Little Women: Our little sacrifices

by
14 February 2020

Monica Cure explores the ethics and theology that underpin Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women

CTMG

The March sisters in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation

The March sisters in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation

LOUISA MAY ALCOTT’s Little Women, published in Boston in 1868, was an instant success. Its first run of 2000 copies sold out almost immediately. Readers enthralled by the four March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — demanded to know what would happen to them next, and Alcott’s publisher quickly commissioned a second volume.

The book, which has never been out of print, has inspired several film adaptations on both sides of the Atlantic. Greta Gerwig’s version (as both screenwriter and director) premiered in December, garnering nominations at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and last week’s Academy Awards.

But Little Women almost wasn’t written. Thomas Niles, a partner at the Boston publishing firm Roberts Brothers, first requested that Alcott write “a girls’ book”. She was less than enthusiastic about the genre, but eventually agreed. Alcott needed the money, and, according to her biographer Susan Cheever, Niles had promised to publish her father’s book, if she delivered.

 

LOUISA MAY ALCOTT was born in 1832 in Germantown, Penn­sylvania, one of four daughters of Bronson and Abigail Alcott. A friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott wanted to publish his own tran­scend­­ental musings, called Tablets. Idealistic but impractical, his pro­jects required that the Alcotts find other means of support. By the time Niles approached her, Alcott had already begun earning money for her family through her writing. Her lit­er­ary calling-card was a well-received book, Hospital Sketches, based on her experiences volun­teering as a nurse in the Civil War before she contracted typhoid fever.

For Little Women, Alcott drew, instead, on her childhood joys and deprivations. The work is highly auto­biographical: self-sacrifice drives the narrative. One of the sisters in the impoverished March family, Jo, is also a writer who begins selling her work.

Given the religious tenor of mid-19th-century America, where main­stream Protestant churches were growing in number and influence, the theme of self-sacrifice would have been fairly uncontroversial. Alcott, though, even while writing for children, explores and complic­ates the concept. She presents the difficulties of self-sacrifice and ques­tions whether it is universally good. G. K. Chesterton later said that Little Women anticipated realism by at least 20 years.

Alcott interrogates sacrifice to uphold it as a spiritual value. In a later scene in the novel, in which Jo encounters a group of Boston intel­lec­tuals discussing Kant and Hegel, the author reveals an awareness of the direction that philosophers were pursuing, and condemns the stir­rings of a new “godless” society. Not until almost 20 years later would Nietzsche publish On the Genealogy of Morals, a book that focuses on the centrality of self-sacrifice in Judaeo-Christian morality and condemns it as “slave morality”.

 

A FAR cry from heated debates in the Boston Athenaeum, Alcott be­­gins her discussion of self-sacrifice in a decidedly domestic space. The novel opens in the March family home, where the sisters are com­plaining about a dearth of Christmas presents.

Against the backdrop of their father’s serving as a chaplain in the Union army during the Civil War, they discuss, in contrast, their “little” sacrifices. Meg explains that their mother “thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly.”

The joy in sacrifice, understand­ably, is absent. What each March sister must sacrifice represents her precisely: “pretty things” for Meg, a new book for Jo, music for Beth, and drawing pencils for Amy. Their iden­tification leads to their com­plaining about the sacrifices that the older sisters have made — working as a governess and as a lady’s com­panion — and the hardships that the younger sisters have experienced: housework and being teased at school.

Only when Jo notices that their mother’s house slippers are worn out are they willing to sacrifice “gladly”. They each decide to buy a gift for their mother rather than something for themselves. These gifts, likewise, represent them, starting with Meg, who announces that she will buy her mother gloves, “as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands”.

CTMGJo March (Saoirse Ronan) in Little Women

These first sacrifices occur im­­medi­­ately before the Marches col­lectively give up their Christmas breakfast, and they prefigure bigger sacrifices as the girls grow up, many of which are distinctly feminised. Jo cuts her hair (”her one beauty”) to pay for their mother’s ticket to visit their father in the hospital; Beth con­tracts a serious illness while caring for a sick baby; Meg is willing to forgo an inheritance so that she can marry her poor suitor.

The abnegation expected of wo­­men in the 19th century throws the Marches’ sacrifice into high relief. The sisters face economic and gen­dered limitations, but each sacri­fice that they make is represented as a choice, often a difficult one. Without struggling against these expecta­tions, bending them, or even, at times, defy­ing them, they could not con­tinue developing as characters.

Little Women has enduring appeal for both feminists and advocates of “traditional” femininity writ large, precisely because it is a novel of becoming, a Bildungsroman, or novel of education. That is why the novel resists a purely ideological reading. The sisters have different personal­ities and make different choices, but each has to determine for herself, on multiple occasions, which sacrifices are worth making, or not, and why.

Alcott posits sacrifice as the driving process of identity and char­acter formation, especially in the con­text of a relationship with a loved one. Moments of sacrifice determine what belongs to the self proper, and what will be laid aside intentionally for the other.

 

THE most expansive mention of God in the novel occurs during Jo’s conversation with her mother about one of her defining characteristics: her temper. Her saintly mother reveals that she, too, continues to struggle with anger. When Jo asks how she manages it so naturally, her mother ultimately points to her rela­tionship with God (”I have a better friend, even than Father, to comfort and sustain me”).

Although God is mentioned in other places throughout Little Wo­­men, Christ never is — a fact that was not lost on the writer of an early review of the novel, published in Zion’s Herald on 22 October, 1868. The reviewer writes that, despite the quality of the writing, it is “without Christ and hence perilous in pro­portion to its assimilation to Chris­tian forms. Don’t put in the Sunday School library.”

Seen from a different angle, though, Alcott’s ideal of the self-sacrificing person is Christ himself. Her ideal can be fulfilled only in the paradox of the incarnated Christ: some­one who sacrifices himself com­­pletely out of his love for others, without becoming “less than” or effacing himself. All the characters fall short in one way or another. Arguably, the most self-sacrificing character in Little Women, Beth, is also the least developed.

Amy, meanwhile, bears the bur­den of embodying the selfish sister. From burning Jo’s manu­script, to receiving Aunt March’s invitation to accompany her to Europe, Amy seems to do exactly what she likes, regardless of the consequences for others. After Amy announces her engagement, the narrator describes how, for Jo, “the old feeling came again, not bitter as it once was, but a sorrowfully patient wonder why one sister should have all she asked, the other nothing.”

Alcott makes clear that, by this point, Amy, too, has evolved as a per­­son, but a feeling of injustice lingers for many readers. Gerwig’s latest film adaptation has led to a new wave of hatred (if online com­ments are to be believed) for the least likeable of the March sisters.

In theological terms, Amy is the recipient of grace. She benefits from the sacrifices of others, and, of course, it is not fair. Several of Christ’s parables, like the parable of the Prodigal Son and the parable of the workers, illustrate the same message.

Amy’s increasing recognition that others have sacrificed for her, along with the gratitude and humility that accompany it, mark her develop­ment. Her character reveals the necessity of a sacrifice that predates one’s own ability to sacrifice. The Christian ideal of self-sacrifice is made possible only by participation in Christ’s sacrifice, both as an essen­tial starting-point and as an ongoing process. The eucharist, at the heart of the Anglican liturgy, regularly reminds believers of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, even as the ending to the service invites the Christian community to sacrifice as a response.

Alcott’s own religious views were non-conventional. One of her early biographers, Ednah D. Cheney, notes the expression of religious feelings in her journals, but states that she never joined any church. Little Women, likewise, does not express perfectly orthodox theolo­gical views, but it does reveal a hunger for their essence.

Alcott, like her fictional counter­part, Jo, “could not consent to depict all her naughty boys” — or girls — “as being eaten by bears or tossed by mad bulls because they did not go to a particular Sabbath school.” In­­stead, she represents con­vincingly the centrality of the question of sacri­fice in the formation of self­hood.

 

Dr Monica Cure is a freelancer writer and translator currently based in Bucharest. Her book, Picturing the Postcard: A new media crisis at the turn of the century, is published by University of Minnesota Press at £21.99 (CT Book­shop £19.79).

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