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Little Women: There Will Be Germans. Oh, and Pap.

Let me preface this with a warning: there will be numerous spoilers for the plot to Little Women.

SPOILER: there is no plot to Little Women.
Not a plot in sight! The girls grow up, get married, have babies, and sometimes die. (SPOILER!) Then again, if you are a girl, you know this already.
For those who were spared: Little Women is about four sisters, the Marches, who live in Civil War-era… oh, let’s say New England. You would think it would be impossible to tell a story about Civil War-era American life without really mentioning slavery, or the Civil War! You would be wrong. This probably says something about the domestic sphere vs. the public sphere, or the female experience of war, or about trying to create a sense of common national identity in 1868 (they do hate on the British a bit), but it also says something else: B-O-R-I-N-G.
The March sisters are poor, although it’s a Jane Austen kind of poverty, consisting as it does of having only one servant (horrors!) and having to take up genteel professions. They spend a lot of time telling anecdotes, having adventures (like that one time Jo goes over to the neighbor’s house, or that other time Jo goes over to the neighbor’s house, or that time when, you won’t believe it, Jo actually goes over to the neighbor’s house - man, these girls are crazy!) about which they tell anecdotes, and, of course, extracting a moral out of every single anecdote that they tell. In the absence of any discernible conflict, Alcott relies on the time-honored practice of separating her female cast into opposed yet complimentary Personalities (TM).
Let’s see, you’ve got the sheltered one:

The boyish one:


The annoying, self-centered, if-she-mentions-clothing-one-more-time-I’ll-smack-her one:


And the old one:

The book is basically devoted to explorations of how these Personalities(TM) develop, make choices, get married (or die, SPOILER), and learn life lessons. If you do not shudder at the phrase “life lessons,” as I do, it has evidently been a while since you read Little Women.
I am being negative. That is not nice. So, let me throw in something positive right up front: I think it is very impressive that Louisa May Alcott managed to write an enduringly popular novel, since she apparently never spoke to another human being in her life. In every scene in which the girls are gathered, the dialogue follows a distinctly unnerving pattern, which goes like this:

Meg says something,
then Jo says something,
then Beth says something,
then Amy says something else.

The order sometimes varies, but the weird spelling-bee effect of the whole arrangement never dies. Let’s not even touch on the things that they actually say. (“All the married people take hands and dance around the husband and wife, as the Germans do, while we bachelors and spinsters prance in couples outside!” I’ve never had a wedding, but if I had, and the guests had suggested “prancing” or doing anything “as the Germans do,” I would have closed the reception hall down and sent their gifts back unopened. Not the March sisters. They love German prancing. They prance the shit out of that German business. They are prancing balls over at the March place. )

So: let’s rattle off the list, shall we?
Meg March, the oldest, is boring. She wants to get married and have babies, and then she does. The dude – a German tutor – is poor, which is kind of a problem, except that it isn’t. So, um, check!
Beth March is the simple child that they keep locked in the basement. She’s so shy that she can’t talk to anyone outside of her immediate family, she rarely leaves the house, and her only interests in life are her piano, her many cats, and her collection of creepy, disfigured dolls.
“There were six dolls to be taken up and dressed every morning, for Beth was a child still, and loved her pets as well as ever; not one whole or handsome one among them… [as one had] no top to its head, she tied on a neat little cap, and, as both arms and legs were gone, she hid these deficiencies by folding it in a blanket, and devoting her best bed to this chronic invalid. If anyone had known the care lavished on that dolly, I think it would have touched their hearts… She brought it bits of bouquets; she read to it, took it out to breathe the air, hidden under her coat; she sung it lullabys, and never went to bed without kissing its dirty face.”

Boy, that sure touched my heart… WITH EVIL! SHE’S EVIL! Anyway, Beth dies. There is some business involving tending to the poor and a lingering case of scarlet fever. After wasting away for approximately seventy-five percent of the book (and taking lots of belladonna for her health) she finally kicks off.

This leaves us with two well-drawn characters in the book, Jo and Amy. Before we get into that, however, let us pause to consider the dark, throbbing heart of Little Women: Marmee.

Marmee is the girls’ mother. She is terrifying. When you live at Marmee’s house, you don’t get presents for Christmas: you get inspirational Christian tracts. Actually, you get the same tract, purchased four times. Marmee could have gotten you other presents, but preferred to give you the same incredibly disappointing item over and over, just to rub it in your face. You don’t get breakfast; you give your breakfast away to the German family down the block. (Again with the Germans!) Do you miss your dad, who is away in the war? Well, Marmee has a story for you. It’s about the time she met a guy whose four sons were killed in that very war, and how you are all selfish shits because your father isn’t dead. One of the most heartwarming/creepy scenes in literature comes when Marmee advises Jo on how to deal with emotions:
“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it… I’ve learned to check the nasty words that rise to my lips; and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away a minute, and give myself a shake, for being so weak and so wicked.”

That’s right, Jo – just swallow it, SWALLOW IT, push it all down into your gut until it becomes a black cyst of rage threatening to burst at any moment, pulsating with hatred for yourself, your husband, your disgusting spawn, and god WHO KNOWS WHAT you could do when it’s finally unleashed, WHO KNOWS, you could just TAKE THE BELLADONNA and DROP IT INTO THEIR SOUP, they’d never suspect you, no-one would suspect you, who would suspect DEAR OLD MARMEE, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA.

Back to Jo and Amy. They are the two most disappointing daughters, and therefore the most interesting. Amy is every girl you’ve ever hated. Her priorities include (1) her hair, (2) her clothes, and (3) being popular, which has a lot to do with hair and clothes, she would like you to know. She’s spiteful, manipulative, shallow, none too bright, and overwhelmingly fond of herself. This isn’t a hard character to draw, but it is surprising how well the portrayal holds up, with certain little details (after the girls get the books, Amy’s only reaction is “I’m glad mine is blue,” as if she can’t find anything worth remarking on other than the color of the binding, because, you know, it’s a book) seeming true even when very little else does. It is easy, even enjoyable, to dislike Amy as her creator intended – not least because she is mean to Jo.

About Jo: oh! My God! There is so much going on there! Endless papers have been written about Jo – as feminist, as queer, as portrait of the artist, as tragic figure – and, to be frank, you need a lot of papers to sort Jo out, for Jo is complex. Here are a few things you need to know: (a) Jo refers to herself as “the man of the house,” and responds to someone saying “he’s a stubborn fellow” with “so am I,” (b) Jo says she will never get over being born a girl and not a boy, (c) Jo’s “gentlemanly” or “boyish” demeanor is referred to throughout the book, (d) Jo uses slang and other forms of language (“can’t do that” instead of “I can’t do that,” for example) that are gendered male, (e) Jo is disgusted by the prospect of marriage, and when a boy kisses her, she backs away in a manner that is not at all flirtatious, but actually freaked out, (f) Jo insists that the boy address her as “my dear fellow,” (g) Jo insists that her income will be earned rather than married into, and that her happiness will depend on her professional success, and (h) Jo gives up all of this by the end of the book, and it is crushingly sad.

The one thing that everyone remembers about the second half of Little Women, aside from Beth finally dying, is that Jo turns down her friend Laurie’s proposal of marriage and ends up with some ancient German (!!!!!) who convinces her that she is a shitty writer and should give it up, even though she is well-published by that point. Laurie ends up married to Amy. This pisses people off to no end. What no-one remembers is that Jo never had any romantic interest in Theodore “The Fellows Called Me Dora” Laurence. She wanted him to marry Meg. When he kissed her, she apologized and said they shouldn’t drink together any more. The Laurie and Amy thing came about because Louisa May Alcott wanted to annoy people; she was incensed that, after Jo had explicitly stated her distaste for marriage (and possibly dudes?) 5,000 times, her readers kept writing her letters that went like “OMG can Jo & Laurie get married they r meant 4 each other!!!!” Laurie marries the most insufferable March sister for the same reason that Jo gives up her career to get with the AntiSexy: Louisa May Alcott was fucking with you. You wanted Jo and Laurie to get married? Fine! They do! To the worst imaginable partners! Suck on that.

What stands out about this story is that, unlike any of the jokes in Little Women, it is actually kind of funny. In fact, it raises the question of how a woman willing to pull this sort of stunt could tolerate the pious, mealy-mouthed, intolerable dreck shoveled out by noted author Louisa May Alcott. Here is a pretty interesting piece about Jo March and young women’s literature in the 19th century. It includes this little gem:

Alcott herself saw the book as a biographical and moral story about female coming-of-age, and feared its didactic, moral overtones rendered it boring (295). In response to one of the energetic young admirers who wrote to her praising the novel, Alcott replied, “Though I do not enjoy writing ‘moral tales’ for the young, I do it because it pays well” (Showalter 56-7). While she enjoyed the financial power (and to some degree the public recognition) that Little Women brought, the biographical evidence extant suggests that Alcott found little pleasure in the actual writing of the novel and tended to dismiss it, as well as the similarly-configured stories she produced after it for the same audience, as “moral pap” (Saxton 16).

Okay. You know what? I like this woman.

2 Comments

  1. Sniper wrote:

    Oh, god, I hated Jo’s husband so much. I gritted my teeth throughout his awful lecture about how she shouldn’t soil her soul by writing pulp fiction. Fuck you, Jo’s doddering husband!

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 5:59 pm | Permalink
  2. Eneya wrote:

    Oh… you just broke my childhood memories. I actually loved these books. I definitely need to re-read them, they way i remember them i so much different.
    Hm.

    Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink