Little Women

Louisa May Alcott・1868

Synopsis

This expansive, classic novel tells the story of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.  Little Women was published in two pieces, which is why the novel is divided into a first and second part.  In the first part, the reader meets the family when they are going through tough times; the novel is written in the midst of the American Civil War, and the girls’ father, Mr. March, is away from home, serving in the Union army as a chaplain.  This naturally puts a great deal of emotional and financial strain on the family, and throughout the novel, Marmee (the girls’ mother) does her best to rally the family’s spirits and serves as a constant, exemplary role model for the girls.

Both parts of the story focus on the four girls and the various trials and successes that are undergone in the fifteen years the novel ultimately spans; the story is primarily centered around Jo, who is the second oldest, and a headstrong, fiery writer.  Meg is the eldest sister and is typically considered to be the most responsible, oftentimes serving as a mother figure to her other sisters. Beth is the next in the line of daughters, and is the angelic presence in the family; she is sweet,  full of virtue, soft-spoken, and beloved by all — Beth is the sister who gets seriously ill (which is, of course, in keeping with the very Victorian trope of the most innocent, virtuous character dying a slow, tragic death).  Finally, Amy is the youngest, and is rather conceited and bratty, though she does mature throughout the novel.  The boy next door, Laurie Lawrence, also plays a large role.

In terms of illness and epidemics in the novel, Beth is the one who takes ill and, after a long illness, dies a beautifully tragic death.  Beth’s lingering illness and death is the ultimate romanticized feminine illness narrative.  In the novel, Beth serves to be a tragic martyr figure; she was initially exposed to the Scarlet Fever of which she died by attending to the March’s poor neighbors, the Hummels.  Marmee had bid all the girls to help the Hummels when she was off to tend to Mr. March, but only Beth had gone, with the other sisters citing trivial, superficial excuses as to why they were unable to go.  Ultimately, Beth contracts Scarlet Fever and, after a long illness, and after one occurrence when the Marches were certain she would die, ultimately dies peacefully, surrounded by her loving family, in the second volume of the novel.

 

“What’s the matter?” cried Jo as Beth put out her hand as if to warn her off and asked quickly, “You’ve had the scarlet fever, haven’t you?”

“Years ago when Meg did.  Why?”

“Then I’ll tell you.  Oh, Jo, the baby’s dead!  …I just sat and held it softly till Mrs. Hummel came with the doctor.  He said it was dead, and looked at Heinrich and Minna, who have got sore throats.  ‘Scarlet fever, ma’am.  Ought to have called me before,’ he said crossly.  Mrs. Hummel told him she was poor and had tried to cure baby herself, but now it was too late, and she could only ask him to help the others and trust to charity for his pay.  He smiled then and was kinder, but it was very sad, and I cried with them till he turned round, all of a sudden, and told me to go home and take belladonna right away or I’d have the fever.”  (Alcott, 159)

The Epidemic: Scarlet Fever

While today, scarlet fever is easily treatable, it was  an illness of notorious fatality before “antibiotics became widely available in the second half of the 20th century” (Ainsworth).  Beth’s death by scarlet fever was enormously historical relevant, for “Between 1840 and 1883, scarlet fever, caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, was one of the most common infectious causes of death among children in the United States.  Case fatality rates ranged from 15% to 30%” (Lowth).  In Beth’s case, the initial onset of scarlet fever almost killed her; even though she recovered from its initial onslaught, she was enormously weakened and eventually died.  While Alcott is not specific as to why, exactly, Beth’s illness got so suddenly severe, complications were a frequent concern.  Indeed, scarlet fever “also caused late, and often fatal, complications… which in turn lead to heart valve disease” (Ainsworth); complications were more common without the help of modern medicine.  Thus, there are a series of serious complications from which Beth could have ultimately died, including “Septic complications… ear and sinus infection, pneumonia, meningitis and full-blown septicaemia” – and it was this septicaemia that “was the malignant scarlet fever of old” (Lowth) that Beth presumably contracted.  There are further “immune complication[s that] include acute kidney inflammation…, which can lead to renal failure, rheumatic fever and arthritis.  Hepatitis is also occasionally seen” (Lowth).

Scarlet fever is, of course, famously contagious.  This public knowledge is clearly enforced by Beth’s immediate knowledge that she was susceptible to the fever since she had been holding the Hummel’s baby when he died.  Alcott further emphasizes this understanding of Scarlet Fever’s potency when the first thing Beth asks is if Jo has had the fever before.  Ultimately, when it is confirmed that Beth does have scarlet fever, Amy, the youngest, and the only one who hasn’t had the fever and thus is not immune, is sent away until Beth gets better.

“[The doctor] smiled then and was kinder, but it was very sad, and I cried with them till he turned round, all of a sudden, and told me to go home and take belladonna right away or I’d have the fever.” (Alcott, 159)

The text’s reference to the Doctor’s recommendation of Belladonna is historically consistent.  For indeed, during the 1799 outbreak of scarlet fever in Germany, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann found the Belladonna herb to be a seemingly effective preventative treatment for several cases of scarlet fever (Brynoff).  Alcott’s inclusion of this anecdote is thus enormously historically relevant, and reflective of the beliefs and hopes of families and doctors so desperately trying to treat scarlet fever in a time in which there were no antibiotics.

There is also great historical truth in Alcott’s inclusion of the extent to which Beth’s sisters and Marmee tended to Beth so tirelessly throughout her illness.  Especially when Beth’s sickness was at its worst, there was rarely a time when her bedside was not attended by one of her loved ones; furthermore, great lengths were taken throughout the long extent of Beth’s illness to care for her, including Jo’s suggestion to send her to the seaside for her health.  Indeed, “since careful monitoring was so important, undoubtedly the doctor instructed the female family member nursing the sick child as to the specific interventions she should provide since then, as now, doctors were an episodic presence in the sick person’s care” (Radikas).  The historical relevancy of the women’s place in a household is further emphasized by the realities Beth described of the Hummel household; for, as is usually the case with Scarlet Fever and epidemics, several children were usually sick at once, which was the case of the Hummels.  Indeed, historically, “one can only imagine the stress mothers experienced while caring for a very sick child… Mothers and the oldest female child in the household were run ragged caring for the sick youngsters in an era in which even routine food preparation, learning, and laundry were monumental tasks” (Radikas).  Such historical realities are thus communicated throughout Little Women in the Hummel Household, in Marmee’s place in the household (which is enforced when Marmee left the girls to tend to Mr. March when he was wounded in the war), and even, as the novel progresses, when the reader is privy to understanding the struggles of tending to a household when the girls grow up and must run households of their own.

 

Here, cherished like a household giant in its shrine, sat Beth, tranquil and busy as ever; for nothing could change the sweet, unselfish nature, and even while preparing to leave life, she tried to make it happier for those who should remain behind.  The feeble fingers were never idle, and one of her pleasures was to make little things for the schoolchildren daily passing to and fro…

It was well for all that this peaceful time was given them as preparation for the sad hours to come; for, by and by, Beth said the needle was “so heavy” and put it down forever; talking wearied her, faces troubled her, pain claimed her for its own, and her tranquil sprit was sorrowfully perturbed by the ills that vexed her feeble flesh… With the wreck of her frail body, Beth’s should grew strong; and though she said little, those about her felt that she was ready…

So the spring days came and went… and the birds came back in time to say good-bye to Beth, who, like a tired but trustful child, clung to the hands that had led her all her life, as father and mother guided her tenderly through the Valley of the Shadow and gave her up to God…

As Beth had hoped, the “tide went out easily”; and in the dark hour before dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look, one little sigh.  (Alcott, 374-379)

 

Scarlet Fever also hits characters in By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Velveteen Rabbit.

For a further brief analysis, refer to Introduction and Abstract.

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