Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Little Women: Grief, Death, Life

As the fourth and youngest child, I was born into a pretty lively household. That fact, combined with the fact that I learned to read independently quite early, means I have very few memories of being read to except for the long, wonderful Bible reading times at the kitchen table with my mother.

By the time I was nine, my grandmother had joined our family, which changed the dynamic even further as she needed pretty constant care. I realize, as I look back, how enormous were the demands on my parents' time, and I marvel at the time they managed to spend doing special things with and for me and my siblings. They certainly encouraged my love of reading, partly just by making sure we had plenty of good books around, and partly by regular library trips. Watching my grandmother devour books also helped cement my passion for reading.

But it was very rare for any adult to guide my reading in any way. I discovered good books by looking for them on my own. I discovered books I wasn't quite ready for the same way.

The only exception to this that I clearly remember is Little Women. Sometime when I was around the age of five, my mother spent some time reading it aloud -- mostly to my older sister, but of course I was there too, hanging on every word. We must've gotten pretty far, far enough in to get near the place where Beth first comes down with scarlet fever, because I remember my mother closing the book and putting it back on the shelf. Maybe she finished reading it with my sister when I was already in bed. But she made a decision, which I somehow vaguely recall, that we were stopping because she didn't think I was quite ready for it yet.

I was little enough that I didn't understand, nor do I remember questioning my mom's wisdom. But when I was old enough to pick the book back up for myself, round about the time my grandmother moved in with us, it didn't take me too long to discover why my mother had quietly decided to put the book away.

Little Women is sad. Not all of it, of course, not by a long shot. So much of it is lively, fun, filled with joy. Jo climbing trees and running races with Laurie, throwing a snowball up at his window, eating apples and clomping around in boots. Amy sleeping with a clothespin on her nose so she could look more aristocratic. Jo's cooking (enough said!) and Aunt March "settling the question" for Meg and John. Jo burning Meg's hair. The whole family sitting around and sewing their way through continents or telling wild gothic-influenced stories. Beth cheerfully playing her music -- when you think back, doesn't it seem like her piano playing is a soundtrack for the whole first half of the story?

But oh, the sadness of a beloved sister falling ill, never recovering, and finally dying at such a young age. I myself am one of three sisters, and I was moved to the core when I first read those pages, and read them again and again over the next few years. Even now, I can't really read Jo and Beth's conversation at the seashore or hear Alcott describe Beth's last hours without weeping:

Jo had never left for her an hour since Beth had said "I feel stronger when you are here." She slept on a couch in the room, waking often to renew the fire, to feed, lift, or wait upon the patient creature who seldom asked for anything, and "tried not to be a trouble." All day she haunted the room, jealous of any other nurse, and prouder of being chosen then than of any honor her life ever brought her. Precious and helpful hours for Jo, for now her heart received the teaching that it needed: lessons in patience were so sweetly taught her that she could not fail to learn them; charity for all, the lovely spirit that can forgive and truly forget unkindness, the loyalty to duty that makes the hardest easy, and the sincere faith that fears nothing, but trusts undoubtingly.

By writing so movingly and honestly about the death of someone beloved, Louisa May Alcott gave me one of my first, and deepest, literary tastes of grief. For many years, I remembered these scenes in Beth's sickroom and thought about what I'd learned about death -- but when I read them now, so many years later, I realize that much of their staying power comes through what they say about life. We see the beauty of a life well lived, a life lived for others. And we see that it's in moments of hardship and heartbreak that our hearts often receive the teaching they need most, that even or especially through love and grief, we're being shaped and formed by loving hands.


Erin said...

A beautiful post, Beth. That, along with the book-burning incident, is definitely what sticks out most strongly in my mind. So sad, but so beautifully written...

Beth said...

Oh yes...the book-burning. Another amazing scene, so emotionally authentic! No one who ever labored over a story, or any other work of art, could forget the rage and emptiness Jo felt then. But I love how Alcott uses that very real moment of Jo's anger to teach about forgiveness and not letting bitterness rankle in our souls and destroy our relationships.

Erin said...

Yes, definitely!