizzie. Photo by Kristi Martin.

Cathlin cited more studies suggesting that the way for a shy person to move past their shyness was to give them motivation – offering to them something they loved and thus, would strive for. Here Alcott writes the chapter “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful” where Mr. Laurence successfully coaxes Beth out of her shell with offers to play his fine piano. Her love of the music would triumph over her shyness (and Laurie would facilitate by making sure the servants did not listen nor disturb her.). In the end she succeeds and is gifted with her own piano from Mr. Laurence who has grown fond of her. She does not hesitate to go over and thank him, even sitting in his lap and giving him a hug. Gruff old Mr. Laurence had provided Beth with a safe space and thus was rewarded with her friendship.

Talking to a “dreadful boy”

In “Camp Laurence,” Laurie and Jo both continue to provide safety for Beth despite the social situation; Beth does not want to be the focus of any attention. In the end she talked to the invalid Frank who was feeble and kind. The sisters are wise enough not to call attention to the fact that Beth is talking to one of “those dreadful boys” but they amazed, nonetheless.

Many friends

Later on when Beth is ill we begin to see just how many people she had actually interacted with, from the baker to the grocer to the butcher who all inquired after her. Beth remains shy but she is never totally disconnected from the world; even while she was dying she made little gifts and dropped them out the window to the school children passing by. Thus through Beth, Alcott illustrates how each sister is supported by the family in every circumstance even if the wider world does not provide such support. Cathlin cited a study that shows that teenagers are morbidly obsessed with how they appear to others; we see this in Beth who does not want to be an imposition on anyone.

Jo

Jo, however, does not care, she being the most non-conforming of all the characters. She called her greatest afflictions that she could not read, run and write as much as she liked. Jo and Amy, as previously mentioned, have an argument in Chapter One involving conformity (Jo shouldn’t use slang or whistle, etc.). Meg points out Jo that she is now wearing her hair up and Jo promptly takes it down and swears she will wear it as two pigtails.

I won’t grow up

What doesn’t Jo want to grow up? She complains about the restrictive clothing of women (long gowns) because she prefers the games, manners and ways of boys. Jo surprisingly does not look to her mother as the example of womanhood but rather, looks outside at her peers. She dislikes what she sees and has to find her own way of being true to herself while still finding acceptance. Cathlin admitted that she could not find a modern equivalent to Jo as a teen refusing to conform to her gender; her behavior was not as extreme as the boy who decides to wear eyeliner or the girl who gives herself a buzz cut. Jo did not do what she did on purpose to prove something but rather simply wanted the freedom to ice skate or play cricket or whatever else she desired. Cathlin cited studies which suggest that social acceptance by peers, even if one is atypical, is more important to teenagers than conformity. If a teen can find a support network of friends who accept her as she is, her self worth will be affirmed and she will not feel pressured to conform. Jo, in the 19th century, is non-conforming but is also accepted by her main peer group: her sisters. They call her “Jo” rather than Josephine; they allow her to play all the male roles in the plays; Beth in particular calls Jo funny and dear as she is. Meg and Amy complain the most about Jo but this is because they feel the most peer pressure from their friends.

Finding a friend

Cathlin provided an example where Jo chose to be non-conforming in a social setting by calling to mind the New Year’s party she attended with Meg where she meets up with Laurie. Although she loves to dance and to watch people, she is forced to stand with her back against the wall because her dress is scorched; she is feeling alone and left out. Laurie sees her and engages her in conversation and they hit it off such that they dance together behind the scenes. They helped each other forget what everyone else might think. Both Laurie and Jo were non-conforming and that understanding cemented their friendship.

In “Camp Laurence,” Jo and Laurie continue to feel comfortable being themselves when they are with each other. Jo understands propriety and reminds Laurie of his obligations to his guests. They are both trying to find their way through society’s rules. Alcott gives Jo a male friend who allows Jo to be herself even as Meg keeps reminding Jo of her obligation to conform and be a lady.

Amy

In “Calls,” we see how Amy desires to fulfill every expectation of conformity while Jo rebels. She will go with Amy but will not change her clothes because she is comfortable in them. In her mind, why should she change into uncomfortable clothes on a hot day to see people she doesn’t like? Amy tells Jo that she will instruct her on how to behave so that she can make a good impression. Amy does not want Jo to be herself but when Jo is not, she gets into trouble. Amy finally relents and when Jo is herself, the visit is successful. But Amy is still horrified at Jo’s behavior.

The inner circle

Amy is Jo’s opposite — she wishes to conform so that she can be part of the inner circle — this is a top priority in her life. She aspires to be a true gentlewoman and hide their poverty and is appalled that Jo keeps revealing it. Cathlin illustrated with two examples, the first being about the limes. In jockeying for position, Amy’s classmate Jenny becomes jealous and tells Mr. Davis (their teacher) that Amy has the limes which he had previously forbidden. Amy’s desire to compete with Jenny for the spot in the inner circle (because she resorts to being mean like Jenny) is what gets her into trouble.

Mean girls

Girls are aggressive but usually in more indirect ways, such as using cutting remarks about  one’s appearance, etc. (Jenny making fun of Amy’s nose, for example). Amy is more open to this kind of bullying because she so desperately wants to be a part of the group; this makes her a perfect target. We see this at the art fair in “Consequences” where some of the girls want to bring Amy down a peg or two. May Chester is jealous because Amy is getting more attention; she also wants to get back at Jo for making fun of her. May arranges it so that at the art fair, Amy is not allowed to have the favorite table, removing her from the inner circle physically and banning her to the back corner. Amy shows her maturity by rising above it all and making the most of it, rather than being petulant as with the limes. Cathlin likened it to a game, with Amy conquering her nemesis with kindness. Knowing the rules of the game, she is determined to win and knows she can.

Show of support

Jo and Laurie rally for Amy, telling their friends to patronize Amy’s table. As current research about bullying and teens show, people who support the person being bullied help a great deal, even more than if the person doing the bullying (May Chester) is directly confronted.  This Alcott shows with Jo and Laurie supporting Amy. They made her table the most successful, thus getting back at May Chester with their success. Amy may not be a part of May’s inner circle, but she succeeds nonetheless. Amy’s graciousness with the situation wins praise from her family. She wants to be a noble gentlewoman and is well on her way.

The “right match”

To continue making headway into that inner circle, Amy attracts the affections of the wealthy Fred Vaughn who is her ticket out of poverty. She rationalizes her decision with her family, insisting that the “right match” is the correct choice. Laurie sees that by conforming in this way, Amy is betraying her core values (while Aunt March would have approved). In the end, Amy can’t accept Fred’s proposal, coming back to herself and the values she learned from her parents. Cathlin noted that Alcott had already set in motion the romance between Amy and Laurie which gave Amy the way out with Fred; she was able to contrast Laurie with Fred in her mind and make the right choice, even if she did not know yet that she would become Laurie’s wife. It became more important for her to become a “loveable woman,” and in the end she is rewarded with everything she wanted: status and position; more importantly, she is true to herself.

Meg

Amy dreaded being laughed at while Meg feared being pitied. Meg thinks that wealth and position will make her happy but instead, it makes her susceptible to peer pressure. Peers can encourage risky behavior as in the case of Sally Moffat. For the party at the Moffats, Meg is “dressed up” and she acts out by flirting and drinking champagne, all for which she pays a price: Laurie’s disapproval, guilt, and waking up with with a hangover the next morning. She gave in because of her need to avoid being pitied for her shabby dress and lack of prospects.

Remorse

Amy’s pressure came from the inside but for Meg, it came from the outside — from her friends. Meg’s friends want her to be a part of their group; while they are not bullying her, they require that she conform. The next day, feeling the effects of the night before plus remorse, she confesses to her mother explaining that she let the girls flatter her and “make a fool of me.” She did admit however to the enjoyment of being praised and admired even if bowing to peer pressure was not good.

 

Overcoming the envy

John tells Meg how he feels about her.

Once married to John, Meg is still dissatisfied comparing Sally Moffat’s married life of wealth and position to hers of genteel poverty. Upon closer examination however, Sally (married to Ned) is bored and feeling neglected by her husband while Meg is happy with John. Sally and Meg spend time together which is a bad influence on Meg, creating further dissatisfaction with her lot in life. Made to feel pitied and poor Meg purchases silk for a new dress with the money that had been set aside for her  husband’s much-needed coat. She confesses her weakness to John and returns the silk, buying the coat instead. She stops spending time with Sally and soon her days are full with the twins, Demi and Daisy. Cathlin maintains that Alcott is making the point that young women need purpose: they need something to do. Eventually Meg becomes the one who is envied by Sally because Meg has a loving husband and children to raise while Sally only has her wealth which is empty and lonely. Meg then becomes the positive influence on Sally.

Writing on the struggles of growing up

Louisa did not want to write Little Women and had great doubts about her ability to do so. How she managed to write the quintessential coming-of-age book is a “mystery” but Cathlin believes that the longer format allowed Alcott to fully explore the struggles of growing up: how to face difficulties; how to respond to bullies with grace; and how to reject conformity and yet belong, moving beyond peer pressure.

Overcoming faults

Cathlin came to an interesting conclusion: in Book One, all the girls fail to overcome their faults with the exception of Beth: she did not allow her shyness to keep her from Mr. Laurence and his piano. She overcame her ‘debility’ in order to be kind to a teenage boy who needed a friend: Frank Vaughn.

Timeless characters

Girls today have the same struggles as Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy with peer pressure, bullying and expectations of conforming. Reading Little Women gives them characters who work through these struggles. They are real girls with real problems, faults and failings, and they find ways to overcome them and lead happy and fulfilled lives. They have learned to be themselves. Alcott captures the truth of adolescent life that is not restricted to the 19th century. And this is why you will encounter girls and women today at the gift shop at Orchard House who can’t wait to take the house tour and thus, the pilgrimage, through their most beloved book.

Bio

Cathlin is a Full Professor in the College of Education at California State University-Stanislaus who started reading Louisa May Alcott’s books at the age of 11, and never stopped. Cathlin has presented at the Conversational Series for over a decade, and published an article based on a Series presentation, with several others in the works. She specializes in Alcott’s juvenile fiction, particularly in its connection to education and the depiction of the lives of children.

 

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