Marmee and the Social Cache of Conspicuous Charity
No, Seriously, You Are Remembering Little Women Incorrectly
I don’t mean that you are doing so willfully or that there is something wrong with the values that you THINK Marmee represents. I’m saying that you are remembering around the stranger, crueler acts of the matriarch of the March family — and reinterpreting many of her most famous “goodly” acts.
You’ve been duped, in short, by how much the narrator and the title characters love Marmee. Or you’re remembering Susan Sarandon’s Marmee, who is marginally more tolerable even at her most self-righteous and skates right over the worst bits of Book Marmee.
Book Marmee is entirely focused on propriety. But not in the form of true and proper behavior for her girls. She is obsessed with the public perception of her daughters’ propriety and the social cache this image lends to her otherwise fallen genteel family.
And, in some ways, perhaps she is right. The Marches are fallen blue bloods, having lost their fortune and moved into a reduced cottage that — given the rest of their relationship with the Laurences — may well have been gifted or given to them at reduced price by kindly neighbors who haven’t fallen on hard times. The luxuries of their lives are provided by rich folk impressed with the virtues, and the matured March girls are able to move in the upper society by virtue of the self-righteous elder generations’ memory of what the family used to be.
A memory that would fade quickly if Marmee were not constantly making herself busy with public charity and endless work for the war effort. A memory that Marmee keeps alive while dressed in simple dresses that she can pass off as a pious fashion choice rather than a fact of her reduced funds.
After all, the only advice Marmee gives Meg and Jo as they head off to their first ball is that their much debated gloves (she apparently wasn’t listening to this crisis of soiled linens) are the only thing that matters and the key to their lady-like status. Her obsession with the gloves runs deep. We see this in her shouting after her quarreling and singed daughters as they head off in the snow about the gloves and only the gloves. Her obsession hints both at the real reason for her fashion choices and her determination to put on a good public face for her family despite their literal inability to do so.
Without the goodwill of the rich families in town, without the ability to move in the proper circles, none of the March girls would escape the reduced circumstances of the family by marriage.
And that’s not even considering whether Aunt March would leave the family a bent farthing if her exacting standards of feminine behavior aren’t met. The family must be beyond reproach if they are ever to crawl their way out of poverty through marriage or inheritance, and that means an impeccable public face built on rigorous self-denial and being constantly seen doing charitable acts.
This last tactic has the dual benefit both of situating the Marches as benefactors of a high enough standing to have social responsibility to the “less fortunate” rather than being the “less fortunate” themselves while ALSO inspiring acts of charity TOWARD the Marches that they are then able to accept graciously as their humble reward.
If it all seems a little Machiavellian for Alcott, let’s look at the first two chapters of the novel.
Christmas With the Hummels
It’s the first chapter, and it’s the first objection anyone is likely to make to my claim, so let me just jump right in with the Christmas breakfast going to the Hummels. This is the prime example of Susan Sarandon making us all remember the incident incorrectly.
The movie doesn’t have the first chapter with the four girls (left to their own devices without even notice that Marmee won’t be home for dinner as she had previously indicated, but that’s not despicable because she’s working to help Union soldiers, forget I brought it up, I’m just saying she could have sent word home). We find out within the first two pages that Marmee has CANCELLED CHRISTMAS because of the war.
Which…isn’t that precisely when people NEED Christmas, Marmee? You don’t feel this way next year, I’ll point out, when your husband is around. Are you sure you’re not just “not feeling it” this year, Marmee? And it’s not that you want to give the money that would go to their presents to the war effort — which doesn’t even happen.
Well, let me tell you how your daughters are responding, since you seem completely uninterested in finding out: Meg is beating herself up because she can’t be glad to skip Christmas (also known as the one bright point of life in a New England winter) and turning that energy around to harangue each of her younger sisters about their faults (minus Beth because nobody can be bothered to figure Beth out). Jo is trying to cheer everybody else up by reminding them that they can still spend the money they’ve earned working long hours at jobs they hate to buy themselves the things they wanted, then changing her mind and deciding to buy YOU all the presents you want. Beth, of course, was already planning on doing just that. And Amy is having an existential crisis as she tries to wrestle with the unfairness of the world completely unassisted. Seriously, I’m not even sure anyone heard Amy when she spoke.
Yeah, all that’s not in the movie, is it? Your girls are not only denying themselves the basic rights to a few creature comforts in the holidays, but they are scheming to overthrow your horrible Grinch-like policies by giving you FOUR luxury items.
But fine, Marmee cancels Christmas because we shouldn’t ever be happy because there’s a war happening. Whatever. The least she could do is build up their spirits a little or sing Christmas carols and tell them how much she loves them as Susan Sarandon does.
No, Marmee takes this opportunity to tell each of her daughter’s what their chief temptations to sin are via an old children’s game they used to play. Except Beth, because nobody notices Beth enough to find out what her struggles are. And then tells them that she already gave them the best present: the book Pilgrim’s Progress, which they turned into a game because it’s a terrible, boring book full of endless sentimental and condescending sermons.
But the HUMMELS! She goes to the HUMMELS on Christmas morning! Before the girls are even awake!
No, that’s how Susan Sarandon did it. That’s not Marmee’s style. Marmee can’t just cancel Christmas and give the money to the poor. She has to ruin it, and she has to be seen doing it.
It’s her four daughters who cook Christmas breakfast. Yes, that’s right. THEY make their own “surprise” feast and keep it all warm and ready for Marmee. And when she comes home, she doesn’t even glance at the presents they sacrificed to give her and have spent the last two chapters being excited about. No, she enters the room, sees the feast they’ve made and the presents they’ve displayed, and says this:
Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at once and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled in one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present? [Little Women Chapter Two “Merry Christmas”, because Louisa May Alcott has no sense of irony]
Despite being a desperately mean rejection of the nice Christmas morning that her determined daughters have tried to make for her, this is also NOT the way to model and teach true charity.
The Hummels don’t need a fancy breakfast feast once a year. They need blankets. They need Marmee to spend that money she didn’t spend on presents her daughters actually want to buy them a month’s supply of firewood. A mother who has just given birth needs more than an hour’s worth of free childcare. Send Hannah down to STAY there for a few weeks or even a few days so that the mother can recover and care for her infant.
But, of course, that wouldn’t make a charming, inspiring story in the neighborhood. It would just be human kindness, which wouldn’t advance the March Plan for famous piety.
Mrs. Hummel doesn’t need to cram five fancy (compared to her) women into her barren, overcrowded home during a Christmas morning she no doubt wants to make special but can’t. She needs what Beth (the only daughter who explicitly does not need Marmee’s lessons to do charity) later ends up providing — a day or so of free child care every week so that she can take care of the house and/or find work to improve her situation.
Heck, she needs a job if she or her husband doesn’t have one. You know everyone in town, Marmee, find Mrs. Hummel a way to earn a living wage. But no, that story would paint someone else as the hero, plus spend a favor that the Marches would rather hoard for their own social benefit.
Marmee isn’t teaching social consciousness or even true empathy. She’s teaching her little women the kind of showboating charity that hosts telethons but would never give money to the bum on the corner because heaven knows what he would do with it. Unless, of course, someone was watching.
How about you eat the food your daughters prepared for you, bundle up all the food in your pantry that will KEEP, and throw in a few high-quality quilts for good measure? Maybe then you’d deserve Mrs. Hummel’s, “It is good angels come to us!” [Chapter 2].
I notice you don’t send over Mr. Lawrence’s feast later. Why not send the Hummels the good stuff, Marmee? Because that’s right: don’t counter that she gave her daughter’s a nice supper to make up for it. You’re forgetting. Old Man Lawrence sent the feast because of how kind they were to the Hummels. This means that
1. Literally everyone in the neighborhood knows what the Marches did…somehow…I’m saying that Marmee totally told everyone about their little “clandestine” good deed.
2. Even the grim “shut-in” character knows that her daughters deserve the proper Christmas that Marmee is determined not to give them.
But hey, at least they’ve learned the importance of giving generously, if stupidly, where everyone will see and praise you for it. That’s how you become a proper lady of society.
It’s Different For Amy
How else can you explain Marmee’s disapproval of Meg’s outing in “Meg Goes To Vanity Fair” but approval of Amy’s pursuits of fashion once she reaches adolescence then womanhood?
Or her tolerance of Amy’s failed attempt at hosting a fancy party but lack of emotional support when it fails embarrassingly?
Meg, by allowing the other young women to dress her in “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”, made herself an object of charity. Meg March was meant to go to the ball in her simple dress, head held high, and turn herself into a living statement of the greater value of simplicity and humility over vanity and pride. She was meant to turn her poverty into an abject lesson in the power of rejecting finery and frippery. Above all, she was meant to pretend that it was a choice.
But Meg revealed her longing for them. She uncovered the family secret: that the austerity of the March women’s fashion was not due to piety but lack of money for finer things. She revealed their desire for beauty and made their fashions look tatty rather than simple but elegant. She traded honorable austerity for charitably bestowed beauty.
Amy, in contrast, skillfully turns the modest March budget into a series of clever gowns on both sides of the Atlantic. She parlays acceptable forms of charitable aid into a veneer of an upper crust lifestyle. She manages to conceal the reduced circumstances of the family, at least nominally, with her creations and move as an equal in the best circles. Just what Marmee always hoped for in her girl.
Fascinatingly, Marmee also responds quite differently to Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal than to Amy’s letter writing that she intends to accept Fred Vaughn without love.
Jo receives the sympathies of a doting mother when she realizes that she loves Laurie but isn’t in love with Laurie. Marmee acknowledges Jo’s feelings and conspires to send her away so that Laurie can quietly “get over” Jo without her there to be noticed. No doubt hoping to avoid the withdrawal of the Laurences’ affection that an outright rejection could cause.
So perhaps Marmee was less sympathetic to Jo’s feelings as she was dealing with her intractable daughter’s inevitable social misfiring.
In contrast, Amy making a tactical marriage is precisely what Marmee has fought and clawed to stay within the upper reaches of society in order to enable.
In a twist on the narrative that lives in our memory of the book (don’t go back and read it, the sermons aren’t worth it), it is Amy and not Beth or Jo or Meg who is the shining success story of Marmee’s life.
Meg makes herself ridiculous at a ball, whereas Amy is the toast of Europe.
Meg forcefully forfeits any inheritance from Aunt March in declaring her love for the poor John Brooke, while Amy becomes her companion and favorite and no doubt her heir if she hadn’t married into the Laurence family.
Meg tags along with Sally Moffet in youth and as a young wife, pulling embarrassing stunts and even begging her to buy some of her extravagant purchases off of her. Going to the social butterfly to beg charity. Amy comes home on the arm of Theodore Laurence and immediately unseats Sally Moffet as the queen of the social scene.
Jo rejects a splendid match with a man arguably suited to her, while Amy graciously accepts him after convincing him to make himself more respectable for her sake.
Jo makes money writing sensationalist stories that everyone in her life seem to think will cause the world some kind of unspeakable ill, while Amy gives up painting when pursuing greatness promises to distract from her social duties.
Jo makes a show of herself at a ball in a burnt dress, while Amy fashions gowns that set Paris abuzz.
Beth comes closest to Amy in terms of Marmee-approved success. However, Beth maintains Marmee’s style of social cache. In contrast to Marmee, Beth does so out of sincere love for her fellow women (or else has accomplished the single greatest lifelong deception in the genre of family-values literature). She does not make a show of her charity work until it lands her with scarlet fever (bringing it to the attention of the neighborhood at last) and then, once Marmee is directly her mending and gifts to the neighborhood children, by gathering her a fan club who meets outside her window and maintains her legendary kindness in their stories.
But Beth does not reach for better than Marmee’s life. That award goes solely to Amy, who sews, charms, and smiles her way out of the reduced circumstances that have defined the Marches’ lives.
Of course, Marmee only really needed one success story, which could be another argument for why she supports Jo not marrying for money but does nothing to stop Amy from accepting a man she only tolerates. As long as one of the March sisters does well for herself, all of them will have a social and monetary safety net that ensures they never slip down the social ladder — despite John Brooke’s refusal of the capital to start his own business out of foolish, stupid pride.
But if Amy is the success story, what sense can we make of Jo? The beloved of the narrator and the novel and all the fans alike? Jo is the one we want to imitate, and Amy is the one we hate for taking what we think of as rightfully Jo’s. But do we really want for Jo the life that Marmee would have chosen for her?
Jo, in contrast to her sisters, takes a different life track entirely than anything the socially-conscious Marmee would have shown her.
Meg imitates Marmee’s actual life most closely, living for her husband and children in a mostly-poor but still respectable situation. Incidentally, Marmee’s most consistent piece of advice for the young mother is to let someone else watch her children for awhile so she can clean up the house and fix herself up a bit. And taking John Brooke’s side when he brings a friend home with no notice and the place is a wreck. All in all, I wonder if Marmee was upset by the too-close mirror of the life she didn’t plan on but ended up living.
Meg follows Marmee’s example, not realizing that it is only her survival tactic rather than her preferred life plan. Perhaps that is why she cannot figure out why she isn’t happier in her life.
Beth imitates Marmee’s stated goals of self-denial and charity. She follows Marmee’s words and explicit lessons, not realizing that they are propaganda to ensure the right public persona to keep the family from slipping further down the social ladder. Perhaps that is why she erases her inner life and individual character completely in the process of trying tobe what her mother only tries to imitate.
Amy follows Marmee’s dreams, not realizing that she is the answer to Marmee’s fervent prayers rather than a rebel fighting for the truth of gold’s effect. Perhaps that is why she is so ashamed of what her elated mother will think of her.
Jo then…Jo turns down a wealthy marriage, shaves her head rather than ask Aunt March for a loan, and writes (the horror!) adventure stories that are published in the paper. Jo is a problem. Perhaps that is why Jo gets the brunt of Marmee’s lectures and manipulative playacting lessons on self-control.
Jo rejects any of the avenues for Marmee-like power and respectability right until the end when she becomes a teacher and a wife under the umbrella. Even then, her marriage is to an older, German gentleman who runs off to California during their engagement, which the novel notes makes her a talking point up to the moment of his return.
Jo refuses steadfastly (in action if not in words) to follow the spirit behind Marmee’s advice when Jo comes to her with her temper. Both Marmee and Jo have a temper, apparently, but where Jo sees it as the thing always getting her into trouble, Marmee sees it as an opportunity to practice self-regulation.
The same self-regulation that Marmee has used to carve out an identity for herself that can survive the reduced circumstances of her family. The self-regulation that she weaponizes to keep her family, if not affluent, then affluent-adjacent enough for her daughters to transition back to wealth and power.
Jo gamely tries to follow Marmee’s advice about turning her anger and spirit into an appropriate public face while struggling privately. Eventually, thankfully, she rejects this path. She realizes she cannot tame her temper and remain herself as Marmee has done, not realizing that Marmee has not preserved herself. She has remade herself in response to the circumstances of the time.
And, in some ways, Marmee and her psychologically torturous lessons DO temper Jo’s rebellion.
Jo must work as a writer under her own name? Marmee (in concert with the condescending Bhaer) convinces her to abandon the profitable adventure stories she has always loved in favor of more respectable and moralizing sentimental tracts (like Alcott’s).
Jo must refuse Laurie and all his status and wealth? Get her off to New York where it won’t be a shock to everyone and quite so much the talk of the neighborhood and hope Laurie gets the point (he does but he doesn’t).
Jo must tear about in New York making a name for herself? Well, Beth needs a nurse, and Jo was always her favorite sister.
While obviously not what Marmee would, in any way, have wanted, Beth’s illness becomes a convenient way not only of yanking Jo back to the family home but breaking the momentum of Jo’s rebellion.
With this conspicuous designation of Jo as Beth’s chief nurse (surely an absurd claim given the timeline of the novel) or at least preferred nurse (a fair though telling assessment), even Jo’s wildest rebellions of character are subsumed in her role as caretaker of the angelic Beth March. What could the neighborhood really say about her, in the wake of her devotion to and sacrifices for the beloved Beth?
Even Jo’s wildness is shielded from public scrutiny by her proximity to Beth’s halo.
How Then To Judge Her?
Perhaps, in truth, it’s best not to judge Marmee.
The Hummels accept Marmee and the girls as angels, even if the Marches get as much or more out of the deal as the Hummels do. The Hummel children aren’t any less fed for that.
Meg makes a respectable match, Beth will be revered as an angel as long as she survives in living memory by anyone in the town, Jo eventually settles down to a more “normal” life, and Amy marries into the wealthy Laurence family. None of those things are bad in themselves, and Marmee’s conspicuous piety made all of them possible.
Marmee, in the end, did what she needed to do to secure her family’s place. She went, in my opinion, FAR overboard in her pursuits of impeccable respectability. Many of her object lessons in the book could be read as more a chronicle of psychological torture than a way to bring up decent, God-fearing little women.
But they have the opportunity to reach for more than Marmee’s life, and even if not all of them do, she perhaps deserves credit for giving them that opportunity all the same. So even if we shouldn’t put her on a pedestal for selflessness and generosity, perhaps we can respect her silent, willful, and brilliant maneuvering to give her daughters the opportunity for a better life than she lived.