“Many wise and true sermons”: Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

threadscover

Amy stood a minute, turning the leaves in her hand, reading on each some sweet rebuke for all heart-burnings and uncharitableness of spirit. Many wise and true sermons are preached us every day by unconscious ministers in street, school, office, or home; even a fair-table may become a pulpit, if it can offer the good and helpful words which are never out of season.

It’s not really possible for me to read Little Women: even though the last time I turned every page of the book was probably more than thirty years ago, it’s so familiar that all I can do now is remember it. Here are the four girls, cheerfully reconciled to giving away their Christmas breakfast; here’s Amy, falling through the ice after the terrible breach with Jo; here are the slippers Beth (dear Beth!) worked with pansies, for Mr. Laurence; here’s Meg, blushing with her John on her wedding day then ruining all the jelly and their first dinner party; here’s Laurie, dashing and impetuous and all wrong for Jo; here’s Professor Bhaer, warmhearted and avuncular as the last time he offered the shelter of his umbrella. Such good old friends!

ebeditionI used to read about them in my mother’s old, cherished copy: I discover, peering around online, that it was the “Illustrated Junior Library” edition from Grosset and Dunlap, with an original copyright date of 1947. The cover alone is immediately evocative of my childhood! I loved the novel and reread it often; I had been feeling mournful that I didn’t have a nice copy of my own, so I put the Penguin Threads edition on my Christmas wishlist this year and was thrilled to get it. It’s very satisfactory: not only is the cover delightful to an embroidery buff like me, but the whole volume is tactile in all the right ways, from the raised graphics on the artwork to the heavy, deckle edged pages. It feels the way a classic should.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the stories of the March girls, from the opening line (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”) to their varied but all equally happy endings. I suppose I identified most with Jo, or wanted to (I was never so daring!), but it was the quartet as a whole, I think, that made the greatest impression on me — that, different as they were from each other, they loved and stood by each other. I don’t remember ever noticing how didactic the novel is, or how quietly but assertively religious, or how conservative some of its lessons are, especially about women’s roles (“a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it – not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother”). These qualities did all stand out to me this time, and I wondered why I didn’t — indeed, why I still don’t — chafe against them. I think it’s because Alcott suffuses her story with such humane tenderness: all of its lessons are so thoroughly embodied, especially in Marmee but also in the girls as they struggle to grow into their best selves.

It was interesting reading Little Women at the same time as Vanity Fair. They are companion pieces in a way, really: both built on the model of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but one a cautionary tale about folly and vice, teaching its lessons entirely by negative example, the other a reassuring story about the possibility of virtue. In class today we discussed Thackeray’s ambition to make us all dissatisfied, as a means of goading us into being and doing better. His characters die alone, unhappy, unloved, and unwept; in Vanity Fair, he offers us a saving deathbed revelation, a chance to save ourselves from such a miserable end. How different is Beth’s sad but beautiful death:

As Beth had hoped, the ‘tide went out easily’; and in the dark hour before the dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look and a little sigh.

With tears, and prayers, and tender hands, mother and sisters made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again — seeing with grateful eyes the beautiful serenity that soon replaced the pathetic patience that had wrung their hearts so long, and feeling with reverent joy, that to their darling death was a benignant angel — not a phantom full of dread.

Where is the “Celestial City” in Thackeray’s vision? We couldn’t find a glimpse of it in his book — which seems all part of his lesson that we have to seek it out for ourselves, and resist the lures and temptations arrayed in Vanity Fair. In contrast, Little Women doesn’t just hold it out as a final destination but insists that we can create it around ourselves in this world if we are just honest and kind, generous and loving, patient and disciplined. Alcott’s final message is actually very similar to Thackeray’s: “The world is a looking-glass,’ his narrator observes, “and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” It’s just that unlike Becky (or Amelia, for that matter) the March girls learn to turn their best faces to the world — and they are richly rewarded for it. I made the argument today that the dissatisfaction Thackeray urges is a necessary component of moral and social change: if all’s well that end’s well, what is left for us to do, after all? But in its own way, Little Women is at least as motivating. And it’s certainly a lot more comforting!

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6 Responses to “Many wise and true sermons”: Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

  1. Alex says:

    I’m sitting here with tears streaming down my face having just read (again) Beth’s death. Perhaps it is a measure of a book that however many time you read it there are still passages that can move you to tears. Your post also makes me think about the way in which readers we know and far more that we don’t are nevertheless joined together by those links in a literary chain which are the characters we share and consider our friends. The fact that they have never really walked this earth is somehow immaterial.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      It used to make me cry every. single. time. This time I thought “I won’t cry, because I know it’s coming and I’m all grown up now.” But no, I still cried. Well, after all, it is Beth.

      I love that image of the “literary chain.” Do you think our students know Little Women? I wonder if we are among the last links.

      I’ve also been wondering if Little Women gets assigned in American literature classes.

      • Alex says:

        I think the answer is probably far fewer than used to be the case. I suspect in the UK, at least, that is because there hasn’t been a decent televised version for many years. That is where I first met the March girls and then sought out the book for myself.
        As for the question of what is taught, I really don’t know, but I will ask about.

  2. Lorna Green says:

    Such serendipity. Our book club is reading Little Women and March by Geraldine brooks for our next meeting. March is a story from the point of view of Mr. March as he faces his own obstacles in the midst of the American Civil War.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I read March several years ago and it made little impression on me! It was before blogging, so I can’t recover the reasons I was so unimpressed. Maybe pairing it directly with Little Women is a good way to make sure it gets its due.

  3. Susan Bailey says:

    Disclaimer: I am a HUGE Alcott fan. 🙂

    That being said, Alcott’s works are full of lovely spiritual nuggets. There are many lessons embedded in her juvenile and adult books alike, usually around the themes you described in your piece. I have been interested in Alcott’s life since childhood because we shared a similar temperament. But when I lost my mom in 2010, Alcott became my grief counselor. Her writing on suffering and death, as you pointed out, is beautiful and poignant. Through the most horrendous suffering, Alcott could always find hope.

    I put together a book published by ACTA Publications called Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message (which can be found on Amazon), where key passages from Alcott’s books were paired with passages from the Bible. It was such a pleasure to put this volume together, to bury myself in her spiritual insight. Some of the most sophisticated came from her juvenile works as demonstrated in Little Women. Alcott never spared her young readers from reality–she didn’t have to because she always found hope in the midst of suffering.

    Thank you for this lovely article!

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