Little Women and Grieving with Hope

By Wednesday, June 17, 2020 , ,

Nobody knew how much the world would be collectively grieving just halfway through 2020. In January, a new decade full of possibilities stretched ahead. But now, people look back on months of hurt and confusion and wonder how the year could possibly be only half over. Our world aches as it battles a global disease, loss of loved ones, division, injustice, and disappointment.

For me, 2019 was a year of learning to honestly process disappointment and grieve well during relatively normal times. So, when cancellations, isolation, and anxiety began to grip the world this year, I was surprisingly thankful for the practice of 2019, hard as it was at times. Grief and disappointment are common to humanity, but we’re still filled with questions and confusion when they first strike. And no matter how large or small the cause for a particular grief may be, facing it honestly and maturely is important and requires intentionality.

As a lifelong lover of good stories, I’m a firm believer in the power of stories to help us grow in any area of life, sorrow being no exception. To that end, I’m returning to Little Women, one of my favorite books and one that explores grief with candor, empathy, and thoughtfulness. Only recently have I realized how much this well-beloved story has to do with grief, and I was fittingly re-reading it when the pandemic began to wreak havoc in my community. Since then, I’ve been strengthened and helped by its messages on loss and sorrow. So, whether you’re grieving the death of a loved one, widespread injustice, or cancelled plans that were dearly held, I hope this book’s handling of grief and the reflections I share here from my reading may help you face it with a little more clarity and move forward with a little more hope.

(Disclaimer: Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers everywhere)

Little Women’s Great Grief: Beth March’s Fate
Little Women has been analyzed and re-read throughout generations since its publication in 1868, and yet, as Greta Gerwig’s lovely new film adaptation has lately proved, it continues to stand the test of time. It endures because it explores universal themes, such as growing up, family dynamics, love, and, necessarily, grief, through the untimely death of one of the story’s four “little women.” Mixed feelings abound among Little Women fans regarding the third March sister, Beth, and her sad end. She battles painful shyness, but always exudes kindness, generosity, and tenderness. Indeed, for some, her unfailing selflessness makes her death feel inevitable and cliché, and they may nod in agreement when second sister Jo says, “The good and dear people always do die” (Alcott, p. 212). Others struggle to like Beth, as her constant goodness can seem almost martyr-like, while still others have argued that her death is merely a convenient plot device used to inject conflict. But upon close reading, this death elicits raw emotion and invites readers to thoughtfully examine death and grief, primarily through Beth’s courageous acceptance of her end, and through Jo’s pained reckoning with the loss.

Beth’s Courage

Top L, Top R, Bottom: Claire Danes, Annes Elwy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth March (1994, 2017, 2019 respectively) [Sources: Forever Young Adult, WGBH, BFI]

Beth may be the most fragile character in Little Women, and her propensity for service may seem overly saint-like to some, but, paradoxically, it is in preparing to meet death, that most dreaded of human enemies, that she demonstrates victory over the fear with which she has struggled her whole life. Shyness and anxiety are Beth’s marked traits. She sticks close to home, fears talking to new people and trying new things, and thrives best amidst quiet and familiarity, pouring her heart into serving those she knows and loves. True to her natural reserve, when she first realizes her time is waning, she keeps the knowledge locked away, perhaps out of some faulty martyrdom, but also out of genuine desire to keep a right perspective. By the time she confides in Jo, she has grown accustomed to her fate, but Jo’s grief helps Beth to truly grieve well as she prepares to depart life. She recognizes the gifts of life that she’s loath to give up, but also determines to devote her remaining time to making the world a bit happier for those she will leave behind. Beth fully acknowledges the pain, but also strives for peace with it, as the narrator aptly describes:

“Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety; it shows itself in acts rather than words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death…She could not say, ‘I’m glad to go,’ for life was very sweet to her; she could only sob out, ‘I try to be willing,’ while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together.” (Alcott, p. 428)

Beth’s sorrow is indeed great, but she never allows bitterness to take root in her heart and works hard to love others well as long as she can. And through both her quiet acceptance and efforts to prepare herself to depart life, her fear becomes secondary and those dear to her are made better for her example. The narrator summarizes Beth’s final days well:

“With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s soul grew strong, and though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready, saw that the first pilgrim called was likewise the fittest, and waited with her on the shore, trying to see the Shining Ones coming to receive her when she crossed the river.” (Alcott, p. 476)

Jo’s Reckoning
Of those who wait with Beth on that proverbial “shore” before her death, none do so more faithfully than second sister Jo, and it is Jo who is also most changed by her own grief and by Beth’s example as Beth slips away. Jo is the opposite of Beth in every way – loud, stubborn, adventurous, and mischievous – and yet, of the four March sisters, the bond between these two is perhaps the closest and most tender. So, upon learning the hard truth of Beth’s impending death, Jo’s natural first response entails anger and rebellion. But as Jo devotedly cares for this beloved sister, rarely leaving her side as her days wane, Jo softens and learns to love and serve ever more willingly, and after Beth’s passing, Jo learns to live without despair, painful as her loss remains.
Eliza Scanlen as Beth and Saoirse Ronan as Jo in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" (2019) [Source: YouTube] 

As the narrative winds through Beth’s final days, Jo wrestles with resentment over losing Beth, but also allows her gentle sister to become her teacher in qualities she has always struggled to absorb. Historically, Jo was the brave and wild one, while Beth was quiet, meek, and looked up to Jo. But at this stage of the story, their roles are reversed as Beth’s courage to meet death teaches Jo greater humility and care for others. The narrator expresses Jo’s growth in bittersweet tones:

“…with eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart softened by the tenderest sorrow, [Jo] recognized the beauty of her sister’s life – uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which ‘smell sweet, and blossom in the dust,’ the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible to all.” (Alcott, p. 477) 

This painful maturation through loss is perhaps best expressed in a poem of Jo’s own writing which Beth accidentally finds on one of her last nights. The words are raw and honest about the ache of loss, but also demonstrate how Jo has accepted that she must learn to carry on with the virtues Beth has imparted to her. Even amidst heavy sorrow, Jo has clearly recognized her gains from years with Beth and even from watching her live out her final days with courage, as the poem expresses: 

“O my sister, passing from me,
Out of human care and strife,
Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
Which have beautified your life.
Dear, bequeath me that great patience
Which has power to sustain
A cheerful, uncomplaining spirit
In its prison-house of pain…

“…Thus our parting daily loseth
Something of its bitter pain,
And while learning this hard lesson,
My great loss becomes my gain.
For the touch of grief will render
My wild nature more serene,
Give to life new aspirations,
A new trust in the unseen.” (Alcott, p. 477-478) 

And after Beth’s passing, Jo does continue forward with new aspirations and trust. The ache of loss remains, but Beth’s influence and peace at death have changed Jo for the better, and she strives to live in keeping with those changes. With the help and love of family, Jo’s demeanor gentles and becomes more thoughtful, and she uses her energy and gifts with a view to serve others rather than her own ambitions. The book notes that her parents strive to help her “accept life without despondency or distrust, and to use its beautiful opportunities with gratitude and power” (Alcott, p. 497). And to her credit, Jo does, even while facing the most painful of losses, making her Beth’s dearest and most enduring legacy. 

Grieving Honestly and Hopefully
The journeys of grief for Beth in accepting her own death, and for Jo in observing it, never deny the heaviness or the need to face sadness honestly. Both of them feel their sorrow intensely and struggle to accept the tragedy, but they also look ahead through their tears and allow their grief to change them for the better. Beth and Jo may be fictional characters, but the world they inhabit in Little Women wrestles with pain just as much as my current real world of 2020. Indeed, grief feels particularly relevant for many right now, so I’ve loved revisiting this beloved favorite book with it in mind, and I’m grateful for how Beth and Jo have reminded me to grieve honestly and with tears, but also with hope. 

Reference: Alcott, L. M. (1868). Little Women. New York: Scholastic Inc.

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