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Thursday, May 30, 2013

To be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Little Women is a tale of love, friendship, family, loss, and gracefully reveling in the small joys of life. It chronicles the lives of the four March girls - Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (in order of oldest to youngest) - their mother, Marmee, their father, Mr. March, and their servant but more importantly good friend, Hannah. Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Theodore Laurence, aka Laurie, becomes their bosom buddy, and a de facto brother, and his grandfather, Mr. Laurence, acts as a stand-in grandfather to all the children. The girls and Laurie enjoy many adventures and a few trials on the path to adulthood, and more than one little heart gets broken along the way. Each girl finds love in her own right and in her own time, and a few admirable and worthy men are lucky enough to join the extended March family. The Marches are poor in wealth but rich in resources and their love for each other, and by the end you'll find yourself wishing you could be a March, too.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This was one of my favorite books as a young girl, and I wasn't sure how it would stand the test of time (and timely test itself). I have two older sisters and three extended sisters in the Light girls, so this book has always been near and dear to me. I knew it would be hard to read, as it makes me yearn for the days of late-night card-playing, knitting by the fire, and sharing friendly family gossip over cups of tea. The book held up for me, and if you haven't read it, I strongly suggest you read it. Don't be fooled if you've always thought it was a story about a few silly girls - it's so much more than that.

I thought about apologizing for the length of this blog, but hang it, as Jo would say - the length of a blog entry is proportional to my love for the work, so why not remember its beauty in full, bright colors?

First, a snapshot of the March family:

  • in a letter to Marmee, his wife, while serving with the Union army in the Civil War: "I know the girls will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women."
Marmee (aka Mother):
  • "I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send."
Hannah (servant/family friend):
  • in a letter to Marmee: "My bread is riz, so no more at this time. I send my duty to Mr. March and hope he's seen the last of his Pewmonia."
  • to Jo, while preparing to go to a ball with only one glove each: "Dear me, let us be elegant or die!"
  • "As she said herself, she was 'fond of luxury', and her chief trouble was poverty. She found it harder to bear than the others, because she could remember a time when home was beautiful, life full of ease and pleasure, and want of any kind unknown."
  • on Meg's relationship with her twins: "Meg made many moral rules, and tried to keep them; but what mother was ever proof against the winning wiles, the ingenious evasions, or the tranquil audacity of the miniature men and women who so early show themselves accomplished Artful Dodgers?" hehehehe. I know a few Artful Dodgers, myself. ;)
  • "It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy."
  • "Jo's ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea, as yet, but left it for time to tell her; and, meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn't read, run, and ride as much as she liked."
  • to Meg, on a suggestion to rest by the fire: "Never take advice! Can't keep still all day, and, not being a pussy-cat, I don't like to doze by the fire. I like adventures, and I'm going to find some."
  • on Meg being in love: "She's got most of the symptoms - is twittery and cross, doesn't eat, lies awake, and mopes in corners."
  • on finding out Meg wanted to marry: "I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family."
  • "Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and 'fall into a vortex', as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her 'scribbling suit' consisted of a black woollen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, 'Does genius burn, Jo?' They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on; in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew; and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew; and not until the red bow was seen gayly erect upon the gifted brow, did any one dare address Jo." I love this image - I imagine my friend, Dennis, to give off an aura much like this, on the mornings when he's hard at work on his novel. Does Genius burn, Dennis?
  • "It's easier for me to risk my life for a person than to be pleasant to him when I don't feel like it."
  • "Her father called her 'Little Tranquillity', and the name suited her excellently; for she seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved."
  • Beth has a gaggle of kittens that she offers to others when they need cheering up. Jo takes them over to Laurie in a basket the first time she meets him and decides he must be "rather a lonely boy". I would like someone to bring me a basket of kittens the next time I need cheering up. Suzy can swat at them lazily or sit on their faces.
  • "If anybody had asked Amy what the greatest trial of her life was, she would have answered at once, 'My nose'. When she was a baby, Jo had accidentally dropped her into the coal-hod, and Amy insisted that the fall had ruined her nose forever. It was not big, nor red, like poor 'Petrea's': it was only rather flat, and all the pinching in the world could not give it an aristocratic point. No one minded it but herself, and it was doing its best to grow, but Amy felt deeply the want of a Grecian nose, and drew whole sheets of handsome ones to console herself."
  • "Little Raphael', as her sisters called her, had a decided talent for drawing, and was never so happy as when copying flowers, designing fairies, or illustrating stories with queer specimens of art."
  • on Amy's exploration of fire-poker-etchings: "While this attack lasted, the family lived in constant fear of a conflagration; for the odor of burning wood pervaded the house at all hours; smoke issued from attic and shed with alarming frequency, red-hot pokers lay about promiscuously, and Hannah never went to bed without a pail of water and the dinner-bell at her door, in case of fire. Raphael's face was found boldly executed on the under side of the moulding-board, and Bacchus on the head of a beer-barrel; a chanting cherub adorned the cover of the sugar-bucket, and attempts to portray Romeo and Juliet supplied kindlings for some time."
  • "A shadow passed over the boy's face as he watched them, feeling that he ought to go away, because uninvited; yet lingering, because home seemed very lonely, and this quiet party in the woods most attractive to his restless spirit."
  • "Being only 'a glorious human boy', of course he frolicked and flirted, grew dandified, aquatic, sentimental, or gymnastic, as college fashions ordained; hazed and was hazed, talked slang, and more than once came perilously near suspension and expulsion."
  • "A universal favorite, thanks to money, manners, much talent, and the kindest heart that ever got its owner into scrapes by trying to get other people out of them, he stood in great danger of being spoilt, and probably would have been, like many another promising boy, if he had not possessed a talisman against evil in the memory of the kind old man who was bound up in his success, the motherly friend who watched over him as if he were her son, and last, but not least by any means, the knowledge that four innocent girls loved, admired, and believed in him with all their hearts."
Mr. Bhaer (a professor that rooms in a boarding house where Jo is staying):
  • on learning that Jo has been darning and mending his things on the sly: "At efening I shall gif a little lesson with much gladness; for look you, Mees March, I haf this debt to pay,' and he pointed to Jo's handiwork. 'Yes,' they say to one another, these so kind ladies, 'he is a stupid old fellow; he will not see what we do; he will never opserve that his sock-heels go not in holes any more, he will think his buttons grow out new when they fall, and believe that strings make theirselves.' Ah! but I haf an eye, and I see much. I haf a heart, and I feel the thanks for this. Come, a little lesson then and now, or no more good fairy works for me and mine." I thought this was such an adorable scene. I haf an eye, and I see much! No more good fairy works, now, I mean it! (Anybody want a peanut?)
  • "Why everybody liked him was what puzzled Jo at first. He was neither rich nor great, young nor handsome; in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant; and yet he was as attractive as a genial fire, and people seemed to gather about him as naturally as about a warm hearth."
  • on finding the confidence to come back and propose to Jo: "I read that poem in the paper, and I think to myself, She has a sorrow, she is lonely, she would find comfort in true love. I have a heart full, full for her; shall I not go and say, 'If this is not too poor a thing to gif for what I shall hope to receive, take it in Gott's name? I had no courage to think that at first, heavenly kind was your welcome to me. But soon I began to hope, and then I said, 'I will haf her if I die for it,' and so I will" cried Mr. Bhaer, with a defiant nod, as if the walls of mist closing round them were barriers which he was to surmount or valiantly knock down."
A few ancillary thoughts:
- In the film version of this, I always found Beth a bit maudlin, but in the book, it's clear why she's so beloved. She gets more roundness to her character, I think, and part of what makes her so lovable is that Meg loves Amy and takes her under her wing, but it's Jo who loves Beth and comforts her. Beth softens Jo's rough edges, and Jo inspires Beth with courage. Artfully done by Louisa, I think, this tidbit of character building. And I won't lie, though I knew it was coming, I read the later passages on Beth with a box of tissues by my side. ;)

- Amy gets in trouble for bringing pickled limes, the latest fashion, to school, and gets her hand slapped by her teacher:
"She was in a sad state when she got home; and when the older girls arrived, some time later, an indignation meeting was held at once. (heheheeh. I now call to order the INDIGNATION meeting!) Mrs. March did not say much, but looked disturbed, and comforted her afflicted little daughter in the tenderest manner. Meg bathed the insulted hand with glycerine and tears; Beth felt that even her beloved kittens would fail as a balm for griefs like this; Jo wrathfully proposed that Mr. Davis be arrested without delay; and Hannah shook her fist at the 'villain' and pounded potatoes for dinner as if she had him under the pestle."

- Jo leads the girls' "Pickwick Club", modeled after Dickens' works, and they publish a paper. Here are a few excerpts: 

The Public Bereavement:
     It is our painful duty to record the sudden and mysterious disappearance of our cherished friend, Mrs. Snowball Pat Paw. This lovely and beloved cat was the pet of a large circle of warm and admiring friends. When last seen, she was sitting at the gate, watching the butcher's cart; and it is feared that some villain, tempted by her charms, basely stole her.

Lament for Snowball Pat Paw:
Her empty bed, her idle ball,
Will never see her more;
No gentle tap, no loving purr
Is heard at the parlor door.

Another cat comes after her mice,
A cat with a dirty face;
But she does not hunt as our darling did,
Nor play with her airy grace.

Weekly Report:
Meg -- Good.
Jo -- Bad.
Beth -- Very good.
Amy -- Middling.

- Laurie, as the newest member of the Pickwick Club, introduces the Post Office, or the P.O., to be located in a bush equidistant between their two houses:
Laurie: "Letters, manuscripts, books, and bundles can be passed there; and, as each nation has a key, it will be uncommonly nice, I fancy."
"The P.O. was a capital institution, and flourished wonderfully, for nearly as many queer things passed through it as through the real office. Tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden-seeds and long letters, music and gingerbread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings and puppies. The old gentleman liked the fun, and amused himself by sending odd bundles, mysterious messages, and funny telegrams; and his gardener, who was smitten with Hannah's charms, actually sent a love-letter to Jo's care." I think the post office was my favorite bit of the March/Laurence family love affair. It seems so delightful and unexpected, and full of amusement and genuine joy.

- When Marmee tries to teach the girls a lesson by letting them neglect their work for a week, Beth's pet bird, Pip, pays the price: 
"Jo peeped into his half-open eye, felt his little heart, and finding him stiff and cold, shook her head, and offered her domino-box for a coffin.
  'Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive,' said Amy hopefully.
  "He's been starved, and he shan't be baked, now he's dead!,' said Beth." e's not dead! e's pining! for the Fjords!

- A letter from Laurie, regarding "Camp Laurence": 

                "Dear JO
                   What ho!

Some English girls and boys are coming to see me to-morrow and I want to have a jolly time. If it's fine, I'm going to pitch my tent in Longmeadow, and row up the whole crew to lunch and croquet, - have a fire, make messes, gypsy fashion, and all sorts of larks.  They are nice people, and like such things.  Brooke will go, to keep us boys steady, and Kate Vaughn will play propriety for the girls.  I want you all to come; can't let Beth off, at any price, and nobody shall worry her. Don't bother about rations - I'll see to that, and everything else - only do come, there's a good fellow!
   In a tearing hurry,
      Yours ever, LAURIE."  dear Laurie, I would like to come to Camp Laurence today. the weather is fine and I have an enormous hat like the one Jo sported. let me know what I can bring and where to meet you.

- Jo is friends with a few pet rats, including one she nicknames Scrabble:
"Jo's desk up here was an old tin kitchen, which hung against the wall. In it she kept her papers and a few books, safely shut away from Scrabble, who, being likewise of a literary turn, was fond of making a circulating library of such books as were left in his way, by eating the leaves. From this tin receptacle Jo produced another manuscript; and, putting both in her pocket, crept quietly down stairs, leaving her friends to nibble her pens and taste her ink."

- Jo sells her hair to raise money to support her father when he's wounded in the Civil War, to which Amy replies, "Jo! No! Your one beauty!" (she has such Beautiful EARS!)

- Amy's trials while staying at Aunt March's during Beth's illness:
"If it had not been for Laurie, and old Esther, the maid, she felt that she never could have got through that dreadful time.  The parrot alone was enough to drive her distracted, for he soon felt that she did not admire him, and revenged himself by being as mischievous as possible. He pulled her hair whenever she came near him, upset his bread and milk to plague her when she had newly cleaned his cage, made Mop bark by pecking at him while Madam dozed; called her names before company, and behaved in all respects like a reprehensible old bird." heheheeheheh. Amy's a bit of a snot at this point in the book, so I admittedly loved the idea of the bird pecking at her hair and giving her a hard time. ;)

My brief summary of the successful (and unsuccessful) romantic dénouments of the novel:
- Laurie tries to propose to Jo:
Jo: "I never wanted to make you care for me so, and I went away to keep you from it if I could."
Laurie: "I thought so; it was like you, but it was no use. I only loved you all the more, and I worked hard to please you, and I gave up billiards and everything you didn't like, and waited and never complained, for I hoped you'd love me, though I'm not half good enough-" here there was a choke that couldn't be controlled, so he decapitated buttercups while he cleared his 'confounded throat'." poor decapitated buttercups! 

Jo: "I can't help it; you know it's impossible for people to love other people if they don't," cried Jo inelegantly but remorsefully, as she softly patted his shoulder.
Laurie: "They do sometimes," said a muffled voice from the post."
Jo: "I don't believe it's the right sort of love, and I'd rather not try it."

Laurie: "If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like."
Jo: "No, I can't. I've tried and failed, and I won't risk our happiness by such a serious experiment. We don't agree and we never shall; so we'll be good friends all our lives, but we won't go and do anything rash."
Laurie: "Yes, we will if we get the chance," muttered Laurie rebelliously. aw, poor Laurie!

Meg & Mr. John Brooke:
Mr. Brooke: "I won't trouble you, I only want to know if you care for me a little, Meg. I love you so much, dear."
   Meg hung her head and answered, 'I don't know', so softly, that John had to stoop down to catch the foolish little reply.
  He seemed to think it was worth the trouble, for he smiled to himself as if quite satisfied, pressed the plump hand gratefully, and said, in his most persuasive tone, 'Will you try and find out? I want to know so much; for I can't go to work with any heart until I learn whether I am to have my reward in the end or not.
  'I'm too young,' faltered Meg.
   'I'll wait; and in the meantime, you could be learning to like me. Would it be a very hard lesson, dear?'
   'Not if I chose to learn it, but - "
   'Please choose to learn, Meg. I love to teach, and this is easier than German." (hehehee. well OK, if it's easier than German ;) -- Mr. Brooke and Mr. Bhaer both start their little flirtations with the March girls by tutoring them in German. Maybe I need to find myself a German tutor.... ;)

Amy & Laurie:
"Amy took the offered third of a seat, shook her hair over her face, and accepted an oar. She rowed as well as she did many other things; and, though she used both hands, and Laurie but one, the oars kept time, and the boat went smoothly through the water.
   'How well we pull together, don't we?' said Amy, who objected to silence just then.
   'So well that I wish we might always pull in the same boat. Will you, Amy?' very tenderly.
   'Yes, Laurie,' very low."  Okay, admittedly in the movie and the last time I read the book, I was furious that Amy and not Jo ended up with Laurie. But I find on second reading that their courtship made sense, and that in fact a true tender love grows slowly between them that is fitting for a lifetime together. I definitely don't think it's made clear in the film, so if you're still annoyed, give the book another shot and see how you feel. I also found Mr. Bhaer to be endearing in the novel, whereas I found him a bit stiff and cold in the movie.

Jo & Mr. Friedrich Bhaer:
Jo getting flustered, on thinking she's misread the signs and Mr. Bhaer doesn't love her after all: 
Mr. Bhaer was going away; he only cared for her as a friend; it was all a mistake, and the sooner it was over the better. With this idea in her head, she hailed an approaching omnibus with such a hasty gesture that the daisies flew out of the pot and were badly damaged.
  'This is not our omniboos,' said the Professor, waving the loaded vehicle away, and stooping to pick up the poor little flowers."  I love this moment - "this is not our omniboos!"

Mr. Bhaer, to Jo, in the mud and the rain: "Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you; I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?
  'Oh, yes!' said Jo; and he was quite satisfied, for she folded both hands over his arm, and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him, even though she had no better shelter than the old umbrella, if he carried it."

A passage I particularly liked:
on Meg's wedding day: "The June roses over the porch were awake bright and early on that morning, rejoicing with all their hearts in the cloudless sunshine, like friendly little neighbors, as they were.  Quite flushed with excitement were their ruddy faces, as they swung in the wind, whispering to one another what they had seen; for some peeped in at the dining-room windows, where the feast was spread, some climbed up to nod and smile at the sisters as they dressed the bride, others waved a welcome to those who came and went on various errands in garden, porch, and hall, and all, from the rosiest full-blown flower to the palest baby-bud, offered their tribute of beauty and fragrance to the gentle mistress who had loved and tended them so long."

I'll end this hearty post with a series of exchanges between Demijohn (aka Demi) and his parents, when he is being a particularly naughty boy. He reminds me of a little red-haired someone on the west coast, her occasional difficulties in agreeing it is time for bed, and the wheedling and cajoling that has been known to ensue. ;)

Demijohn reappearing at his parents' dinner table, after being told if he was a good boy he could have a 'cakie' in the morning: 
The door handle rattled mysteriously, and a little voice was heard, saying impatiently -
"Opy doy; me's tummin!'
 'It's that naughty boy. I told him to go to sleep alone, and here he is, downstairs,' said Meg.
  'Mornin' now!' announced Demi, in a joyful tone, as he entered, with his long night-gown gracefully festooned over his arm, and every curl bobbing gayly as he pranced about the table, eying the 'cakies' with loving glances."
  'No, it isn't morning yet. You must go to bed, and not trouble poor mamma; then you can have the little cake with sugar on it.'
  "Me loves parpar,' said the artful one, preparing to climb the paternal knee, and revel in forbidden joys.
(He is returned to bed by Meg, who secretly gives him a lump of sugar and tries to send him back to sugarplum dreamland)

"Meg returned to her place, and supper was progressing pleasantly, when the little ghost walked in again, and exposed the maternal delinquencies by boldly demanding, -
   'More sudar, marmar!'
  'Now this won't do,' said John. 'I'll manage him. Demi, go upstairs, and get into your bed, as Mamma bids you.'
  'S'ant!' replied the young rebel, helping himself to the coveted 'cakie' and beginning to eat the same with calm audacity.
(John, aka Parpar, is determined to hold strong, and forcibly returns Demi to his bed)

Bereft of his cake, defrauded of his frolic, and borne away by a strong hand to that detested bed, poor Demi could not restrain his wrath, but openly defied papa, and kicked and screamed lustily all the way upstairs.  The minute he was put into bed on one side, he rolled out on the other, and made for the door, only to be ignominiously caught up by the tail of his toga, and put back again, which lively performance was kept up till the young man's strength gave out, when he devoted himself to roaring at the top of his voice. No coaxing, no sugar, no lullaby, no story; even the light was put out, and only the red glow of the fire enlivened the 'big dark' which Demi regarded with curiosity rather than fear. This new order of things disgusted him, and he howled dismally for 'marmar', as his angry passions subsided, and recollections of his tender bondwoman returned to the captive autocrat." glad to hear that some things don't change after a hundred and fifty years ;)

Onwards to Suzanne, strawberries in Lebanon, and mysterious romantic suspense! Join me if you will!

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Meredith,
    You've really done it this time - captured the magnificence and timelessness of this novel, with such personal connections! You brought tears to my eyes, as I sit and remember always loving this book and thinking about my little women, as you girls have enriched my life.
    I'd forgotten the beautiful passages like the cheerful roses and the naughty child at the end of your delicious blog. Thanks!Marmee