Little Women and Hopeful Homemaking

By Saturday, November 04, 2023 , , ,

(Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Emma Watson as Amy, Jo, and Meg in Greta Gerwig's Little Women; Source: WallpaperAccess)

One of my favorite dialogues from the Greta Gerwig's recent film adaptation of Little Women comes near its end as Jo March describes her latest writing project to sisters Meg and Amy. She worries that “a story of domestic struggles and joys” won’t interest people, but Amy counters that perhaps such stories just don’t seem important because no one writes them yet. She encourages Jo to press on, saying, “Writing about them will make them more important.” 

I appreciate the dramatic irony of the scene, as Louisa May Alcott’s domestic tale did indeed make such stories important. For me, Little Women feels like a diamond that catches a new shade of light with each read. It especially comes to mind when I consider the home I desire. I discussed last year how Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry helped me reimagine homemaking as an adult. Little Women holds a different role in that it’s been part of the furniture of my mind since early youth. As my desires and views for home and family have matured, the story of the March family has taught me a few truths I hold onto. 

1. Beauty and imagination in a home are means to loving well with it 

Throughout Little Women, the March household is a riot of color, vibrancy, laughter, and creativity. Sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy have wonderfully varied personalities and interests. Their steadfast mother, “Marmee,” wisely shapes the home to cultivate the girls’ senses of wonder, guide them as they fight their faults, and harness their strengths for good. The result in their home, Orchard House, is a beautiful symphony of art, work, and companionship. 

Unsurprisingly, as a young reader, I didn’t fully appreciate Marmee’s centrality to the story. Now I see her as its irreplaceable backbone, for it is she who makes Orchard House a haven of beauty, learning, and care, not only for her girls, but also for friends and neighbors. She does so by ordering it around virtue and goodness, guiding her daughters’ minds and desires towards them at every turn. In the first chapter, readers learn that she raised the girls on the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, teaching them the lifelong journey towards heaven. The story captivates the girls’ imaginations for their whole lives and remains a constant help through joy and trial. 

Marmee also lovingly cultivates each daughter’s interests, always encouraging worthy work and play. Because of Marmee’s encouragement, Beth’s piano playing fills Orchard House, Amy’s drawings grow in skill, and Jo and Meg continually write and act in homemade plays for the enjoyment of many. She models for all of them the art of homemaking, which later looks different for each daughter, but all four use their future homes to cherish good things and serve others because of their mother’s example. 

2. A beautiful home reaches out and welcomes the goodness others can bring in 

On that note, Marmee also models extravagant generosity, both materially and relationally. Rather than withdrawing from others when hardships of the Civil War might have excused it, Marmee continually reaches out and teaches her girls to do the same. In a well-known early scene, she suggests giving away their unusually hearty Christmas breakfast to a needy family, and the girls cheerfully agree. And because of Marmee’s involvement in the war effort and various charities, Orchard House becomes known as a place sure to lend a helping hand. 

And as readers know well, the March women welcome a neighboring house of lonely men into their lives. The love found between the two houses forever reshapes everyone in them. Young Laurie Laurence comes into the Marches’ lives starved for affection, and the love overflowing at Orchard House gives him new vision for a real family. Marmee and the four sisters adopt him as a son and brother with eagerness that catches the attention of Laurie’s grandfather, Mr. Laurence, and his tutor, Mr. Brooke. Mr. Laurence, nursing long-ago grief, finds new purpose in becoming a protector to this house of women during their father’s absence in the war. And in time, gentle Beth somehow pierces Mr. Laurence’s long-held proverbial armor. Mr. Brooke, virtually alone in the world, encounters warmth and care for the first time in years in the Marches. All three of these men and all of the March women find forever family in each other, largely because of Orchard House’s determination to welcome and care for those who come in. 

3. Those who let themselves be shaped by both joy and grief are equipped to make a beautiful home 

Only in reading Little Women as an adult did I realize what a profound exploration of grief it offers. This manifests most clearly when death touches the March family through the tragic loss of Beth March. And even in their grief, the characters ultimately respond in hope, allowing sorrow’s touch to be at once painful and sanctifying to their souls. In letting both joy and grief work on them, they make better and more beautiful homes for those they love. 

Of all the characters, Jo becomes the most poignant example of a heart and a future home shaped by both gladness and sorrow. In an unlikely reversal of roles, timid Beth becomes the strongest of the Marches as she prepares to meet death, that ultimate and most fearsome of human enemies. And Jo, historically rough and audacious, learns new gentleness in keeping vigil at Beth’s bedside. As Beth gracefully accepts her end, Jo learns new patience and tranquility, letting grief soften her soul and vision for the future. Her journey is best expressed in a poem she writes on one of Beth’s final nights: 

“…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)

Jo’s reshaped heart and life become Beth’s most beautiful legacy. With her parents’ help, she learns to “accept life without despondency or distrust, and to use its beautiful opportunities with gratitude and power” (Alcott, p. 497). In the days following her initial grief, Jo’s life does indeed become lovely and full. She writes thoughtful poetry and short stories, joyfully pouring out her heart on the page, instead of feverishly writing for money and approval as she once did. When Professor Friedrich Bhaer comes back into her life unexpectedly, she recognizes his value more deeply than she first did. Before long, the March sister who once said she’d never marry learns to open her heart to the love of a good man. Their home, while sparse, becomes one of the happiest in the neighborhood. It serves not only them and their children, but also becomes a home and school to love-starved orphan boys. Jo’s life and home look different from her youthful visions, but they are full and shaped by love of good things, sure testaments to how joy and grief have both worked their beautifying touches on her. 

Several years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the real Orchard House, Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts. I distinctly remember the tightening in my chest as I ran a hand over the desk where she had written Little Women. Domestic stories now overflow the book world, but I maintain that Little Women still takes the title of the most important one. Its vision of hope, generosity, and beauty in the home has touched generations, undoubtedly shaping many girls’ dreams for their own homes. I know that Orchard House and the laughter of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy will always live in my mind’s eye, helping me make a home wherever I live. I hope and pray that my home offers the kind of love and heavenly-mindedness that theirs did.

Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts

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