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Chapter 2 … in which actual poor people exist

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You recall, O gentle reader, how the March girls were feeling selfishly sinful because they wanted to spend a dollar on themselves, after Marmee had decreed it would be a giftless Christmas? Haha your memory! It turns out Marmee lied (whoops!) and gave each of her children a gift — it’s a copy of the New Testament for each of them. I guess they can’t share.

The girls agree to read a bit every morning to set them on the path of righteousness, and the moral reminder comes in handy right away: “lazy Amy” feels suitably guilty and goes out and spends all her money on her mother (instead of just part). Amy is all of twelve years old when she goes out alone into the frozen morning to buy her dutiful gift, and no one notices that she is gone until she comes back. Just saying.

Here we are introduced to Hannah, “considered by them all more a member of the family than a servant” — the “all” here refers to the Marches, of course. Hannah’s feelings about her position isn’t considered to be worthy of consideration, which sort of puts the lie to the idea that she’s considered a member of the family! BUT WHATEVER LET’S MOVE ON.

The door opens, Marmee enters, and at once she asks the girls to donate their scrumptious Christmas breakfast to a family who is in, you know, actual poverty. (It is quite the breakfast. Buckwheat pancakes, muffins, cream — a carb-lover’s dream. This chapter has a lot of good eating.) The Marches carry food, their servant carries wood, and they all tend to the poor family — who is properly grateful and awkward and amusing and foreign. And lo, the March girls are the happiest people in the city! because they were charitable for a brief period of time! (Hannah gives up her cloak to help the family but either she has been forgotten again or suffering the cold for charity’s sake does not make her very happy. You choose. And the poor Hummel family (who I must constantly remind myself are not actually figurines) — newly fed, newly clothed, “purple hands” newly warmed — could not be nearly as happy as the cheery middle-class givers. I’m sure the Hummel’s happiness was of a different sort than the Marches; no matter how grateful they were for the fire and clothing and food, the Hummels were still desperately poor. (More on this later.)

The March girls had supper the night before and breakfast (bread and milk) that morning, and later on they had lunch and supper again, and in betweentimes they live in a well-lit cozy house with pretty pictures and pleasant people and the comfortable feeling from knowing that the comfort is not transitory but will last and last. (A wonderful feeling, whether or not it’s accurate.) It is just plain EASIER for the Marches to be happy; they have more to be happy about! They have fewer serious worries! The implication, however, isn’t about the connection between happiness and a life of relative ease. It’s about morality. The Hummels aren’t as happy as the Marches because the Hummels have not HELPED anyone. Their happiness is earthly; the happiness of the Marches is spiritual, and therefore, both bigger and better.

Anyway. The happy Marches return home and the girls get ready to perform an Operatic Tragedy for an audience of admiring girls — No Boys Allowed this time, because the girls are dressed in wild costumes made from pickle-jar lids and old leather boots and grey wigs and such. Jo wrote the opera, and it goes on at great length and description, melodramatic and penny-dreadful, and at the end there is ice cream (pink! and white!) and a great big hot-house bouquets for each of the March girls. This is their real reward, then, for their moral fit of the morning — not a spiritual reward but an earthly one after all.

The treat is from their next-door-neighbor, James Lawrence, and his grandson who is just about their age — Laurie! — and he is appealing beyond belief to most young readers. Jo chatted with him a few times “over the fence” but Meg, properly pious, is just appalled by this licentiousness and forbids Jo to make further overtures of friendship — Laurie might be living next door and able to see into their windows (seriously), but he hasn’t been INTRODUCED!

I have no idea of what it takes to be Introduced to someone, if living next door and talking about cricket and cats doesn’t accomplish the necessary. The Victorians liked to complicate things, that’s for sure. Perhaps it was necessary to exchange engraved calling-cards, or present a full family tree, or have some sort of blood work done. WHO KNOWS?

At any rate, this is your weekly reminder that Jo is quite, quite forward and unladylike — although even her unladylike behavior is performed in a ladylike way! Jo does not show her ankles or curse or play pool or flirt or smoke. She is only tomboyish. But she is still young (about fifteen, but it’s hard to pin down ages here), and her parents are sort of hippies, so her behavior can be forgiven if not forgotten.

There is a mild implication here that the March’s poverty (comparative poverty) is what grants the girls their unusual range of freedoms. Jo is a tomboy, Beth has intense social anxiety, Amy devotes herself to art, and Meg suffers from the embarrassment of social climber syndrome. By living on the fringes of fashionable culture, they are less bound to its rules.

As a social outcast myself I can assure my dear readers that the opposite is true. Following the rules is how one gains entrée. Rule-breaking without harsh and swift repercussion is reserved for those who were never in danger in the first place. Only beautiful women are allowed to portray ugly ones.

Anyway. The Marches live in fiction, and fiction does not need to follow the paltry rules of normal social engagement! Far from being EVEN MORE ostracized by the their inability or unwillingness to follow three billion unwritten rules of society, our heroines will be rewarded for it — rewarded all out of comparison to their suffering — just as they were given ice cream and roses in the dead of winter, because they gave up one meal on Christmas morning.

 

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Little Women available for free online from

Project Gutenberg (text)

LibriVox (audio recording)

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