Marriage Over Materialism: Meg’s Transition into Adulthood
The influential 19th century novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott expresses didactic tendencies, as well as qualities of sentimentalism, allowing it to be a compelling read for adolescent audiences. Following the story of the March sisters, readers track the growth and maturity of Alcott’s characters. Our first experience of the transition into adulthood being the oldest March sister, Meg. In this paper, we will study the text of Meg’s early stages of her marriage to Mr. Brooke to see her transition into the adult world catalyzed by her own marriage which is used as a showcase of her maturity and growth, leading to her becoming a mother, the ultimate sign of her entering adulthood.
As we are told throughout the novel, one of Meg’s more definitive qualities is one of vanity and materialism, supported by her wish to marry into a wealthy family and name. However, as she falls in love with the poor, orphaned Mr. Brooke, Meg chooses love over financial status, and enters her marriage in such a way, described on her wedding day as such: “Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. ‘I don’t want to look strange or fixed up today,’ she said. ‘I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self’” (p. 244). In this text, we see that Meg actively denies the signs of wealth in her marriage to John Brooke, showing the audience that she has found joy in her marriage to Mr. Brooke, rather than in her marriage into a social status. By Meg stating that she wants to remain her “familiar self”, it relates the readers back to the Moffat party, she attended earlier in the novel, in which Meg allows the Moffat’s to dress her up like a doll. During the experience, Meg shares that she is too “ afraid to go down, [she] feel[s] so queer and stiff and half-dressed,” and told that she “[doesn’t] look a bit like [her]self…” (p. 93). This contrast of experiences by physical appearance is monumental in showing Meg’s growth in maturity and acceptance to who she is.
Meg’s maturity is also shown in her qualities of determination and hard-work that is shown by her making her own wedding gown, “…sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart” (p. 244). She has begun to take self-pride in her work and enjoys the simplistic instead of the materialistic. By mixing in these traits, Alcott shows us that Meg is changing herself in order to succeed in this marriage, forsaking comfort and instead encourages work ethic and a simple lifestyle. However, noting the quote above, Alcott chooses an interesting diction, ending her statement with “romances of a girlish heart”, which reminds the audience that Meg is still a young girl with aspirations and wishes that may not always coincide with her situation. As we are introduced to Meg and John Brooke’s marriage life, Alcott acknowledges the hard-work continued in their home, saying that Meg “began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper” and “brought so much love, energy, and cheerfulness to the work that she could not but succeed” (p. 267). So rather than Meg temporarily entering this resolve, she continues to make an effort in the domestic responsibilities she has. Alcott humorously adds in bits and pieces of bitterness in, saying:“John grew dyspeptic after a course of dainty dishes and ungratefully demanded plain fare. As for buttons, she soon learned to wonder where they went, to shake her head over the carelessness of men, and to threaten to make him sew them on himself, and to see if his work would stand impatient tugs and clumsy fingers any better than hers.They were happy” (p. 267).
The juxtaposition in the phrasing and overall message seems off-putting, with an extensive list of the clashes met between Meg and Mr. Brooke, creating a long account of the interactions between the two, only to begin the next paragraph with the blatant, non-specific, “They were happy”, almost purposefully putting an ironic twist on Meg and John’s marriage, as if they were in ignorant bliss of their own troubles. Both Meg and John appear to have this child-like innocence in regards to their own marriage, seemingly blind to their tiffs between each other.Alcott describes the couple, “At first they played keep-house, and frolicked over it like children; then John took steadily to business, feeling the cares of the head of a family upon his shoulders; and Meg laid by her cambric wrappers, put on a big apron, and fell to work, as before said with more energy than discretion” (p. 267). This quote reveals information regarding Meg’s transgression into adulthood, telling us that both her and Mr. Brooke came into the marriage with a immaturity, looking at their new life and family as a child’s game. However, we are told that John grows into the custom of being the head of the house, taking to it “steadily”. In comparison, if we look at Meg’s description, we are told that Meg continues to go to work in the household, with “more energy than discretion”, implying that Meg, while performing her chores dutifully, is performing them with an excitement. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if we read into the chosen diction, one may analyze saying that Meg is still looking at this with a childlike perception, excited to play this part, rather than settling into the role, unlike John, who takes to his responsibilities “steadily”.
Overall, looking at the collective information so far, we see that Meg is actively trying to accept her situation and perform her responsibilities as a wife, without the luxuries she had wished for as a child. However, with each example, we see hints of immaturity peeking out of Meg, showing that as much as she loves Mr. Brooke and her life with him, she still retains some of that childish disposition. This leads into the discussion of what appears to be the climax of Meg’s “coming-of-age”, in which Meg comes to certain major resolves. The first situation we will discuss is Meg in attempts to continue her duties as a loving housewife, failing to make jelly, and overall, her responsibility to provide dinner for her husband and his guest. This is the first circumstance we see between Meg and John that is an openly described conflict. This outburst, while justified on both parts, doesn’t tell us anything of Meg or John’s growth, but the resolve made between the two is what shows us one of Meg’s largest steps into adulthood.With both Meg and John fuming about their fight regarding the jelly, Meg enters a process of penitence, where she begins to realize there are things she will have to sacrifice in her marriage, such as her pride. The beginning of her thought process beginning with the idea that “married life is very trying, and does need infinite patience as well as love, as Mother says” (p. 273). Prior to this tiff, Meg was addressing her marriage with an excitement and positivity that could appear blind-sighted. Here, she begins to realize marriage is actual work, and requires her to approach it as a job rather than a game.
With the advice coming from her mother, Meg begins to remember the other advice given to her by Marmee, warning her that John, despite his positive qualities, does have certain faults, and that as part of her partnership to him, Meg has to learn “not to wake his anger, against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err, and guard against the little piques, misunderstandings, and hasty words that often pave the way for bitter sorrow and regret” (p. 273). Despite the double-standard, this makes Meg begin to analyze her her part in the argument between the two, and what she might have done wrong. This is a sign in itself that Meg is looking past herself and seeing how her actions might have affected someone else. The last part of this quote is particularly influential to Meg’s situation, warning her that the clashes between her and John, if not resolved, can lead to a marriage of “bitter sorrow and regret”. Wanting to remedy the conflict between her and Mr. Brooke, she makes the first move to reconciliation. By Meg making this conscious decision to apologize to John, she recognizes her wrong, “her own hasty speeches sounded both silly and unkind, and she recalled them, her own anger looking childish now” (p. 273). Meg sees her immaturity in hindsight, showing that she does see her own faults, allowing her to make steps to fix them. Her first step in altering her immaturity, is by the attempt to make things right with her husband: “She glanced at him with tears in her eyes, but he did not see them; she put down her work and got up, thinking “I will be the first to say ‘Forgive me’” but he did not seem to hear her; she went very slowly across the room, for pride was hard to swallow, and stood by him, but he did not turn his head. For a minute she felt as if she really couldn’t do it; then came the thought, “This is the beginning, I’ll do my part, and have nothing to reproach myself with,” and stooping down, she softly kissed her husband on the forehead.” (p. 273) With Meg making the decision to be the first to overcome her pride and make things right with her husband, showing that she accepts responsibility for her actions, showing that she is now beginning to accept the part of the wife as a lifestyle, rather than as a game. While Meg’s growth during the jelly incident is extremely noticeable, it is not the end of her transition into becoming an adult. As we are reminded throughout the novel, Meg’s true faults lie towards her vanity and longing to live a luxurious life, thus making her marriage to Mr. Brooke a test to see whether she fulfilled Marmee’s wish expressed earlier in the novel saying, “Money is a needful and precious thing, –and, when well used, a noble thing, –but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.” (p. 99-100). Meg’s true challenge is to give up her dream of wealthy living, and is shown in Alcott’s last account of Meg’s marriage life.
Alcott introduces us to the next challenge Meg must face by bringing a reappearing subject back into Meg’s life, which is her childhood friend Sallie, who married into the wealthy Moffat family. This immediately repositions Meg back into the situation she found herself in as a child, the poorest in her friend group, often the subject of pity and condescendence. She actively disliked being pitied due to her financial status, and comforted herself by “buying pretty things, so that Sallie needn’t think she had to economize. She always felt wicked after it, for the pretty things were seldom necessaries; but when they cost so little, it wasn’t worth worrying about, so the trifles increased unconsciously, and in the shopping excursions she was no longer a passive looker-on.” (p. 274). However, Meg hides this from Mr. Brooke, who is the breadwinner of the family, and from whom she is taking the money from. Up until this point, she had been asked by Mr. Brooke to keep track of how much she was buying, and to remember that she was a “poor man’s wife”, which she had followed dutifully until her rekindling of the friendship with Sallie Moffat (p.274). In Meg’s pettiness, she betray’s Mr. Brooke’s trust, with these shopping excursions leading to a climax of Meg impulsively buying a new silk dress, costing her fifty dollars of her and Mr. Brooke’s money. This purchase results in emotions of guilt and remorse on Meg’s part, the dress a physical reminder, “look[ing] less silvery now, didn’t become her, after all, and the words “fifty dollars” seemed stamped like a pattern down each breadth” (p. 275). Later in the night, as her and John looked through their pocketbooks and expenses, Meg confesses her extravagance, showing him her purchases leading up to the silk dress. Meg tells John, “I try to be contented, but it is hard, and I’m tired of being poor”, showing that she, despite all of her progress and love for Mr. Brooke, still desires the lifestyle of the Moffats (p. 277). This interaction between the two leave Meg feeling guilty and remorseful, particularly when finding that John had countermanded an order for a new coat, which he could no longer afford. However, Meg found herself in an opportunity of redemption when the next day, she asked Sallie to buy the silk dress from her as a favor, and bought the coat John had wanted with the money from the sale (p. 278). By doing this, Meg puts the wants of someone else in front of her own, finally teaching her there are things more important than luxury. Immediately after the reconciliation of Meg and John from the silk dress scenario, we are sent into a new scene in which Meg becomes a mother. By directly switching from the first scenario into the next, we see that there can be some correlation between Meg accepting responsibility and adulthood, and in becoming a mother.
Through these many circumstances Meg addresses each of her faults, growing more every time, until she has conquered her biggest faults, vanity and luxury. In doing this, Alcott indirectly sets up a parallel between Marmee and Meg, making Meg capable of teaching her children valuable lessons, having learned them herself. This is also shown in Meg naming her own daughter Margaret, after herself, making Meg a ‘next generation’ Marmee (p. 280).
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.
Little Women: An Approach to Class, Society, and Money
The 1868 novel Little Women is not only a heartwarming and heartbreaking story set in the midst of the Civil War, but also a series of veiled narratives of the life of the author, Louisa May Alcott. The story coincides with many of the economic and social struggles that Alcott faced throughout her life, and raises the importance of concepts such as sisterhood and familial bonds, concepts that the main character, Jo March, learns of throughout the journey of her life. Alcott’s father, once a wealthy man, decided to move his family out of their wealthy community and lavish lifestyle, giving away almost all their money and leaving the Alcott mother and sisters in poverty (Nancy Porter Productions). Thus began the circumstances which gave Alcott the basis for all the social and financial hardship present in her novel. One common theme derived from these circumstances, and continually demonstrated in the book, is the idea that genuine happiness cannot be obtained through monetary security or class ranking, but through strong underlying family ties and moral values.
One simple way that this theme is illustrated throughout the novel is through the different characters of the four March sisters, and their different reactions to economic hardship. These character differentiations are seen even in the opening scene of the novel, when the girls are discussing the family’s financial situation around Christmas time. Alcott uses the dialogue between the sisters to show each sister’s views on the situation, and how these views reflect their attitudes. Beth says in this scene, “We’ve got Mother and Father and each other,” and Amy later adds, “I don’t believe any of you suffer as I do, for you don’t have to go to school with impertinent girls, who laugh at your dresses and label your father if he isn’t rich, and insult you if your nose isn’t nice” (2). These character descriptions illustrate how Beth, perhaps the most genuinely happy character in the story, understands the irrelevance of material worth and the importance of family values, and how Amy, the petty sister whose life goal is to marry into a wealthy family and become famous, focuses solely on her material worth, which in turn makes her discontent with most aspects of her life.
Another way that Louisa May Alcott supports her ideas throughout the novel is through the introduction of varying social classes and the reactions to those classes. When it becomes known that Meg intends to marry Laurie’s tutor, Mr. John Brooke, the reactions from different characters illustrate how a focus on class and money affects one’s overall happiness. Aunt March, for example, is one of the most unpleasant and rude characters in the book, yet also one of the wealthiest and socially prestigious. When she learns that John Brooke is poor, she responds to Meg, “So you intend to marry a man without money, position or business…when you might be more comfortable all your days by minding me?” (252), proving that her only worry is for Meg’s social status and fiscal circumstances. Such a mentality essentially makes her the crotchety woman that she is. A further introduction to a different social class than that of the Marches occurs when Meg attends the wedding of her snobby friend Annie Moffat. Annie’s family is a great deal wealthier than Meg’s, and Meg’s embarrassment over her class is apparent when she is in the presence of the socially prominent, wealthy girls: “So out came the tarlatan, looking older, limper, and shabbier than ever, beside Annie’s crisp new one. Meg saw the girls glance at it and then at one another, and her cheeks began to burn” (93). Meg is humiliated by her inability to provide herself with a new dress, supporting Alcott’s message that when a character focuses on material worth, that character becomes unhappy or distracted from the things that matter. Stephanie Foote, an accredited college literature analyst, shares her opinion on this chapter of the book, claiming, “Meg is introduced to class distinctions…and she is overtaken by a host of negative emotions that center on the different kinds of value accorded to different social actors.” This sense that preoccupation with class is mainly a source of insecurity and misery further supports Alcott’s theme.
Little Women was widely appreciated by both upper and lower classes, because the book had characters from both walks of life for the people of the post-Civil War era to relate to. It struck close to home for rich, love-deprived young ladies and gentlemen who saw themselves in the character Theodore Laurence, yet also felt familiar for the poorer wives and children of Civil War veterans through the lives of the March girls. Alcott effectively connected with and communicated her message to her readers, making a lasting statement that still rings true today: family is the only thing that can make anything worthwhile.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. Print.
Foote, Stephanie. “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott.” College Literature 32.1 (Winter 2005): 63-85. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed.
Kathy D. Darrow. Vol. 218. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. . “Louisa May Alcott-Life.” Louisa May Alcott RSS. Nancy Porter Productions, Inc., 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014
Nineteenth-Century Gender Expectations in “Little Women “
Around the time period of the Civil War, women in the U.S. had few rights but many expectations placed upon them. Women could not own land, vote, or sell property. Instead, society expected them to care for their families by cooking and cleaning, with little to no say in the finances of the family and the political battles happening around them. During this time, many women also began to work long hours in factories to support their families and in various war efforts in addition to their domestic roles. In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott used four sisters based on herself and her own female siblings to demonstrate the gender roles and expectations of many nineteenth-century girls on the verge of womanhood during and after the Civil War. She showed how, although the women knew their expected role in society, they often took a feminist approach and disagreed with society’s limitations.
All of the female characters in Little Women have distinct personalities and interests similar to those of many women in the time period. Since their family has recently lost a majority of their money, the sisters attempt to make due with the little that they have. With their father away at war, their highly religious mother, Marmee, looks after the girls. As her role of a mother requires, Marmee exemplifies the character of a kind and collected woman. She behaves in a way consistent with how society expected women to act in the Antebellum era, the time before the Civil War. Her daughters, however, begin to show characteristics of post-war women who embraced independence and long for a life outside of the domestic one. The article “Women in Antebellum America” states that, “Women and men had very clear, separate roles based on their gender, with the common belief that the differences between the male and the female were natural and essential. Women were expected to be religiously pious, morally pure and physically delicate. They were taught to obey their husband and had to adhere to the system of coverture, which stripped married women of all of their civil identities” (para. 2). In Little Women, Marmee demonstrates just that. Throughout the novel, she remains cheerful and motherly while modeling religion and the importance of being domestic to her daughters.
Although Marmee never lets it show, she reveals that she does have a temper to conceal when comforting her daughter after an outburst. Marmee says, “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so” (107). The anger Marmee has suggests she is not satisfied with who society dictates she must be, but she knows she has no choice but to conform and behave as a polite, agreeable woman.
Marmee is not unlike many women of the time period who yearned for independence from their tedious domestic roles and lack of rights. While some women were known to support suffrage movements, a majority held their tongues and continued to be seen as the good wives society encouraged them to be. Authors of the time even published books teaching women how to be wives and good housekeepers (Women in Antebellum America, para. 2). By admitting to her ongoing anger within, Marmee proves that even the best wife may have been capable of masking her true thoughts of her role in the home.
Each of the four sisters has a different personality, and Jo, a middle sibling, is the outspoken tomboy. Jo, who shortened her name from the more womanly Josephine, is the sister who protests the Antebellum era expectations of girls most aggressively. The self-proclaimed “man of the family” when her father is away, Jo has no patience for the idle interests of the other women in her family. With her strong feminist beliefs, Jo hates the idea of marriage and desires to be a successful writer. Alcott used Jo to challenge the specific gender roles determined by society in several different ways. One way she did this was by having Jo behave in the exact opposite way of young girls. For example, Amy, the youngest sister, criticizes Jo for constantly using slang words. In response to this, Jo begins to whistle. Amy says, “Don’t, Jo. It’s so boyish!” Jo replies that this is why she does it, and then refers to her sister as a “niminy-piminy chit” (5). Jo refuses to conform to the ladylike behavior of her sisters, and would rather have been a boy than follow the strict expectations of young women. She again confirms her dislike of anything feminine by saying, “It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!” (6). Jo protests the female gender role enough to wish she were fighting in the war, an activity reserved solely for men.
Jo’s disagreement with society’s expectations of women continues throughout Little Women as she challenges the belief that women should not do men’s work. Also, unlike most women who know to conceal their tempers, Jo is consistently outspoken and declares her anger to those around her with no desire to be known as a sweet, agreeable woman. As Jane Tompkins argues, “American women simply could not . . .[rebel] against the conditions of their lives for they lacked the material means of escape or opposition. They had to stay put and submit” (qtd. in Parille 34). The tight constraints other women felt from society did not apply to Jo, who got away with her rebellion of gender roles and expectations by claiming the label of a tomboy.
Jo again fails her womanly duty by rejecting the marriage proposal of the wealthy neighbor boy, Laurie, and claiming she only saw the love-stricken man as a friend. After Laurie declares how long he had loved Jo, she refuses the practical marriage match most financially unstable women of her time would have welcomed without thought by saying, slightly embarrassed, that, “I wanted to save you this. I thought you’d understand…” (479). To Jo, the obligation of marrying a suitable, age-appropriate man after years of poorness did not interest her. Instead, she would rather remain poor and unmarried than to agree to the rules of a man with whom she was not in love. Jo’s refusal to marry Laurie again proves her lack of desire to conform to the norm of society that would encourage a woman to marry a man in order to raise her social status and wealth. Jo seeks true love or no love at all.
While Alcott did highlight the rejection of gender roles through Jo, she demonstrated perfect examples of nineteenth-century women through her sisters. Meg, for example, views Jo’s behavior as shockingly improper. She begins her domestic life by marrying the man she loves and starts having children – just as society expects her. She is married, has children, and becomes a housewife without questioning the predetermined gender role of nineteenth-century women. Meg’s only fault is her obsession with wealth and her greediness, which results in jealousy towards her friends with nice dresses and houses. The second sentence of the book reads, “‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress” (1). Meg wants nothing more than to return to the wealthy state the family was in before the war. Contrary to Jo, Meg desires wealth so she can purchase feminine items such as fancy dresses and an elegant mansion. However, she accepts the situation and attempts to deal with it in as womanly of a way as possible. In Little Women, Meg is an example of how many women of the time accepted their role in society as a mother and wife with few complaints or objections.
To some extent, Alcott wrote Little Women as a representation of her own life, casting Jo as herself. Many of the unruly characteristics present in Jo were also seen in Alcott growing up. In her article “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott,” Karen Halttunen writes, “In contrast to her docile sister Anna, whose temperament was much like her father’s, Louisa was demanding, noisy, and even violent [. . .]” (235). Louisa and Jo were both unladylike, outspoken, and temperamental. “Despite her father’s best efforts, Louisa May Alcott continued to display the faults that he cataloged on her tenth birthday as ‘anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idlenesses, heedlessness, rude behavior’” (Halttunen 237). Alcott, just like Jo, refused to conform to the gender expectations that society dictated. When she wrote Little Women, she created a character similar to herself to challenge these gender expectations. To many women in the nineteenth-century, Jo was more than likely a relatable character, although many of them did not have the audacity to announce their disagreements as openly. Jo’s spunky behavior in contrast to her sisters’ feminine personalities represented life in the Alcott household. Her three sisters were womanly and fit into their “father’s utopian domestic ideal,” similar to the three sisters in Little Women (Halttunen 233). In Little Women, Alcott recreated her own family in a fictional family to show the gender expectations of the time and how she refused to follow them.
Little Women examines the strict societal gender roles of women in the nineteenth-century. By creating sisters with differences, Alcott showed readers examples of well-behaved women and an example of one who refused to follow the rules, modeled after herself. From tomboyish, outspoken Jo to sweet and motherly Meg, Alcott painted a realistic portrait of the different types of women from the time period. Little Women is a classic novel that shows how gender roles can be widely accepted, but can also change when rejected and challenged by a few stubborn individuals.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.
Haltunnen, Karen. “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott.” Feminist Studies. 10.2 (1984): 233-254. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Parille, Ken. “’Wake up, and be a man’: Little Women, Laurie, and the Ethic of Submission.” Children’s Literature. 29 (2001): 34. Project Muse. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
“Women in Antebellum America.” Questia. Questia, 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
An Essay on the Influence of an Author’s Era Expressed in Their Literary Works
Consciously and unconsciously, we are shaped by the world we live in. The events, people, ideology, and lifestyle of our era affect our thoughts, behavior, and how we express ourselves, be it verbal such as speech or nonverbal such as writing. Literary works especially are exclusive snapshots of the era in which they were created. Whether they are set in the time frame that they were written in or deal with events of the past, the writing still contains, to some degree, the mindset of its author which is shaped by the ideology of the world they live in. Examples of these can be found in two famous literary works, The Prioress’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
In the first example, The Prioress’s Tale, we gain an insight into the world of medieval England in the 1400s. It was a time in which people’s lives, made harsh and uncertain by plagues, wars, and famines, revolved around religion and the establishment of the Church. A group of pilgrims, amongst whom is a prioress, take turns telling tales to each other. The prioress tells the tale of a young boy who is known far and wide for his continuous, beautiful singing praises of the Virgin Mary. His virtuousness and innocence is described by the prioress in the quote below: “And is this song made in honor of Christ’s mother?” said this innocent one. “Now I will do my duty, surely, to learn it all before Christmas is past. Even if I will be scolded for not learning my own lessons, and beaten thrice in an hour, I will learn it in honor of our Lady. (Geoffrey Chaucer, 1478) The quote not only shows the intense religiosity of the era, but also how virtuousness, piety, and devotion to religion was praised, even expected, from both adults and children. The tale progresses to the rage of the vindictive, hateful Jews that live in the quarter of town through which the boy passes singing praises of the Virgin Mary. This is where we discover the religious intolerance and anti-semitism that was rampant in medieval Europe. The prioress speaks of Satan, who she claims resides in the heart of the Jews, and inspires them to do evil to devout Christians: Our first foe, the serpent Satan, who has his wasp’s nest in the Jewish heart, swelled up and said, “O Hebrew people, alas, is this honorable to you that such a boy shall walk at will in spite of you and sing of such matter as is against the reverence due your faith?” From this point on the Jews conspired to drive this innocent one out of the world. To this purpose they hired a murderer who took up a secret place in an alley, and as the child went by, this cursed Jew seized and held him tight, and then cut his throat and cast him into a pit. (Geoffrey Chaucer, 1478) The tale ends with the boy, despite having a slit throat, still singing praises of the Virgin Mary due to a magical grain upon his tongue. Tales like these of virtue and religiousness being triumphant against evil were quite popular in medieval Europe.
The second example, Little Women, is another good example of a literary work whose attributes can be linked to the period in which it was written. It gives an insight into the lives of women in the Reconstruction era in America, which was mostly centered around a common prospect for women of their time; marry, be a good wife, and have many children. Those women, in turn, would be expected to prepare their daughters to be married one day. They were supposed to teach their daughters the same skills they’d learned, guide them in making a choice on who to marry, and assist in securing their daughters’ futures in a good marriage. This can be seen in Mrs. March, the sister’s mother, expressing her wishes for the futures of her daughters: 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. 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. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. (Louisa May Alcott, 1868) The story, although centered around this main goal of the sisters to secure themselves in good marriages, also deals with the struggles and joys of each sister in their relationships with relatives and friends, falling in love, settling down with families, and little events of the day-to-day lifestyle.
In this way, Louisa May Alcott provides a window into their world, allowing us, in a way, to put ourselves in the characters’ shoes as we accurately shape an intricate picture of their environment and mindset based on the details of their daily life that we read. There are many famous literary works that provide a brilliant insight into the era in which it was created, as well as the mind of its creator. This allows us to become the characters and walk through their environment as though we are them, feeling their emotions and thinking their thoughts. We are able to walk through a world long past.
Emerging Trends in 19th Century Children’s Literature: Exploring Didactic, Entertaining and Adventurous Plot Lines
As the eighteenth century came to a close, there was a rise of children literature because the way society viewed children changed from children being seen as small adults to them being creative individuals that are easily influenced by everything around them. As a result, children’s books became a way to teach children how to act correctly in society. (Grenby.2014) Although some stories are overtly didactic, both The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott exemplify children’s novels that have a didactic plot line woven in with the emerging trends of adventure and entertainment.
Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers, is famous for writing strong morality into many of his works. He preached strong ethics throughout The Three Musketeers, shown through the main characters: D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos, each one exemplifying correct morals. D’Artagnan is portrayed as the poor nobleman who goes off to become a musketeer to help his family. Throughout the novel, he’s distinguished by his ambition. Kitty, his love interest, describes his personality as having “the principal features of… ambition and pride”. (Dumas.514) Athos is seen as the wisest in the group. He is shown as the epitome of bravery and intelligence. After a duel, that Athos got seriously injured in, the musketeers were sent for by the King. They urge Athos to stay and rest, but he arrives to the King saying, “…you have sent for me, as my comrades inform me, and I have hastened to receive your orders. I am here; what do you want with me?” (Dumas.48) Early in the novel, Athos is already showing his bravery and loyalty as a musketeer. Aramis is seen as the quiet, but intelligent friend who is fiercely loyal; D’Artagnan describes him as “mildness and grace personified”. (Dumas.64) Unlike Aramis, Porthos is loud and likes to boast about himself, but he also exemplifies intelligence and thoughtfulness. In a time of excitement, when Porthos thinks he’s going to eat a good family meal, he describes himself with great sadness as, “…a wanderer on the earth, a man without fortune, a man without family…”. (Dumas. 493) The main characters in The Three Musketeers can be used as examples for how children should embody moral characteristics. (Kane.Three Musketeers.2018)
Alexandre Dumas had many anxieties pertaining to childhood and how it should be viewed. Dumas, himself, didn’t have a normal childhood because his father died when he was six causing his family to live in poverty. (Kane.Three Musketeers.2018) The adventurous aspect of The Three Musketeers keeps the novel playful and interesting for young readers. As a result of these high energy episodes, the reader keeps turning the page, waiting for the main characters to meet another villain and get into another duel without noticing that there are pertinent messages placed within these scenes. In chapter 31, for example, after the musketeers’ duel the Englishman, they find a bag of money in the dead man’s coat. D’Artagnan takes it and they decide, instead of one of them keeping the money, to give it to a coachmen “for you and your comrades”. (Dumas.486) It is these moments of conversation between the musketeers that teach children correct ethics. Because these moments are hidden in between scenes of high action, a sense of childhood innocence and fun remains in the novel.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is also often used as an example of early didactic writing in children’s literature. The sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, all exemplify good moral character along with demonstrating the importance of domestic duties and how they can foster growth. Meg is the example of a perfect nineteenth century woman, she’s hard-working, respectful and polite. Meg shows how to take pride in her work and get joy from doing it. It is after John and Meg get married, buy a house and have some turmoil in their marriage that “Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother”.(Alcott.556) Jo is quite the opposite of Meg; she is introduced to the reader by being reprimanded by Meg who says, “It didn’t matter so much when you were a little girl; but now you are so tall, and turn up your hair, you should remember that you are a young lady”.(Alcott.6) Despite her negative characteristics, Jo is also sincere and intelligent. She demonstrates how to have a domestic life without compromising her personality. Beth is described as “…shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices…”. (Alcott.56) Sadly she dies at a young age, so the reader can never see her develop into a mature woman, but she does help Jo see the importance of caring for others and makes Jo more mature. Amy is ambitious and graceful and is arguably the best example for learning the importance of domestic duties. Despite her long term dream of becoming a genius painter and marrying rich, she settles down with Lourie, a childhood friend and sacrifices her dreams because “Amy felt that no one could comfort and sustain her so well as Laurie…”. (Alcott.595) Because of their personal growth, the March sisters are perfect examples for children to see how to become the best versions of themselves without having to change their character. (Kane.Little Women.2018)
Louisa May Alcott also had an unconventional childhood. Her father didn’t make much money and was often away for work, so she became the one who had to earn money for her family by writing. This caused her to grow up quickly and miss key aspects of a normal childhood. (Kane.Little Women.2018) She too, uses scene of high energy, such as when the sister’s fight or play together, to keep the reader entertained while teaching lessons about character. In chapter 11, the girls decide to take a summer vacation and their mother lets them all stop their chores for a week, but she warns, “I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play”. (Alcott.154) Of course, Marmie ends up being right and the girls want to go back to doing their chores by the time the week is over. Scenes that are amusing, but have a hidden message keep children open to the message the author is showing. This formatting of rotating scenes of high energy with those with lessons, kept the story entertaining for children, so that they would have fun while learning.
Both The Three Musketeers and Little Women are relevant nineteenth century literary texts when explaining how societal changes affects children’s literature. Because the view of children and childhood changed, children’s literature grew as a genre to encompass many different aspects of societal standards. Parents still wanted children’s books to be educational, but because childhood was being fetishized in society, aspects of adventure and entertainment became of equal importance. (Metz.Romanticism)