Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Marmee and Marriage in Little Women

With some trepidation (stemming from having seen and disliked the director Greta Gerwig's previous movie, Lady Bird) we're planning on going to see the new Little Women movie, and since it's been a long time since I last read the book, I've been giving it a re-read.

The conventional wisdom on Alcott, to which I subscribed as a young reader, is that she writes great character scenes so long as you can ignore the preachy bits. And it's true that some of Alcott's causes have aged better than others. The temperance movement, a key cause of Alcott's as well as more strident reform-minded novelists, is retroactively tainted by how poorly Prohibition worked out, and it's hard to see it in its period context as alcohol isn't nearly the societal scourge that it was in the 1800s. Dress reform (another other Alcott's topics, which gets significant play particularly in Eight Cousins) is also more amusing than anything else these days. Alcott's other key issue, abolitionism, has aged much better, but it probably comes into her books the least.

However, as I'm re-reading this time through, I'm re-examining the view that the "preachy bits" are incidental to the story and represent a period lapse on Alcott's part. Rather, I'm starting to think that in these sections Alcott lays out the themes that are driving the story. Take this section I read last night, which comes from the end of Chapter 9, "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair". Meg has just returned from spending two weeks with the wealthy Moffat family, where among other experiences of high life she overhears some of the older ladies speculating that Mrs. March is seeking to entrap Laurie into marrying one of the March girls in order to gain access to the Laurence family fortune. Marmee says that she regrets having sent Meg off to be exposed to such thinking.
"Mother, do you have 'plans', as Mrs. Moffat said?" asked Meg bashfully.

"Yes, my dear, I have a great many, all mothers do, but mine differ somewhat from Mrs. Moffat's, I suspect. I will tell you some of them, for the time has come when a word may set this romantic little head and heart of yours right, on a very serious subject. You are young, Meg, but not too young to understand me, and mothers' lips are the fittest to speak of such things to girls like you. Jo, your turn will come in time, perhaps, so listen to my 'plans' and help me carry them out, if they are good."

Jo went and sat on one arm of the chair, looking as if she thought they were about to join in some very solemn affair. Holding a hand of each, and watching the two young faces wistfully, Mrs. March said, in her serious yet cheery way...

"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. 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. 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."

"Poor girls don't stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward," sighed Meg.

"Then we'll be old maids," said Jo stoutly.

"Right, Jo. Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," said Mrs. March decidedly. "Don't be troubled, Meg, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time. Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my girls. Mother is always ready to be your confidant, Father to be your friend, and both of us hope and trust that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives."

"We will, Marmee, we will!" cried both, with all their hearts, as she bade them good night.
It's easy to pass over this as Alcott doing some moralizing on behalf of 19th century ideas of what women were fit for, but I'd like to argue that this is perhaps the central thematic point of the book.

First, let's be clear that this is not just Alcott passing on some cultural general wisdom from her time. Indeed, Mrs March is laying out a view of the ends of marriage which is directly opposite to elite practice in her time and place. We've just seen, earlier in the chapter, what society expected young women to do: use their attractions to capture the most wealthy and well born man possible and secure him permanently via marriage.  After that, if the marriage isn't as happy as it could be, well at least you have money and status, and that provides its own consolations.  It's the 19th century equivalent of the "don't have a serious relationship till you've got your advanced degree and your fulfilling professional career all squared away" wisdom that dominates today's elite circles.

What Mrs March says here (and I think with Alcott's clear authorial endorsement) is that this is not the way to form a worthwhile marriage. What is? Her words can seem a little generic. "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."

The phrases "to be loved and chosen" and "a good man" are too easily taken as cheap. Isn't every romantic comedy about people being loved and chosen? Not as Mrs. March uses the terms. Think about the way in which the workings of her marriage were described by her at the end of the previous chapter, in which she reveals to Jo that she long struggled to master a vicious temper.
"Poor Mother! What helped you then?"

"Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. He helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own. A startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply rebuked me more than any words could have done, and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy."
"I thought I'd grieved you."

"No, dear, but speaking of Father reminded me how much I miss him, how much I owe him, and how faithfully I should watch and work to keep his little daughters safe and good for him."

"Yet you told him to go, Mother, and didn't cry when he went, and never complain now, or seem as if you needed any help," said Jo, wondering.

"I gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till he was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end? If I don't seem to need help, it is because I have a better friend, even than Father, to comfort and sustain me. My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning and may be many, but you can overcome and outlive them all if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one. The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom. His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness, and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother."
I think what's being described here is a relationship in which Mr and Mrs March work to help each other grow in virtue. Mrs March believes that Mr March is someone who both recognizes what it means to live in virtue and helps her in her struggle to become more virtuous.

These conversation may seem like extraneous little discussions with Marmee, but they're actually central to what makes Little Women such an enduring classic. What does everyone love about this book? It's about four sisters who all have very different personalities, yet who love each other deeply and respect and help each other. It's fun of course, with the plays and the stories, the Pickwick club and the comic pathos of Amy's will. But what makes these hijinks so fun to read about is the love these characters all have for each other. And where does that come from? It begins with the relationship of Mr and Mrs March, and the way that they have raised their daughters. The closeness which draws Laurie into the family's circle is not an accident, it is a result of the active love the Marches all have for each other. Marmee believes the most important thing that she can give her daughters is the desire to build similar families of their own. This remains a counter-cultural insight.  Society points to all sorts of means of proving worth and status.  However, it's through the family that we create and form new human beings.  There's no more important thing in all the world.  And the March girls do all learn this lesson, in their very different ways. Indeed, that is central to why Jo rejects Laurie's proposal in the second half of the novel. In that scene she says:
"I agree with Mother that you and I are not suited to each other, because our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable, if we were so foolish as to..." Jo paused a little over the last word, but Laurie uttered it with a rapturous expression.

"Marry—no we shouldn't! If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like."

"No, I can't. I've tried and failed, and I won't risk our happiness by such a serious experiment. We don't agree and we never shall, so we'll be good friends all our lives, but we won't go and do anything rash."
She and Laurie have plenty of affection. They have fun together. In the sort of romantic comedy in which the story considers a relationship to be complete once people "get together" that would be enough.  But it's not enough for the kind of marriage which Marmee is endorsing here, in which after "getting together" the couple need to help each other grow in virtue despite all obstacles over many years.

What she's saying here that they lack is that ability to help each other grow in virtue. They have strong wills and short tempers and find it hard to take correction from each other. When they disagree they tend to storm at each other, and Jo believes that during the course of a long marriage they would no longer quickly recover from those storms, but begin to build resentments instead. It's notable that the man she does marry, Professor Bhaer, is perhaps the only person outside the March family who has the ability to help Jo see how she can grow in virtue without provoking explosions along the way.

This marriage ethic is not the reason that people read Little Women.  Indeed, like the foundation of a building, you can admire what stands above without ever noticing it.  Given that many readers wish that Jo had married Laurie and/or despise Professor Bhaer, clearly many people may enjoy the book while actively disagreeing with this approach to marriage.  And yet, I'd be prepared to argue that the engaging relationships between the sisters and between them and their parents, which are what draw people to the book, are in fact the result of this marriage ethic which Alcott puts forth here.  It's the heart of Little Women, and an adaptation which fails to realize that will ultimately remain a shallow adaptation.

On a personal note, it also helps remind me of how I came to the book.  My mom is a huge Alcott fan, and I met the books through her.  As I think about the centrality of Marmee's marriage ethic to the book as a whole, it occurs to me that Mom's affection for Alcott's central message doubtless formed her own marriage, and that her marriage formed her affection for the books.  In this loving, collaborative relationship of two people working towards the good, I see my own parents reflected and I realize why this is one of the books Mom introduced me to as a formative age.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I'm glad that you have grown into Little Women and are been able to express so well what it is that I have always seen in the novel.

Sherwood said...

Beautiful post--thank you.

Looking forward to your take on the new film.

mandamum said...

Thank you for the reminder - I had recently tried to revisit Little Men, and hadn't made it more than a chapter or two because I couldn't take all the sermonizing. Perhaps I should just go back to Little Women and leave the rest alone.

Julie said...

Heather at CraftLit podcast did Little Women and made sure we never forgot that the girls are mirroring the lessons from the Pilgrim's Progress, which is mentioned so often. That made it a reading experience which worked even better as an adult as when I loved it as a kid.

Julie said...

BTW, we also did not love Lady Bird. But I'm so intrigued because of all the good reviews. I'll be curious to see your response.