The Coziness of Louisa May Alcott

Little Women Illustrated by Louis Jambor

The Coziness of Louisa May Alcott

“Coziness” is not a word in the highest repute.  In the 17th century, when the philosophers called “modern” were allowing the new physics to define reality, the features they deemed objectively-out-there were measurable: like size, weight and velocity.

In contrast, qualities like “blue” or (say) “right and wrong” were considered merely subjective.  And of course, no modern philosopher I know of would have deigned to discuss “coziness.”  If he had, he would have given it a double dose of dismissal — as really unreal.

I think somewhat differently.  For me, coziness is at least as real as velocity.

Of all the attempts to represent coziness in fiction, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, depicting her home life when she and her sisters were young, is surely the immortal one.  Girls ever since have identified with these sisters as they make their way to adulthood through the hazards of poverty and social rejection – but under the never-failing gentle guidance of their father and mother.

In the end, all the sisters find love and happiness, even the rambunctious Jo, who wants to be a writer and stands in for Alcott herself.  That is, they all find personal fulfillment except for Beth, who dies.

I still cry when Beth dies.

So does everyone I know.

It might be that the different ideals of girlhood foregrounded in the successive film versions of Little Women mirror generational changes in the cultural ideal.  A thesis topic, anyone?

The latest version, directed by Greta Gerwig, has been playing at our local theater.  Jerry and I went to see it recently.

Not being an expert on the different film versions, I’ll just compare this movie to the book.  It was pretty faithful, but I was struck by a few omissions and changes in emphasis.

In the novel, the sisters quarrel occasionally.  In the film, they actually pummel each other.  Right.  Why repress any of your modern feelings?

In the film, Marmee (the mother) admits to Jo that she must incessantly repress her anger.  A different depth view of the maternal nature suffuses the novel.  For example, here is Marmee just back from nursing their father at the (Civil War) front.  As she comes in, she is greeted by Meg and Jo who are exhausted from nursing their sister Beth.

A Sabbath stillness reigned through the house

                   … Meg and Jo closed their weary eyes, 

and lay at rest,

 like storm-beaten boats, 

 safe at anchor in a quiet harbor.

In the film, as in the novel, the fictional Jo eventually marries, but it’s depicted as the somewhat disreputable device of Alcott, Jo’s author, catering to the popular taste.

Since the real Jo [Alcott] never married, one could say that getting her fictional counterpart married off was a popularized simplification of the truth.  But to depict Alcott, as the film does, wanting only to be autonomous — free to live her talent — is itself an over-simplification, catering to the popular taste of today.

As a young woman, the real Alcott returned from a nursing stint in the Civil War with her young body blasted by typhoid and possible mercury poisoning.  She wrote because she had a gift for writing but also to make money, of which her Transcendentalist family was always in need.  From youth, she came in contact with some of the most important thinkers of the day: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, Frederick Douglas.  Hers was a life that had to process influences of the highest order.

Like it or not, Alcott’s was also a life of filial piety.  It’s not a virtue highly honored today.  She cared for a father who could not adequately care for himself – to the point that her death in mid-life came two days after his.  Bronson Alcott was gone.  Louisa could stand down at last.

Real life is not so metallically hard-edged as the modern view takes it to be.  Left out is the softness, the homelikeness, the assurance that coziness is real.

I conclude with these lines from the poem Jo writes when Beth is dying.

Henceforth, safe across the river,

 I shall see forevermore

 A beloved, household spirit

Waiting for me on the shore.

 Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,

Guardian angels shall become, 

And the sister gone before me

By their hands shall lead me home.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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