A House Without Love (Is Not a Home)
According to Nina Baym, the heroine of woman’s fiction “brings into being a new kind of family life, organized around love rather than money. Money subsides into its adjunct function of ensuring domestic comfort” (39-40). Little Women is the epitome of this idea, and the character that champions this is Marmee. Marnee is the moral standard in Little Women, and this women’s fiction ideology is what she wants her daughters to internalize and embody. Marmee’s ideology can be summed up in this one quote: “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…My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, — marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting” (152-3). She imparts her wisdom with Meg, Amy, and Jo whenever one of her daughters strays from this idea. Each daughter’s individual transformation is often subtle until a climatic moment happens that invariably leads to marriage. By the end of the book, each Meg, Amy, and Jo gained what Alcott believed a “Little Woman” should have — a caring husband and a stable family life that is fueled by love, not money.
Throughout her daughters’ entire lives, Marmee emphasizes that money does not equal happiness. She carefully observes their day-to-day struggles and wants, and usually finds a way to weave her ideology into her remarks to them. Early on in the book, the girls get a taste of a more lavish lifestyle when visiting friends at holiday parties. When they return home to their modest house and go back to working jobs, they are frustrated. This is not surprising — the grass is always greener on the wealthier side. Or is it really? The girls never really know that goes on in the rich families’ houses, and are foolish to think that their own home life is not as valuable because they don’t have as much money. At the end of the day, Marmee crafts a story to remind them how lucky they are to have a home full of love. “Once upon a time, there were four girls who had enough to eat, and drink, and wear, a good many comforts and pleasures, kind parents and friends, who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented…were constantly saying, ‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If only we could do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had…Being sensible girls, they decided to try her advice, and soon were surprised to see how well off they were. One discovered that money couldn’t keep shame and sorrow out of rich people’s houses…So they agreed to stop complaining, to enjoy the blessings already possessed, and try to deserve them, lest they be taken away entirely, instead of increased” (68). The girls realize this is a sermon directed at them, but it is only the first of many similar lessons Marmee is to teach. This sets a pattern of Meg, Amy, or Jo complaining about their lives and Marmee encouraging them to remember their blessings instead.
In the beginning of the book, Meg did not cherish her many blessings. Instead, she envied those who could buy precious trinkets, fancy ballgowns, and opera tickets. She was often distraught about her humble life, especially when socializing with other women her age.
On many occasions, she would come home from an outing and lament the fact that she could not own nice things. One solution to her “misfortune” certainly would be to marry up, but her mother made it clear that there were more fulfilling things in life than having a wealthy husband who can spoil you. Even after Marmee relates the sermon that paralleled the March’s lives, high-society events were still often stressful outings for Meg, and she often crumbled under the pressure to conform to the elite’s standards.
After Meg returns home from an extended stay at the wealthy Moffat’s, Marmee says, “To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience…I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace…Poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover” (152). Marmee is teaching her girls to not be ashamed of their social status, while also encouraging them to fall in love with whomever they please, even if he is also poor. For a long time, it seems as though her words often fall on deaf ears, and need to be repeated – as the struggle of wanting to be wealthy and well-taken care of is a constant theme in this story.
Then, one day, Meg has a change of heart when Aunt March hears about Mr. Brooke’s proposal. In a matter of minutes, Meg went from turning Mr. Brooke down to adamantly defending him in front of her aunt and declaring that she would marry him despite his poverty. She is the first to internalize Marmee’s ideology, whether she realized that in the moment or not. This marks a pivotal point in the book, as Meg is now more of a direct role model for Amy and Jo.
Amy is perhaps the daughter Marmee worried about the most, with her fondness of elegance and attraction to a lavish lifestyle. While Meg may have lusted after extravagant things, Amy took this want to a new level. A precocious and snobby child, she was never satisfied with what they had at home and always yearned to be a high-society woman. Amy is often told by Marmee “you are getting to be altogether too conceited and important, my dear, and it is quite time you set about correcting it” (109). However, I admire Amy because she goes after what she wants. “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentlewoman in mind and manners, and I try to do it as far as I know how. I can’t explain exactly, but I want to be above the little meannesses and follies and faults that spoil so many women” (540). Unlike Meg, her obsession with class comes not from a place of jealousy, but ambition. Her move to Europe to become an artist was very bold and impressive, and her assertiveness put her in a position closer to the artistic lifestyle she wanted. She is much more suited to the European lifestyle that she adopts later on in the book. However, she is still passionate and moody as a young woman, and she needs a strong and comforting man to ground here.
Laurie always seemed like a perfect fit for Amy growing up, but years later, she realized he was squandering his money and boozing around Europe. She is wisely cautious about their budding romance, and confronts Laurie about his lifestyle: “I despise you…with every chance for being good, useful, and happy, you are faulty, lazy, and miserable…Here you have been abroad nearly six months, and done nothing but waste time and money, and disappoint your friends” (645-6). What she says next is pivotal because her description of Laurie is similar to a younger Amy: “You have grown abominably lazy, you like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things; you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones. With money, talent, position, health, and beauty…with all these splendid things to use and enjoy, you can find nothing to do but dawdle” (646). This is the point in which Amy detaches from her past self that the reader came to know in Part One — now she is a sensible young woman that can stand up for herself and judge people by their character, not their money. This is a major step in becoming a “Little Woman.” Amy married Laurie anyways, but Marmee was proud at the transformation that happened between childhood and adulthood.
Jo is the most like Marmee: stubborn, headstrong, and independent. Whenever Marmee is hard on Jo, it is because she sees herself in her daughter and wants to help her control her temper. She also knows that Jo has a soft spot, and that in time, she will be able to find her own way of being a wife without conforming to societal standards. When Jo is worried about Mr. Brooke marrying Meg because of his humble background. Again, Marmee reinforces her beliefs by saying that “I am content to see Meg begin humbly, for, if I am not mistaken, she will be rich in the possession of a good man’s heart, and that is better than a fortune” (320). Jo watches Meg and Amy grow up into “Little Women” and is sometimes disturbed and confused at their transformations at first. “I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family” (236). She loves her sisters more than anything, and the idea of her sisters allowing room for men outside the family is a jarring concept. However, when she consults with Marmee about her sisters’ marriages, her worries seem trivial.
Jo still has some maturing to do before she can become a wife. When she finally realizes she’s in love with the Professor, she fears it may be too late: “An old maid, — thats what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps…I’m old, and can’t enjoy it, — solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it” (695). They very traits that Jo took pride in growing up are now preventing her from getting married, and she realizes she has to bundle up these flaws before she can reunite with the Professor. “So kind, so good, so patient with me always; my dear old Fritz. I didn’t value him half enough when I had him, but now how I should love to see him, for every one seems going away from me, and I’m all alone” (694). Jo was always very self-reliant, but the death of Beth shook her and she felt even more lonely once her two other sisters were married. She never worried about not having a wealthy husband because she knew she could take care of herself — she was more concerned about her sisters being taken care of. She even says to the Professor, “I’m glad you are poor; I couldn’t bear a rich husband! Don’t fear poverty; I’ve known it long enough to lose my dread, and be happy working for those I love” (758). Jo never needed to come to terms with poverty; she just needed to allow herself to open her heart to someone outside of the family that could take care of her.
In the end, Marmee has successfully raised women that maintained individuality in the face of unrealistic societal standards. Their husbands may not all be wealthy, but each man is perfectly suited to his wife. This is the archetype of the “Little Woman”, and what each daughter is being prepped to become throughout the book. Meg, Amy, and Jo all grow into this ideal by working on their flaws at they mature, and with that they find spouses that suit them. As typical of women’s fiction at the time, money is depicted as just being a way to be more domestically comfortable. Love is more important than money, and that is the key to leading a good family life. The moral of Little Women is that happiness matters more than wealth, and that it is a key having a good home.
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