This is first in a new series of blog posts for me, “Thoughts on…”, which are just reconstituted thoughts and fragments from my children’s literature education. Bits of essays, posts, or just scraps of extended thoughts that I’ve been having about Bookish Things. Also I might change the title because this title is Just Okay,
A lot of my friends are very into Little Women (English majors, You Know) and recently we all read this article from the Paris Review, “The Real Tragedy of Beth March”, which is about the semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women and how Beth is kind of based off of Alcott’s second-youngest sister, Lizzie, who also was very ill and spent most of her time on earth being The Sick Girl. In death, Lizzie is made into a martyr of sickness and is remembered because of Beth, whose character is flattened by her sickness. (In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson writes “[Ralph Waldo] Emerson told the officiating minister, who did not know the family well, that Lizzie was a good, unselfish, patient child, who made friends even in death. Everyone seemed to forget that they were not burying a child but a woman of twenty-two.” This is pulled from the Paris Review article, lest you mistake me for a person who has actually read Eden’s Outcasts, although I definitely could find someone in my close friend group who has. Anyhow, I’m thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man who is at the very center of the American romantic movement, romanticizing Lizzie Alcott into a flat character so that those who came to her funeral would feel better about her death. Typical!)
Beth’s entire ‘arc’, if it can be called that, is to be shy, and “a dear, and nothing else” and then she gets scarlet fever and never really recovers and then dies (from complications of scarlet fever, I guess?). Jo projects onto her that she is in love with Laurie, when apparently throughout that time, as she reveals when they go to the seaside, she is just convinced of her own impending death. “I only mean to say that I have a feeling that it never was intended I should live long. I’m not like the rest of you. I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up. I never thought of being married, as you all did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there.” She isn’t a real character; her hobbies are housework and taking care of her sick little dolls, and her flaw is “shyness”, which we never really see in action because she never really grows up or out of the March home; whereas the rest of the little women get to have flaws and arcs (even if they, too, are flattened by way of being in a somewhat instructional novel based off Pilgrim’s Progress, always striving to do good and be good even at the expense of their own selves). But Beth is just a blank slate for other characters to project on, and then when everyone is growing up and leaving home, she has a beautiful, tragic death.
Are the narratives we weave around sickness any better today? Our most famous recent example, “The Fault in Our Stars” is about Hazel Grace, a girl thinly based on a real girl who died of cancer, Esther Earl; they even share a middle name, Grace. At least Hazel is allowed to speak in first person in her book; she talks about being afraid to die, and she isn’t always cheerful or serene about it. As an early entry in to the genre of sicklit and one of the best examples of sicklit that we still read today from that time, I give Beth’s arc a solid 1/5.