Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The little books were full of help and comfort - Bunyan as structure in Little Women

Structure.  I thought the most interesting thing in Little Women – I mean in One – was the layer of structures Louisa May Alcott used to construct the book.  There are at least three.

1.  The year and seasons, roughly Christmas 1861 to Christmas 1862, with time passing at what feels like a natural rate.  “One July day she came in with her hands full…” I read at the beginning of Chapter 12, while Chapter 13 begins on “one warm September afternoon,” and “the October days began to grow chilly” at the head of Chapter 14.  Time moves differently in the sad, stressful November and December, so those months need more chapters.

2.  Episodes.  Many chapters belong to a single sister.  All four get their share.  All four have virtues to emulate and vices to expunge.  Sometimes we work as a group, sometimes we work on our own, so to speak.  The girls are always working, even while playing.

3.  Pilgrim’s Progress.  Alcott employs John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical novel, and also its 1684 sequel, as a structural device throughout her own novel, both within the novel – meaning the characters read the book and refer to it – and outside of the novel, so to speak, in chapter titles and in the novel’s epigram, so that the first words of the book are actually Alcott’s adaptation of a poem from Pilgrim’s Progress: “Go then, my little Book” and encourage the “little tripping maids” to “choose to be \ Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.”  Alcott immediately blends her own novel with her model.

On that first Christmas, in Chapter 2, the girls all receive new copies of Pilgrim’s Progress, hidden under their pillows during the night, with each sister getting a different colored cover.  Which is great, right?  Those were the days.  These are the “little books” that the sisters are always reading for comfort and instruction.  The fictional characters are again modeling behavior for the actual reader engrossed in his own little book, as seen as Chapter 16 opens:

In the cold gray dawn the sisters lit their lamp and read their chapter with an earnestness never felt before.  For now the shadow of a real trouble had come, the little books were full of help and comfort, and as they dressed, they agreed to say goodbye cheerfully and hopefully, and send their mother on her anxious journey unsaddened by tears or complaints from them.

The Pilgrim’s Progress takes the place of the Bible for the March sisters.  I may well have missed a reference, but I believe the Bible is directly mentioned only once, in Chapter 33 – now we are in Two – where it is found in the possession of the 1848 revolutionary Professor Bhaer who keeps his edition of Shakespeare “with his German Bible, Plato, Homer, and Milton.”  In other words, the Bible is kept in the company of literature, not religious texts.  The fact that almost no one in the novel can even read this Bible is an additional irony.

Two unfortunately loses much of this overlaid structure.  The sequel becomes, as the passage about the books suggests, a kind of Bildungsroman for Jo, with the other sisters sidelined in one way or another, a functional but less complex way to organize the story.

Jane GS was inspired, when she read Little Women, to read The Pilgrim’s Progress as well, which more Alcott readers should do.  Bunyan’s book is sectarian and narrow, but also one of the great pieces of English prose, and I find that reading it in the context of Little Women softens its Calvinist harshness, which by itself is a debt I owe Alcott.


  1. It's curious how The Pilgrim's Progress lies under so much nineteenth and early twentieth century literature as a template or influence. It would be interesting to check for books influeced by it- from quotations as titles or references or epigraphs to actual use of it as a model.
    "One [book I read] was Pilgrim's Progress, about a man that left his family, it didn't say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough." said Huckleberry Finn, whose own adventures echo it. Reading reviews of Vaughan Williams' opera recently, it was noticeable how Bunyan has vanished as a standard cultural reference.

  2. The Little Professor says she urges her English lit undergraduates to read Pilgrim's Progress, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, and the Bible no matter what else they are reading and no matter what period they are studying.

    Bunyan really is a continual presence well into the 20th century. Then it begins to fade.

    Thanks for the Twain reference - I had forgotten that.

    The LP also wrote about an interesting 1900 poll of "best books for children" which includes, in the Top 10, both Little Women and Bunyan, along with Alice books and fairy tales and so on.

  3. I actually took Alcott's reference to the "true guidebook for any pilgrim going the long journey" (Ch. 2) to be referring to the Bible (or perhaps just a New Testament - "beautiful old story of the best life ever lived") rather than Pilgrim's Progress. Either way, I wonder why she doesn't name the book outright--in 1868 I wouldn't have thought overt expressions of religion would have impeded sales--or perhaps such obviousness was unnecessary?

    Remembering enough of this novel from my prior reading, the first thing that really struck me was actually the Pilgrim's Progress structure--and that's with only a very weak knowledge of the Bunyan work. (I read a children's adaptation of the first part of Pilgrim's Progress when I was in elementary school, but which I now barely remember.) Reading Bunyan has now bumped way up my priority list this year, likely as soon as I'm finished with the books I'm currently reading.

  4. Let's turn to an expert, Elaine Showalter in the introduction to the Penguin Classics LW:

    "The March girls receive copies of Bunyan's little book for Christmas (not the New Testament, as some critics have thought)..." (xvii)

    And then you might think that Showalter makes her case, but no, her entire argument is that she italicizes "not." In other words, this whole thing has been hashed out elsewhere and she does not want to go into it.

    In other other words, there is a debate on this point, and it is a matter of interpretation. There is a case to be made either way.

    My argument is entirely artistic. My guess is that Showalter's is biographical - for example, the fact that Bronson Alcott apparently kind of did treat Pilgrim's Progress as scripture.

    So not only do you, Amanda, have good reason for identifying the little books as Bibles, it is clear that Alcott wants to allow readers to make that identification.

    Perhaps she is disguising the fact that her Transcendentalist family were what most American readers would have regarded as a bunch of heretics. Or perhaps the books really are meant to be Bibles and the only person she is trying to bamboozle is her Bunyan-obsessed father.

    Fun topic, huh?

    Pilgrim's Progress is by no means a great pleasure for me, but it has some passages and episodes that are sublime, and the prose is now in some way part of our language.

    1. Reading an Introduction - how silly! (Hmm...wonder what the Introduction in my copy says.) I would prefer much stronger support (than italics) for Showalter's argument before I can buy into it, although then again I remember almost nothing about Transcendentalism, so any influence it may have had on Alcott I miss. I definitely see the ambiguity, but to my ear, the language used to discuss the "little books" is very much the language used by many Christians still today to discuss the Bible--and if that is what Alcott intended, I actually could see her not thinking it even necessary to name the book (the reference being so very common at the time). Again, I lack the knowledge of her personal history to know if she would indeed think that way or not. Very interesting to think about, though.

  5. I need the Norton Critical Edition or something like that so I can see the different sides of the argument.

    The Transcendentalists are worth some study - a lot of study. Even Bronson Alcott is worth reading - in minuscule quantities, just to experience the bizarre taste of his prose.