“It’s been so long since I first read it,” sighed Eleanor, looking down at her Christmas sweater.
“This was absolutely my favorite book, growing up,” glowed Gwen, gripping her dog-eared copy tighter.
“I read it once, in secondary school, but barely remembered what happened,” Dania admitted, with a little pout. “It’s a lot better than I thought.”
The three faces brightened under the light from the overcast December sky, shining through the open window, but darkened once again as Dania added ––
“Who do you think the narrator is?” Dania wondered aloud. “Louisa May Alcott? Or someone else?”
“To some degree, it’s Jo,” Eleanor suggested, with a grin. “Wouldn’t that make sense? I mean, the book she writes in Chapter 42 is absolutely Little Women. Right?”
“It’s a fundamentally autobiographical book, in many respects,” explained Gwen. “Alcott was the second child of four, a writer from an early age, always regretted she hadn’t been born a boy.”
Gwen glanced from Eleanor to Dania. While Dania’s eyes were cast around the room, in her own contemplation of the book’s themes, Eleanor was locked onto Gwen as she spoke. Gwen continued, speaking to her directly.
“If the narrator is Jo, it’s Alcott as well. The only difference, of course, is Jo marrying Bhaer at the end.”
“Which, can we talk about that for a minute?” Dania interrupted, striking the couch with her palm.
“What, you think she shouldn’t have married?”
“She was supposed to marry Laurie! I was angry about it when I first read it and I’m angry about it now! The amount of subtle hints that Alcott puts into the first half of the book –– she’s deliberately making that pair seem obvious!”
“She got a lot of fan mail between the two halves of the book, when it was first published,” Gwen pointed out. “People wanted them to end up together. But it’s obvious why they can’t, in retrospect.”
Dania stared down Gwen. “Why not?”
“Because he wasn’t mature enough!” Gwen replied. “Jo becomes a woman long, long before Laurie ever has to be a man. When he proposes, he’s still acting like a boy.”
“He’s still acting like a boy when he marries Amy, too,” grumbled Dania.
“Unlimited wealth will do that to you,” Eleanor smirked.
“That’s the element of the book that stood out to me, this time through,” Gwen pivoted. “The conversation around class.”
“Does this book have a conversation around class?” asked Dania.
“It does, even if it doesn’t try to. It’s like those TV movies where the ‘poor’ family is still living in a suburb, with a car and a stable income, because the alternative is the ‘rich’ family living in a mansion.”
“Yeah, for all of the March family’s musings on how poor they are, they do seem to have stability, and a deep connection to the upper class,” Eleanor said. “Not just having Mr. Lawrence as a neighbor, but the picnic with the rich kids from England. They’re living a simple life, but it’s not a destitute one. They always obtain the means to do what they need to.”
“Not to mention Hannah,” added Dania, “who I’ve never heard anyone talk about before, ever.”
“All right, let’s get into the discussion around Hannah,” Gwen began.
Hannah, the March family’s live-in servant, was the sixth character introduced in the book, appearing wordlessly at the end of the first chapter to clean up the room after the daughters departed. Her first lines, in the following chapter, established the thick phonetic accent that she, and no other character, spoke with:
“Some poor creeter come a-beggin’, and your ma went straight off…never was such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes, and firin’.”
“I can’t pretend it doesn’t take something away from the book to have a servant present in the background, with no arc besides helping the March family,” Eleanor said. “There’s literally a part in the book where everyone is sad, and Hannah just appears with food for them. Because they felt sad.”
Gwen opened her book to a notched page. “Hannah stalked in, laid two fresh turnovers on the table, and stalked out again,” she read. “Hannah never forgot to make them, no matter how busy or grumpy she might be.”
“See, stuff like that takes me out of the book,” Eleanor said. “I enjoy it, generally, because I like the characters and their individual arcs. But something about the way the plot is constructed keeps giving me the sense that the characters aren’t up against any true adversity.”
Gwen’s brown furrowed. “There’s certainly strife throughout,” she argued. “Jo has to fail a few times before she succeeds with her writing. Not to mention, Beth and her ‘secret’…”
“But does she?” Eleanor stood up, and paced the room as she spoke. “Does Jo fail? She wins the $100 prize for her short story the first time she enters. And when she goes to the Weekly Volcano, Dashwood acts like a jerk and requests a bunch of edits, but then she makes them and the story runs. The book makes some tension out of the fact that Jo is writing ‘trashy stories,’ but they’re making her a considerable income –– enough that she saves up to take Beth to Cape Cod.”
“Plus, now that I think about it,” Dania added, “when Amy decides to go to Europe, money isn’t discussed, because she’s going with Aunt March, who’s rich. When Aunt March dies, she leaves Jo her house, which allows Jo to start her school immediately, despite marrying someone with no money.”
Dania’s eyes flitted wildly around the room, recollecting every detail in Alcott’s pastoral romance. “Is Amy the only character who goes to school? I feel like Beth just stays at home and does housework.”
“That’s because of the time period,” Gwen interjected, grabbing the reigns of the conversation once again. “Only Laurie would be continuing his education up into college. The rest of the girls are preparing to be married –– that’s the tension around Jo not only having no interest in marriage, but in setting out to have a career of her own.”
“Do you remember Amy and Jo making house calls?” asked Eleanor. “Chapter 29?”
“Yeah, what was that?” asked Dania. “Was that a thing people did?”
“Essentially,” Gwen said. “Middle-class women were expected to be home mid-day to receive visitors and exchange gossip. It makes sense that Amy would be into it, since she sees femininity as a source of power, while Jo sees it as a burden.”
“That’s the scene,” Eleanor said. “The one where Amy and Jo fight about how they should respond to rude young men. Jo argues that they need to be confronted, like she did with Teddy, but Amy argues it’s not her place to do so.”
Eleanor took the bookmark out of her copy –– placed on the exact passage she needed at this moment –– and read Amy’s dialogue aloud.
“I only know that it’s the way of the world, and people who set themselves against it only get laughed at for their pains.” Amy chastised Jo. “I don’t like reformers, and I hope you never try to be one.”
“Damn,” Dania said flatly. “Could you Lean Out a little bit more, Amy?”
“This is what keeps me coming back,” Gwen argued. “You can argue the financial stakes are too low, or the episodic nature of Little Women makes it meander, or how Alcott’s setups lead to obvious conclusions. I like Bhaer fine enough, but it’s telegraphed from his first character description that he’s lab-bred to be Jo’s partner.”
“Same with Beth, in my mind,” Dania said. “Every description given of her seems to be building sympathy for her, so when she dies you only have positive memories. She was born to die.”
“Aren’t we all.”
“What makes me return to it,” Gwen continued, “is the discussion around how each character performs femininity. Meg and Amy are married by the end, but they have vastly different relationships with their men. Meg’s struggles with the jelly, as quotidian as they are, communicate a world of social expectations that John is putting onto her. The same goes for Amy’s changed relationship with Laurie after he’s rejected by Jo.”
“Jo shouldn’t be putting in the emotional labor to fix Laurie,” Eleanor sneered.
“She doesn’t,” said Gwen. “She tells him that he’s not good enough, and he’s initially upset –– in a typical entitled-male way. But after he gets called out by his grandfather, he does make the effort to reform himself. By the time Amy meets him in Europe, she’s remarking on how he’s finally a man, rather than a boy.”
“Which makes him an ideal match for Amy, I guess,” Dania mused. “Since she took so long to turn from a girl to a woman.”
“That fight between Jo and Amy while making calls is essentially an argument about Laurie,” Gwen said. “Jo argues that women should tell off men who act like boys –– and she later does so, with Laurie. Amy argues that they should be ignored, until a more reformed man comes along –– which she does with Laurie until he, himself, returns as reformed.”
“I can feel there’s an emotional truth to the book, even if the plot gets in the way for me,” Eleanor said. “It works not because the characters are pushed to breaking points, but by showcasing how, for teenage girls wrestling with their gender, every day can feel like a breaking point.”
“Maybe that’s why it’s so popular,” Dania suggested. “The moral is timeless, even if the plot isn’t. Young people have been seeing their struggles reflected in the book for a century or more. It’s still the second-most popular book for girls in Japan.”
“I do wonder, still,” Eleanor continued, “about the cultural placement of this narrative. Gendered strife is universal, but it manifests differently in the genteel setting of mid-19th century America.”
At this, Gwen silently stood and walked over to the bookshelf in the room, as Eleanor spoke.
“I wonder what Little Women would look like today,” said Eleanor. “With a family actually in economic destitution, and four young women facing these universal truths in modern ways.”
“I’d read that,” Dania said. “I’m sure someone’s put together an AU fanfic about that, or the like.”
“Funny you should mention that…”
Gwen pulled a purple volume from the bookshelf, and held up the cover so Eleanor and Dania could read it. An illustration of four girls, sitting together on a staircase, shone out beneath the title: Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy: A Graphic Novel.
“What is that?” Eleanor asked, shocked.
“Our next conversation,” said Gwen, grinning.
So grouped the curtain falls on Gwen, Eleanor, and Dania. When it rises again will depend on the reception they give to this new volume, entitled Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy.
END PART 1
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