Thursday, January 10, 2013

Alcott the scold - a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper

There are other ways to read Little Women.  As a temperance tract, for example.  Take a look at Chapter 25, “The First Wedding,” which is really  Chapter 2 of Two.  One of the sisters is getting married, so Alcott can give us every last detail of what a wedding should be.  No breakfast, just “a plentiful lunch of cake and fruit, dressed in flowers” and “water, lemonade, and coffee.”  Guests sent wine, but the teetotaling Marches sent it to the Soldier’s Home – Papa March “thinks that wine should only be used in illness.”

This leads to a page-long discussion of the evils of wine, which climaxes with the bride bullying poor innocent dim-witted college student Laurie into taking a temperance pledge:

She did not speak, but she looked up at him with a face made very eloquent by happiness, and a smile which said, "No one can refuse me anything today."  Laurie certainly could not, and with an answering smile, he gave her his hand, saying heartily, "I promise, Mrs. Brooke!"

What a dirty trick!  But Alcott lacks confidence and concludes the scene with:

So the toast was drunk, the pledge made and loyally kept in spite of many temptations, for with instinctive wisdom, the girls seized a happy moment to do their friend a service, for which he thanked them all his life.

If I had suspicions before, I was certain now – the narrator in Two is different than in One.  Alcott had never resorted to this clumsy look into the future before.  She senses that some readers might be skeptical of Laurie’s moral fortitude so she cuts them off.

My favorite moment with the new narrator comes later in Two, in Chapter 34, the one that introduces The Fantastic Professor Bhaer.  Back in One, it was a matter of celebration when sixteen year-old Jo published her first story in a newspaper even if it was, as Alcott says in her journal, “Great rubbish!”  In Two “[s]he took to writing sensation stories – for in those dark age even all-perfect America read rubbish.”  Now that last remark is obviously sarcasm, isn’t it?  But later in the chapter Prof. Bhaer condemns sensation fiction as immoral causing Jo to repent and burn her manuscripts, although with regret:

"If I didn't care about doing right, and didn't feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally.  I can't help wishing sometimes, that Mother and Father hadn't been so particular about such things."

Ah, Jo, instead of wishing that, thank God that “Father and Mother were particular,” and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood.

I have resisted the idea that Little Women is easily autobiographical, but this scene is much funnier if we imagine that Alcott is scolding her younger, fictional self.  Like the temperance pledge, this was also a two-against-one bullying scene.  It was not so coercive until the narrator stepped in.

Scenes like these led me to want to reform my ways, to drink more wine and to write a story like the one she describes earlier in the chapter about “a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper.”


  1. I haven't read this in years but I remember not believing Laurie could be sober forever, happily, with his happy-go-lucky personality!

  2. He is a college student who succumbs to every fashion; after college we see him living, often on his own, in France and Vienna. But no wine passed his lips. Mmm hmm.

  3. Jo's "scribbling" is so endearing to me. It is critical to her, until she inherits Plumfield after marrying her Baehr, and I love how she pours her heart into it as so many young girls do. Did.

    I was intrigued with the idea that by ensconcing herself in the tawdry aspects of life, in order to more effectively write of villainy for the sales of her stories, she felt her inner character begin to wither.

  4. Yes, I agree, critical - thus my doubts about her surrender to Doktor Baehr. I would have liked to see some of that tawdry life for myself before judging.

    1. You're right about doubting her surrender to Baehr...Sleepless Reader left a comment on my post about doubting the future of Amy and Laurie's marriate; now I'm wondering about Jo and Baehr's. Can she really be happy raising the boys and abandoning (for the most part) her scribbling? Not for long, in my opinion.

  5. Those questions and more will be answered in Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Would any of us be too surprised if everyone's marriage turns out just fine?

    Jo essentially finds her vocation as a teacher, not a writer. In this sense, and in many others, she is not simply a disguised L M Alcott.

  6. What a hell it must have been for a 19th century woman to have an alcoholic husband, son, or brother.

    Good for Alcott.

  7. You lost me Shelley - where is the alcoholic? In some other Alcott book?