Copyright Kim Wells, 1998

 
CHAPTER III
"TO BE THE CHILD I SHOULD"
THE MARCH GIRLS, LOUISA, AND THE SPACE BETWEEN SELF AND ROLE

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 How can I learn to rule myself,
To be the child I should,
Honest and brave, nor ever tire
Of trying to be good?
How can I keep a sunny soul
To shine along life's way?
How can I tune my little heart
To sweetly sing all day?
(Louisa May Alcott, qtd. in Saxton 145)

     Little Women (1868) teaches us not only what blancmange is good for, and what to do when pickled limes are all the rage, but also, and most importantly, what it means to be a little woman in a society that prizes certain very rigidly defined sorts of behavior. As Sarah Elbert notes, the novel's title, "taken from a commonplace nineteenth-century term," disturbs many modern readers of the novel: "this sentimental diminutive is puzzling in a feminist who was concerned with augmenting, rather than diminishing, a woman's status" (151). Elbert asserts that Alcott chose the title after reading Charles Dickens's Bleak House, (1853) wherein a "little woman" is the powerful narrator who grows from girlhood to womanhood through a series of traumatic but inspiring incidents (152). In the introduction to the 1983 paperback version of Little Women, Ann Douglas writes that "in 1842, Charles Dickens labeled Americans quarrelsome egalitarians, politicians, orators; self important, totally externalized personalities. The March girls complicate without altogether contradicting Dickens' observations" (xiii).
     Alcott herself was an example of everything that made American women in the Victorian era troublesome. Like Dickens, she was concerned with social issues and tried to use some of her fiction to shape the conscience of her readers. She was opinionated, speaking out for women's rights. She was independent, both socially and, eventually, financially; she also fought to break out of the labels placed upon her by others. During her struggles for self-definition, Alcott, externalizing many elements of her personality, created a novel that has helped define girlhood and young womanhood in American for over 100 years. That novel complicates the roles that women in general are expected to play when it shows us that the roles the March girls play are variable, complex, and possibly as satisfying as they can be limiting. Indeed, Elbert argues that "the novel's greatest strength lay in Alcott's comfortable assertion that domesticity and feminism were not only compatible, but essential to one another" (144). Whether Little Women limits its girls to narrowly defined roles or whether there is a liberation in the choice to play those domestic roles is the question that most of the novel's modern critics seek to answer.
     Alcott once called her books her children; as Alcott's most famous novel, written to please her father and publisher, Little Women was in many ways her most unruly "child" (Saxton 296). She wrote it with little enthusiasm and barely edited it before sending it off to her publisher, only to be surprised by its enthusiastic reception (16). Douglas describes Alcott's style in the novel as similar to that of

a practiced but unconcerned cook flinging together ingredients in, to use Alcott's own phrase, a "slap dash" manner. . . . She relied heavily on a blank-check Victorian vocabulary: "task," "duty," "eager" "cheerful," "cozy," "heartily," and many more one-word clichés reappear with sprightly monotony. Casually, hastily, Alcott buries unexplored feelings under the ever-recurrent adjective "queer." (xvii)


     Despite its somewhat careless authoring, the novel granted the thirty-five-year-old Alcott a taste of the fame she craved, but it was fame that was bittersweet. Her fame, indeed, must have made her feel "queer"; she had a difficult time coming to terms with the novel's usually sunny depiction of life. In some ways Alcott never forgave the novels she worked least on (Little Women, Jo's Boys, Little Men) for being successful, calling them "moral pap for children" (qtd. in Foxwell 12). Even the literary fame that she had craved left her feeling dissatisfied, since Alcott often felt that her privacy was lost to the novel's ardent fans; as she wrote: "Admire the books but let the woman alone, if you please" (qtd. in Saxton 284). So, from the beginning, the novel was as problematic for its author as it later would come to be for many feminist readers.
     Feminist readers of the novel slip from frustration from its depictions of limiting and circumscribed roles for women into fond and nostalgic remembrances of its celebration of girlhood. Each March girl fits into a specifically sanctioned role: we find the artist, the mother, and the angel, and some readers argue that the novel seems to encourage its audience of young girls to fill only those roles. That the novel does this tightrope dance between limiting women and giving them "castles in the air" where anything seems possible is obvious, but the question is why the novel provides such a slippery definition of womanhood: If there are clear "feminine" ideals here, why can't we decide from what side of the gender-war battle lines these roles come?
     Perhaps the answer is that, for Alcott, what it meant to be a little woman was unclear, just as it was unclear what she should be herself. Martha Saxton points out in her biography of Alcott that "Little Women represents the fullest and most poignant example of Louisa Alcott's perpetual effort to transform her history" (17). In short, Alcott's slightly autobiographical story represents a life that Louisa would have liked to have had. Alcott describes her family, changing those elements she did not like or did not have any control over. The March family, like the Alcott family, suffers poverty, but unlike the Alcotts, the March girls all band together; the family is never split. In the novel only one sister dies, and the rest are all happily married off, to live close together in perpetual family harmony. Jo is redeemed and becomes exactly the daughter Bronson would have liked to have had when she opens a school that incorporates Bronson's fondest desires and theories into its curriculum. The March family succeeds where the Alcotts do not, and this is because the different expectations and roles for each member of the family are clearly defined and are under Louisa's control, rather than under that of the mercurial head of the Alcott family, Bronson. As a result, Louisa can create a perfect vision of family in which she remains happy, in sharp contrast to the family Bronson created and defined, in which she was torn between fond love and a feeling of repressed martyrdom. The struggle between her urge to help the family and be happy for their successes and her frustration at the sacrifices her role forced upon her is clear when, writing in her journals, she ranges from complaints that "I doubt if I ever find the time to lead my own life, or health to try and find it" to hopeful assertions that May was "happy and blest. She has always had the cream of things, and deserved it. My time is yet to come somewhere else, when I am ready for it" (qtd. in Saxton 348).
     For all Alcott's personal conflict, in Little Women, the roles that Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth embody are clearly defined, matching what Victorian society expected of its women. Women were supposed to be good mothers, domestic paragons, and, when they had enough money, benevolent contributors to society. They were supposed to be demure and well-spoken, beautiful yet seldom seen and less frequently heard. Victorian society did not expect women to work outside the home, to support themselves, or to seek the types of power that Alcott's gothic heroines do. So where does Little Women fit into our expectations about women's roles? Does the novel retract Alcott's earlier support for women's independence? Are the roles that Alcott defines in this book for girls less independent and self-defining than Alcott's gothic femmes fatales? If Little Women represents a culmination of Alcott's explorations of possible selves, in which all the roles shemight have played are represented, examined, and eventually, abandoned, in the novel, then does the author ever come to terms with her own role as author of those various visions? We have already seen examples of strong women who defy the expectations of society to demand power, sexuality, and economic independence in the pages of Alcott's gothic stories, most of which were written well before Little Women. We have also seen how frustrating and limiting the roles placed upon women can be from Hope Lamb's domestic struggles in "Transcendental Wild Oats." We can learn from the pages of the March family saga many of the lessons Alcott learned about her own place in society and in her own family. An analysis of the roles that the March girls play informs the analysis of Alcott's struggle with her own desires and ambitions. Jo, like Louisa, is a powerful and dominant figure in her family; in the rest of this chapter we will see whether Jo's power seems as potentially liberating as that of Alcott's gothic "bad girls."
Jo March: Alter-ego or Nemesis?
     Nowhere is the struggle between a woman's power for self-definition and what society would like her to be more apparent than in the association that shows up between Alcott's life and that of her fictional counterpart, Jo March. In her introduction to Little Women, Douglas emphatically declares, "Jo is Alcott herself, and the constrictions on Jo as a character and an author in the family journal form were Louisa's as a woman, a writer, an Alcott, a citizen of 'poky' Concord, and an American" (xvi). Like Alcott, Jo writes and abandons writing gothic potboilers in order to support her poverty-stricken family. Jo and Alcott both declare their intentions never to marry, and Alcott, who claimed (like Jo) to be "a boy at heart . . . [and asserted that she had] 'fallen in love' many times with girls, never with a man," said that a husband would "bore" her and that she "preferred to 'paddle my own canoe'" (xvi). Clearly, there are similarities between Jo and Alcott, but, as much as we would like them to be, they are not the same person. Jo is not a fictional Louisa, and Jo's sisters are very different from Louisa's. The differences between them are significant because in the gaps between fiction and reality, we can discover places that Alcott struggled in her own self-definition. The most significant difference can be seen in Jo's eventual acceptance of her expected feminine domestic role as opposed to Alcott's refusal to marry and insistence on supporting her family with the money she made writing. Jo puts her writing on the back shelf to raise her boys in her school with her husband, but Alcott continues writing until the end of her life. Jo is a "mother" to an entire brood of boys, while Alcott's "children" are unruly and sometimes (as with the A.M. Barnard stories) illegitimate.
     Many critics argue that one particularly revealing aspect of Alcott's character that appears in Jo's is an underlying resentment and anger, present in both the gothic stories and the domestic fiction. In Little Women, Louisa's anger at Bronson's ineffective parenting can be found buried beneath Jo's writing efforts. Critic Greta Gaard explains:
Jo's excuse for writing is that she is supporting the family while her father is not. "'The Duke's Daughter' paid the butcher's bill, 'A Phantom Hand' put down a new carpet, and the 'Curse of the Coventrys' provided the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns" (LW 253). Jo can write her anger as a "curse" if it is transformed into a "blessing" for the family. (7)
     Jo's writing is a direct result of her frustration with the poverty her family suffered, and this same argument also appears in Alcott's explanation for her writing, both of her potboilers and of her more subdued fiction. Alcott once wrote: "Though an Alcott I can support myself. I like the independent feeling; and though not an easy life, it is a free one, and I enjoy it. I can't do much with my hands; so I will make a battering ram of my head and make a way through this rough-and-tumble world" (qtd. in Saxton 210). Alcott, like Jo, wrote to support her family, which she shouldn't have had to do: her frustration becomes resentment and anger, according to Gaard. Jo's anger, Gaard feels, represents Alcott's wish to find financial independence.
     The anger also derives from a wish to be someone that she was not-- or, conversely, to avoid being someone others wanted her to be. Bronson wanted Louisa to be a perfect daughter, which meant acting more like him. So Alcott created a perfect version of herself in Jo, and a perfect version of her father, in the largely absent (and therefore less troublesome) Mr. March. Jo acts the role Louisa refuses. However, she seems eventually to have come to resent her success at making Jo resemble but improve upon herself because she knew she was not, and could never be, Jo. She became frustrated with the public's insistence that she must be Jo and with their inevitable disappointment when either she or Jo failed to meet their expectations, and complained: "Why people will think Jo small when she is described as tall I don't see; and why they insist that she must be young when she is said to be 30 at the end of the book" (qtd. in Saxton 349). Still, Alcott's reading public wanted her to be Jo, and as a result, they often assumed that Jo and Louisa were the same person, as this letter from a young fan illustrates:

We have been reading Little Women, and we liked it so much I could not help wanting to write to you. We think you are perfectly splendid; I like you better every time I read it. We were all so disappointed over your not marrying Laurie . . . we all liked Laurie . . . ever so much, and almost killed ourselves laughing over the funny things you and he said. (qtd. in Zehr 324)


The frustration this identity confusion caused Alcott is one of her lasting legacies.

Performing the "Little Women": Jo, or "The Child I Ought to Be"
     Jo March seems to be drawn as the person Alcott wished she was, because she represents all that Bronson encouraged Louisa to be. Saxton explains it this way: "Little Women is the story of the childhood Louisa would have had if her parents had described it" (10). The story is not Alcott's life, accurately transcribed. It is, instead, the Alcott family's life painted with a rosy brush -- all of the painful things that happen are eventually resolved in sentimental revelations and nothing, even Beth's death, is a permanent tragedy. There is a struggle between Alcott's own role and the appearances that would make her life easier, and this is part of what makes Jo such a complex character. Just like the characters in one of Alcott's own stories, the reader becomes convinced that appearances are truth, and we find how slippery truth and performance can be.
     Louisa was moody, angry, and fiercely independent, and all of these things appear in Jo's characterization. But while Louisa struggled with what Bronson saw as these character flaws, her diaries reveal that she never really felt that she conquered them. In contrast, Jo eventually succeeds in controlling her anger and surrenders some of her independence in marriage to Bhaer. Alcott's life was very different from Jo's.
     Jo's refusal to be a "little woman" is obvious in the beginning of the novel, and it is one of the things that attracts many of the novel's readers to her as a character. This independent and sometimes boyish nature is one place where Jo is Alcott, but in the novel that independent nature eventually softens into something else. Jo chafes against social and moral restrictions; she hates being poor, as the novel's famous first line "Christmas won't be Christmas without presents," and Meg's response, "It's so dreadful to be poor" (3), suggests and hates being a girl. Her name is the first and clearest indication of her rebellions; she shortens the properly Victorian Josephine into the more pleasingly boyish "Jo." Jo prefers "strong words that mean something" and declares, "I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! 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" (LW 5). Here one might suspect Alcott of using Jo's voice to express her own wishes.
     The problem of losing sisters to other families was one that Alcott may have felt she might somehow be able to control if she could only be a boy. Leaving aside the other issues this idea raises, we see that as a boy, Louisa would always have been an Alcott, even in marriage; thus the family would remain intact and nothing would change; no heart-breaking choices would have to be made. In lamenting Meg's relationship with John Brooke, Jo exclaims, "Oh deary me! Why weren't we all boys? Then there wouldn't be any bother" (295). We come upon the problem of the girls becoming women in the end of Little Women's first half, and it is so big an issue that Alcott ends the novel before she deals with it. She eventually comes back to the story, at her publishers' insistence, but there is reluctance on every page to deal with adult female roles in the manner that was expected of her-- that is, marrying them off. This reluctance is evident in the way she skims over the romantic scenes and barely describes the girls' weddings. Alcott wanted her women's choices to seem like more than just getting married; she wanted those choices to be made freely and to reflect other options. Those options include a less-than-perfect Jo.
     Alcott describes Jo as "very tall, thin, and brown, [she] . . . reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs. . . . [with] a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes." Jo's "one beauty" is her "long, thick hair" but she resists this beauty, by making sure it is "bundled into a net, to be out of her way" (LW 5). Alcott concludes her description of Jo by noting that she has "the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it" (5-6). Jo, then, represents everything the young Alcott was before her illness caused her to lose her hair and find pain at even the simplest act of writing (Saxton 267). Indeed, Jo is boisterous in a way that Louisa was not encouraged to be, but might have longed for; the most frequent verb that Alcott uses to describe Jo's speech in this first part of her description is "exclaimed," and from this, we get the feeling of Jo as loud and brusque.(13) Jo's actions and characterization are directly at odds with her proper role as a young Victorian woman-- she whistles, exclaims "Christopher Columbus" (at that an inoffensive way of swearing), and upsets everything from lemonade to Meg's wedding cake. The proper Victorian female was quiet and demure, and the young Jo refuses to be either. In fact, everything Jo does seems deliberately calculated to ruin her female perfection. Her clothes are scorched from standing too close to the fire; even her efforts at cooking turn out badly as she "discovers that something more than energy and good will is necessary to make a cook" when her special feast is spoiled by overcooked asparagus, undercooked potatoes, meager lobster, lumpy blancmange, and overripe strawberries in sour cream liberally dosed with "salt, instead of sugar" (LW 108). If Jo can fail at the jobs of a woman, perhaps she can remain a girl forever.
     Jo is expected to be not only the prim and proper Miss March, but also someone competent in domestic affairs, which, as the episode of the girls' dinner party shows, she is not. Jo most often resists the role of the prim and proper lady, but even when she does go all out to play that role she gets herself into trouble, as though oblivious to the effects her behavior may have. In the chapter titled "Calls," Amy instructs Jo in how to be the proper Victorian woman: "just be calm, cool, and quiet -- that's safe and ladylike, and you can easily do it for fifteen minutes" (268). Jo takes this advice to heart, remarking that she's "played the part of the prim young lady on the stage." She sits "with every limb gracefully composed, every fold correctly draped, calm as a summer sea, cool as a snowbank, and silent as a sphinx . . . blandly unconscious of it all," almost as if she were trying to drive Amy crazy. Her acting is rewarded with the comment, "What a haughty, uninteresting creature that oldest Miss March is" (268). Jo has succeeded so well with her performance that her "act" seems boringly perfect. She is the epitome of demure, silent, and prim-- all the things that normally she refuses to be. Following this performance, which Amy (the proper young Miss March) chastens her for, Jo plays the gossipy young flirt, modeling her act on an acquaintance. Jo is a skillful social chameleon, even if she normally pretends ignorance. Of course, the consequences of Jo's day of "acting" like the too-proper bore and/or gushing young lady are grave. As Douglas remarks, "Jo suffers for every mistake; a few rude words cost her a trip to Europe" (LW xviii), since Jo tells Aunt March, "I don't like favors, they oppress and make me feel like a slave. I'd rather do everything for myself, and be perfectly independent" (LW 275). Jo suffers both for behaving the way she's supposed to and for being outspoken and inappropriate-- she can't seem to win either way. But Jo's "suffering" actually molds her into the stay-at-home woman the family needs her to be, just as Louisa was able to stay at home and play martyr to her family's needs.
     Still, Jo's unwillingness to play the part of the perfect Victorian woman is not her biggest problem. Her most violent character flaw, and the one that she eventually learns to control, if not conquer, is her anger. Jo's anger is most dramatically illustrated during her confrontation with Amy. Alcott's narrator claims that "Jo had the least self-control, and had hard times trying to curb the fiery spirit which was continually getting her into trouble. Poor Jo tried desperately to be good, but her bosom enemy was always ready to flame up and defeat her" (LW 70). Amy, who is temperamentally the most like Jo of all the sisters, is the natural catalyst to Jo's anger, and the two find themselves in a number of quarrels. In the worst of these, Amy burns Jo's "little book" of fairy stories in a fit of pique, and Jo vows to "never forgive [her] as long as I live." Marmee cautions Jo to not "let the sun go down on your anger," but Jo refuses, saying, "It was an abominable thing, and she does not deserve to be forgiven" (LW 70-73). All of these angry words culminate in Amy crashing through literal and figurative thin ice-- she has pushed the "thin ice" of Jo's temper, found herself out of favor with her older sister, and almost drowns in the lake when she follows Jo and Laurie ice-skating and misses Laurie's warning to stay clear of the smooth but melting ice in the middle of the lake. Of course, since this dangerous middle ice is the most picturesque, Amy skates directly into it, as she is perennially aware of how to present the prettiest picture in order to get what she wants (in this case, forgiveness).
     The near-tragedy of Amy's drowning, resulting as it does from Jo's anger and obstinance, makes Jo contrite and afraid. Thus she begins to play a more controlled role that Marmee recommends and guides her in. She declares that the biggest of her problems is her "dreadful temper. . . . You don't know, you can't guess how bad it is! It seems as if I could do anything when I'm in a passion; I get so savage, I could hurt anyone and enjoy it. I'm afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me" (LW 75). Jo is afraid that her anger makes her an evil person, a person who could harm another deliberately, but in fact, there seems to be no acceptable performance of anger in the March family. This control of passion is encouraged by Mr. March when he helps Marmee keep from "being angry nearly every day of [her] life" (75). Jo's fear reminds us of Alcott's worries about her own temper, worries sparked by Bronson's assurances that her nature was demonic, a nature that he felt was reflected in her brunette coloring and her independent spirit (Saxton 205). Jo cannot feel her anger the way Pauline or Jean does because Alcott's name, and therefore her public persona, was associated with Little Women. Thus Jo is so afraid of her temper that she resolves to conquer it-- and by the end of the novel, she succeeds in part. Jo chooses to reject her anger because it is inappropriate to the family's continued success-- she feels that the emotion puts others at risk, and it is interesting that it is Jo who feels that her negligence, her laziness from her cold and her wish to work on her writing, causes Beth's illness and death. Jo feels that by thinking of herself she threatens everyone. Jo should play instead the role of the demure daughter; it is unacceptable to be anything else. Just as the young Alcott wonders, "How can I learn to rule myself, / To be the child I should," so Jo struggles with the role her family imposes upon her, as opposed to who she feels she is.
     In the Alcotts' family story, Abba was the one who brought the illness into the house that weakened and eventually killed Lizzie, or Beth, but Alcott revises this so that it is Jo who takes the blame upon herself. Alcott fashions Jo as responsible for all the family's dangers. Perhaps if she can blame Jo for the problems, she can somehow feel some control over the out-of-control life of the Alcott family. When Beth dies, wasting away through an absence of personality, there is a clear conflict waged for Jo's temperament. Jo vows to take Beth's place and become a non-person. She promises to renounce "her old ambition, pledged herself to a new and better one, acknowledging the poverty of other desires, and feeling the blessed solace of a belief in the immortality of love" (382); rather than be angry at Beth's senseless death, Jo becomes almost bland in comparison to her former extremes of emotion. Alcott's narrator explains:

If she had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket . . . but, you see, Jo wasn't a heroine . . . she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested . . . she was learning to do her duty, and to feel unhappy if she did not. (LW 397-398)


Instead of disappearing into saintliness, Jo briefly turns to writing, but in a new way. Jo sublimates her anger, her sadness, her crossness, into writing for her family, "with no thought of fame or money, and put[s her] heart into it" (LW 398). Lynette Carpenter argues that "if writing continued a safe means of expressing anger, publication did not" (31). Jo can write, still, as long as it is only for the benefit of others. Indeed, she eventually abandons her public writing to run a school for boys, in which she only writes communal plays for the boys to perform. Jo, unlike Alcott, finds a "normal" role where she chooses to give of herself for others, denying any desire for fame.
     That society's "normal" role causes Jo to suppress her own natural emotions and persona is one place where author and character overlap. Since the other "duty" that Jo finds is running her school for boys, something Bronson, as an educational reformer, would have liked to do, means that Jo conforms to the Alcott family expectations. She becomes a woman who can control her anger, who supports the family by teaching rather than writing, and who mothers an entire household of boys (in Little Men and Jo's Boys). Thus, in many ways Jo is not only Louisa's alter ego and the character she would have liked to have been: she is also Louisa's nemesis, as I have pointed out earlier. Jo remains a complicated persona, part Alcott and part make-believe. This is why we find such an irresistible temptation to believe that Jo and Louisa are the same person: we would like to give Louisa her imagined life.
Amy as "Lady Bountiful"
     Just as Alcott compared options in her own life to Jo's, Alcott's depiction of Amy shows us some possible wishes that Alcott may have had for her youngest sister, May, upon whom Amy is based. Saxton tells us that "Louisa disapproved of what she saw as [May's] frivolity and irresponsibility. Her resentment runs deep throughout her journals. Her references to May's good fortune are always juxtaposed against lamentations of her own" (15). But Saxton also argues that "Louisa saw May's expression of her desires as power. In Little Women, she gives Amy everything" (15). In many ways, Amy is the March girl most like Alcott's gothic heroines, and she virtually glows with accomplishment by novel's end. By performing the "proper" roles of Victorian womanhood, Amy gets the trip to Europe that Jo craves. Amy is also able to do more "good" for society by marrying well than Jo can afford-- it is Laurie's continued financial support of Plumfield in the later novels that helps keep the school alive. Jo must abandon the most independent parts of her young self in order to make her way in the world, but Amy finds and exploits the parts of herself that best fit what the world expects her to be and then gains the reward that she most wants. Indeed, Amy, who is aware of society's expectations of her and does not battle them stubbornly, succeeds in many more ways than Jo does.
     When Amy is a little girl, in the opening scene, Meg, as a stand-in for Marmee, chastens her for her "particular" and "prim ways." She is called an "affected little goose," and the narrator describes her as "a regular snow maiden, with blue eyes, and yellow hair curling on her shoulders . . . always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners" (LW 5-6). Her description is very much like that of Pauline, in Alcott's gothic tragedy, and just like Pauline, Amy is willing to play the snow queen in order to find the control and independence that great wealth can give her. Unlike Pauline, however, Amy manages to control the negative effects of passion, and so finds a more acceptable feminine "role." As Amy grows up, she learns to play down her manners and aristocratic airs so that they will seem more natural; she "knew her good points, and made the most of them with the taste and skill which is fortune to a poor and pretty woman" (LW 349). Amy turns her liabilities into her assets-- she knows that everyone is aware of her poverty, so she appears to make no pretense, instead using fresh flowers and simple gowns in order to play the role of the woman who knows her place. This role, is, however, itself a pretense, though a clever one. Amy knows that to seem desperate is to become desperate.
     Most of the critical attention Little Women has received has been spent on Jo. That Amy has been largely ignored is unfortunate because, as the critics Grace and Theodore Hovet points out, "Amy March provides an excellent example of a young woman seizing control of representation in order to gain control over her own identity" (342). Amy, like May in real life, controls her identity instead of being controlled by it, using strategies that work: "To appear transparent in order to secure the care or attention . . . how reasonable it is for Amy . . . to consciously fake and deliberately perform the role of transparency. As [Alcott] sees it, the only way Amy will gain some control over her own destiny is for her to create such an illusion" (Hovet and Hovet 337). Amy is an example of a woman projecting a desired role and thus becoming that role, blending appearance with reality. In this light, it is interesting to note that a word Alcott uses frequently to describe Amy's European dresses and her artistic endeavors at hairstyles and flower arranging is "illusion." For example, consider this exchange between Amy and Laurie: "'What do you call this stuff?'he asked, touching a fold of her dress that had blown over his knee. 'Illusion.' 'Good name for it. It's very pretty-- new thing, isn't it?' 'It's as old as the hills; you have seen it on dozens of girls and you never found out that it was pretty till now-- stupide!'"(LW 353). Indeed, it is Amy's effective use of a tool as "old as the hills" that causes Laurie to say, "I never saw it on you before, which accounts for the mistake, you see" (LW 353), and guarantees Amy's success-- as Laurie's wife. Amy is one of Alcott's most skillful actresses, because, like Jean Muir, she realizes that the most effective performance is the one that seems nonexistent.
     Whereas Jo feels she must perform a role in such a way that it appears to be an act, Amy knows better. For example, in the scene before Amy and Laurie meet to go to a European Christmas ball, Amy

arranged herself under the chandelier, which had a good effect on her hair, then she thought better of it, and went away to the other end of the room . . . it so happened that she could not have done a better thing . . . as she stood at the distant window, with her head half turned and one hand gathering up her dress, the slender, white figure against the red curtains was as effective as a well-placed statue. (350)

     Even though the final effect that her "arrangement" has on Laurie seems unintentional, a practiced eye like Amy's must have been aware that the red curtain was dramatic. Amy is unconsciously drawn to color (she wears blue and white most frequently) because she knows that color shows her own assets off to artistic advantage. She knows, though, that it is better to "take the stage" (351) as though unaware that she were on stage. Amy's power lies in her ability to recognize and work with society's expectations of her.
In the scene where Jo performs the female roles she is quite aware of but refuses to adopt on a day-to-day basis, Amy's demeanor exists in opposition to Jo's wildness. Even knowing Jo is misbehaving, Amy keeps her calm, sticking to the role that is expected of her because it will do her the most good. While Jo tries on various personas to make her family happy, Amy finds the one which she knows will make herself most happy. Amy plays the young, poor woman who needs help in order to make it in the world, and she enacts this role to perfection because she knows that successful mastery of it will eventually secure her the role she most covets-- that of the "part of lady bountiful" (LW 286) who can do as she pleases. She wants to become a "lady" by marrying a gentleman, and bountiful by gaining wealth beyond her dreams, so that she need not sacrifice in order to be generous to those in need. Amy tells a contrite Jo, "Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones, for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive. If you'd remember that, and practice it, you'd be better liked than I am, because there is more of you" (LW 273). She continues with her lesson on the proper roles for the poor woman by saying, "If we were belles, or women of wealth and position, we might do something . . . it's the way of the world, and people who set themselves against it only get laughed at for their pains" (LW 274). Amy's willingness to play the part of the poor but agreeable girl who can graciously accept favors gets her that which Jo most covets, power and independence.
While Amy is in Europe, she shows her willingness to work for that power when she writes to the family:

I know Mother will shake her head, and the girls say, "Oh the mercenary little wretch!" but I've made up my mind, and if Fred asks me, I shall accept him, though I'm not madly in love . . . he is handsome, young, clever enough, and very rich . . . I've seen the plate, the family jewels, the old servants, and pictures of the country place. . . . Oh, it would be all I should ask . . . I may be mercenary, but I hate poverty, and don't mean to bear it a minute longer than I can help. One of us must marry well. . . . We shall soon meet in Rome, and then, if I don't change my mind, I'll say "Yes, thank you," when he says "Will you please"? (LW 293-295)


     This letter is reminiscent of the one that Jean Muir wrote to her friend on seeing the Coventry house for the first time; like Jean, Amy has found the place she wants to occupy and will perform the role of poor young lover in order to become mistress of the house, with all the wealth and position that she can marry into. Amy covets "the plate" and "the family jewels" of aristocracy just as Jean knows that the part of "Lady" will assure her success, despite her past. That Amy knows her ambition is mercenary does not matter to her; she is willing to be called "mercenary" -- which, in the March family, is quite an insult -- because she knows that with the power and money of a wealthy husband behind her, she can be comfortable, even if she is not an artist, and even if her family disapproves. Jo, on the other hand, tries hard to please her family and so finds it hard to please herself. Amy's grown-up "castle" is to be a wealthy wife, not a poor artist in a garret. The latter is the dream of a little girl, not the little woman she has become.
     Before Amy travels to Europe, she wants like Jo, to become an artist. Whereas Jo wants to write famous novels, Amy wants to paint and sculpt and be a young Michelangelo. But her goal is refined when she gets to Europe and sees what artistry others have; she says, "Rome took all the vanity out of me, for after seeing the wonders there, I felt too insignificant . . . talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so." With this declaration, Amy resolves to "polish up my other talents, and be an ornament to society" (370). Thus Amy's best canvas becomes herself. She wears blue because she knows it is a good color for her, and if "the artist sometimes got possession of the woman, and indulged in antique coiffures, statuesque attitudes, and classic draperies," or if she is seen piling a "cloud of fresh illusion, out of which her white shoulders and golden head emerged with a most artistic effect" (350), then it is to good effect, because her artistry eventually wins her the more acceptable (to her family) role of Mrs. Laurence, Laurie's wife. Even when Amy feels embarrassed by having said "in look, if not in words, 'I shall marry for money,'" she is such a practiced artist, aware of the colors that are most appropriate to each scene, that in her grief over Beth's death she is a picture that Laurie cannot resist: "everything about her mutely suggested love and sorrow -- the blotted letters in her lap, the black ribbon that tied up her hair, the womanly pain and patience in her face; even the little ebony cross at her throat" (390). In this way, Amy, who was criticized in the earliest chapter as being "stiff as a poker" (7) when she portrays the damsel in distress, eventually becomes a much more successful woman and actress than Jo. Amy's skills at performing become such second nature that even she seems to believe her act, which then becomes unconscious, and therefore, most effective. She gains the perfect part, one with power and prestige.
Meg as Homebody
     While Amy is the artist who plays the role of "the true gentlewoman" (409) so well that she becomes what she sets out to be, Meg almost always portrays the role of a young Marmee-in-training. Alcott's narrator describes her as "a womanly little woman" in whom "the maternal instinct was very strong" (355). Since Meg likes to mother her sisters, she best fits into the role that was most valued during the nineteenth century. As such, she is not really the most interesting of Alcott's girls to the youngest readers of the novel today, who prefer the more spirited and more familiar roles of Amy and Jo. But as a character, Meg remains interesting because she is just as much aware of the role she expects to play as the other girls, and she too uses her assets to play down her liabilities, all to gain the role she most covets.
     Meg is first described as "sixteen, and very pretty"; she is "plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft, brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands" (5). Meg's almost bovine beauty is not as striking as that of blonde, blued-eyed Amy, and Meg certainly seems calm and more of a "stay at home" type than Jo from early on. Despite the fact that Jo describes Meg as "the best actress we've got" (7), Meg resolves that she does not "mean to act any more after this time. I'm getting too old for such things" (7). Meg means to abandon her pretense at acting in order to secure a role that she is already practicing. She realizes that her artistic abilities are not as great as Amy's or Jo's, and when her ambitious sisters point to the "keys to their castles" as their pen and drawing pencil, she says "I haven't got any" key (133). But Laurie, as an astute observer, quickly points to her "face" as the key to her castle -- with it, she will attract a husband. Meg's self-conscious blush shows that she knows he is right and that her awareness that her claim not to know what her key is a pretense. Still, at this point, since she has not secured her chosen role, Meg must "act" as though she is unaware of any drive or ambitions. Just like Amy, Meg knows that women who appear needy become, in reality, desperate. Also like Amy, Meg chooses the role she is most suited for and works to achieve it by capitalizing on her strengths.
     Early on, Meg sets out to perform a role she has seen played in her own home, the mother. Later, after she has achieved the coveted role of wife and mother, she confesses to Marmee that her "great wish is to be to [her] husband and children what you have been to yours" (358). Meg's dream is "a lovely house, full of all sorts of luxurious things -- nice food, pretty clothes, handsome furniture . . . I am to be mistress of it, and manage it as I like," and when Laurie "slyly" replies, "Wouldn't you have a master for your castle in the air?" Meg does not deny her wish, and thinks of John, her future husband.
     Even when Meg is dressed up "like a doll" at the Moffats' party and she "imagine[s] herself acting the new part of the fine lady," she is conscious of the efforts the role takes, as opposed to Amy's awareness of the effect the role makes. Meg tries to be charming, "though the tight dress gave her a side-ache, the train kept getting under her feet, and she was in constant fear lest her earrings should fly off" (87). Unlike Amy, Meg would ultimately rather be comfortable in her role at home than charming at a party, and she thinks, "I wish I had been sensible and worn my own things, then I should not have disgusted other people, or felt so uncomfortable" (88). Even so, Meg is constantly aware of outward appearances. She wants to play the perfect wife and mother as much as Amy wants to be an artist and Jo to be a bohemian writer, but her outward appearance is what will win her the part that her family, society, and she, herself all expect her to play.
     Still, Jo is not completely comfortable with Meg's chosen role, as is shown in her emotional turmoil at even the thought of Meg's marriage. The first indication that John Brooke might be a threat to the continued girlhood of the March family is in the chapter titled "Secrets." Laurie, annoyed that Jo has secrets of her own (this is where Jo is sneaking out to get one of her lurid tales published), gloats, "I'd like to walk with you and tell you something very interesting" (140). When Laurie finally tells Jo the secret, the whispered truth of "where Meg's glove is" (141), Jo's immediate response is to stand "and stare at him for a minute, looking both surprised and displeased . . . saying sharply 'How do you know?'" (141). Laurie, who is a firm believer in romantic entanglement, is happy with his news, but Jo's response is "It's horrid" and "It's ridiculous, it won't be allowed . . . I'm disgusted and wish you hadn't told me" (141). When Laurie says, "I thought you'd be pleased," Jo answers, "At the idea of anybody coming to take Meg away? No thank you" (141). Jo is upset about the idea that anyone could split up the immediate family that she considers vital to her own identity because she knows that if Meg marries, the world will then turn its expectations to her. As the second daughter, she is the one who should marry next. Perhaps Jo is not quite as horrified at the idea of Meg's marriage as she is worried that it will set a precedent. But Meg is quite ready to grow up and assume the part she's been practicing since page one.
     Two out of the three chapters devoted to Meg describe her domestic efforts, thus delineating Meg's role as domestic goddess and homebody. In "Domestic Experiences," Meg is described as "a true Martha, cumbered with many cares" who is "fired with housewifely wish[es]" and who exclaims that she will always be "a cheerful wife, [providing] a good dinner" (LW 252-53). This chapter describes her failures at being the perfect wife, depicting a failed experiment with jelling preserves and her problems with financial matters. It then encapsulates a year into three lines of text and discusses "the deepest and tenderest [experience] of a woman's life" in her pregnancy and the birth of the twins, Demi and Daisy. While Alcott can depict the role of mother comfortably, there is clearly some uneasiness shown here in any discussion of pregnancy. Whether this awkwardness reflects an understandable Victorian reluctance to discuss private acts or Alcott's own discomfort with sexuality is not clear. Still, we do not hear about Meg again until ten chapters later, when there is a detailed episode of the twins as toddlers and Meg's struggles with being a too-indulgent mother.
     There is an air of definition and finality at the end of the chapter titled "On the Shelf" when the narrator declares, "Meg learned, that a woman's happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother" (365). There is also an air of triumph when the narrator tells us that Sallie Moffat comes to the Brookes' poor home since "it does [her] good" and because she seemed to be "trying to discover the charm, that she might use it in her great house" and in her obviously unhappy marriage to Ned, "where there was no place for her" (365). Sallie might seem to play a role similar to Meg's, but because Meg consciously works to perfect her "role," she controls the stage. Meg chooses housewifery because she prefers it to the risks of Jo or Amy's roles. In choosing the role, she makes it into a self-defining, rather than limiting, one. Meg is a role model to other Victorian wives. Through Meg, the traditional role of wife/mother is passed from Marmee to a new generation, and since Daisy is described as a little mother and patient sufferer of Demi's torments, there is clearly another link in the domestic chain. Mother passes the tradition of mothering on to daughter, and family ties persevere.      Therefore, in many ways, the role that Meg plays is the most important to the success of the novel -- if there are no mother figures there are no families, and the family in the world of the Marches is the primary unit. Instead of this traditional role being limiting, though, Meg's eventual improvisation and mastery of the part makes it a liberating one.
     What is liberating about Meg's power as wife and mother is the fact that her power is a shared one. John is technically better at parenting than Meg, able to combine a nurturing nap with the discipline that Demi needs. He is also able to practice self-denial-- he can wait several years and work hard to gain Meg's hand in marriage. Meg's greatest strength is that she is able, eventually, to work with John, to capitalize on each parent's strengths, and to be a partner rather than just a dependent. But she is capable of this partnership from early on in the story, so it is no surprise that she can eventually master it. Meg's advice to Amy and Jo about how to be ladies in the novel's first chapter in order to be available when Marmee is not, her willingness to use a sometimes unthinking Jo as a confidante when she believes John Brooke may ask for her hand in marriage, and even the trip to "Vanity Fair" at the Moffats' all show one aspect of Meg's character. She is ultimately willing to cooperate, to work together, and to make sure that the group is happiest when it is smoothly run. The only time Meg shows a desire to not cooperate fully is when she defends John Brooke to Aunt March, and this is because she is caught up in her heretofore unacknowledged love for her future husband, and is "forgetting everything but the injustice of the old lady's suspicions" (LW 213).
     Jo's indignant response to the first hint of Brooke's possible attachment to Meg is not the first indication that Meg might be "taken away"; just after her stay at the Moffats', when the gossiping Annie Moffat has been speculating on Mrs. March's "plans" for Meg to marry well, Jo declares, "If that isn't the greatest rubbish I ever heard" and "we'll be old maids" (91-92). Meg, though, sighs, and seems hopeful; she is anxious to fill the role which she seems best fitted for, that of wife and mother, and does not even respond to Jo's suggested role. Meg has been considering herself too grown up for the childish things that Jo revels in for most of the novel, and it is inevitable that she begin to move away from the world of girlhood, which she seems eager to do. In fact, "rummaging in her sister's desk for stamps, [Jo finds] a bit of paper scribbled over with the words, 'Mrs. John Brooke'" (200). In the wedding chapter, which is the second one of the second half of the story, Meg is referred to twice as coming into her element, or blooming-- looking "like a rose" (231, 234), and Alcott closes the scene with Meg "leaning on her husband's arm, with her hands full of flowers and the June sunshine brightening her happy face-- and so Meg's married life began" (236).      After this chapter, Alcott moves to a discussion of Amy and Jo's travels, and Meg really does seem to move into another world, even though she is just down the street. Elbert notes that "when Louisa finished writing part two of Little Women, she suggested 'Wedding Marches' as a possible title. She changed it, however, to 'Birds Leaving the Nest' or 'Little Women Grow Up' because she did not wish to suggest that marriage should be the focal event for growing girls" (157). Generally, Meg is thought of as an exception to Alcott's independent characterizations; she is said to fade into a world of pots and pans and jam, as Elbert points out: "Meg, the eldest and most 'docile daughter,' does not attain Alcott's ideal womanhood. . . .[Meg's] identity consists of being Marmee's daughter and then John's wife" (157).
     Some try to find the reality of Alcott's feelings about the marriage by looking to the Alcott family's first marriage, that of Anna Alcott Pratt in 1858, three weeks after Lizzie's death. Alcott's journals show us that she was less thrilled than even Jo was in Little Women with the Alcott family's first marriage, writing, "I moaned in private over my great loss, and said I'd never forgive J. [John Pratt] for taking Anna from me" (219). It is interesting to note the wavering that Louisa does say, for example, in the second half of the above sentence, which Saxton claims is "edited," "but I shall if he makes her happy, and turn to little May for comfort" (219). That Louisa felt the need to edit herself even in a journal showed that she was aware that her discomfort with marriage was unacceptable, since her journals had always been read by her family members and the family would disapprove of Louisa's "moaning". Still, like Meg in the novel, Anna Alcott was happy with the idea of marriage. In her journal she wrote "When I used to build castles in the air, a wedding scene always found a place among my pictures" (qtd. in Saxton 222). Jo's response to Meg's wedding seems to be one of the most autobiographical elements in her novel, and if we consider it vital that Alcott felt that Anna's marriage was a betrayal and a personal "loss," we might understand better why Meg seems to disappear into the world of jam pots and cranky children. Meg's account of married life does not encourage looking forward blissfully to the wedding day, and from an autobiographical perspective, this seems significant of Louisa's frustration with Anna's marriage.
     However, a purely autobiographical reading of Meg as Anna limits the character as much as if we read Amy as May or Jo as Louisa. If instead we see Meg's character as one that most clearly places the novel into the context of the Victorian ideal, rather than just as a sketch of Louisa's sister, we can then examine Meg's role in the broader context of the Cult of True Womanhood, as defined in Charles Strickland's study Victorian Domesticity:

The woman's principal task after marriage was not as wife, however, but mother, and here she could find the satisfaction and could exercise the power denied her in other aspects of life. The key to a woman's identity lay in the proper discharge of her responsibilities for the nurture and care of the young child. In keeping with the cult of domesticity, she was advised not to share this sacred responsibility with others. It was assumed, as a matter of course, that the father would be incompetent, uninterested, or absent, but the sentimentalists also discouraged mothers from seeking aid in other directions. (11)


Strickland's clarification of the role of the Victorian mother sheds new light on Alcott's depiction of Meg as a possible feminist heroine. Meg is not the perfect Victorian mother who cannot share her child rearing duties, although she starts off this way, struggling with the children and being put "on the shelf." Meg learns to control her role, not be controlled by it, much as Amy does. Meg seeks help first from her mother, and then from John. John succeeds admirably in taming the "naughty Demi" by becoming more domestic himself: "John had waited with womanly patience 'till the little hand relaxed its hold, and while waiting had fallen asleep, more tired by that tussle with his son than with his whole day's work" (363). Meg, in appreciation of John's efforts as care giver, strives toward intellectual equality with him, and greets him "with the request to read something about the election" (363). Even if Meg is not well informed about the "man's world," she tries to perfect her own role by learning more about his.
     Meg's willingness to step into John's world blurs the Victorian separate spheres, and she can be seen as an almost modern character. Thus Meg and John begin to share what Alcott's narrator calls "the sort of shelf on which young wives and mothers may consent to be laid [italics mine] . . . walking side by side, through fair and stormy weather, with a faithful friend who is, in the true sense of the good old Saxon word, the 'house-band'" (365). The relationship that Meg finds with her husband, then, far from being an unsatisfying banishment into the banal kingdom of domesticity, unites those domestic "duties" in a consensual equality of sexes, sharing the family together.
Beth as Disappearing Angel
     One of the most difficult roles to define and explain in the context of a feminist study is Beth's. She is difficult for a 1990s reader to see as powerful because we cannot understand, in the same way as a nineteenth-century reader might, the role of the angel who exerts power through and after her death. Beth seems to be a mixture of the perfect diminutive female and a terrible disappointment-- she is the pure soul that is "too good for this earth." In short, Beth seems to be exactly the sort of role feminist critics want to shatter. But, when we see that Beth might exist as an example of someone whose role helps support other, more dynamic roles, we can see that her place is just as important to a study of self-definition as that of the other March girls.
     In the first chapter of the novel, Beth is described as "Mouse" and "the pet of the family," "a rosy, smooth haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression which was seldom disturbed" who "seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved" (LW 6). Beth is anxious "to share in the lecture" when Meg scolds Jo and Amy for their character flaws, and she is overly eager to hide inside the house where no one will see her. Beth is so willing to be domestic that the few excursions that she does make are what eventually get her into trouble, since she becomes ill from helping the Hummels. Alcott's narrator is full of hints as to Beth's inevitable fate, calling her, for example, "an angel in the house, long before those who loved her most had learned to know it" (222). Beth influences the sisters quietly, and throughout the novel, her role reminds the other sisters that they should continue to think of others in addition to themselves.
     In the chapter titled "Beth's Secret" we find that her secret is paralleled to the other sisters'. Meg's secret is her love for John Brooke, Jo's is her writing efforts, and Amy's is her ambition to marry well, whatever the cost. Beth's, though, is something else. Unlike Jo, Meg, and Amy, whose castles in the air lead to life, Beth's castle in the air has never been very ambitious: "Mine is to stay at home safe with Father and Mother, and help take care of the family" (133). Beth's secret is her impending death, and her castle inevitably leads to her disappearance. Like any angel, she is best fulfilled when she is dead.
     Beth's most vibrant moment in the novel is when she makes slippers for Mr. Laurence and then, as a reward, receives the gift of the "baby pianny" (59). While Mr. Laurence's letter is being read, Beth is so embarrassed and "upset by her present" that she "hid her face in Jo's apron" (59). The promise of the "performance" that follows the grateful visit to Mr. Laurence, when "he walked with her to her own gate, shook hands cordially, and touched his hat as he marched back again" (60) is never quite fulfilled, although everyone is so thrilled to see Beth interacting with someone outside of the family that "Jo began to dance a jig . . . Amy nearly fell out of the window . . . and Meg exclaimed, with uplifted hands, 'Well I do believe the world is coming to an end'" (61). Beth seems perched upon the threshold of interaction with the rest of the world, but what happens instead is that Mr. Laurence and the house next door simply become, for Beth, extensions of her own immediate family. Also, by sending Beth the piano, Mr. Laurence guarantees that the only thing that could have possibly drawn Beth out of the house is now safe inside. So the well-intentioned gift is really another example of the way women are restricted in the world of the angel. We cannot tarnish the perfection of our house-angel by allowing her outside the house. Still, despite the fact that she does not seek the stardom of the footlights, Beth's influence behind the scenes is powerful.
     Beth realizes that she is destined to become a literal "angel" long before the rest of the family, and finally tells Jo:

I'm not like the rest of you; I never made any plans about what I'd do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn't seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there . . . I never wanted to go away, and the hard part now is the leaving you all. I'm not afraid, but it seems as if I should be homesick for you even in heaven. (343)


Beth feels "stupid" because she is timid and shy, two things society encouraged women to be. In comparison to her sisters, who are ready to fly away, Beth feels insignificant. But Jo assures Beth that her life has had meaning and that she is necessary. In fact, it is through Beth's unselfish example and willingness to help others that Jo learns to control her own temper and to work out her frustrations and sorrows through her writing, rather than continuing to write her sensational potboilers. Alcott stresses the need for different roles for women when Beth sees that she is "tame" as a tiny "gray-coated sand bird," that Jo is "the gull, strong and wild . . . Meg is the turtledove, and Amy is like the lark" (343-44). Beth is the sister whose dream is to help others become strong in their own roles, and so, in the second half of the novel when the women are fulfilling their destinies, Beth's destiny must be to become a literal angel.
     As the disappearing angel, Beth's inspires the others to live through her death. Beth's life, in being cut short, is clearly tragic-- but what potential was there? Beth's artistic expression, which all the girls have in some form or other, lies in her ability to play the piano. But Beth does not, like the other sisters, compose anything. Meg creates her perfect household, Jo writes and composes her stories, and Amy creates paintings, sculptures, and herself. She composes herself, like Amy does, but it is a composition that is short lived. Beth's only choice is to take on the role of invalid-- in the nineteenth century, though, this is just as powerful a role as Amy's, Jo's and Meg's. As Gilbert and Gubar point out, there can be a sort of choice and power in choosing to become a non-role, (25) and this power is what is causes a mixture of fascination and regret over the character, a feeling Alcott may have had in life regarding her own sisters' death.
     Saxton argues that as a "noncombatant in a warlike family" Lizzie Alcott "found invalidism and began to fail" (208). As a passive female who cannot struggle for self-definition even in her own home, the only role that Lizzie found is that of the sickly, the cared for, and her "illness dominated the household" (Saxton 214). Following Lizzie's death, Alcott "couldn't shake her feelings of guilt and incomprehension that the girl who had been so good, so much of what a girl was supposed to be, had suffered lengthily and died" (Saxton 217). The way that Alcott would eventually deal with her grief was to write about it in Little Women, in which Jo tries to replace Beth. Saxton argues that "Little Women derives its vitality from Louisa's efforts to dominate her indomitable self. She tries to make Jo into Beth, willing, submissive, and dutiful" (8). In Alcott's desire to expunge her own feelings of guilt at being the "bad" girl who nevertheless lives while the "good" one dies, she makes her fictional counterpart the one who causes and therefore, must suffer for, Beth's sickness and inevitable death. Jo declares that she wouldn't mind getting sick as a result of exposure to the disease: "serve me right, selfish pig, to let you go, and stay writing rubbish myself" (164). By tying the death to Jo's writing, Alcott reveals where her true guilt lies. If Beth/Lizzie were only put on the earth to take care of the family, and Louisa could take better care of the family with her writing, then it is in writing and making money that she removes Lizzie's reason for living. Louisa shows us her feeling that she might have been responsible for Lizzie's death because of her own efforts to help.
     Lizzie and Beth are examples of women who might seem to have no place because they have no permanent role to play, only a supporting one. Alcott writes, "There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind" (38). If a woman is supposed to be a perfect angel of the house, and the "mouse" Beth, who was the embodiment of all that is patient, demure, and quiet, suffers and dies, then what does that say about the fairness of that role, and of life itself? Should women disappear into obscurity, or should they work and fight to create a role for themselves outside of the home? The answer to this question might be that perhaps the supporting role is the most powerful, because it allows all of the others to happen.
     Alcott's opposition between Jo and Amy, who both struggle to define themselves on their own terms, outside of domesticity, before settling into companionate marriage, is very engaging to many readers. Meg, who marries young and seems at first, to surrender her own will to John, eventually learns to share the burden of child rearing and housekeeping with him, and therefore, to define her domesticity on more comfortable terms. Beth, on the other hand, is the character that we are fond of because of her loss; she is the one that reminds us that we do not appreciate what we have until it is gone. This lesson, that women are most valuable in their absence, is the one that is generally the most problematic to 1990s readers, but is one that would be most inspiring to someone who believed that a woman's highest duty was to be a good moral influence on others. Beth's influence lasts far beyond her own life, and she is the "good" girl whose example would be worth emulating.
     Women's understanding of their own roles in Little Women progress from the dreams of girlhood and frustrations with growing up into sometimes pragmatic and often somewhat selfish goals. But Alcott's women are generally at their best when they are being assertive and somewhat selfish, and the one who cannot find it in her nature to be so suffers the ultimate consequences of such self-abnegation. Little Women is not a diminutive title when those women have the right to define themselves in terms that range from mother to working woman. Alcott's novel can be simultaneously sentimental and a revelation of the power of choice.

On to the Consclusion

 Notes (numbering begins in intro)

13.This impression is carried through admirably by Katharine Hepburn in her portrayal of Jo in the 1933 film version of Little Women. Every action is overblown, and Hepburn's is the dramatization most approved of by fans of the novel.