Four very different sisters lament that they can’t afford Christmas presents, with their father off serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. They act out a silly play written by Jo, the tomboy of the group (In 2020, Jo would almost certainly be a trans man, but I don’t want to impose a pronoun on her that she didn’t ask for, so I’ll stick with she/her for the purpose of this piece.)
Why Jo might be hard to identify with: Jo is pretty delightful, so no real reason. (James’s brother-in-law just did a sweet-sixteen tourney of beloved children’s characters and Jo beat Hermione for the championship.)
- Like Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet, Jo is selfish about her reading: “‘I agree not to expect anything from Mother or you, but I do want to buy ‘Undine and Sintran’ for myself. I've wanted it so long,’ said Jo, who was a bookworm.”
- Alcott finds many opportunities to contrast the four girls with each other. By the end of this chapter, they already feel like family to us. The first example is the first four paragraphs:
- “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug
- “It's so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
- “I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
- “We've got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
- The next example:
- Meg announced, as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands, “I shall give her a nice pair of gloves.”
- “Army shoes, best to be had,” cried Jo.
- “Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed,” said Beth.
- “I’ll get a little bottle of cologne. She likes it, and it won't cost much, so I'll have some left to buy my pencils,” added Amy.
- And here’s another:
- The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table, Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, over-turning, and clattering everything she touched. Beth trotted to and fro between parlor kitchen, quiet and busy, while Amy gave directions to everyone, as she sat with her hands folded.
- Everybody’s family role is very clear. They’ve got classic four-way polarization: Meg is head, Beth is heart, Jo is spleen, and Amy is stomach/cocky, but they’re not strongly polarized. Ultimately, each is fairly three-dimensional.
- Alcott, who, like Jo, got her start writing pulpy adult stories, flat out tells us she resents having to describe the setting and the girls, but nonetheless does a masterful job of it. She says to us, “As young readers like to know ‘how people look’, we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within… Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful.”
- Jo’s too poor for Christmas gifts, her father is off at war, and her sisters are starting to outgrow her beloved plays (“‘I don’t mean to act any more after this time. I’m getting too old for such things,’ observed Meg”)
- Alcott has written a very autobiographical novel, but moved it ten years forward in time because wartime is a more harrowing setting.
- Jo’s sisters are more girly, but she feels things more intensely then they do. When her mother reads a letter from their father, she hides behind the chair so the others won’t see her cry.
- Alcott tells us, “Her long, thick hair was her one beauty”. Then, of course, she will feel compelled to cut it off and sell it to help her father. Give your hero one gift, and then make them sacrifice it.
- For whatever reason, everybody loves a klutzy heroine. I guess we all feel that way sometimes and naturally identify with it.
- Jo’s oddball writing talents delight everyone including us, given what we hear of the play. “Then things went smoothly, for Don Pedro defied the world in a speech of two pages without a single break. Hagar, the witch, chanted an awful incantation over her kettleful of simmering toads, with weird effect. Roderigo rent his chains asunder manfully, and Hugo died in agonies of remorse and arsenic, with a wild, ‘Ha! Ha!’” We can tell she’s born to entertain, but undisciplined as a writer.
- We love heroes with sharp eyes. We can tell that this is an autobiographical novel and that all of this acuity is Jo’s own.